— “Do you ever work with incompetent people, people who really don’t know the skills needed to make things work… so instead of encouraging you to do your best or learning from you… they gossip about you, try to make life miserable for you, or really try to trip you? Because you’re doing better?”

— “YES, totally! It’s the tyranny of idiocracy! Promise me we’ll work together after a few years, I’ll hire you.”

A good friend from MIT was confiding in me the political sabotage he faces at work, as do so many of my most talented and hardworking colleagues when they start work. And I could relate: the first several weeks of me helping Taller Leñateros was pretty much like dirty tactics and hazing. I think I have an interesting perspective, because more than any other during this period, I got along with most everyone and all the cliques that had formed inside my work place.

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Today’s post is mainly about working in the social structure of power with the poor and marginalized, and a thought that deserves elaboration. When dealing with the dirty work of philanthropy, I’ve never come across this perspective, and it’s my draft response to several things: (1) why rich people prefer to donate money instead of getting knee deep doing the dirty work of implementing change and helping others—hint: politics and corruption is a huge a pain in the butt (2) why the mainstream ideas of “elitism” is really misunderstood, and (3) as long as people are born with different talents, and as long as certain people are just all-around more capable than some others, there’s going to be inequality.

Because often in hands-on work and dealing with certain subgroups of poor people, there’s a subtle but rigid power infrastructure and political minefield that you have to cross. You are who you are, and many times, because you’re actually industrious and developed many skills and are a generous person with decency, you’ll have to endure fire in regions where there is corruption, ineptitude, laziness, and egos. To start, I quote a great basketball player:

…It was my first time away from home, my first experience in an all-black situation, and I found myself being punished for everything I’d ever been taught was right. I got all A’s and was hated for it; I spoke correctly and was called a punk. I had to learn a new language simply to deal with the threats. I had good manners, and was a good little boy and paid for it with my hide.” —Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Giant Steps, 1983.

A lot of people think that poor people are just not given opportunity but if they had it, they’d make it for themselves. Most people think that if the poor honestly needed help certain skills, they’d always be extremely appreciative and encouraging of the talented/skilled that came along, but this is what I faced in Chiapas instead:

…Within a week of my arrival, I felt several gut feelings: (1) I symbolized everything the locals resented about their own situation, and (2) I had trespassed on some complex hierarchy of rules that were unspoken, but threatened local people’s sense of ego and power. It wasn’t my fault exactly: I had come with a certain set of valuable education, skills and experience…and I was told there was $5 million debt that I could help resolve as well as building the relationship with clients that were museums, academic institutions, and libraries. Sure I could do that. I was even nice and worked hard about it. I started putting in twelve hours a day, sometimes sixteen.

In the first days I walked all around freely…I had not known that like high school politics, certain “tables” or certain “rooms” were territorial, and specific people needed permission to touch it, or enter it, otherwise you were violating somebody’s space and kingdom over which they rested their entire sense of worth. (Really, we had to have a serious meeting about this.) Even the most asinine thing–especially if you considered how cramped the place was—such as entering the warehouse, or borrowing scissors from a table, you would have to ask permission and receive blessings. They didn’t always give it.

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Prep School Whipping Boy

But soon after I started working intimately alongside this group, it was obvious that without regard to who the volunteers/foreign help was and what they were sacrificing and how hard they worked, *what* they were began to irk the locals. Comparatively to the indigenous in Chiapas, the volunteers were young, with transferrable skills, ability and options. They had a lot of technical know-how and could relate stories from other countries, and always had suggestions and got things done. They had a choice to eat with locals (which I often did) or dine in the most coveted restaurants and lounge in the cafés in the city with their equally privileged friends. Annoyingly, the foreign help were the very sort of person that could easily attract that prime client.

And I could empathize how, for them, being relatively stuck in a miserable situation and not making ends meet, and struggling along for so long…the immediate presence of all of us, industrial engineers and me, would have threatened their sense of importance and dignity. Because as long as we weren’t there, they could muddle along, complaining about their problems and blame someone else, blame the system, they didn’t have to honestly face up to the fact they they were largely causing their own demise.

To better illustrate the dilemma of hands-on philanthropy or development work… Just imagine if ten extraordinarily wealthy college-graduates started working at your place. They’re educated in very good private schools, multi-lingual, generous, charismatic…and even humble, sometimes working absolutely for free for your own benefit, because they’re good people. But after working hard and accomplishing many great things for you, the preppy young-and-rich would go to the fanciest yachts and have dinner by the sea every night with their friends, going back their mansions (which of course they would invite you to) while you went back to the same ol’ slum, back to the same old microwave dinner, a screaming baby, unpaid bills, and other ‘real world’ stuff, and you’ve even had to steal sometimes to make ends meet… hey, it’s hard to swallow, even if these college kids did treat you nicely and take you out once in a while, right?)

And so, behind my back, they complained about nearly everything I did. If I treated everyone out to a nice lunch in the city, or brought a marble cheesecake, they whispered I was stupid. If I bought gifts or flowers for everybody in the workshop, people muttered. Simply because I could do things and I did them well, such gaining $600 to $1000 in tips, some people felt the sting.

Even though they were all the direct beneficiaries of the income, my co-workers really weren’t pleased that well-heeled clients liked me a lot, that they came looking for me and bought many products on my behalf, and when I was really getting things done and resulting in a sustained peak in sales and repeat customers, managers of hotels giving us space, and bringing in donated goods (and all the things you would really desire for a growing operation) some locals got very nasty towards me… first with the rumors, then with accusations, then having a stern talk with me, actually prohibiting me from doing that which was bringing in the most revenue (!) Digging your own grave, right?

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Catch-22

Unfortunately this is the dilemma: if you happen to be a First-World person who has the intent of helping people with a solid track record of accomplishment, there’s masses of people in developing countries who (in their logic brains) really want you to come to lift up their financial situations—but in their instinctive emotional states, subconsciously resenting you for what you are and your good work there, and no matter how much you raise the local standard of living… they compare themselves to your standard of living… which is near impossible in Chiapas, Mexico. My co-workers were cordial in my presence, but now that I look back, oftentimes they really did a lot of weird things to deliberately sabotage the new talent that came in. It was almost like that 2004 chick-flick “Mean Girls” with petty power plays and political drama:

  • The first two weeks when I was not oriented to the city, I swear, Cindy’s (name changed) took me on a different path every time. I couldn’t recognize it back then when I was hopelessly lost, but I think there was some sick pleasure in making the new girl get lost.
  • The very day that we all agreed to go to Cindy’s house because needed to borrow a certain graphic for a poster we were making for the city, I was told that we couldn’t access it, because as the boss, Cindy refused to see anybody. And every subsequent time, she frustrated the attempt with some excuse or another, and this is after Cindy appointing which day was good for her. In effect, she was frequently changing her mind and then telling Juan we didn’t really need the graphic after all, with the result of delaying the project three weeks.
  • If I needed a certain part done for my project, they would delay that for several weeks on purpose, saying they were busy and making excuses, even if they were just surfing the ‘net all day. And if I went ahead and devised my own part and went ahead, they wouldn’t be thrilled about it.
  • At the very beginning when I was still getting accustomed to the Spanish language and unfamiliar with the work terminology (I speak Chinese and English at home), I remember they pushed me to give several Spanish tours to clients because “they were too busy.” Then they went around gossiping and complaining how bad I gave tours and how rotten my Spanish was. Later when I did speak it fluidly and started amassing tips, they prohibited me from giving Spanish tours.
  • Mexican-Mayans fibbed a lot to me, as teamwork it was ridiculous. They would say certain things were done and I’d find out it wasn’t. They’d make me check back over half a dozen times for a “no” to waste my time. Meetings were often no-shows, and they made it obvious that if I suggested something, I was going to have to wait on their terms. It gave some of them a sense of empowerment to make the privileged person depend on them, to plead, to waste our time, and to make us wait.

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Sense of Self

I’m sure if I didn’t have a solid self-esteem and strong confidence about who I was from my other outside accomplishments, and a steady sense of progress from my skills, I would have been really torn by the toxic environment at my cooperative. It was so petty, and it not only wasted a lot of creative energy and time but it made people miserably and poor. Most of the time when they gossiped or accused me of something, I was grounded by the fact that I knew who exactly I was, what I was doing here, and I had the willpower to go through with my goals and values. So that allowed me to disregard it, thinking, “Well you guys are just retarded. And miserably poor from your own doing. And I’m going to excel in this and nobody’s going to stop me. Watch me.” And my performance was outstanding, showing that it wasn’t discrimination or racism that kept them poor.

But I did spend several afternoons consoling others who broke into tears after the rumors and public accusations went around, feeling they were worthless and mistreated... my God, for being “oh-so-poor” local Mayan indigenous, they really try to haze and emotionally abuse those who they resented. Guilty until proven innocent, if you the spine to stare them back down when they said something, and confront their lies in front of them, endure the crucible and handle it with aplomb and classiness, then they’ll start treating you with some dignity.

(There was an episode in which I stared back at the older founder’s eyes after a litany of false accusations, and feeling backed into a corner, I said, “Watch your mouth, don’t talk to me like that. I’m here to serve you guys but I’m not your slave,” in front of others. I think they got scared. Which apparently kind of cemented my bravado among the associates, and she ignored me from then on, but also initiated a turning point of slander.) Sometimes I wondered if their parents ever taught them any wholesome values. They didn’t stop gossiping about us and treating us better until many weeks after I had arrived and proven myself immovable, that I would stick around and not be intimidated.

I was certainly drained. And when I told my American friends they were just shocked that I could put up with this day-after-day for months while doing remarkably in sales and client relations to help their economic base. (My Mexican friends told me that this bullying was common for the indigenous Mayans.) “You’re extremely empathetic and allowing, even stoic,” they said, for Latinos are often more confrontational, some of the Mexican industrial engineers got into vicious shouting matches while I tended to have a more quiet anger and steely resolve. I told them it was probably because I was East Asian, and also I have my goals in which I focus intently on accomplishing. But in the end, even I resigned, as do most of the talent that comes in knowing a wide gamut of skills who don’t want to put up with drama. I swear, doing development in Latin America is like living inside a catty soap opera.

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Ignorance and Politics


Of course, getting back to the heart of my thoughts, I don’t think it’s a big surprise that under these conditions, privileged and talented people often say “forget this” and partner with other privileged and talented people. I’m thinking about all my MIT friends who are in their twenties, many of them extraordinarily capable and kind hearted and team-spirited, but facing the same sort of toxic politics at their work place. Lesser skilled but manipulative people who don’t desire to work harder, and thus feeling threatened/jealous of my colleagues’ performance, spend all their energy tearing them down, tripping their endeavors and embarrassing them. After a few years MIT kids do find their old pals who they trusted, and starting their own lucrative firms. Can you really blame them?

In the same vein, sometimes I question the sustainability of philanthropic or development endeavors, because right now it’s often the privileged rich of a society coming to the Third World, and there’s obviously a huge discrepancy between “haves” and “have-nots” of today’s technological and financial skills. They strongly correlate to wealth and prosperity.

It would be more tolerable if the poor and ignorant just took a humility pill and quit actively frustrating the attempts to help them, and actually work as a team for once. But most of the time, if you come as a go-getting achiever with some skills that you want to contribute, they try to rip you off or tear you down, and there’s a test phase in which they determine if you’re their punk. You would think that if they were receiving this gift of human potential and riches and contacts, they would take very good care of it and treat them well. Instead, they put bureaucratic barriers or deliberately don’t help so that they can smirk at ‘how stupid the rich people are. They’re not so capable now, eh?‘ It’s an ego thing. So why should any of the “haves” contribute to the “have-nots” except the bare minimum, if in addition to not being able to afford the “haves,” the “have-nots” can’t even muster up the human decency to make the “haves” feel good about their contribution (or even give them the satisfaction of doing their own project well?)

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Tony Robbins

…Sometimes I discover things online that better explain this phenomenon. Today it’s celebrity self-help and psychology expert Tony Robbins, on “Human Needs” and it’s valuable to watch the whole series. He’s a very good speaker.

“Because the more different you can be, the less connected you can be. So love or connection? Most people settle for connection not love, by the way, there is a difference isn’t there? Most people settle for connection because it’s a lot less scary, you don’t have to put as much out there, can’t be hurt as bad. So we’ll just keep it to a certain level of depth, but not too deep so I won’t be hurt too much. No you just hurt yourself for a lifetime because you’re always wondering what it could have been…what it would’ve been like. You can get connection, the fastest way to get a connection is to have a problem.

See, go out and do extremely well, and see how many people are thrilled for you and for how long. There are some people who will always be thrilled for you. But most people, as you start doing things very successfully, most people when they see you succeed, they go and evaluate themselves. And even though you may think they’re phenomenal they don’t think they’re phenomenal, and so they begin to feel insignificant because of your achievements. Now they have one of two choices. Get out there and face their risks and kick ass and do something which takes overcoming enormous fear, or tear you down. Which one do you think is faster, and easier, and more predictable? Tear you down. You can get connection by prayer, you can connection by walking in nature, you can have having a big problem. But connection isn’t love.” Tony Robbins, Human Needs Part V (6:23 – 8:04)

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Nada está perdido si se tiene el valor de proclamar que todo está perdido y hay que empezar de nuevo” — Julio Cortazar

We are using 20% of our brain. Our minds are the best pharmacy, the best doctor..” — Ramon.

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