The Surprising Complexity of Doing Good

race togetherEarly in my career, I served as an Admissions Officer at my Alma Mater, Vassar College. I was deeply passionate about my work recruiting and assessing admissions decision for the school. Going to Vassar had changed my life. It was an incredible case of serendipity that got me there – and it created opportunities that were life altering and cycle-breaking for me and my family. My mother had been hesitant to even let me apply because she couldn’t fathom paying for a private school. She did let me apply, though, and through a generous financial aid package, I was able to attend.

As an Admissions Officer, I had a personal mission for doing good and I took this very seriously. I aimed to visit as many schools as I could that had students like me – hard working, smart, poor kids who had no idea that a place like Vassar was within reach.  I was assigned an oddly gerrymandered territory – New York City, Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. As a product of NYC public schools, I understood the NYC ecosystem well and knew where to go to find students I hoped to bring to Vassar.

I also felt certain that I understood the best way to fulfill my mission outside of New York. I had studied Native American history in college, and have a little bit of Native American heritage. A few years out of college, I was still seething at the injustices suffered by Native Americans and the long odds they face in achieving economic mobility in the US. My response was to create a Vassar recruiting program for Native American students starting in the Pacific Northwest.

The statistics on educational and economic achievement among Native Americans were (and still are) catastrophic. I was certain that I could be a force for good. I just needed to tell my own story, of how a poor kid who felt Vassar was out of reach, had a world of opportunity opened for him. I shared my plan with my boss, Vassar’s Director of Admissions. He shot it down immediately.

“These kids aren’t ready,” he said.

“It won’t be fair to them,” he said.

I was furious! How could he be so condescending? Didn’t he understand the moral imperative involved here, to solve a deep historical injustice? How could we sit in our ivory tower and do nothing?!  I was unrelenting in making my case. I refused to take no for an answer and eventually wore him down.

Fast forward a few months. I arrived at the first American Indian school I arranged to visit in rural Oregon. There were about 10 bright young faces before me in a classroom. They were completely unmoved as I spoke. Before I finished my presentation, the guidance counselor, who was stone faced throughout my talk, left the room. Soon after, I left the school too, dumbfounded.

My second visit to an American Indian School? Kind of like the movie Groundhog Day – an almost identical repeat of the day before. Polite, but utterly unmoved students. Plus, an angry guidance counselor sitting in the back of the room. But the day unfolded with one very important difference. Instead of leaving at the end of the talk, the guidance counselor stayed. And, she confronted me. She was so angry, that she was shaking as she spoke.

“I think your heart is in the right place,” she began. “But you really don’t understand what a terrible idea it would be to take these kids 3,000 miles away from their communities to a place that may as well be Mars. They are vulnerable and they live lives you do not understand.”

“These kids aren’t ready.” she continued.

“It would be unfair,” she went on, explaining in excruciating detail, how she had seen elite schools recruit her students in the past – and how badly, and sometimes, tragic, the outcomes had been.

She was absolutely right, as was my boss. I got the point, immediately, and flushed with shame as I drove back to my hotel. How could I have been so utterly clueless? I knew the answer to that one too. I had been blinded with sanctimony by my self-appointed status as warrior for my cause.

Many of us have experiences like this, and they sometimes result in a reaction that feels akin to having kindness thrown back in our face. This sort of experience is an opportunity for reflection – and should not lead to us ceasing to try to help where we want to help. For many of us, the desire to do good comes from a deeply emotional, often spiritual source. Wanting to do good can feel like a calling, and move us in ways that are hard to describe in words. But the world would be a hopeless and terrible place if we tried to stifle these emotions and impulses. We need them and the good that comes from them.

But how do we do this in a way that honors our desire to do good in the world, but also acknowledges the complex realities we step into? In my opinion, the first inviolable rule is to do no harm to the people we aim to help.  If we truly want to see change in the world, we need to channel these good intentions and this powerful energy in a more thoughtful way that goes beyond ourselves.

I offer three frames below that I believe individuals and organizations can use to channel powerful intentions to make the world a better place. These frames push us to acknowledge the complexity of the problems that move us to action, and the complexity of trying to solve these problems:

  1. Avoid seeking savior-status, and instead keep the end-goal in mind. The answer for solving a problem may be structural, and require a methodical, technical approach. As a result, your role in solving the problem may not warm your heart – but knowing you helped solve this problem, even in a clinical, non-emotional way should make your heart sing! You can still be a warrior – but you may need to fight for your cause in ways that are different than you thought. I believe this is true for both organizations and individuals.
  2. Consider many different points of view – and truly listen. This is especially relevant in institutions and organizations. When decision making intentionally includes a diverse set of voices – reflecting very different points of view, skill sets, training and life experiences – you always get better answers. (This is true, by the way, for any problem you are trying to solve – not just problems related to social impact.)
  3. Exit our bubbles. We all live in some sort of bubble that represents our communities and our background. If your intention is to help people outside of your bubble(s), then you need to make sure you really spend time with people and seek to understand the lives and environments of the people you aim to help. Find ways to walk in their shoes. Challenge your assumptions about what you think you understand – for the sake of deepening your insight.

These guidelines are self-evident – almost painfully so. Yet, I see big, sophisticated companies and organizations failing to use frames like these, all the time. Starbucks’ “Race Together” initiative is a recent example of trying to do good, poorly. I don’t agree with those who believe “Race Together” was purely about marketing to drive profit. I believe there are executives at Starbucks who were authentically moved to do something about race issues in the US. I also believe that had they used the three frames I describe above, or similar guidelines, they would have shelved the version of “Race Together” they eventually introduced,  and moved on to something more impactful.

After the experience I describe above visiting American Indian schools, I think twice about issuing moral imperatives. There’s a case to be made, though, that when we fail to be thoughtful and strategic about doing good, we leave a great deal of human progress on the table. I’m not certain this equals a moral imperative, but I do know it means we can do better – and I believe we will.

Photo credit: Starbucks Facebook page

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