Agency, Poverty, and Charity

By Casey Wilson

Earlier this morning, I showed my students the following two videos, as preparation for the synthesis essay they have coming up.

The first video:

The second video:

The first video comes from the Christian Children’s Fund (now Child Fund International), the ad one that you might see if you watch late-night television. The second comes from the Uncultured Project, an informal charity project created and run by Shawn Ahmed, who uses YouTube and Twitter to connect his project’s supporters with the people they’re helping.

There are marked differences between the two videos that my students were quick to pick up on. The music, the colors, the voices…they couldn’t be more different. Both videos follow a similar narrative arc, showing a perceived need and how that need can be filled through donations, but the roads each take to get there are nothing alike. The Christian Children’s Fund relies upon guilt to move viewers to action, but the Uncultured Project puts a distinctly positive spin on everything it touches. Watching my students watch the videos was a lesson in and of itself — at the end of the first, they were serious and uncomfortable, but by the end of the second, they were laughing and smiling.

What’s especially fascinating about these two videos, to me at least, is the way that they present the children the videos are meant to help. For the Christian Children’s Fund, the kids in question are silent, sad, and dirty. Early in the ad, you see four boys behind the spokesperson playing in the street, a sign of life and joy amongst the poverty — but the boys don’t have shirts, and we aren’t supposed to focus on them, anyway. Compare that with later in the video, when the children are playing outside the school house that people’s donations theoretically made possible — they’re all fully clothed. Only once our narrator — who is positioned as nothing so much as the Great White Hope — has used donations to help the children are we allowed to see them truly having fun and smiling.

Compare that to the Uncultured Project video, where the first voice we hear is that of a boy who lives in the Dharmarajika Monastery. He is the one who shows us around and tells us about the school, not Ahmed. In fact, we only see Ahmed for a few seconds in the video; otherwise, he remains behind the camera, asking questions that allow the kids and administrators to tell their own story. Ahmed also makes a point of showing that the kids are not soulless and sad before he arrives, with a wonderful montage of them at work and at play before he uses his project’s donations to buy school uniforms, textbooks and sports equipment.

The Uncultured Project, unlike the Christian Children’s Fund, recognizes that children have agency in their own lives. That doesn’t mean that their problems disappear, but it acknowledges that they do not have to be defined by their problems. Just because they didn’t have the “proper” equipment didn’t mean that the student weren’t still playing and learning, after all.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Uncultured Project has been funded in large part by Nerdfighteria, an online fan community that skews relatively young demographically. (Thus, the name for the school’s cricket team in this video.) I think Nerdfighters want to donate to the Uncultured Project for the same reason that my students always respond so positively to the videos Ahmed produces: he treats both children and adults like people, rather than as problems to be solved.

Please note: I am far from an expert on the issue of charity organizations; I admire Ahmed’s project immensely, but I won’t pretend to be able to speak to it in comparison to more established and formalized charities. His blog does a wonderful job of addressing many different issues that I haven’t been able to get into here, however, so if you’d like more information about the Uncultured Project, I encourage you to check it out.

Casey Wilson is a PhD student, who really doesn’t know how she would teach without YouTube.

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

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