I don’t believe America has to be perfect before we can reach out to help other nations any more than i believe i must be perfect before i can reach out to help another person. Hinging help on perfection will leave us all lost. Still, the reaction to Trayvon Martin’s murder reminds me of how important it is to understand situations. Not simply the broad strokes…but the details that make it beautiful and gruesome and sometimes, maybe too often, deadly.

A week or two ago Kony 2012 dominated the headlines and I, like millions of others, engaged in discussions on the merits and missteps of that campaign. It hit me close to home not only because i remember hearing and reading about the LRA and the kidnapped children of Uganda back when it was first being reported, but because my work –until recently- was international public health; I lived and worked in Uganda for a year (and in Liberia and South Africa before that).

I never intended to disparage the campaign’s creators personally, or even the organization, my concern with the campaign was far more general. I worry about the approach we take as nations and NGOs and well-meaning citizens of the world, without fully understanding that even the best intentions can have unintended consequences that do harm.

There has been a murmur of – if not support for, then- defense of Zimmerman, the man who fatally shot the unarmed 17-year-old in the chest. The he was simply watchful of his neighborhood. He cared. I don’t share that view, but it almost doesn’t matter (almost). It almost doesn’t matter because vigilant or vigilante, Trayvon is still dead, his young gaze peering out from the shadow of a hoodie locked forever in a photo. Even if you can muster belief in Zimmerman’s “good intentions” it doesn’t negate the horror those intentions wrought.

A friend posted an article discussing the unwritten rules of blackness, things black children are taught by their parents to help them successfully navigate…at the very least uninjured…through life in America. The resulting thread – a multicultural hodgepodge of people – included surprise and shock that this separate “life curriculum” exists. But the rules rang familiar in my ears.

Although Americans (mostly) speak English and are exposed to the same media, whole portions of the population have different understandings of what it means to live in America. And yes, of course there will always be diversity and difference. Noone can know all things – understand all things…but in the scope of our global village fellow US residents are local, and Trayvon’s murder illustrates how differently Americans experience our home.

Another friend was disgruntled by my critical reaction to Kony 2012. He explained how he and colleagues spent a morning looking for Uganda on a map and discussing child soldiers (he admitted he didn’t watch the entire video). I am puzzled how we feel, not only qualified but justified, in deciding what happens in East Africa when what most people know of fits inside a 30 minute commercial for an NGO.

It is that understanding – or lack of- that I trace back to Trayvon. His murder has many moving parts, outrage at the tragedy is well placed, but fixing it…(I’m sure his grieving family would scoff at the notion)? Fixing not just this one case, but creating  sustainable change in the future so there aren’t any more Trayvon’s – immortalized only in photos because they were taken too soon. Fixing it requires understanding beyond emotion.

It requires us to understand context, the where and laws and history. It requires us to understand local/state/federal boundaries and the chain of command. And beyond our borders it requires us to be obsessively inquisitive, to acknowledge cultural differences, to accept our answers may not be best.

While I am thrilled to see more people engaged in discussions about the world  we live in, my hope is that we are able to move through our gut reactions, our tears, our rage. My hope is that we learn to channel those feelings indo deeper understanding of our world and the nuances that make it vivid and interesting. I hope the measure of success for social campaigns – both international and domestic- is more than how viral a video goes, how many westerners can do geography, and how many people sign a petition.

If it were as easy to “save” others as watching a video or signing a name in electronic ink, people would have saved themselves.

Don’t misunderstand me, symbols are powerful. One million hoodied people (or hundreds) marching through New York City is a symbol of unity in grief and determination just as 70 million views is a symbol of piqued interest. But life and atrocities are more than fashion and geography.

It is essential to entwine symbolic gestures with knowledgeable action. It is about working in tandem, in teams. It is about respecting people’s agency…be they Ugandan grassroots advocates and survivors or black man-child(ren).

That doesn’t mean there is not space for anyone else in the fight for freedom from tyranny and injustice; on the contrary, it is about ensuring there is space for the aggrieved and ensuring that good intentions lead to good and sustainable solutions, that our dread and disappointment are able to make a discernible difference that doesn’t divide.

In the meantime, what can Americans do:

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1 Comment on Trayvon 2012: where good intentions collide

  1. I’d love for you to write a book about your experiences in Uganda, Liberia, and South Africa. You have a different perspective you could bring to the table, and I think people would like to hear it.

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