Living on One? Yes, and…

7 Nov

From the brief excerpts I’ve seen of the new documentary Living on One (, the film itself looks like it has some powerful moments, but the youtube video promoting the movie is actually also about… promoting the movie.

This makes a lot of sense when you realize that Living on One is about “four college students as they travel to rural Guatemala and live on one dollar a day”  ( Notice that it’s about the college students and their experiences. This is subtly but critically different than being about rural Guatemalans and their experiences, without the filter of the shock and struggle of US college students trying to get by on a budget that is literally and figuratively foreign to them.

I suppose that’s the way to capture the interest of the “thousands of young people” the filmmakers have explicitly named as their intended audience: tell them about someone whom they can relate to, having an experience they can’t begin to fathom. (And this helps clarify which young people the filmmakers see watching their film: young people like them. Not necessarily young working class immigrants from Guatemala, or impoverished US Americans who live on shockingly little every day right here.)

This is not to knock the film. I’m glad it’s out there, sparking discussion and hopefully inspiring minds and bodies of all ages to, as the filmmakers hope, “confront global poverty.”

And, the film raises a lot of individual and cultural self-awareness opportunities about how we do awareness (how’s that for meta?)

For example…

We still prefer crises over there, as opposed to over here. As I was watching the Living on One promo video, I couldn’t help but think about the original KONY2012 video (, which also features young white folks learning about the hardships of brown folks in another country, taking on that group’s struggle as a cause, and bringing it back home to ask young people like themselves–not necessarily white, but from a similar socioeconomic and cultural background–to care and act now because they have the generational power to do the right thing.The exoticism of struggle and oppression is telling of the US’ struggles with domestic racism and classism. When the filmmakers of Living on One explain that poverty isn’t the fault of poor people (because they’re lazy, lack ambition or aren’t intelligent), I agree! And then I recall the sound of agreement across our country when Mitt Romney called 47% of us freeloaders.

We think “we” are all alike. Back to the KONY2012 parallels, the white savior industrial complex ( that is at the heart of both movements so strongly distinguishes the saviors (college educated white people) from those to be saved (Ugandan child soldiers and impoverished Guatemalans) that there’s no acknowledgement that the “youth” recruited for the salvation operation is actually quite diverse, and thankfully so. It’s diversity within a humanitarian operation that will foster the most innovative, durable, thoughtful and reciprocal initiatives (as opposed to one-way charity or salvation). Yet these movements presume that all the people capable of doing good in the world are like the leaders of the movements: needing the same revelations in order to “get it” and be inspired.

We like a good “us v. them.” And I don’t mean us v. poverty or even us v. Joseph Kony. We like to be clear about who, among the advantaged, are the good guys, and who are the if-not-bad-than-useless guys. Maybe it’s just me at 40, but the implication of youth-exclusive social movements seems pretty clear: older people can’t be trusted to care or do good. And maybe that’s fair because I’m pretty sure when I was “young,” I felt the same way. And yet. I can’t help but think that what we need is (say it with me) more diversity, including age-diversity, within movements so we think and act with greater discernment and effectiveness, in no small part because our model is one of perspective-sharing and taking, collaboration and partnership: not groupthink that leads to “us” doing what the hive mind thinks is good for “you.”

We really like a good film. Here, I’m thinking about the growing genre of films documenting the experiences of socioeconomically-disadvantaged students of color in independent schools (see my 10/22/12 post). The films are great vehicles for raising awareness and, as a young man says in the Living on One promo, “keep[ing us] connected to the world.” No argument there. And… I’m uneasy about the underlying presumption that social awareness is just another form of passive consumerism in which it’s not my responsibility to connect. No, if there’s something to connect to, shouldn’t it reach out to me? And so we continue to expect folks to testify about their hardship for our awareness and edification. This is not to say that we should never bear witness to another person’s experience, but rather to ask: do we really need to empathize, in order to care about another person?

On that note, and I’ll keep it short (see my 10.16.12 post for the long version), we really like to empathize.

While the ideals of equity and inclusion drive us to want to empathize, that’s often not entirely possible—in fact, sometimes, we just outright can’t. And I’ll admit: there are a lot of things I’m grateful that I don’t get. In fact, I wish no one knew what some things–poverty, war, starvation–are like. But just because I can’t empathize doesn’t mean I can’t sympathize, care and choose to act for social justice.

The students in Living on One want to “get” poverty. But there’s something inherently different about exploring poverty and living in it, maybe through generations. And I worry about what this endeavor models and encourages: that you need authenticity in order to act, and that you can, in fact achieve authenticity through a short-term experiment. (When, in fact, I think it can be very disrespectful and even delusional to say you “get” someone else’s experience: in order to claim that I empathize with living on a dollar a day, I have to force someone else’s lifetime experience to fit what I can comprehend, based on a trip that I know will end.)

Bottom line: I think empathy, while powerful and important in human experience, is a red herring in social change movements. Wanting to raise awareness (and more than that: challenging the deficit lens through which the wealthy view the poor, as the Living on One students talk about doing) is awesome. And, I think you don’t need to be able to (say you can) empathize in order to do that.

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