When I came back to Duke after a semester in New York City, I didn’t realize that people knew about the Run for Shelter on campus. I figured that, since it happened in New York, only a few people would have known that I had raised $10,000 for homeless LGBT youth impacted by Hurricane Sandy by running across the Brooklyn Bridge in five-inch heels. I assumed that only a few of my closest friends would have been following the story.
And then I went to Wednesday night Shooters.
Between dancing on the bar, climbing into the cage and dancing on the bar some more, people I hardly knew or had only met once somewhat-drunkenly approached me saying “Congratulations on the run dude!” or asking, “You’re the guy who ran across the bridge, right?”
In light of all of this attention, my ego couldn’t help but get involved. I had never felt more effective as an activist, and it went to my head. But now, a little more than a month after the run, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it all really meant; more importantly, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of charity.
What I learned from doing the Run for Shelter is that how you raise money matters, that all charity is not created equal. During my time in New York, I was able to see egregious examples of charity gone wrong. Case in point? The charity gala. In the world of the New York City Elite, a charity gala is perhaps the hippest kind of party you can go to. There are galas for breast cancer, for poverty reduction, for HIV prevention and for almost every cause imaginable. As I see it, these galas are often fraught with two major hypocrisies.
First, they are lavish affairs where people wear designer gowns and tuxedos, eat a gourmet dinner and somehow feel that it is all justified by the fact that they’re giving money. But if they really cared about the cause, wouldn’t they donate more money to their charity of choice and spend less on their gown for the party? Individuals are able to justify their extravagant lives through the donations they give. After all, it’s okay to have five yachts if you donate annually to charity, right?
The second problem with the idea of charity is that it establishes the individuals who donate as the saviors of those less fortunate. The rich are yet again made to feel powerful through being able to save an African child from starvation or through being able to provide a poor Vietnamese family with a house. But if we really cared about those people, why do we exploit them in the first place? If we create global poverty through our own lifestyles and exploitation, why are we congratulated when we try to fix it? After all, it’s kind of our fault in the first place.
What I mean to say is this. Though I am very proud of how Run for Shelter turned out, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the recognition that I’ve gotten for it. In my mind, the individuals who deserve to be recognized are the homeless LGBT youth across this country and around the world who accomplish something incredible everyday simply by managing to survive.
I am not their savior; homeless LGBT youth save themselves. They struggle everyday to ensure that they find somewhere to sleep, avoid harassment by the police and protect themselves from the homophobic and transphobic violence that is endemic within the shelter system. They are the ones we should be congratulating, because despite the fact that the world has by and large abandoned them, they continue to form community and stay afloat.
I think that’s why I’m against “charity” as we know it, because it congratulates those who help others simply through their financial contribution. Instead, why don’t we congratulate those around the world who survive marginalization, those who manage to keep their families together despite terrible odds and those who work to transform the systems that marginalize others in the first place? Those are the people we should be celebrating, not some college student who ran across the Brooklyn Bridge in heels.
Jacob Tobia, Trinity ’14, is president of Blue Devils United. This column is the fourth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by dPS members addressing the importance of social action, as told through personal narratives. You can follow dPS on Twitter @dukePS.