Giving Well During the Holidays (and Beyond)

We have entered the time of year when many of us are considering what gifts we will give over the holidays. Most of these gifts are likely to be designated for family, friends, co-workers…perhaps also for neighbors, the postal worker, or you child’s teacher or the barista that knows exactly what you want before you place your order. In addition to this kind of giving, many of us will also give in some way to some type of charity, non-profit, ministry, “cause,” etc. Today I want to offer a few suggestions on ways to give well both now and throughout the year, inspired in part by my work in a domestic violence shelter. Each of the ideas below highlights an aspect of what I think it means to give well. It is certainly not an exhaustive list and I’m sure many of you have additional ideas you can share!

1. Make sure what you’re giving is what is needed (or even wanted)

We humans are often quite good at the art of assumption. We think we know. We even insist that we know. We have an idea or see one online or borrow an idea from someone else. But here’s the thing. Sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes our idea is terrible. Sometimes it’s just mediocrely bad. Sometimes it’s counter-productive. Even with the best intentions. It’s super important in our giving to start with one key activity: listen. Listen. Listen. Ask what is needed (or wanted). Take the time to hear from the intended recipient(s) – whether this is an individual, a group, an organization.

Let me share a few examples from my shelter world. If you approached me today and told me your group wants to collect some items for the shelter and you’re wondering what would be helpful, here’s what I would tell you: Towels (they disappear the way socks disappear in the dryer). Coats for adults. Full-size hygiene products. Hair products for African-American hair. New sports bras (NOT regular bras). House shoes for children and adults. You know what I would tell you we don’t need? Coats for children. Feminine hygiene products. Travel size anything. Bibles. If you were to ask me two months from now, the lists could be completely different. Ask a different shelter and their needs could be completely different. I have literally cheered when towel donations arrived and some of our staff have recently begged me not to accept more travel size toiletries. Almost all of the items on the “not needed” list are things we have needed at various points in time – but storage space is limited and sometimes we get larger donations that fill the need from several months. Always check first before showing up with a load of donations.

2. Don’t create more work

This is another one that well-intentioned givers sometimes miss. Ask about the best way to provide certain items. Is it more convenient for the organization to have pre-assembled kits/bags/purses/backpacks of food/hygiene products/school supplies or is it more convenient to receive donations organized by item (a box of shampoo, box of notebooks, bag of pens, etc.)? This will vary, but it is really helpful to ask and can ensure you’re not actually creating more work for the staff or volunteers at that organization. In the case of our shelter, organizing donations by item is much more helpful (primarily due to storage space as well as a few other reasons) – unfortunately when a group doesn’t check first, we often end up having to disassemble pre-made kits. But for another group it may be incredibly helpful to receive donations in that way. Consider also whether you’re giving means an entire event has to be created around the donation – are you okay with backpacks being handed out as needed or are you expected the organization to organize an entire back-to-school event? And are you willing to volunteer and/or provide the additional resources needed for that event?

3. MAKE SURE you are valuing the dignity and worth of the recipients of your donations

Your donations should reflect your belief in the dignity and worth of the recipients. They should support empowerment. First of all, check your basic assumptions about and feelings toward the recipients. Feeling empathy & compassion? Great. Pity? No thanks. “Oh those poor __________”. Nope. “I’m sure they would be grateful for anything.” Please stop. Here’s the thing. People notice when you are looking down on them (whether in pity or contempt). People notice when you donate shit. They may or may not point it out, they may or may not still accept the donation, but you are shaming them. You are treating them as less than. If you know those cheap granola bars taste like cardboard, don’t hand them out to the homeless. If you know that set of sheets might as well be sandpaper, don’t donate them to a shelter. IF YOU HAVE ALREADY USED HALF A PALLET OF EYE SHADOW DO NOT DONATE IT TO A WOMEN’S SHELTER (sorry, it’s happened…more than once…that’s gross fam). If you know those toys will break after one use, do not donate them as Christmas gifts. If it’s trash, throw it in the trash – don’t donate it to a non-profit.

4. It’s not about you

This one can be difficult for us to catch (and then again, sometimes it is quite obviously stated). Make sure the giving is truly about the recipient. Not about the picture for your social media page (not saying you can’t post about it…but check yourself and your motives for posting what you post). Not about the tax right off. Not about feeling good about yourself and patting yourself on the back. Not about your hidden or not-so-hidden religious agenda (this one fires me up…if you’re giving comes with strings attached whether insisting on putting Bibles in every bag or proselytizing in the card you write or that recipients have to attend a Bible study or service or something to receive the items or that you want an invitation to come in and lead a religious gathering if you’re going to bring donations… STOP. IT.). I have heard plenty of churches and religious groups (and a pastor I once worked for) say that if the “project” was not likely to produce “results” (i.e. Church attendance or conversions or something of the like), they would not support it. That’s not okay. And if you consider yourself Christian, that is not the way of Jesus.

Please also do not demand gratitude or recognition in a particular way. It still shocks me sometimes how offended people get when they feel their donation was not adequately appreciated. It’s not for you to determine what that looks like. I’m not saying gratitude isn’t important. But sulking or pouting in response to your perceived lack of gratitude is seriously not okay. Additionally, it’s really important to consider what might be fueling the response you’re getting. If the recipient of your donation appears to be responding in an entitled manner or doesn’t appear very excited or struggles to look you in the eye…perhaps this is actually an opportunity to consider how your giving approach may have impacted them (or our larger approach to giving in this culture). Maybe your giving made the recipient feel small or insignificant or needy or like a “charity case.” Maybe you were paternalistic in what you said or how you interacted. Maybe your approach was disempowering. Maybe the exchange amplified your privilege compared to their oppression or marginalization. If the recipient is an organization, maybe they’re tired. Burned out. Frustrated by the strings you attach to your giving. Irritated that you didn’t ask before showing up with a load of items that aren’t actually needed.

This will take a lot of soul-searching and reflecting and listening to sort out. And leads us to the next suggestion.

5. Allow your giving to lead you to bigger questions

Many people find themselves drawn to a particular issue or cause when they choose to give – maybe it’s to those who are homeless or to children with terminal illnesses or to women who have experienced domestic violence or to those with physical disabilities. I would invite you into a deeper understanding of the roots of those issues and/or the needs created by those issues. I invite you to ask questions and to learn more about why your giving is needed/wanted. And I would invite you to move from individualistic ideas & explanations to an understanding of broader social & systemic issues that are the foundation for the challenges impacting the recipients of your giving.

Here’s what I mean. If you give to a domestic violence shelter, consider what is going on that those needs exist. What allows domestic violence to flourish in our society (and it does flourish)? How do our ideas about gender, for example, contribute to this? You might also ask yourself what is needed so that victims/survivors wouldn’t need to stay in shelter? This would lead you to consider various economic factors, including questions about affordable housing, affordable childcare, making a living wage, the gender pay gap, etc. You might also consider what it is about our society, our views on government (and who is responsible for caring for marginalized and oppressed communities), on wealth distribution that makes something as simple (and essential) as towels such a needed donation for a shelter and why resources are so limited.

Allow yourself to be stretched and to consider how you might play a part in getting to the root of social problems. For most of us, this will involve a disruption of your world view. It will mean asking difficult questions of yourself. It will mean you’ve likely perpetuated these issues (whether you intended to or not). It may mean coming to point where you realize you’ve “been doing it all wrong.” Lean into all of that. Keep going. It’s worth it. And it’s needed if we’re to create a better, more just world for all of us.

There are many, many more ways to give well. I may add an additional post, who knows. Feel free to share some of your giving approaches as well!

Dealing with Privilege: It Starts with Listening

As a therapist, I am in the business of change. Generally speaking, people come to counseling because they want something to be different in their lives. As a social worker, I’m also challenged to consider what it means for particular groups, communities, and systems to change. Much of my mental capacity is spent considering the process of change.

Over the past several years I have become increasingly interested in the change process for individuals with some form of privilege, particularly white privilege and male privilege. How does a white person become aware of their privilege? What does it look like for a man to confront his male privilege? How does someone move from being unaware of their privilege (which is where most people generally start in regard to the privileges they hold) to becoming aware to doing something about it?

There are all types of opinions and approaches to this question – how it happens, what is involved, who is responsible, how not to do it, etc. There does appear to be at least one component that is essential: LISTENING.

Listening is key. Regardless of the specific steps, listening must be part of the process. Listening in a way that involves your mind and your emotions. Listening when it feels weird or uncomfortable or foreign. Listening when you want to resist and yell and cover your ears and justify yourself and ease your discomfort. Listening in a way that absorbs rather than simply preparing to respond.

This listening process could and should involve a variety of specific actions. It should PRIMARILY include listening to the oppressed group(s). There can be value to listening to others who share your privilege but have perhaps taken more steps toward change than you have, but if your listening does not lead you to the voices of marginalized groups, you’re doing it wrong. Period. You are still sitting quite comfortably in your privilege. Listening means seeing the humanity in people whose experiences are different from your own.

Using the examples of male privilege and white privilege, listening could include:

  • Reading books, articles, blogs by women and/or people of color
  • Watching films & documentaries on oppression, systemic injustices, the history lessons you never heard in school, etc.
  • Attending seminars, workshops, events organized by women and/or people of color (these could be geared toward those communities but open to men or white people OR events geared to the larger community on topics pertaining to those communities)
  • Being mentored by a woman and/or person of color
  • Thoughtful listening to women and/or people of color in your circle – your friends, co-workers, clients, patients, customers, etc.
  • Listening to the message(s) of larger events (rallys, protests, etc)
  • Following women and/or people of color on social media, especially those dedicated to raising awareness and advocating for social justice

Listening means you are not trolling (whether in real life or online). Listening means that you really want to hear what the other person has to say, even if you don’t get it. Even when it doesn’t feel good. Even when you’ve been conditioned to question what “they” are telling you. Part of any type of privilege is being socialized to think that whatever privileged group you are part of it is normative and preferable (even though this is may not be explicitly stated). This is part of what makes many of us resistant to facing our privilege – because it requires changing so much of how we have viewed ourselves and the world. Listening means realizing that we cannot simply lump together “all black people” or “all women” – it means seeking out a variety of voices from within those communities.

Let me share some personal examples of what listening has looked like for me in terms of my white privilege. 

Listening has involved tuning into the stories shared with me by therapy clients of color about their experiences with the system (including the legal system, the child welfare system, the mental health system). Realizing that their experiences were so different from my own and from how I was raised to view the system (e.g. as inherently good and functional). This listening occurred in informal conversations, in observations of some of those interactions, in supervision, and in my reading. Listening meant believing my clients and learning how to create a safe space in the therapy room for them to process those experiences if they choose to do so.

Listening has involved a LOT of reading – recognizing that almost all of the books (of any kind) I used to read were written by white people (and often by men). Asking myself hard questions about why that is. Making intentional choices in the books I now seek out. This year I’ve chosen to only read female authors, primarily women of color.

Listening has meant following an incredible variety of voices on twitter. I really began to do so following the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. This listening, in turn, made me aware of some sources I may not want to listen to less…like much of the mainstream media.

Listening has meant showing up to community events and seminars that are open to me as a white person but not designed for me and not centered on white people. It means showing up and being one of the few white people in the room (something most of us white people just don’t experience often). It means showing up and shutting up – adopting a learning stance and not inserting myself into the group discussion to try and assuage my white guilt in some way (there is almost always a fellow white person in the room doing this…don’t be that white person…).

Listening also means listening to myself. Being honest and aware of my struggles addressing my privilege, of my white guilt, of my discomfort when I enter spaces in which my whiteness stands out, of my implicit and explicit biases, of my fear, of my avoidance. 

Each person’s listening journey has a unique starting point. If pursued, additional forms of listening will be added. It may start with a particularly impactful film followed by reading followed by a conversation with a co-worker. Perhaps it starts with hearing the story of a peer or neighbor followed by attending a rally followed by diversifying your sources of information on social media. Maybe it starts with an especially troubling news story followed by the responses of some of your clients followed by attending a community event. 

Whatever it is for you, lean in and listen. 

Listen more. 

Listen more deeply. 

Listen more deeply to those who do not share your privilege. 

Listen to voices of the past and the present. 

It is the only way we will be able to engage in creating any type of sustainable change, in dismantling oppressive structures and systems, in resisting paternalistic answers that do more harm than good.