Last summer, our team had brainstorming sessions to discuss the work Illuminated Cities Project aims to do. One key question was, “Who are the communities that we work with?” One of our team members proposed the term “devastation” to describe the Detroit and Chicago communities. This word instantly sparked a discussion. The premise of the conversation that took place is as follows:
“But, we cannot use the word ‘devastation’. Our youth who are coming from the urban and suburban contexts – their communities are incredible. And, one thing we have to be critical of when we write or brainstorm for the project is that our organization is not going to suddenly produce these incredible leaders out of thin air. Illuminated will simply extend tools (global travel experiences, mentors, leadership trainings, assistance with action plans) where fierce young people can develop the work they are already doing and empower their own selves.
I remember this conversation because it was one of the most defining ones in explaining our work. One team member pushed back and asked a very important question, “Why do the fellows need to improve their communities if they’re already incredible?”
Our response is this: the communities are already incredible. But their conditions are not. We cannot confuse condition with community. We have to be cognizant of our role as an organization, and remember that these communities have rich histories; they have existed for far longer than some of us and we have a lot to learn from them.
We learned a great deal from our friends at Chanan Development Association, who are engaged with women and youth empowerment work in Pakistan. The conditions our friends work under in Pakistan are rough. They literally risk their lives every day. But they never say, “Pakistan is such a scary place to live and work in.” It would defy the essence of what their organization aims to do, which is to re-imagine their conditions while acknowledging their realities.
Instead, they focus their dialogue on, “Hey, we’re having the largest peace festival in this region of Asia. Come.” They focus on publicizing, “We’ve recruited members from all over Pakistan, including some of its most remote areas, and the youth there are already doing powerful work in their communities. We are simply expanding their network and providing them with resources.” This is all true. And, this is how we want Illuminated to be.
We are not going in and saving anyone. There is no compulsion where transformation is involved on a micro or macro level. That decision to transform is a choice our fellows will have made long before they embark on a journey with us to another land.