The crux of the holiday season is based around donating, volunteering and charity. For good reason, the spirit of giving continually inspires everyone to share their time and mostly their money with those less fortunate, those with less and those in need. Participating in such holiday charity is a commonality in the athletic world. We’ve frequented soup kitchens, schools, churches, hospitals, nursing homes. You name it, a team has been there. This is not to look at any of the well-intended and wholesomely spirited volunteer work in a smug or pretentiously righteous kind of way. Many of the charities and donations sending food and clothing to others is intangible and puts smiles on the faces of people who are in truly desperate need of a winter coat or a hot meal. Many of the organizers of these large events have dedicated their life’s work to helping others and that is noble and admirable. Many of the organizations that host thousands of volunteers rely on the donations and help of volunteers to function and to help save lives. This is to not look at any of this good giving in a sarcastic way. This is simply to look at the complexity of it all.
Maybe you come from a place where you would volunteer and donate in such a way that you never had to think about the "why" of it. You just felt good for some period of time after. Maybe this came in the form of good hearted work but also slightly under a faint sense of exposing you to something or some people not to be like. Maybe this took place by driving across the tracks or stumbling across a place where you don’t usually stop, you only know it from having to drive through it. Maybe this is not you or maybe it was or maybe it is until you read a piece or have an experience that makes you ask more questions. Maybe you come from a place where you know all too well about those times when rich kids came to your school and played basketball with you or read stories to you. Maybe you are too familiar with being handed a frozen turkey and some boxed stuffing and thinking how you hate that the person handing you this food thinks they are better than you, and work harder than you and look down on you but, you take it and say thank you, sir. Maybe you know all about the people that would just come and go to make themselves feel better.
One of my favorite writers out of Harvard University, Clint Smith explores this with great perspective. Here is a thread of his from Twitter that I retweeted because it was so important for me to read to myself and for others to hopefully digest as well.
“Random Thought: Kids are often taken to soup kitchens to feed the homeless, but how often are those shelters then explaining to kids why homelessness is pervasive in the first place? Are they talking about systemic racism? Having conversations about mental illness? Evictions?”
“As I reflect on it, I worry that taking kids to “feed the homeless” without providing any critical analysis of why homelessness exists in the first place might actually reinforce misguided ideas about poverty and whether or not people deserve to be there.” Clint Smith
“So much of community service is predicated on this unidirectional notion of “giving back”. But if we’re not explaining to people why their circumstances are different than those they’re serving aren’t we just reifying certain types of social hierarchies?”
“It’s the same thing with some study abroad programs or mission trip programs. We send people off to do service work and “experience other cultures” but are we talking about colonialism? Are we talking about what forces have made these countries look the way they do in the first place?”
“I think providing young people (or anyone) the chance to engage with those who are different or less fortunate than them is important. But if it is done irresponsibly it only exacerbates the larger systemic problem rather than alleviate it.”
His criticism is polished and pointed. It is not cynical or “scrooged.” Clint’s analysis is that we have to do better than writing a paycheck for your own feel good sensation. We have to do better than the braggadocios ways companies declare an Impact Day or Giving Day; go plant some vegetables or build a playground, then drive back to their midtown offices just 5 or so miles away and call it a good year’s work of giving back.
In no way are we saying to stop engaging in these good deeds. But next time you and your team is at the soup kitchen or you and your family’s handing out food in the church basement or you and your company’s at an elementary school who’s cafeteria food you wouldn’t feed your pet or who’s classrooms are void of books, remember to strike up a conversation about it. Talk about access to healthy food, or wealth inequality, or the current state of public education or that TED talk you just watched about how creating affordable homes for the homeless is more financially effective than corralling them in raids and throwing them in jail. Talk about the prison industrial complex and the school to prison pipeline. Talk about housing segregation and gentrification and the local zoning policies. This holiday season give back, give back as much as possible but every time you do, please remove the veil.
Chalk Talk is a weekly What's Next column by Anthony Cinelli, one of our founders. It will be published every Monday morning. Anthony is currently a mental health counselor and baseball coach in New Jersey.