Book Review: Doing Good… Says Who?
Posted January 12, 2016on:
Doing Good… Says Who? Stories from Volunteers, Nonprofits, Donors, and Those They Want to Help by Connie Newton and Fran Early, Minneapolis: Two Harbors Press, 2015, 163 pp.
Shortly after I turned 18, during my first year of college, I spent my spring break on a mission trip to the hills of Appalachia. With high hopes, I imagined that my unskilled hands and loving spirit were going to change the lives of the poor, needy, helpless souls we would serve in Jesus’ name. On my first day, I spent nine hours scrubbing the baseboards of an old tuberculosis hospital, alongside one other shiny young volunteer and an old local deployed as our supervisor. I had volunteered to depart from the group and go with him because he was said to be wise and full of stories, but he spent the day in silence in another part of the building. He made it clear that he knew exactly what we were good for–washing baseboards, and not much else.
He was right, of course. We had lots of enthusiasm, little skill, and enormous amounts of unconscious prejudice. By the end of the day, left with nothing but silence and chapped hands, my self-centered idealism had been cracked open. It was a lesson in humility, service and perspective that I have valued ever since.
I wish this book had existed then, and that someone had given it to me before that first mission trip experience. I’m doubtful that it would have pierced my fantasies of “rescuing the poor from despair” with one week of unskilled labor, but it might have settled my expectations down or at least given me a resource to fall back on once I fell from such a great height of naive arrogance.
As they write in the introduction:
How do any of us go about recognizing what we don’t understand in another culture? How can we know when our efforts are actually “doing good?” Does it matter? In the stories that follow, it matters. (ix)
Fran Early and Connie Newton have assembled a collection of stories based on their years of experience living and working among the people of Guatemala and those good-hearted souls who want to improve their situation. These stories are collected from hundreds of interviews, woven together into five themed chapters. Each chapter is a story in itself, compiled from the many interviews into a single narrative. The stories themselves are powerful juxtapositions and memorable misunderstandings, and they range from recovering a stolen toilet to a disastrous offer of a $10,000 gift to a women’s co-operative only made possible by cakes and tamales. You’ll meet arrogant doctors and amazing ones; hardworking yet clueless funders; local women whose expertise is invaluable; and a cross-section of volunteers and local Guatemalans you will come to love.
I was initially disappointed with the authors’ decision to condense and co-mingle the stories into a single narrative. It felt a bit concocted or processed to me, and I wanted the raw experience that I thought I would glimpse in a direct interview. However, upon further reflection, I realized that’s part of their point. If we travel or talk or read about people who are poor or foreign or struggling, we imagine we can have real, unadulterated access to other people’s lives. We can’t. Their strategy refuses to let us indulge in the illusion that, by this book, we too are somehow getting the real story. While we can grow in compassion and understanding, chances are we won’t ever fully be able to part from our own lenses to see things as others do. Such depth requires years of listening, living and learning, much as the authors have tried to practice. What we get here is, in fact, more helpful–it is the critical lens we need to question our perspective and learn to listen more carefully.
(And if you, like me, still worried that the narrative was not authentic enough, or you are bothered that stories take too many liberties, or you care about research methods and this kind of looseness makes you uncomfortable, start with the appendix. The appendix gives a thorough accounting of their research methodology and documentation of sources. Start there, your questions will be answered, and you will be at liberty to appreciate the stories and their contribution.)
Early and Newton identify five guiding principles or key concepts that anyone interested in helping out another community should come to understand. Each of these principles makes up a chapter of the book, one of the interwoven narratives that illustrates the theme, as would a case study. These themes are:
- Respect and value people
- Build trust through relationships
- Do “with” rather than “for”
- Ensure feedback and accountability
- Evaluate every step of the way
These guiding principles would be helpful tools for local church mission committees; mission trip participants; university service learning centers and students; any congregation or organization interested in forming partnerships (whether international or interfaith or just intercity/suburb); social work students; ministry students; Teach for America volunteers; NGO and non-profit boards of directors; and so many more. Any of these groups of good-hearted souls would benefit from a group reading and discussion of the stories, the guiding principles, and how they impact their work.
I typically make frequent notes and underlines in reading a study text, but not this time. Each story deserves to be taken as a whole, like the people they represent. They are not a frozen image or an inspiring quotation. There is no anecdote that can capture the complexity of reality. Only relationship, mutuality and listening with care can begin to get you there.
This book is so helpful, so necessary. I’m disappointed my 18 year-old self didn’t have it, but I’m glad to have it now, and plan to share it widely.