Just now I was thinking of how unappreciated our university janitorial and cleaning staff is, at least in my building. They are largely invisible--they come in in the middle of the night, clean the place, replenish goods, and leave before most students, faculty or staff get here. And the state of our building is something, then, we just take for granted.**
I'd imagine as cleaning jobs go, a job cleaning at a university pays more and offers more benefits than most, though I only imagine that--I don't know. Still, we are very fucking privileged to have people who clean up after us, who sweep our floors and dispose of our trash, who buffer the floors so that they are shiny at the beginning of the semester. Since the workers come at night, though, we find that things are magically clean and disposed of, and we are so used to it we barely think of it unless some anomalous uncleanliness presents itself.
"We should all appreciate and be cognizant of the work of our janitorial staff," I thought. "I could put fliers up in this building," I thought, "telling everyone to appreciate the janitorial staff they take for granted, to be mindful that the work they do in the middle of the night gives our lives ease." "Maybe just for a day, or a few minutes, people would remember to think about the people behind their tidy campus lives."
Now, let me say that those are not bad thoughts. All the intention there is good. But this is precisely why I try to get my students to separate intention from effect.
In a moment of clarity, I then thought, "Hmn. I wonder if the janitors would want that? What would it be like for them if I did that? Would they want me to do it? Would they want that attention? Would people think my signs represented their unhappiness or resentment? Would that attention result in harassment or foster negative attitudes toward them? Would it create a hostile work environment?" Heightened visibility can be a powerful and good thing, but it can also create harm, particularly if it's not chosen visibility.
Now, maybe it wouldn't do harm. Maybe my signs would bring about a joyous appreciation of janitorial staff and people would value the work that they do and the way in which it improves their every day lives and that would catch on throughout the whole campus and the whole nation and the whole world and janitors would be respected and paid more and given more benefits.
But that's also not the point. First of all, my idea for janitorial appreciation signs assumes that in their lives, it's lack of appreciation and recognition that needs improvement. Some happy-go-lucky sign-hanging recognition day is a nice gesture, but would it be what they most needed? Would it create change that would most improve their lives? It's not that easy things to do (like hanging signs) never make a difference or are unimportant, but it's about whether it can make a difference and is that difference the difference that's needed?
Second of all is an important reminder for me that I cannot speak for other groups of people. Not having experience as a janitor--here or anywhere else--I don't know what the work life is like...and therefore, I can't really predict whether appreciation signs would be meaningful or whether they would do much more harm in the lives of the janitorial staff than they would good. Separation from the janitorial staff, which allows myself and others to take them for granted, is exactly why I shouldn't "help" them, at least not without getting well-acquainted with their needs by talking with them or by having them state their needs and suggested solutions. I don't have their lived experience, therefore I can't speak for them OR do for them. It also assumes they need help. Maybe they have recognized a problem and are organizing to fix it. Either way, I am not savior of the janitors.
While it's fine to have good intentions, if you don't consider the lived experience of others, you are bound to harm them. So before you go about saving anyone or helping anyone...before you think you have some brilliant idea:
1) Think about yourself in relation to the people you want to help.
2) Question whether your actions have the potential to do more harm than good.
3) Importantly, question whether your actions would address the self-determined needs of the group of people and whether, really, they need your "help" at all.
4) Humble your damn self.
*Alternative Title: On How I Checked My Own Savior Complex--How You Can too!
**Now, in my old building, on my old floor, we have a daytime janitor. The fact that we see him heightens our awareness and, perhaps, appreciation of him. He becomes a person, a visible part of our lives. He also regularly interacts with other staff, and sometimes faculty and students. However, in his experience--for all I know--his co-existence with faculty, staff, and students might make his life more stressful...might highlight the class differences that exist between janitorial staff, administrative staff, students, and faculty. Again, I am not him, so I simply don't know.