My Do-Gooder Adolescence

I bit the inside of my mouth. It did not work. I dug my fingernails into the side of my leg. It did not work. I was running out of anti-crying techniques. And, I did not want my students to see me cry. So, I asked to be alone. They agreed and left the one-room cabana we were sharing. I stepped into the bathroom, turned on the shower to mask any noise, and cried. I was a hard cry.

My students and I were implementing the first phase of our indoor air pollution initiative in Siete de Abril, Honduras. It was my first trip to a developing country. I was my first time witnessing that depth of poverty. And, earlier that day, while they were in the community, I visited a Nutrition Center for abandoned kids. The kids gathered around me. They tugged at my beard. They rubbed my head. They called me “Pellon.”  I was told that most of them were my son’s age. And, they were doing some of the same things that he does to show me love. It was my first time holding malnourished children in my arms. And, I was overwhelmed with emotions.

That moment transformed me. It lit a fire in me. I was inflamed with a passion to make a difference in the lives of others. If there are different stages in the life of do-gooder, then that moment in Honduras launched me into my “do-gooder adolescence.”  During my do-gooder adolescence, that fire burned uncontrollably. During my do-gooder adolescence:

  • I referred to myself as a change-maker.
  • I spoke without hesitation for those “without a voice.”
  • I carried around an “At least I am doing something” trump card.
  • I signed off on every undergraduate research project being conducted in Haiti.
  • I attended the Clinton Global Initiative University (multiple times)
  • I was always asking “Why is no one else doing anything?”
  • I motivated my students with exclamations of “We can do so much!”
  • I swore in letters to donors that our work in Honduras “Was changing lives.”

During my do-gooder adolescence, my theory of change was:

  • me –> do good –> move poor people out of poverty

During my do-gooder adolescence, I had the following association:

  • poor person = good person

During my do-gooder adolescence, I had another association:

  • me = selfless

During my do-gooder adolescence, I wore a cape.

I grew up, though. I matured. I learned. My thinking evolved. It got more nuanced and complex. I took off the cape. I re-assessed my theory of change. And, today, I blog about the “Do’s and Don’ts of Doing Good.” I teach a class titled “DoGoodernomics” where I ask students to systematically and unmercifully analyze any and all ways that those who are material prosperous attempt to bring poverty to an end.

Don’t get me wrong. Growing up was not easy. In fact, it was rather hard.  It was made even harder by the fact that a number of prominent and powerful individuals in our community and our culture seem to be trapped in an extended “do-gooder adolescence.” Like Matthew MacConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused, they have already graduated but are still going to high school parties.

I should start a non-profit called the “Do-Gooder Development Initiative.” I can collect some donations and rehabilitate do-gooders who are trapped in an extended adolescence. I will give them a hand up instead of hand out. I wont give them a fish. I will teach them how to fish. Because, we need to speed up their maturation process. If not for our own sake, at least for the sake of nearly half the world’s population that lives on less than $2.50 a day.

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (www.shawnhumphrey.com)

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4 Responses to “My Do-Gooder Adolescence

  • Is what you’re saying that there is a last phase of the maturation process of becoming a Do-Gooder that is not easily reached? And is it the facilitation of transitioning towards that phase that you envisage? Because ‘rehabilitation’ sounds much more like helping someone who has gone astray. Although – this is what I sense you feel – that this (going astray) is because of no fault of their (the Do-Gooders) own. That is why – but perhaps also if it was their wrong – you are prepared – as you say – to ‘give them a hand up’. Finally: you speak of ‘reassessing my theory of change’, ‘blogging the Do’s and Don’ts of Doing Good’ and asking your students to ‘systematically and unmercifully analyze .. to bring poverty to an end’. What exactly is the curriculum of your rehab program, Shawn? Is it all of this together? If I’m an adolescent Do-Gooder, what according to you is the ‘way into the light’?

    • shumphre
      4 years ago

      This post was the result of an existential crisis regarding my role in the community we work with in Honduras. I have these on a regular basis. But, regarding your questions, I am not sure what the last phase of becoming a Do-Gooder is like. I have not reached it. But, I can imagine that if there is a last phase that it will be hard for me to reach. In general, I feel that I and others like me have been programmed from a very early age by our culture to believe that we are the ones who will lead the poor out of their poverty. We are bombarded by images and stories and movies and books that re-affirm this narrative again and again. And, in some ways, all of the things I do are an attempt offer up to my students (and myself) a Matrix-like Moment. Do you want the truth about your role and impact in ending poverty? Or, do you want to go on believing this false narrative? I believe that the truth is that we still have a role. But, it is not as important as we were taught to think it is. I am also not sure what that role is just yet. I think I am getting a better understanding. And, as far as a curriculum is concerned, I am in the process of imagining how it would be designed, what its outcomes are, ect. Keep commenting Camille. I makes me better.

  • Yea, this is very true. I think about this everyday, and wonder what exactly should follow this phase. Shawn, which organizations do you think have actually reached that level (in reality, and not just by using buzzwords all over their website)? I recently read Paul Farmer’s In the Company of the Poor, and I think his understanding of all of this is at the highest level out there.

    • shumphre
      4 years ago

      Hey Shin. The next phase? I am not sure what it is…wisdom maybe. Its a place of a controlled burn. One of my favorite bloggers “J” may call it a place of “confident-humility.” I know that that is a place I like to exist. I am not sure of any organizations that have reached this level. But, I scrutinize many of them. I look at the images they use. I read the words. And, when I talk to their people I listen to the language they use to describe their work, impact and communities they work with. And, I am adding Paul Farmer’s book to my reading list. Thanks for the suggestion.

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