Blogpost: Community Engagement Work: An Uphill Climb

By Silvena Chan

At the Kettering Foundation last week, I doled out my usual uncompromising suggestions about community accountability: that it should be at the forefront of any institution or organization community engagement work.  I meant it, and I still mean it when I assert that constant commitment to accountability is the only way to go for those who control resources, discourse, or anything else “on behalf of” a community.

On Saturday night, long after it had fallen dark, I was walking home from the library feeling supremely sorry for myself because of finals.  Thinking about my community engagement work, I wondered ever so briefly if there was a way to make our HOPE Village Initiative project a little bit “less work.”  Is there a cause for so much accountability? Is so much reporting back and getting feedback really necessary?  Maybe we could just…

And then I snapped out of it.

In the time that I’ve spent living and learning about community engagement work, I found that while resources never trickle down, the detritus of “convenience” trickles down like the litter you toss onto someone else’s sidewalk when you’re too lazy to find a trash can.  With the benefit of privilege, individuals, groups, and institutions have the freedom to act (or not act) at their convenience.  Small concessions may not seem very serious, especially because we gain the ease, but none of the costs.  But we don’t see those costs because it tends to trickle and accumulate towards those with less privilege, who may not have the same agency to make the same decisions of convenience.

The impact is easier to see in hindsight.  Historically, even “progressive” movements have been involved in cutting corners and forgoing accountability.  Consider mainstream U.S. feminism, a movement through which American women gained access to birth control and limited career freedoms.  The convenience of hormonal birth control came from drug trials in which American researchers decided to test early versions of “the pill” on poor women in Puerto Rico (many of whom were sterilized and three women died from the trials).  It was more convenient to test drugs on Puerto Rican women “given the strong legal, cultural and religious opposition to birth control in America in the 1950s.”[1]

In Families on the Frontier, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo argues that the freedoms gained for mostly white middle-to-upper class women to have careers have historically rested on the underpaid labor of South/Central American and Filipina domestic workers, who are economically barred from that very freedom.

We can learn from historical moments.  These injustices are not only a testament to the nuances of oppression, but also to how easy it is to be complicit with oppression.  There are consequences to decisions that people in power make out of convenience, but it’s not the people in power who have to face them.

I had to remind myself of that on Saturday night, when I was feeling tired and weighed down by final papers and the loneliness and nagging feelings of insecurity from experiencing UM as a working class, first generation student of color.  I had to remember that there is a reason why community engagement work is hard, and that convenience is never without consequences.  In this society, the smoothest, least resistant path was forged by oppression.  One might even call this the road most traveled.





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