“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Gandhi
I think it’s safe to say that almost all of us in the fields of international public health and development have seen, heard, Tweeted, posted, and been inspired by these words at some point in our lives. Gandhi’s sage words of wisdom are so ubiquitous – plastered on bumper stickers, magnets, coffee mugs, and greeting cards – they have entered the realm of cliché. But who among us has ever stopped to really examinethe meaning and implications of this cliché for our work?
A colleague of mine recently reflected on Gandhi’s omnipresentwords. After years of interpreting the message as “if you want change, do it yourself,” and struggling with the fact that this “fix it” mentality often results only in burnout for“the fixer”:
I’ve realized that Gandhi’s message is actually probably telling us something quite different. We must recognize that his verb choice was intentional. He said, “be the change,” not “do the change.” … This is really very different, than my “fix the world all by yourself” concept. The verb “to be” in this context gives us agency in addition to responsibility. (http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=c33d42035c6a392cff5e39d4f&id=be0a124682)
All these years, I too have been missing the real message. For me, “being” the change has always meant working to fix the numerous social injustices in the world – poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, etc. It meant making social change the object of my higher education and career. It meant a personal commitment to struggling against the forces of oppression and injustice in the world.
This orientation toward the phrase “be the change” was largely the result of my individualist Western cultural orientation. At the risk of sounding reductionist,in the West, when we meet someone, one of the first questions we ask is “What do you do?” We define ourselves by our jobs, titles, and accomplishments – by what we do rather than who we are. In many other cultures (including Gandhi’s native India), individuals are defined not by their work but by their relationships to one another, on their presence and role in the community. In this collectivist worldview, the responsibility to others inherent in the verb “to be” far outweighs the agency emphasized by the Western individualist worldview.
For better or for worse, the majority of international public health and development organizations are embedded in this “do”-centric worldview that inevitably impacts how these organizations approach their work. What would happen, though, if we were to shift from “doing” to “being”? From creating change to exemplifying change?
Maybe we would focus less on appeasing donor demands and more on addressing the actual needs of the communities we serve. Maybe we would hire fewer in favor of training local staff. Maybe we would emphasize the quality of our work rather than the quantity of vaccines administered, water pumps constructed, or individuals tested for HIV. Maybe we would do these things because we would finally see ourselves as being part of the communities we serve, rather than doing things for them. And maybe then we would finally come to appreciate the power of “we” over the power of “me.”