At the end of Fall Quarter, I wrote an article about effective service at Stanford. I interviewed leaders from various organizations, analyzed trends in student perspectives, and concluded that Stanford students have the potential to make a meaningful contribution if they perform thoughtful service, with a thorough awareness of their privilege as members of a prestigious university and a willingness to learn from and work with outside communities rather than coming in and “saving” them.
Students often approach service with the wrong mindset. Each of us perceives the world in a slightly different way; our perceptions are colored by our differing backgrounds and identities. These paradigms combined with the privilege of many Stanford students often result in two incorrect beliefs – first, that our perception of the world is inherently better than everyone else’s and second, that we can fix everything by teaching underprivileged people the “right way” to improve their lives without having to fully understand their communities. These assumptions foster condescension and a white savior complex. Tensions arise when Stanford students step into another community’s space, uneducated about the context of the issues, and try to teach people or impose their own values.
Unfortunately, this problematic approach extends beyond Stanford students. During our class discussions, it became evident that much of the efforts to address environmental harms and inequality, especially the food initiatives in West Oakland.These efforts in West Oakland were outlined in a recent article from KQED, entitled 3 Food Initiatives That Could Transform West Oakland’s Food Desert. Some of the food initiatives faced the same limitations, with rich foreigners intruding into underserved communities to “help” them without understanding the communities or the needs of the people. One specific example is Tom Henderson’s plans for a 20,000 – square – foot supermarket in the Jack London Gateway shopping center. Henderson, “Oakland’s king of EB-5 investments,” is willing to spend upwards of $25 million (just in start-up costs) to fill the gap of affordable grocery stores – while churning out a profit – but has been met with skepticism by many merchants and community activists in the neighborhood because of his lack of basic understanding about the community.
First, the Jack London Gateway shopping center has poor street frontage and limited public transit; with a target consumer base of a community in which most people walk or take the bus to shop every few days, the location offers unnecessary logistical challenges. Instead, most of the customers will be more affluent people with access to cars and the market will do little to address the crisis of food deserts.
Moreover, Henderson’s expensive marketing push will most likely alienate those in the community who perceive the store to be pricey. Overall, Henderson’s efforts are well intentioned but misguided. They may even lead to more harm than good, because if Henderson manages to intimidate his competitors with his ambitious supermarket but ultimately fails because of his inability to connect with the community, the neighborhood will be left in a lurch without other options.
Luckily, there are other community-based incentives, often led by people from or at least familiar with the communities. These efforts analyze the needs of the community and specialize to fit their needs. Some examples include the People’s Community Market and Mandela Foods Cooperative, which sell healthy staples at affordable prices and improve the general nutrition of the communities they serve. Lasting change must begin with understanding, both in service and in environmental justice movements. It comes from working with communities to serve their needs in the most effective way possible instead of coming in, ignorant and arrogant, to save the world.