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Wednesday, 18 January 2017 06:57

Instead of "Saviors," We Need Agents of Real Change

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2916200309 fe65dc6dce zThe myth of the "heroic savior." (Photo: cranky messiah)

There is a big difference between truly assisting marginalized groups and being a charitable "savior."

The latter label characterizes many people of privilege and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) that attempt to provide solutions for individuals and groups in need -- without listening to the voices of those whom they are supposedly "helping." This is the essential message of a book recently featured as a Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week: No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality, by Jordan Flaherty.

In an excerpt from his book featured on Truthout, Flaherty writes:

The savior mentality means that you want to help others but are not open to guidance from those you want to help. Saviors fundamentally believe they are better than the people they are rescuing. Saviors want to support the struggle of communities that are not their own, but they believe they must remain in charge. The savior always wants to lead, never to follow. When the people they have chosen to rescue tell them they are not helping, they think those people are mistaken. It is almost taken as evidence that they need more help.

The savior mentality is not about individual failings. It is the logical result of a racist, colonialist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal system setting us against each other. And being a savior is not a fixed identity....

Saviors adopt trendy labels such as social entrepreneur or change agent. They preach the religion of kinder capitalism, the idea that you can get rich while also helping others, that the pursuit of profit, described with buzzwords like engagement, innovation, and sharing economy, will improve everyone's lives through efficiency. However, I stand with nineteenth-century novelist Honoré de Balzac, who wrote that behind every fortune is a concealed crime. I don't believe you can get rich while doing good -- wealth and justice are mutually exclusive. The more wealth exists in the world, the less justice.

In short, the savior or charity mentality allows the "giver" to feel righteous, compassionate and fair without having to engage in the hard work of achieving those goals by listening to the needs of people whom they are allegedly assisting.

Victoria Law -- a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance -- interviewed Flaherty about his book for Truthout and wrote this in her introduction to their exchange:

The recent election underlines the importance, if not urgency, of solidarity organizing and reminds us of the need to avoid the pitfalls of searching for a savior. Flaherty ends on an optimistic note and a call to action, which resonate now more than ever: "The changes we fear are impossible are already growing. We can build a better world, as long as we don't fall into traps of reform that leave out those who are most in need. If we listen to those who have the most to lose, and stand in principled struggle with those on the bottom, everything is possible."

"Saviors" are, very often, poised to "save," or at least preserve, the status quo. They are employed to "comfort" victims of injustice, not to transform an unfair and unjust system into an equitable one. They are anodynes, not agents of change.

Flaherty is caustically critical of the "savior mentality," but he is also optimistic. That is because he fervently believes in grassroots organizations in which marginalized people are speaking for themselves and working toward systemic change. As Flaherty told Victoria Law:

I'm very excited by this movement moment we are in, by the protests at Standing Rock, by Black Lives Matter, by the disability justice and Latinx and trans movements, and so much more. And I wanted to create another resource for people who want to support those movements. I work as a journalist, and try to do my work in a way that's accountable to social movements....

One of the best parts of writing this book was that I got to speak to so many brilliant people who are thinking and writing and taking action.

The charity of the savior -- "the lone hero" -- is passive. The credible agent of change, on the other hand, is active in profoundly challenging the status quo.