The article, “To Hell with Good Intentions” first made its way into my hands in 2013 on a chilly fall day in Sweden. I was a participant at The International Youth Initiative Program (YIP), an altruistic social entrepreneurship training for youth. That afternoon we were in the portion of our week aptly titled, “Internship Preparation.” As part of the curriculum we were to embark on a 6 - week internship to diverse countries around the world. The goal being for us participants to learn from established organizations that were working with local challenges. I remember part of the original allure of YIP was the idea of this internship. From the palpable excitement in the room, I could see that others felt similarly.
Before I continue on, I want to give a little context to who I was as a 22- year - old. Prior to arriving in Sweden I had begun to work with questions around where I had come from, who I was now and who I wanted to become. My deep thirst to understand myself in context to the world had been present ever since I could remember, but I was finally emotionally mature enough to express this curiosity. Even though Occupy Wall Street had taken place far away from my island home of Maui, it had sparked something profound in me, something which until recently had been intangible. I hadn’t grown up in a politically active household and had yet to be politicized, so the Occupy Movement had raised more questions rather than statements as I struggled to gain a footing in the relevancy of this historical moment. Right at this time when I was asking where to go and what to do with my life YIP had come into view. Here was a place I could learn about the world and myself. A place that would accept my half notions of “making a difference” based solely on the fact that I cared. The internship seemed just the thing that might give me an experience capable of putting this feeling of “caring” into action.
It was more than unsettling for me when the organizers of our program handed out a transcribed speech titled “To Hell with Good Intentions”. The speech was given in 1968 to a group of American college students. The author Ivan Illich, an Austrian philosopher, well known for his critical views on contemporary western culture outlined why he is against “Mission-vacations” and “North American do-gooders.” In 6 pages of strong yet concise language, I was forced to wrestle with ideas of progress and my identity that regardless of my brown skin spoke of privilege concerning the “American Way of Life.” Illich’s viewpoint was that one of the “largest exports” of the U.S. is the “idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders.” His appeal is not earnest but instead straight forward and at times haunting. He ends his speech by plainly saying, “I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status, and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.” I underlined that last sentence made aware that I was being called on to have a confronting conversation with myself around values, ideas of identity and most importantly intention. I was also scared. I was having a clear and painful awakening around the popular notion that just because I had time and interest did not necessarily mean I had something to offer.
That was five years ago. Since then there have been opportunities to explore those original questions that this speech asked of me. I have continued to travel, created relationships in new places, worked on projects in different countries and always kept the original copy of this speech tucked away with my important paperwork. I have re-visited it over the years as a personal north star, discussed it with new and old friends and worked at deciphering the many points it touched on. In short, Illich was asking for the halt of travel and experiences made extractive based off of the notion of helping and improving, to stop thinking that we know what it means to live a truly wealthy life. Within the mindset of the well-intentioned savior lives similar constructs of colonization. These are hard truths that are stark contrasts to the idea of what we have been told and shown when we ask what it means to give back, especially when we ask who is really reaping the benefits of our “helping hands.”
I often see remnants of the sentiments of this speech in online posts and long comment threads concerning our fragmented conversations on racial and social justice. A post might start out with “You well-intentioned _____”. These statements cut right to the heart of Illich’s viewpoint, which at times feels paralyzing. In this paralysis I am left with the question, “Is it possible to do no harm in our quest to do good?” In a world where we are being asked to show up every day for our communities, policies, and earth we must also remain diligent in how we show up, asking how the consequences of our actions may ripple out and shift others realities besides our own. Every intention is made personal through the nuance that makes up our lives, but learning to ground our intentions in research, questions and an attitude based on the practice of humility and listening might be our only way forward.
Questions that help to hold me accountable:
This piece was originally written for and published in Loam Magazine's online monthly missive, Loam Love.