Reflection Two

Prompt:

I would like you to consider the ways in which power and inequality played a role in the world you were doing in your PE on two different scales.

First, consider the larger context of the work being done by your organization and investigate the role of power and inequality in this work.  Be sure to address this topic in more than a superficial way; try to unpack less apparent manifestations of power and inequality.  Some questions you may want to consider: How did your PE reinforce stereotypes and/or relations of power and inequality in the geographical setting where you worked?  How about in relation to the “problem” which your PE was trying to address?  How did your organization challenge stereotypes and/or relations of power and inequality?

Next, I want you to consider your place in this picture: how did your privilege share the way you were “see” and the way you “see” things in relations to your PE?  While it is often easiest to recognize our lack of power or privilege, in this reflection I want you to push yourself to think about the ways in which you have power and privilege in the context of your PE, and what your place of power and privilege meant for the work you did.  How did hierarchies and privileges related to your race, class, citizenship status, gender, sexuality, and skin color shape your work during your PE?  In other words, how does who you are and where you come from position you in your PE, and what were the ways you had to confront this position?

Response:

One of the things I was wary of when I was researching my organization was the potential power dynamics it is a part of when carrying out its development projects. My organization, when it approaches policy advocacy, encourages community participation and grassroots democracy. It’s in the name of the organization. The Center for the Environment and Community Assets Development. This essentially means that there is belief in the knowledge of the people, and the locals should have the power to construct a development plan that would be beneficial for them, and CECAD would act as a mediator.

It turns out that the rhetoric of my organization and its reality are two different things. Before I went off to do my practice experience, this was a concern that I already had because CECAD has a team of experts that do research and then carries out community-based development. Within those activities, there is an inherent power inequality because experts will influence the local community in one way or another.

As mentioned above, it is true that CECAD encourages community involvement of all members of the community—local authorities, ethnic minorities, and women are all included in discussions and dialogues. They even set up physical spaces and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) over the years so that people could have outlets to talk to each other. Every project I worked on this summer had some form of wanting to strengthen community relationships so that community members could freely communicate and work together to improve their livelihoods. When CECAD staff would facilitate discussions, they would make sure that women would have a say.

CECAD acts on the foundation that human beings are beings of a society. Like Gbadegesin, CECAD implicitly believes that a society is “where people are bound together by networks or deep relationships, [and] the social order changes and adapts to make way for the needs of all members of the society” (107). I can see that this why CECAD works so hard to make sure that the voices of the marginalized are heard in policy discussions.

So, in every way, I believe that CECAD does what it can, within its limitations, to equalize power relationships among the people.

However, the difference is that CECAD acts the mediator of their projects and that role in and of itself has a power dynamic embedded within. From something as simple as allowing someone else to talk over someone is having power over someone else (109). Serving as the role of the mediator, there has to be a certain level of respect toward CECAD in order to have cooperative and orderly discussions.

Additionally, if we are talking about a society, there is a power inequality that comes with coming from outside a society. Gbadegesin argues, “freedom is defined as the ability to realize your desires in community with others” (107). The community is the primarily composed of Muong ethnic minorities and is geographically located in Hoa Binh. CECAD is based in Hanoi but operates in Hoa Binh, an outside province, so I make the implication that there is not “freedom”; there is not equality because CECAD is not of the community but exerts a certain level of mobility and influence.

When I was observing a district-level dialogue, a CECAD member, who is also a respected scientist, was running through the agenda of topics that needed to be discussed. Then, he went ahead and contributed his own opinions into the discussion.   When he was done, he opened up the floor to the local community, but there was much hesitancy from the people to say something. How could they? An expert and a person of power just told them what he thought should happen. How could they speak up and disagree? This example was one I had previously foreseen. In cases like this, that CECAD member had power over the people and effectively stopped potential discussion.

Fortunately, he realized his mistake after moments of silence, apologized, and prodded members to speak. When the locals did begin to engage in conversation, there was much more active participation from one another.   As CECAD is built upon the foundation of community development, it seems that the success of CECAD activities, at least when it comes to policy discussions, is dependent on the power relations that people have. In other words, progress could be deterred if people do not feel equal with one another.

This is probably why CECAD is still present in Hoa Binh. I’ve read several CECAD annual reports and I’ve noticed that there is always a component of training and restructuring every year. Training the local people to communicate with each other and local authorities effectively. Restructuring CBOs so people can equitably voice their opinions. It’s a paradox. CECAD is there because there is still work to be done, but I question whether work needs to be done because CECAD is still there. This means that maybe the local community may not need CECAD to construct their own development plan. However, CECAD does play an important role in facilitation and initiating these activities in the area.

Nevertheless, I will not go as far as to say that CECAD is all-powerful over the local people because CECAD has been working in Hoa Binh for over ten years now. It has employed some Muong people. It has done its best to integrate itself and be a part of the community even though it really is not. I do not believe that the power dynamic that CECAD has with the people of Hoa Binh will ever disappear, but that does not mean that the work that CECAD perform is not effective. From what I understand, the local community has built a trusting and lasting relationship with CECAD, and from there, progress towards sustainable development are made even though there is a power dynamic. Much has been accomplished in ten years, and it will take many years to really see the full effect of the work being done now.

Furthermore, as someone that worked for CECAD for only the summer, I was in a position of power too. While I was there, I thought of my own privilege in superficial ways: I had the ability to spend more money than some of the native Vietnamese people that I met so I could always buy lunch (versus bring lunch from home) or afford to attend certain events or go shopping; I lived in a place where dinner was cooked for me and the bathrooms were cleaned; I knew English.

However, McIntosh argues that people are unable to see their own privilege in their daily lives. She studies the white American population and enumerates her own forms of privilege. She defines her own white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that [she] can count on cashing each day, but about which [she] was meant to remain oblivious” (173). In relation to my PE, I did not facilitate any discussions or explicitly share my opinions to the local people, like CECAD, as an organization, would exert their power. However, I had the privilege to work on several project proposals that I would eventually and ideally be implemented in Hoa Binh. That gave me power because I had a role in creating the activities, plans, and actions that would be affecting these people. Even though most of what I wrote was not entirely my own thought as I was told what to write, I was indirectly involved in the fate of the locals. I had this position because of educational background. Even in Vietnam, UC Berkeley is held in high esteem.

I was easily trusted to write and edit important documents, to fulfill administrative duties, and meet with representatives of other international volunteers. I was doing similar work as one of my co-workers, who has worked with CECAD for three years, even though I just began. When my co-worker had begun her work with CECAD, she was merely an intern: running errands, answering phone calls, and completing small tasks. After about six months, she got more involved in large development projects, something I got involved with after working a week. But, I realize now that being a foreigner that is proficient in English automatically puts me at an advantage for two reasons. First, I would not have been able to carry out the tasks that my co-worker did as an intern because I am not proficient in Vietnamese. Second, I worked for CECAD for a limited time, so time could not be spared to test my competency; I was put right to work in the tasks that needed someone like me.

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The privileges of being a student at Cal and being an American citizen are parts of my identity, and I realized that this “privilege” made me somewhat ineffective when it came to doing my PE. Yes, I was doing lots of research, editing documents, and writing important project proposals, and I was able to help in these ways because I knew English. I was able to increase productivity and efficiency, and this is probably why CECAD is open to having international volunteers. However, I was trying to contribute to a group of people of whom I did not have a deep understanding of their situation, their problems, their way of life, and their previous solutions. I, too, was not of the community, but I was in a position where my opinions were valid because I was educated. Therefore, it was my “privilege” that separated me from the people I was trying to serve.

It is interesting because before I met the local people, I was told to speak strictly in Vietnamese, but to even limit my Vietnamese because they would know that I was not from Hanoi. I did not question this at the time, but I assume that the Muong would feel uncomfortable speaking with foreigners, especially about their personal lives. This comes to show that there has to be a certain balance when it comes to approaching development activities. I think that when a group has too much power and is dominant over another, it could be detrimental to any kind of gains that have been made. The grassroots system that CECAD encourages and pursues would completely break down. Nevertheless, I think that there are power dynamics and embedded privileges that will probably never go away among communities that work together; it does not have be limited to geographical locations, so we just need to tread carefully.

Over and out.

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