We read a transcript of a speech Ivan Illich gave to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects (CIASP) a few days ago. I had read this piece, entitled To Hell With Good Intentions, of his before, though I can’t remember in what context, perhaps on some internet stumble through writings on “international development” and paternalism. An apt quotation to provide a gist of his sentiments is, “Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or ‘seducing’ the ‘underdeveloped’ to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement.” He continues, “The U.S cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that here we have Heaven-on-Earth.”
Although the context in which Illich is giving the speech is different than today, 1968 was undeniably a different historical epoch and international context (i.e Cold War), the legacies and continued implications of U.S citizen diplomacy are still important. Immediately after reading this the group was asked to share thoughts. The innate reaction, as perhaps predicted, was to deflect guilt. It was to describe the ways in which the program deviates from Illich’s descriptors, how we diverge from the notion of do-gooder’s, and to seek metaphorical approval from him on what we are about to set out to do. And for many intents and purposes these defenses were right; IHP is not a service program, we are not delusional enough to think we will drastically alter anyone’s life or bring about some grand change in a place/context we are completely ignorant to, let alone with only a month in each country (well at least I hope those intentions were quickly dispelled in anyone who may have harbored them), we do not have answers.
But Illich’s intent wasn’t to bestow on us his “you aren’t a shitty person” traveling magic well-wishes. He wanted to make people think. He wants reflection, seeks deep and critical introspection of self, and inspection of power dynamics, institutions and systems much greater than that same self. With this reflexivity comes guilt, the kind of guilt that sits deep in your stomach and heavy on your shoulders. The kind you want to shrug off as soon as it touches your bare skin. The yucky sticky guilt of a hot and humid late August afternoon. This guilt is understandably shrugged, but nonetheless necessary. Sit with it, feel it layover you, flow through you, and then let it out. Guilt is good. For about ten seconds. Guilt is a passive feeling. It is static. It incites no action. Guilt with no progression is useless.
Feel the guilt and then move on. Move forward. Learn more, gain knowledge, seek skills and then advocate, educate, do better. One of my favorite quotes, as I search to find my activista self, is Maya Angelou’s, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This quote resonates in so many instances, and I wish more folks reflected upon it, especially now as discussions of oppression and privilege become mainstream and increasingly more common. I think the quote can be a good interceptor between the oh so common guilt to defensive pathway we often get caught in. This quote will continue to grace the front page of my journal as I travel for the next four months, confronted with everything from deep moments of immense privilege to simple language slip-ups where I need to remember to laugh at myself more often. Ivan Illich’s words “To Hell With Good Intentions” sit right above that on the front page of my journal, reminding me impact and not the intent is what matters. Taking up the bottom half of that same page sits a quote I strive to live my life by and what I will leave you with here:
“Love isn’t just something you feel. It’s something you do everyday when you go out and pick the paper and bottles scattered the night before on the corner, when you stop and talk to a neighbor, when you argue passionately for what you believe in with whoever will listen, when you call a friend to see how they’re doing, when you write a letter to the newspaper, when you give a speech and give ’em hell, when you never stop believing that we can all be more than what we are. In other words, Love isn’t about what we did yesterday; it’s about what we do today and tomorrow and the day after.”
–Grace Lee Boggs, The New American Revolution