More Than Good Intentions
Gabriella Roude | Senior Research & Evaluation AssOCIATE
Can we agree that context is everything? What does it mean to position a social issue or even the actions of an individual within context? To better understand the relevance of this topic or possibly to deliberately confuse you, I’d like to segue a bit and introduce a concept that has always stuck with me from Anthropology 101: social constructionism. Essentially, it’s a very big picture idea that all socio-cultural phenomena are products of historically situated interpersonal negotiations. In other words, economies, the commodities that we create, the various ways we categorize individuals within and not of the same community etc. is socially constructed. In short, we, Homo Sapiens, essentially create meaning and contribute to Culture as we are simultaneously enculturated by it —it’s like the Matrix. Hence, it’s crucial to be conscientious of context, especially the current social issues and historical factors that shape the lives of individuals. I’d say this is important in any discipline or profession, and of course there are various terms and concepts that speak to this point that are vocationally specific other than what I’m presenting here.
But yet, many who do community engagement work such as researchers, community organizers, politicians, and international aid organizations fall short of taking on this best practice of being fully conscientious regarding a particular social issue or effort to improve the lives of individuals in whichever capacity they aim to do so. An instance that I find very concerning and a topic that never fails to raise my suspicious eyebrows is the on-going international aid efforts in Haiti. I am by no means an expert on the relief efforts in Haiti and more specifically, post the devastating earthquake that occurred in 2010. However, if one were to do a case study of poorly executed efforts, I’d recommend looking into the work of the different aid organizations present in Haiti after the earthquake, as investigative reporting has shown at least one organization that claimed to help those affected by disasters by providing direly needed relief and support, but that actually failed in their promise. There are plenty examples of this same phenomenon, but this one particularly grinds my gears. And bringing it back, one explanation for this issue could be short sightedness in assessing needs and how as an organization, within a specific context, they could realistically accomplish their objectives and be accountable to the people of Haiti and everyone that financially supported a well-intended cause.
I’ve said all of that so I could get to this. As a Research & Evaluation Associate at a community-informed and serving organization, the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies (IWES), whether I’m working on developing a formative research survey that will help guide a social marketing campaign or summarizing a discussion on a particular topic from a focus group, being reflexive about the circumstances that influence and allow for a particular event or social phenomena to occur is of utmost importance. This involves doing literature reviews, understanding local and national history, politics and culture, tapping into IWES’ organizational knowledge, and most importantly, learning from the youth and individuals we engage. Basically, being as informed as possible before acting like I know. And although there will always be shortcomings and blind spots in understanding, having this foundational approach gives the effort rigor, legitimacy and relevance to who we’re serving. This context reflexivity (I’m coining it) is vital as a public health organization to comprehensively know the community and the individuals we engage and support. Beyond our good intentions, if we want to do meaningful work we have to understand what kind of work we need to do. And the only way of doing that is REALLY knowing New Orleans in all its facets and complexity.