For as long as I can remember I knew I wanted to work in Latin America. Being a left-leaning liberal and not particularly motivated by making megabucks, I wanted to get out into the world and do something ‘good’ as soon as I could. I wanted to learn more about the socio-political context that gestated the Latin American literature that I so enjoyed reading. I wanted to take my Western education and comparative wealth, and put it to some use somewhere. Obtaining an MSc in ‘Latin American Development and Globalisation’ when I was 24 ticked all of those boxes for me.
I was unprepared for how much I’d grow to dislike the term ‘development’ once I was actually started working in Latin America, aged 26. A Master’s degree is well respected in Peru, so people would ask me what my ‘profession’ was. In other words, what had I studied that gave me the authority to be running a non-profit social enterprise organisation in their country? Good question… And oh, how that Master’s title stuck in my throat! Globalisation and Latin American Development. Urgh. As if I, a middle class white British girl in her mid-20s, knew the first thing about how to “solve” the deep inequities and structural causes of poverty in Latin America, or even begin to understand the real impact that macroeconomics and global politics could have on the lives of indigenous farmers in the Andes.
So I struggled with the guilt that you are burdened with when you come face to face with your privilege. Ouch.
As Director of Operations at Awamaki, the approach I took to mitigate this was to consider all of my work and my compañeras’ work to be a form of exchange. I would readily admit my lack of situational and cultural knowledge, and I fully expected the women that I worked with to come up with their own solutions, that my staff and I would then support them to enact.
I made sure that the women knew what I was bringing to the equation (essentially: persuasive communication skills, business acumen, fluent English and Spanish, and the organisational ability to put in place necessary systems and processes), and that these skills were needed so that we could increase the reach, impact and sustainability of the organisation.
We hired local staff knowing that their cooperative management skills and ability to communicate with and engender trust amongst their compañeras would be top notch, even if their computer skills might not be. Because after all, using computers is where us white middle class kids excel, right? Pun intended.
I am collaborative by nature, and combining the incredible craftsmanship and deep cultural knowledge of the women with whom we worked, with my own boring-by-comparison desk-based skills seemed to be the only sensible approach, as it enabled us to achieve mutually beneficial aims. My abilities combined with theirs meant that we could access national and international markets for their woven and knitted products, thus driving income into the hands of indigenous women. And that was the whole point of the endeavour.
Rebecca Solnit said it best: “I grew up to have a voice, circumstances that will always bind me to the rights of the voiceless.” Dissecting this quote with my good friend Becca, she helped me to see that this is less about speaking up for (and on behalf of) other people, it’s about using my voice to help create a space for others in a collaborative and constructive way. Because it isn’t that people are voiceless, it is that they are not heard.
I understand now that there is no point rallying against my privilege and pretending that it doesn’t exist. That does a disservice to the skills that I have to offer. I never expected to be able to fully understand the experience of the indigenous Peruvians I was working with. But even if I can’t understand it, that doesn’t preclude me from caring and wanting to do something useful. Being aware of one’s privilege can feel like a burden - it should feel like a burden. But it is a burden that can be shouldered if carried in the right way.