Celebrities, stop ‘helping’ without doing your research

We are living in an era when everything is going to hell in a handbasket, and many of us are fighting for our lives and trying to build a future for all of us. Consequently, I can safely predict that we are likely to see a lot of misguided campaigns in the name of awareness or rallying around a cause or any number of other things.

Here’s the thing: Wanting to help doesn’t make you qualified, and good intentions don’t erase the harm you do if you’re involved in, or spearhead, an initiative that causes a lot of damage. People need to disabuse themselves of these notions, and that includes celebrities, who often think that they are above it all. And in the process often do a tremendous amount of damage because people follow them, assuming they know what’s what.

It’s popular for celebrities to take on pet causes, perhaps because some genuinely care about issues and perhaps because others feel sort of guilty about the gaping class and social gaps between them and the rest of society. So they commit to helping out the little people, in whatever way that looks like for them. Maybe it’s helping Planned Parenthood with fundraisers. Maybe it’s providing grants to low-income communities. Or maybe it’s just declaring that you care about a thing and then showing your arse because you don’t bother to actually connect with people who are working on that thing.

There’s a precept in most smart, progressive, contemporary approaches to working in the global south that goes like this: Instead of cruising in, telling people what to do, handing out a bunch of stuff, and leaving, you should instead empower communities, and ideally empower organisations from the global south, instead of assuming that you, oh great westerner, are the only saviour of the poor benighted people. You should sit down with community leaders and other stakeholders to talk about what they actually need, not what you think they need. You should discuss sustainable ways to meet that need in a way that includes empowering people to do things for themselves. Don’t dig wells and drop in a bunch of pricey equipment and leave. Provide people with the tools to dig, install, and maintain their own wells, and the skills to keep tools and equipment in order. Empower them to help neighbouring communities.

The thing is that this kind of relief work also applies to westernised nations. Low-income communities here don’t need people marching in to do stuff without consulting them. Many of them know what they need and some of them know how to get there, but they need help. Maybe they need money, so they want to learn how to write and go after grants. Maybe they need equipment, and they need support to acquire it and learn how to take care of it. Maybe they need legal services — so provide those, and also empower youth and young adults to go to law school so they can get an education and then, should they choose to do so, come back home and apply it.

There’s another advantage to actually talking to people about what they need: You meet other people who are also helping. That way, you can collaborate, instead of replicating someone’s efforts or stepping on their toes. Situations get wasteful, tense, and frustrating when multiple people are ‘helping’ but they won’t work with each other — remember that time you were making soup and everyone kept throwing crap in the pot when you weren’t looking, so by the time you went to season it, the soup was totally messed up? Yeah, imagine that on a large scale, and with bigger stakes.

A lot of celebrities seem to think they can make lofty pronouncements or swoop in and magically fix everything. They aren’t doing the homework, and they aren’t willing to do the work, either. Effective projects can take years to come to fruition, not a single day. And many communities targeted by charity campaigns have been disadvantaged, disempowered, and burned by the charity-industrial complex. They don’t trust you and they don’t want you.

This is often especially true with ‘awareness’ campaigns, in which people think that slapping their face on an ad or something is a meaningful contribution to society because now people are aware of something. They were likely already perfectly aware, so your presence or contribution wasn’t really needed, but uh thanks I guess? More importantly, and seriously, though, these campaigns can be tremendously helpful when they are designed and implemented by people who are not actually affected by the issue under discussion.

Mental health campaigns often display this, with people appearing in PSAs that say incorrect and stigmatising things about mental illness, because they didn’t check themselves and find mental health advocacy groups run by actual crazy people and have a talk with them about what would help. A stigma campaign debunking statistics on mental health and violence, for example, would be amazing! It would be so cool to see celebs getting on board and reciting data! But instead, I’m more likely to see yet another campaign tragedising mental illness.

I see it when celebrities try to speak for disabled people. For people of colour. For LGBQT people. Don’t speak for us. Speak with us. And, like, talk to us first about what we actually want — because celebrities DO have a lot of clout, and what they say DOES matter, and they could have a tremendous influence — and they need to use that influence responsibly.

Image: Hollywood, Shinya Suzuki, Flickr