How to NOT Sweep in and Save the Day

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By Laura Parker | Twitter @mrslauraparker

M_LauraParkerThe First Time.

I watched him disappear around the corner on his scooter, but the pit in my stomach stayed. I knew the question he was going to ask, and it was the potential answer that made me most nervous.

My youth-pastor-turned-humanitarian-husband Matt was on his way to the police station.

In a foreign country. By himself.

Matt had been working for several months with a particular Malaysian police sergeant who ran the counter-trafficking task force in the entire northern part of the country where we were living at the time. Our respect for this particular man had grown greatly over our time networking with him. In a country where police climb the career-ladder nearly exclusively through payoffs and bribes, this sergeant operated clean. He had prosecuted pimps and traffickers in his own country, and freed over one hundred sex slaves. And Matt had seen the official case files to prove it.

And though my husband had laughably little experience in the counter-trafficking world, he asked the sergeant that day if he could help. Matt assumed the police and the plethora of NGOs in our area had it covered, but he wanted to step in if there was a legitimate need.

“Do you need a Western informant? Someone to go into places and get tips or evidence on victims? What can I do for you?” he asked.

And the sergeant’s answer was surprising. He said, “Matt, everyone likes to talk about human trafficking, but no one wants to really help us. I have no one.”

Our assumptions about the state of things couldn’t have been more wrong; the answer given couldn’t have been more defining of our personal future journey.

*****

The Question.

Fast forward three years, a new counter-trafficking organization launched, and a thousand conversations with national and Western leaders later, and I continue to see the power in asking the single question Matt asked the sergeant that day at the police station, “What can I do for you?”

It’s become our opener, honestly, at nearly every meeting we have with others in the modern abolition industry, and especially with nationals in the developing world. And we’re learning that having the guts and the humility to ask it opens doors even our Western money or strategic plans can’t budge.

Because asking that question, it changes everything. It is living-gospel. It immediately shifts focus, power and value to the person sitting across the table and away from yourself. It says, I don’t have all the answers or the formulas, but I am here to serve you, to lift you up, to meet your needs. It communicates in a handful of words that this story is about the answer spoken and the person giving it, not the questioner’s ability to sweep in and save the day.

And in a world where Westerners, working cross-culturally especially, have clunky shoes and heavy footprints, this simple question keeps our White Savior Complex very much in check.

Here’s the lie we so often carry with us when working with the oppressed, the national, the poor, the uneducated, the younger: we assume they don’t have what it takes to improve their situations or worlds. And this idea may be subconscious, but when we walk into a room telling people what we can do for them instead of asking them what they need, we’ve already crippled instead of empowered.

Here’s the truth: a refusal to ask and listen first is a belittling move in any country or relationship, but too often these are the very things that get lost in the noise of our own voices and solutions. It’s a razor-thin line between helping and taking over, and most of us from the affluent West slide quickly into the latter.

The Answer.

While the catalyst for empowerment might lie in the asking of a question, the grit lies in the willingness to meet the answer – whatever it might be.

The sergeant that day said he needed people to go into brothels, look for kids, and wear recording devices to gather evidence (which my husband began to do), but the answers are typically not this dramatic. Often they are plain, menial, quiet – the stuff of grey days and a seemingly boring instagram feed.

A great cause might need you to stay home and blog about it.

A national church leader could ask you to work the sound-booth or hand out bulletins.

Serving the women of your community might mean hours at Goodwill sorting clothes.

Helping a single mom might translate into babysitting or car pools.

Justice might demand you work a 9-to-5 to financially fuel hope for the orphans and the oppressed.

That sergeant in Malaysia – he’s a hero of ours, an inspiration. And we’ve never swept in and saved anything for him. We’ve continually asked him what he needs in order to be more successful in rescuing trafficking victims and arresting pimps, and he’s told us: informants, funding for an operation, that certain piece of covert gear, a secure meeting place. And, thankfully, we’ve been able to provide most of that. But the focus is always on him – how to make him better, more effective, stronger. It can’t be about us – how to increase our “brand” or feel better about ourselves or attain spiritual pats on the back.

Because the minute it becomes about us – even in our efforts to help – we’ve stopped empowering him to change the world and we’ve begun instead to exploit him for our own good causes. And when we stop listening in love and begin to lead from assumptions, we pick up power that was never ours to take.

*****

An Exercise.

Think of one person/group you are passionate about helping/empowering (your child, lonely neighbor, orphans, abused, etc.). Now, think about your interactions with that person/group. Are you more apt to listen first or talk first? How’s that working for you?

_____________________

About Laura:

Laura ParkerAfter living overseas on three continents, Laura currently helps lead an anti-trafficking organization, The Exodus Road with her husband which primarily focuses on fueling undercover investigations and rescues. They’ve supported 252 victim rescues to date and work to empower 53 investigators worldwide. She recently published a book entitled The Exodus Road which chronicles their gritty journey into the sex industry in Asia. Laura also co-founded and edits a collective blog for international humanitarian workers, A Life Overseas.

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Image credit: Martin Burns

Laura blogs at her site, Laura Parker Writes and you can find her on twitter at @MrsLauraParker.

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