Friday, 21 February 2020

When Helping Hurts – Part 1, Start with the Positive

I’m volunteering for a group that provides emergency shelter for homeless people in our county during the fall and winter. It’s church-based, which feels a bit weird for this Exvangelical Quaker.  Matt and I are one of the few people in the group who aren’t part of a church that hosts people for a week as part of the program.  (Our meetinghouse is in the next county, although they used to work with a similar program there.)

I’m on the public outreach committee, which is tasked with developing and maintaining our relationships with the churches that provide the space and people-power that makes this actually work. There are a few churches who used to participate but no longer do, for various reasons.

A couple churches don’t participate because they follow the When Helping Hurts model for trying to alleviate poverty, and they don’t feel that the emergency shelter program is in keeping with that.  I swallowed my initial response of, “Do they not remember that this program started because someone died of exposure? What definition of ‘help’ lets that continue?” and decided to tackle this the way I tackle every problem. I did the assigned reading.

Now that I’ve read When Helping Hurts, I can see the differences between their model and the program I’m involved with.  And it’s a huge mix of things we really ought to be doing and things I think are misguided on the part of the authors.

My Kindle version of the book is full of highlights, about a 50/50 mix between “Yes, this!” and “WTF, no!”

So, of course, I’m going to blog about it. In this post, I’ll start with the positive, the things I really liked about the book.

The first is actually just that – start with the positive. Because people in poverty have had their self-esteem thoroughly beaten down and treated like they have nothing of value to offer, the authors argue that it’s important to focus on what gifts and talents they have, rather than what they lack. Not only does this restore people’s dignity, but it’s also an essential first step in finding ways for them to improve their lives that they can take ownership of.

I really like this, because most middle and upper middle class people don’t appreciate how much closer they are to homelessness than they are to being a millionaire. People get really invested in the Just World Fallacy and blame poor people for their misfortune. And certainly a lot of poor people absorb that ever-present messaging.  Focusing on the skills and assets people do have can help build up their self-esteem and self-confidence and remind more fortunate volunteers trying to help them that they really are equals.

The book also focuses a lot on avoiding blaming, judging, or assuming that you know someone’s needs and situation better than they do.  This tracks a lot with my experience as a crisis counselor, and I really appreciated it. They come right out and state “Poor people are often at the mercy of systems created by the powerful,” and they explicitly acknowledge the effects of both historic and present racism.

In addition to not blaming people for systemic issues that they can’t control, the book also focuses on respecting their knowledge and experience.  They talk about a blueprint approach, where a solution is created without any input from the people affected, and contrast it with a participatory approach:

…the blueprint approach implicitly communicates, ‘I, the outsider, am superior; you are inferior; I am here to fix you.’ A participatory approach, in contrast, asks the poor at each step in the process, ‘What do you think?’ and then really values the answers that are given. The very fact that the question is being asked is a powerful statement that says, ‘I believe you have value, knowledge, and insights. You know things about your situation that I do not know. Please share some of your insights with me. Let us learn together.

All of this is fantastic. Meeting people as equals who understand their situation better than you probably do. Finding out their needs and obstacles and including them in the problem-solving process, rather than assuming that you know best.  And being very clear that systemic racism is responsible for a lot of poverty.

But, even with all this positive stuff, I also have some issues with the book’s premises.  Which I’ll get to in a future post, probably several future posts.



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