During Duke Engage Academy, we were told two stories. In the first of these stories, the ocean washes thousands of starfish onto a beach. A man walking along the beach notices that an old woman up ahead is bending down, picking up starfish one by one, and throwing them back into the ocean. He approaches her, saying, “There are too many starfish. Why are you bothering to throw them back in? You can’t possibly make a difference.” The woman bends down, picks another up, and throws it into the ocean, saying, “I made a difference for that one.”
In the second story, the people of a small town by a river notice a baby floating down the river. The town residents run over and save the baby from the river. During the rescue process, they see dozens more babies floating downstream. They develop a system to work together to save all the babies, with everyone in the town participating. Two boys begin to run away from the effort and the leader of the operation calls out “Where are you going? We need everyone’s help to save all of these babies.” The boys call back, “We’re going up the river to stop whoever is throwing them in.”
In our training session, we discussed these two stories, talking about the merits and drawbacks of starfish throwing verses river running. We talked about Band-Aid solutions verses long-term, large-scale policy changes. We talked about how difficult river running is when issues are complicated and multi-faceted. We discussed the limitations of the examples, such as the apparent lack of agency of the starfish and the babies in the stories.
In the end, we concluded that both starfish throwers and river runners are valuable, depending on the context.
I realized that I, personally, have typically been mostly involved in starfish throwing. I’ve often tutored children, worked at a summer camp that empowers young girls, and worked with refugees. However, I’ve rarely advocated for changes in education policy, gender justice, or refugee policy.
In my work at the South African Labour Research Institute at SACTWU, however, I am several degrees removed from starfish throwing. Instead of working personally with workers on the factory floor, I spend most of my days in an office researching procurement, creating databases, making charts, interviewing people, writing reports, creating a website, and combing through data looking for evidence of trade fraud.
One day this week, my boss came into my office and showed me a memo he was planning on sending to the top six retailers in South Africa. The memo included two paragraphs presenting procurement data I’d spent weeks researching in stores, compiling into a database, and writing into a report. He said that the work we did was the most extensive study of South African product procurement ever conducted and that he believed it could actually put pressure on retailers to make real change toward creating jobs in South Africa.
As I listened to him, I understood in theory that our work was important and needed. However, I am not proud to admit that for a split second, as I looked at those two paragraphs—the only outcome to show for weeks of work—I found myself feeling a small wave of disappointment. All I had to cling to was a hazy hope that somewhere upstream, some retailer would feel pressure to make a greater proportion of their products in South Africa because of our study, which would mean more jobs for South African workers. It seemed like an incredibly far way to run up the river in an effort that might not even save the babies, or, in our case, may not even create jobs.
During that moment, I found myself silently missing work that involves starfish throwing. I missed seeing the immediate impact of my actions. I missed the look on a child’s face when he finally understands the math problem he’s been struggling with or watching a young girl I’ve encouraged to go outside of her comfort zone, gaining confidence.
Right as this disappointment and cravings for sentimental moments creeped in, I remembered what my boss had said as he first gave us the assignment. He’d warned us that checking the tags of 3,200 products was not going to be fun, but added that “this work is as important as it is boring.” River running can be frustrating and tedious, with hard work not yielding any clear outcomes. And while I enjoyed the process of exploring Cape Town through malls, using the time to get to know my co-workers, and learning how to navigate Excel Pivot Tables, and am now genuinely proud of those two paragraphs in the memo, the daily grind of river running doesn’t always feel good.
In missing modes of helping that do feel good, I was forced to confront how closely my acts of service are tied to my own selfish needs. In her book The Need to Help, Liisa Malkki says that “giving emerges out of a stark need.” In a similar vein, in a lecture by Duke professor Adam Hollowell, he said something along the lines of “we like to say ‘Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime,’ but we don’t like to admit we are addicted to teaching.”
In spending time river running, I’ve realized how addicted I was to starfish throwing. While I would like to think that my motives stemmed purely from the impact, I now see how inextricably my work was linked to how it made me feel.
In this article, Teju Cole points out that many forms of volunteering are “not about justice. [They are] about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
Cole goes on to further critique what he calls “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” saying that people use volunteering and aid as a “valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage. We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years, but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund.” The global system as a whole is also built on pillage; it is built on centuries of slavery, colonialism, extraction, and exploitation. Thus, paraphrasing Cole, the white savior benefits from brutal policies in the morning and founds charities in the afternoon.
The current American education system is built on pillage as well, as it was historically segregated by law and is currently in the process of resegregating. Many parents who are financially able depart the public system, leaving a concentration of poverty in their wake. I benefited from this unjust and broken system, as I attended a charter high school that did not provide free busing or free/reduced lunches, making it inaccessible to many students. This privileged charter background played an essential role in my eventual path to a private, elite university. Maybe my work tutoring in Durham public schools serves as a value to release my own sense of internal pressure created from benefiting from an unjust education system.
Current world systems of trade are also built on pillage. I benefit from low-priced goods that are so inexpensive because of the exploitation of workers. So maybe my current work at SACTWU also serves as a valve to release internal pressure created from benefiting from an unjust trade system.
Therefore, both in my work here in Cape Town and back in Durham, I need to think critically about my motives and my own sentimentality. I need to listen to the people I am working with rather than doing what makes me feel the best. I need to think about the ways in which I am benefitting from the very systems I attempt to help or reform.
Cole says, “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”
Going forward, both here in Cape Town and in Durham, I will actively try to see myself as a wounded hippo.
I am wounded—riddled with problems and needs of my own. When we realize we are all wounded and needy, the dichotomy between helper and helped falls apart: the helper is not so different from the helped. Both recognizing my own wounds and neediness and working to see more than just the wounds and neediness of others are essential steps toward engaging humbly.
And finally, as a hippo, I know I can do damage. I know that when I go into Durham public schools, I am not a trained teacher. I know I have at times said and done the wrong things. I also know that here in Cape Town, when I interview South Africans in order to record oral histories, I am inserting myself into a story that is not mine. As a white foreigner dealing with language and cultural barriers, I am far from the ideal person to hear, transcribe, or share these stories. And while I don’t think the answer would have been to stay home this summer or to stop tutoring students when I return, I know I need to be watchful. I need to work toward treading lightly and carefully, as hippos naturally walk with heavy steps.