Before I was an anthropologist, I was a service provider. I worked for a wonderful program called Identity, Inc with Spanish-speaking immigrant youth in the DC Metropolitan area. In fact, in the same amazing school system that I grew up in. Even though my college major was in Ancient Greek, I knew by the time I graduated that I wanted to be working in and for the Latino community in my hometown. I was motivated – as I think most young, non-profit workers are – by a desire to make a difference and actually be able to see the difference I made. I think I did more good than harm for the youth and their families I was able to serve, but obviously I had more to gain (given the foundations I was starting with) than they did from my work. They got referrals, counseling, a couple of fun hours of Positive Youth Development every week, and some of them got a stipend for working as peer HIV educators – but I got a regular salary, a meaningful job, and ultimately a stepping stone to the next stage of my career. When I left, making a difference was still a big part of my narrative of my own life.
Now it seems next to impossible to imagine wanting to frame myself that way.* Can it be reduced to cynicism? I used to see interventions (at least the ones I took part in) as Good Steps In The Right Direction, but my faith in my ability to identify which direction is right has been seriously shaken. Working as a sex educator at Identity seemed culturally complex but morally straightforward, but after grad school I found myself making room for many of the conservative perspectives on sex education that had once sparked righteous indignation. My Master’s research with pregnant and parenting youth so dramatically impacted my perspective that I now think most pregnancy prevention efforts are potentially more damaging than helpful. When I think about the kinds of change that interventions make, I cringe at the thought of myself as just another governmental force in the lives of the people I am most motivated to support**.
I am now in the phase of my research where I am trying to identify the broader impacts of my proposed study. But over the last five years I have been so carefully critiquing the claims to salvation that trying to write that narrative about myself leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I wonder, is this just a phase or a sea change? Have others experienced this kind of alienation from a previous interventionist or advocacy identity only to later reconcile with it? And if not, in this deeply morally engaged discipline, what path is left to me?
* To be clear, this is in no way meant to be a generalized indictment of people who design and/or implement interventions. I have the utmost respect for those who have found ways to incorporate service work and advocacy into their lives, and am frankly envious of the applied-research balance some of my peers have found in their anthropological work.
** Apart from my sense of self, this is most awful because of how deeply I cared about many of the people I was working with and for – I believe this is usually, if not always, the case for people who find themselves in this type of work.