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“I just feel bad for her, we’re not actually close.” As I heard this on the 5th grade playground from my only friend, my heart sank. In fifth grade, I had moved to Korea from El Salvador and was thrown into a vicious bullying “game” where it was bully or be bullied. Only one of my classmates kept me company — or so I thought. As I heard her talk behind my back I was dismayed that what I perceived as friendship had been pity. Disheartened, I questioned from that point on whether pity is an inevitable part of what drives help. I never wanted anyone I was helping to feel the way I felt on that day; if I was going to help, I wanted to do it right.

With this lingering question, I was always overly conscious whenever I volunteered; I had to make sure that the communities I helped did not feel like they were being looked down upon. But no matter how careful I was, in the back of my mind was always the worry that I might unintentionally make these communities uncomfortable. My dilemma came down to this: what constitutes true, genuine help?

Working through DukeEngage with the Saath Charitable Trust Ahmedabad gave me a glimpse of the answer. My project was to develop an intuitive and accessible academic curriculum for parents and children of migrant workers. After being a part-time tutor for four years and leading various tutoring clubs, I was eager to take charge of the project and confident that this time too, I would be of help to the under-served kids. As a pre-med student, I also planned to incorporate content on sanitation, nutrition, and exercise as part of the “Life Skills” curriculum.

But something was off. While talking to my mentor Ms. Kruti Javeri, I realized that my textbook was too content heavy, wordy, and not engaging enough. Ms. Javeri emphasized that the modules should be activity-driven and require minimum material, because we were working with children from a low-resource area that have not been able to access formal education. 

When working with a community different from my own, sometimes what I think I can contribute is not what the community actually needs. In this instance, I needed to be humble and open to first get to know the community. While talking to Ms. Javeri and doing my own research, I learned a lot about the culture and education system of India. From the way my mentor talked about the children in Saath supplementary classes I saw that she truly cared. She really knew about the students’ needs from interacting with them – the impact of this curriculum on childrens’ career choices, sanitation facilities around the childrens’ neighborhood, and so much more.

This is what differentiates pity-driven charity work from genuine help, I thought to myself. Pity comes from a distancing of oneself from the served community. The helper may believe what they have to offer is superior than the knowledge of the community within which they are working; this power dynamic creates a sense of pity. And while I definitely did not have this mindset coming into this project, I might have fallen into this pitfall if I kept on thinking that my initial vision for the Education Project was right, despite the community’s needs being otherwise. 

After refocusing on really getting to know the community’s needs better, I worked on making the curriculum more engaging and applicable for the children. My mentor Ms. Kruti Javeri and I re-edited the textbook to be entirely activity-based, incorporating several concepts from different topics into each activity and explaining concepts on the way. We chose topics that the students would be able to use in the real-world, like for instance, financial literacy. Through this process, I grew so much more attached to the project and learned to be humble when helping other communities. We think we are “helping” the under-served communities, but in reality we are working together. The relationship is one of constant interaction, not of distancing oneself. And taking this lesson to heart, I will keep on learning how to be of genuine help – to the communities and people around me.

-Faith Joo, DukeEngage in Ahmedabad 2021 Participant