Solidarity, Charity, and the Politics of Representation
Last week we put up flyers all over our campus to increase awareness, specifically about the lack of access to quality health care and reliable food sources in our partner community in El Salvador. However, unless you happened to use the women’s room on the second floor of Frost recently, you probably did not see the note that was taped near one of the flyers there. Here’s what it said:
What my country needs is solidarity, not a pity party. Don’t make us out to be more abject than we already are. We don’t need your pity.
Sincerely,A guanaca (Salvadoran)
I want to take this opportunity to address the admittedly reasonable concerns of the note’s author, and to explain what we do and the principles that guide us.
GlobeMed does not deal in pity. Nor do we engage in the action evoked by pity, namely charity. Our partner organization in El Salvador, Pastoral de la Salud, is an incredibly effective, professional organization, and we feel privileged that they have agreed to work with us. They do not ask us for charity, and we do not consider the material assistance we give them to be charity; instead, we are engaged in what we hope is a more or less equal partnership, founded on solidarity. Such a relationship is not easy to build, as we occupy a position of power and wealth within the world-system compared to the relatively powerless position of a group of rural communities in central El Salvador. It is precisely that structure of power that GlobeMed attempts to criticize and change, beginning with a reduction of the gradient separating us from our partners. As liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote, “the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”
Behind these ideals stand hundreds upon hundreds of hours of work by both GlobeMed and Pastoral, from implementing potentially life-saving health interventions in El Salvador to taping up flyers in bathrooms around campus. We speak with our contact at Pastoral, a woman named Mercedes Tejada, every Tuesday about where we both stand in the work we’re doing for this partnership. In an effort to overcome some of the incommensurability of our different positions, we also try to communicate to one another what our lives are like. Moreover, Pastoral generously hosted four Amherst students for two weeks this past June, which has resulted in a deeper and stronger mutual understanding and sense of partnership. The experiences of those students have also informed our conception of the injustices faced by those with whom Pastoral works, which brings me back to the posters.
Working for social justice inevitably entails, at some point, a non-poor person representing poor people to other non-poor people. Creating such a representation is fraught with ethical pitfalls, to which GlobeMed responds by striving to represent poor people in a contextually accurate, humane, and dignified way. One of our biggest struggles is to avoid essentializing people as “the poor,” or “Salvadorans,” or any other collective noun that elides all individuality and nearly every aspect of lived experience. While the obvious solution is simply not to essentialize people, we are faced with a countervailing need to create maximum impact with the resources we have. While individual stories are highly effective, and we have gotten great results in using them, these anecdotes cannot convey the breadth of inequities that exist in El Salvador and worldwide between wealthy and poor individuals.
Any act of representation is political. There are three elements that make it so: the play of power dynamics in the actual representation, the tangible use to which the representation is put, and the fact that its creation comes down to the art of the possible. Please indulge me as I address each of these with respect to our poster campaign. First of all, we have the luxury of being able to spend our time learning about El Salvador and designing posters to communicate that with other people, and we have the power to appropriate the experiences of Salvadorans to convey our message. That is perhaps a strike against us, as we are to some extent using our privileged position at the expense of the less powerful; hopefully our work has been sufficiently guided by the representational ethics outlined above. Second, we are using this representation to raise awareness of specific injustices faced by our partner communities, and to elicit outrage and action to reduce those inequities. In this, we have tried to align ourselves with Pastoral’s mission and worldview, which we hope has positioned us in solidarity with the poor. Finally, we have attempted to balance the competing claims of correctness and catchiness, but it is impossible for a single representation to simultaneously engage and satisfy every viewer.
Ultimately, we make representational choices with an intent to engender pragmatic solidarity, not pity or charity. As Uruguayan writer and political activist Eduardo Galeano reminds us: “Unlike solidarity, which is horizontal and takes place between equals, charity is top-down, humiliating those who receive it and never challenging the implicit power relations.” We have tried assiduously to avoid humiliating Pastoral and those they serve with charity, and we have attempted to disrupt the status quo by reforging the power disparity between Amherst students and Salvadorans into an alliance of equals. Although there are differences between our two groups that we cannot erase, some of which are particularly apparent in the acts of representation discussed above, we are aided by a set of ethics predicated on our commitment to solidarity. Through these ethics and a shared vision for the future, we believe that GlobeMed at Amherst and Pastoral de la Salud are involved in the creation of an emergent form of partnership that can point us to a healthier and more just world.