I recently met someone who had worked in the same role within the third sector for a whole decade, which involved giving advice to beneficiaries about tackling their debt and the steps they could take to escape poverty.
Nothing unusual about that, I’m sure you’ll agree.
What struck me, following our conversation, was that it was clear that this person, whilst they advised people living in poverty, they had absolutely no understanding of it…yet they’d been carrying out the role for ten years!
The reason for this was because they came from a position of privilege. Their background was the exact opposite of the beneficiaries’. This isn’t an issue if you’re aware of it, however, and you strive to see the world from where your beneficiaries stand.
Whilst I have no doubt that the advice this volunteer gave to people coming to them in need was relatively helpful, the views they held about people living in poverty were brutal and quite shocking.
I’ve met people with very limited self-awareness, as I’m sure you have too. This person was oblivious to the typical thoughts and internal conversations people in poverty commonly have, and how a small thing that they may see as a minor consideration could be a huge deal for the people they’re supposed to be helping. This volunteer was able to make informed choices when it came to their purchases, as they had the resources to be able to do so. That’s all well and good, but to judge others on their decisions who don’t have the same resources and finances isn’t fair.
This situation further highlighted to me how important lived experience is. Far from being a box-ticking exercise, lived experience furnishes you with an understanding of every aspect of the issue at hand.
For instance, if you’ve never been in, or felt, the bony fingers of poverty, how can you begin to understand how it feels to not have enough money for basic items or the means to satisfy your basic human needs? How can you understand the desperation you would likely feel in that situation? How can you see beneficiaries’ decisions as anything other than poor choices if you’ve never been subject to a certain cycle of behaviour or been in the grip of an addiction? How can you envisage a world that only has limited opportunities open to you, a world with few avenues for you to escape your relentless despair, a world with hundreds of hurdles that you have to overcome every single day, if you’ve never been in that world? How do you engage the people you’re trying to help if they know that you don’t know what their daily life entails? If you’ve never come from a place of disadvantage, how can you ever understand that much of it is out of your control?
This volunteer could only see the world from where they stood in it. They go through the motions of giving back, by donating lots of their time to various charitable organisations—which is truly great (their household income means they don’t need to earn money). However, out of their beneficiaries’ earshot, they greatly disapprove of the people they help. They try to enforce their opinions on said beneficiaries and actively prevent them from making any other choices than those they approve of—believing it to be ‘in the beneficiaries’ best interests’. These weren’t choices that could have had a negative impact on the health of the beneficiaries either (e.g. drugs or alcohol), as this would have been more understandable, but on minor things that were intended to bring the smallest of smiles to the lips of people whose lives are relative drudgery.
Poverty is already disempowering. Having the few choices you do have taken away from you by someone who has never walked a day in your shoes and who doesn’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, under the pretence that they’re ‘supporting you’, is cruel.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with coming from a place of privilege—many charity workers do, and it’s this privilege that actually motivates them to give back. There’s nothing wrong with someone for whom money is not an issue to want to make life better and easier for people who are less fortunate…nothing whatsoever. I know some wealthy people who are acutely aware of their good fortune and who try to use it in a way that benefits others. They certainly don’t use their wealth to bash those who aren’t as well off.
This article has turned into a rant, which wasn’t my intention, but I can’t deny how uneasy I felt in this volunteer’s company. I tried to present their beneficiaries’ points of view, but they shouted me down quite quickly, which only reinforced my first impression of them.
It’s a trait that’s often overlooked, self-awareness. And yet, as you can see, it can have a huge impact on what you do and the people you meet if you’re in any way connected with the third sector. Lived experience of an issue can’t help but make you aware of its many facets. This knowledge is incredibly valuable.