“Give a Ugandan woman hope”! (It’s “fun and easy”!)

7 Dec

I was just invited to a bead party by the middle and high school daughters of a friend. What, you may be wondering, is a bead party?

Here’s the gist: created by the nonprofit BeadforLife, it’s when you retail handmade recycled paper bead jewelry (and shea butter body products) made by Ugandan women to friends. The profits go to BeadforLife’s efforts to “create sustainable opportunities for women to lift their families out of extreme poverty by connecting people worldwide in a circle of exchange that enriches everyone” (http://www.beadforlife.org/en/our-work).

Sounds worthwhile, for sure.

And while I plan to go to this party, I’m also uneasy about the message that BeadforLife sends to its supporters:

According to the organization’s website, “[BeadforLife] believes that any action you take on behalf of others is a big step in creating a just and sustainable world.”

I beg to differ. “You” cannot just act on behalf of others and assume you’re doing right by them or the world at large just because you decide you want to do something. What “you” are doing in this case is just a newer form of imperialism, minus the big army. It isn’t “your” or my place to presume to act “on behalf” of someone else. But it is our place to collaborate. That is to say, to ask, learn and share within a reciprocal dialogue that recognizes differences in status; resources; social, economic and political power; perspectives and experiences, and that seeks out and creates the intersecting, mutual spaces between us where we can take action as peers, not as superior action-taker and unheard, (better be) grateful inferior.

Now, granted the idea of a bead party is, well, to have a party. Still, BeadforLife’s emphatic message about how “fun and easy” it is to “change a life” and “give a Ugandan woman hope” kind of freaks me out. I picture a dark-skinned woman opening a box sent from the US; out pops HOPE (and maybe an Obama bumper sticker from 2008?)

I don’t mean to diminish the work BeadforLife does. My point is that they almost do that themselves. They do vital, potentially transformative work in Uganda, educating children, providing business training to women and addressing health needs. Yet their primary message (at least in regards to the bead parties) seems to be: See how easy (and fun!) it is to change the world??

And it’s not easy. Yes, social justice is fun at times. But creating sustainable, systemic and dynamic change (which is to say, change that can change as people and needs do) isn’t easy. We can’t confuse throwing a bead party with digging a well, even if the money from the party goes to digging the well. Someone still needs to dig, no matter how many party-throwers and goers get crazy with some beads. And digging a well isn’t the sum of social justice. If we want all people to have reliable access to fresh, drinkable water, we’re going to need to address social, political, educational, economic and very real environmental inequities, challenges and realities. And that’s not always going to be fun or easy.

Now, I get the deal: in the spirit of “get something when you give something” (like address labels for your donation to the Marine Mammal Center), Bead for Life wants to incentivize my friends’ kids to “do good.” I think it’s great that they’re hosting a bead party, and yes, I plan to go. I also think that it’s only fair and responsible to tell these girls and other bead party hosts realistically what they are and aren’t doing by throwing a bead party. Not just for truth in advertising, but for the responsibility we have to educate about social justice for social justice. If we want to see necessary change in the world, rather than just a flurry of well-intended activity that primarily serves the egos and sense of well-being of the flurriers themselves, then we need to be clear: there’s charity, there’s service, there’s community engagement. And whether those serve social justice is a matter of collaborative discernment and action.

** Thanks to HN, RN and AN for the invite.

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