I have been wrestling with the concept of privilege and privilege guilt for quite some time. Growing up, I knew how well off I was. My dad has a great job that can support our whole family without my mother having to work, allowing my sister and me to grow up with a stay at home mom. She was always there, and I never had to fend for myself. We have a beautiful house and beautiful things, I even remember bragging in school about how “cool” my house was. My knapsack is full, and growing. I am white, I am healthy, I don’t live from paycheck to paycheck, I am getting an incredible education, my family takes a vacation every year, I can afford to waste entire days lounging around the house watching Netflix. As a got a little older, I was taught gratitude. I was taught to be thankful for all of the things in my life, for my family, for my home. My parents worked very hard to give our family a better life than what they had growing up, and their parents worked very hard to give them a better life. So here I am, with the “better life” my family worked for. In high school and through most of college I tried to project my family’s disadvantages and struggles onto my own life and experiences, in some ways trying to satiate the guilt I felt for my privilege. As mentioned in many of our readings this week, privilege is unearned, or achieved by luck. I wrestled with this privilege guilt especially during our leader retreat in the fall. After the privilege walk activity, I turned to Sam to reflect and we thought the statements were loaded, and that we were diverse and had our share of hardships and that the activity was not reflective of that. But there was the issue, right in front of us: I was trying to project disadvantages on my life to make myself feel better about my position in society. We did get a chance to participate in reflection and discussion about how we can use our place of privilege to work for social change and challenge systems of equality, but the discussion only made me feel slightly better. I have learned that the best way for me to navigate these feelings is to fill my heart with gratitude for my father for living in poverty and making the choice to get a college degree as an adult, gratitude to my mother for growing up in third world countries following her father’s assignments in the CIA, for my grandparents for fleeing communist Hungary, for everything my family has done to let me grow up as easily as I have.
The account of Kevin the trip leader in the essay “How White Privilege Shapes the US”, I saw many of my fears as a trip leader discussed. Can we actually unpack our ‘privilege knapsacks’ and use the contents to help communities? The most jarring is the question: why do we do service at all if it is not actually helping anyone? I really loved each of these readings because as I read, my fears were slightly addressed, and I realized that I need to flip how I have looked at service and service learning on its head. Effective service learning isn’t easy, and to actually serve a community in ways that will create a lasting impact or ways that will bring social equality will NOT happen in one week, or even one semester. It takes time, commitment, and the acknowledgement of your own identity, privilege and abilities to serve effectively. I feel confident that our class discussion and reflections will challenge every participant to step out of their comfort zone and accept the reality that personal growth and the amazing experience of this class and trip will only be ancillary benefits to something much bigger than any of us.