Saturday, May 28, 2011

altruism while ignoring our own oppressions

Joyce is a shortish women with piercing blues eyes. She pulls up a seat next to me at the meeting in the working mens social club. I read her clothes and accent, working class. We are here to talk about how to fight back to prevent the rich from taking the little that remains of peoples means of survival. We begin to get to know each other with hushed conversations reflecting on what the bigger group is talking about.

We are talking about the divide between rich and poor on this island. She focuses her reflection, not on material wealth, but on relationships across class and how we get divided by them. She says with clarity “I wouldn't like to be rich because then the poor wouldn't like me”. A desire to live in a classless society because only then can we relate to each other as humans.

She was here, not because of herself “I am doing ok, I have a roof and my pension, I am getting by, but I came here to support my friends” pointing to two people she had came in with. She echos a sentiment I heard often in Colombia. Young women at a workshop in La Vega, Catatumbo, tell us how they are ok and they want to help the people less well off than them.

What is this pattern of people choosing to play down their own oppressions, to think they are ok and to be altruistic all about?

The altruism is uplifting. Rather than “charity which hands down from above” what both Joyce and the Catatumbero women seems like an “altruism that reaches across with solidarity and empathy”, as equals.

Playing down their own oppressions is to accept daily reality as it is, it is to not risk anything for fear of disappointment, it is to fear hope itself.

To name oppression is to dream of changing it. I ask the question against.

What is this pattern of us choosing to play down our own oppressions, to think we are ok and to be altruistic all about?

She goes on to tell me that she works as a cleaner a few hours a day. It is not worth the money she is paid but she enjoys doing it. She likes making the place clean. It gets her out the house. Again she does not question the shit wages which you can barely survive off for doing such an important job but rather she focuses on taking pride in what she does. Amelia, from Ciudad Bolivar, Colombia said the same. While society fails to value the cleaning work that her and Joyce and millions of other women do around the world through mass exploitation, on an individual level they strive to live with dignity by valuing it for themselves.

She shows me how I too have also been trying to create meaning and value, to be satisfied withh the work I have been doing in Health and Social Care at the council. I get why we do this. But valueing what we do each day seems to easily turn in to being satisfied with how things are.

I hope that young women in Colombia while valueing their role of keeping their family home clean can demand respect for the work they do and continue to push the boundaries of what their social role is. I hope that Joyce while valuing her cleaning work can demand respect from society for the work she does, which would be minimally reflected in better wages, and can have the opportunity to get out of the house to do other fun things. 

I hope I can value my skills assessing elderly and disabled peoples personal care needs and set up the care and support they need to have a dignified life while dreaming of being able to do this in a work place where my work is not so tightly controlled and monitored, and where I am not pressured to “save money”, words if more truthful would say “save money for the rich”. I am dreaming of us demanding that peoples needs must shape social services budgets, not the other way round.

* names are changed as I did not ask if I could write about them.

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