Assumptions, Social Change and Digging Deeper.

InSite has traveled to South Africa for the past seven years working alongside two specific informal settlements. What started as a ‘simple’ idea of doing ‘good’ while exposing more privileged international students to those living in more disadvantaged circumstances has uncovered many assumptions and implicit biases within myself, and our team.  As a white, western woman, raised in a monocultural environment, I grew up largely blind to the many assumptions I carried about others, society, roles, and opportunities.

When we began traveling to South Africa, our team had a surfacy understanding of these dynamics. We knew there was a lot we didn’t know. We knew there would be challenges and issues concerning race, but on some level, there was a sense that our desire to help would shine through and that would be good enough.

Each trip, each interaction, we’d seek to learn, so as not repeat the stupid things we had done based on assumptions revealed. For example, when we first started going, we’d play water games with the kids, because it was hot and we thought it would be fun.

Assumptions we made:

  • Parents wouldn’t care if their children’s clothes got a little wet.

  • The children would want to play games where they got wet.

  • They were as hot as we were.

  • Getting wet and dirty is ok.

  • They have other clothes to wear if thee get wet and dirty.

  • They value play as much as we do.

What we learned:

  • Parents do care if they get wet cause they don’t have an excess of clothes to wear.

  • Kids didn’t play with water. It was seen as a needed commodity.

  • They didn’t mind the heat as much as we did.

  • Getting wet and dirty was not ok, it takes a lot of time to clean clothes and being clean is important.

  • Play is fun, but homework is more important, espcially during the sunlight hours.

So, we stopped water games.

As our awareness grows, so does our empathy and curiosity.  Our questions are guiding not just what we do but how we do it. Questions like:  Are we exploiting their position for our gain? What does it mean to help? What does it mean to work together?’

The structures and systems in place that continue to oppress the disadvantaged are many we wonder, how we change it. Can we? How do we help, support, encourage, walk alongside, show solidarity with communities we love and care about…. how do we talk about it and as we are so far removed from them positionally…  What is our role?  Do we have one?  

We, as those living in places of privilege, must come to understand our assumptions and how they impact how we see and treat others.

How do we learn to SEE ?

It is with this question, InSite will be doing something completely different this year. Usually we do work projects with members of the community in the morning: paint homes, build tire steps, do things the community tells us they need. We’ve all decided it’s time to dig a little deeper. Not literally digging, but more figuratively.

For the past 2 years, the community leaders, InSite and The Phillips Foundation have been working on a project to install 10 solar street lights with a side project of launching a business (bakery). The installation will be completed while we are there. This is very exciting yet there isn’t complete support from the local community.

We decided we need to listen (digging deeper into the stories of the community). To do this,  we’ll be implementing IDEO and tools and strategies to conduct interviews, collect stories, in an attempt to uncover the themes, needs and desires of this community of over 8000 people. We won’t be able to talk to everyone, but if we can reach people from all areas, along with the community leaders, they can continue this after we are gone. Our collective aim is to come up with testable prototypes for the local community to try to increase support and engagement with the solar street lights and the bakery which are intended to benefit the whole community.  

We’ll keep you posted on what is uncovered. Like our Facebook page and follow us on instagram as we host live sessions and post stories charting our progress while we are there and after we leave.