“When we’re constantly feeling good about ourselves, putting our altruism on our CVs, how selfless an act is it really?”
Speak Out for the Right Reasons
By Kira Marshall-McKelvey
I am a member of Colorado State University Speakout! program, a community that facilitates weekly writing workshops with incarcerated and at-risk youth populations. I have been participating in these workshops at the Larimer County Jail with fellow students since January, and have been amazed, inspired, and in awe of the work that comes out of these workshops. I am delightedly envious of the poetry that seems to slide off the tongues of these writers, and inspired by their bravery in telling difficult, heart-wrenching stories with such grace and poise. While it may sound cliché, the lessons I have learned about rhyme schemes, writing from the heart, and tempo have come from Wednesday nights at the jail.
As we charge towards the end of the semester, however, I must take a step back and consider why I’m doing this work, and who is truly benefitting from these workshops. At a Speakout! training a few months ago, the guest speaker reminded us that the bar is set tremendously low for volunteers—we are blindly accepted as do-gooders, as inspirational, as selfless.
When we’re constantly feeling good about ourselves, putting our altruism on our CVs, how selfless an act is it really?
This is not a Speakout!-specific problem—there is a certain danger to embodying, or even accepting, the holier-than-thou identity that can come with volunteer work. There are troubling power dynamics associated with the idea that we, the volunteers, are bestowing our knowledge and wisdom on “the Other.” When we say we want to empower others by giving them a voice—but leave the jail with a “helping people high”—who benefits?
This isn’t to say that empowerment isn’t a noble goal. We cannot scorn the hope of giving the marginalized a space to speak, to exist freely, but spending an hour a week in a jail doesn’t give us claim to say we “get it.” Writing and publishing about our work with these writers is a tremendous privilege—it is a demonstration of power. And it all too often leaves out the voices of those we tried to include in the first place.
Frequently revisiting the “why am I here?” question is necessary in volunteer contexts, and the answer can change. I entered Speakout! with the intention to help others, to give them a space to write and create. Now I recognize the complexities in using language that implies I am “giving” something. My work at CSU challenges me to question stereotypes about incarcerated individuals, and to reject the low-bar that the public has set for volunteers.
We may accept the nuances and ambiguities with volunteer work while still finding merit in engaging in these workshops. We can want to help while recognizing the privilege in doing so. We can realize that there are multiple benefitters from this work, and that we, in fact, have been receiving wisdom from those we wanted to help all along.
Kira Marshall-McKelvey is a second year Masters student in Rhetoric and Composition at Colorado State University. She teaches college composition and writes in the areas of digital feminism, Native American rhetoric, and prison literacy. She works with incarcerated writers as a member of CSU’s Speakout! program, and serves as social media intern for Writing for Peace. When she is not working or studying, she enjoys going on hikes, doing yoga, and hanging out with her two delightful cats.
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