Remembering my privilege

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
Bon, 14, is healthily living with HIV and was given a second chance at life after being taken in by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in order to continue his education after the death of both his mother and grandmother. (Bridgid O’Brien)

Nong Khai, Thailand — Notes from the Field is GSR’s summer blogging project. Working with the Catholic Volunteer Network, we’ve enlisted four young women working in ministries of Catholic sisters around the world – Honduras, Thailand, Ethiopia and the United States – to blog about their experiences, each for six weeks.

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I often have to remind myself what a privileged position I am in to have been able to volunteer for the past two years. Before graduating from college, I planned to apply to research assistant positions at local hospitals to get lab experience before applying to clinical psychology Ph.D. programs in the fall. However, for some reason I could not bring myself to apply to any of the listings I looked at.

And then I remembered a recruiter I talked to at a post-graduate volunteer fair I attended early on senior year. After telling her about my experience student teaching in a 5th-grade classroom during my four years at Boston College and my work at a therapeutic camp for kids with autism, she told me about a year-long volunteer position in Baltimore working as a teaching assistant at a residential treatment center for kids with severe behavioral and emotional disorders in the center’s autism and special education program. While it took me almost five months to apply to the program after speaking to the recruiter, my future as a post-graduate volunteer was sealed from that moment on.

While getting a steady paying, career-building job would have been the conventional thing to do after graduation, it was not an absolute necessity. My family does not rely on a cut of my paycheck. I do not have children to support. I have health and dental insurance under my dad’s insurance plan. My parents still pay my cell phone bill. I have loans from my university, but even deferring my loans for two years will not affect my future ability to pay them off. I have lived on just under $100 a month for the past two years, but it is always a comfort to know that in an emergency I have my own bank account sitting in wait and that my parents are always willing to help if I am in a bind.

One of the four tenants of Good Shepherd Volunteers is: simplicity in order to help live a life more in line with those that we live and serve. I come from a middle-class working family, however, so even living on a stipend of $100 a month does not eradicate the life of privilege I have been fortunate enough to fall into.

Belle, 16, is healthily living with HIV. She left school at the age of 12 and is currently working for Hands of Hope, an income-generating craft project run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, in order to provide care and a source of income for her grandparents and younger brother who still live in a further village. (Bridgid O’Brien)

I have been raised by two parents who have been happily married for 26 years. I have never known the pangs of divorce or custody battles or needing to blare music through headphones to help silence the shouts of marital conflict. I have never known the grief of losing a parent.

My parents have shown my two younger siblings and me nothing but unconditional love and support. I have never been scared to enter my house for the fear of finding a drunk, abusive father. I have never come home knowing that it was my sole responsibility to raise my siblings.

I have been raised in a beautiful home, in a safe neighborhood of Boston that borders on the suburbs of the area. I have never known sleeping on a mat on the floor next to my parents and siblings or the plight of waiting in line to receive a bed at a homeless shelter. I have never known the fear of hearing gunshots outside of my bedroom window. I have never known the agony following the destruction of my home due to fire or natural disaster.

My dad did not go to college but has worked in the same, well-paying position, amongst trained engineers and architects for over 25 years. I have never known living on welfare or the struggle of living in a family whose only source of income is unemployment checks.

My mother stopped working after I was born and did not start working again until I was almost 13 years old. My mother would always be home when I got home from school to help me with my homework and would always have dinner on the dining room table at 6 p.m. when my dad got home from work. I have never known being raised by strangers in a home of absent parents or the uncertainty of where my next meal is coming from.

Nonnie and Panda are building a "love" sand sculpture. Nonnie, 7, is HIV-negative, born to parents who are HIV-positive, and Panda, 9, is an HIV-positive and being raised by her grandparents. (Bridgid O’Brien)

I have always known that I could theoretically be whatever I want to be when I grow up, even if it might take more training and more higher education. I have never known needing to become a prostitute to help support my family or not even being able to imagine myself reaching the age of adulthood.

I have successfully made my way through elementary school, middle school, high school, and college with the desire to return back to school for my master’s degree. I have never known the frustration of not being able to read a book in my native language as an adult or stigmatization for my lack of education. I have never known needing to stop going to school as a 12-year-old to help provide for my family. I have never known attending a low-funded school with a lack of resources or learning in a classroom whose only motive is to receive passing statewide exam scores.

I hold a valid passport and have been fortunate to travel to various countries around the world. I have never known the fear of leaving my own home for fear that I will be deported back to my home country or the single-mindedness of living under a dictatorship or a terrorist group.

Besides my propensity for easily bruising and  having a tonsillectomy when I was 13, I have always been strong and healthy. I have never known receiving a positive HIV test result or living in an institution because of a schizophrenia and conduct disorder diagnosis.

However, for so many of the people with whom I live and serve this year in Nong Khai, as well as last year in Baltimore, and so many places around the world, my “never have I evers” are their “always.” It is so easy to feel guilty about the hand I, as an educated, middle-class Westerner, have been dealt in life. I know that I am going back to a bedroom that is bigger than most of the homes families live in here in Nong Khai. I know that the registered nurse I work with makes just under $8,000 a year in a position that I will make about $75,000 to $85,000 a year in Boston — and even more in some of the best hospitals. I know there is a strong possibility that the young girls I live with who have stopped going to school may enter into Thailand’s prostitution and sex trade industry later on in life, while I will go on to become a nurse practitioner. I know that many of the patients I work with now may not be alive in the next five or six years due to secondary complications as a result of their HIV-positive status, while I may be getting married and starting a family.

Dow and her husband Chukiet, former patients at the Care Center who married last year, are saying blessings over their banana tree boat on the Thai holiday called Loi Krathong, which is a festival that celebrates letting go of past transgressions and making way for new hope. (Bridgid O’Brien)

Shame and guilt are the easiest emotions stirred up when thinking about the disparity between the life I have been born into and that of so many others throughout the world. However, it is important to remember that privilege is not synonymous to better character. Privilege does not equate to being a better person. The fact that I have been educated at a university degree level makes me no better than Dow, an HIV-positive woman from Burma who lives at the Garden and had stopped going to school in her adolescence and was forced into prostitution, but someone who oozes generosity and thankfulness from every bone in her tiny frame. The fact that I have been raised in a comfortable home makes me no better than Jiem, an HIV-positive mother living in the Garden who lived in the woods of Nong Khai for a few years, scavenging for food each day, but who is the most selfless person I have ever met. In many ways, my deepest personal poverties are deeply imbedded in my privilege. But feeling guilty alone about that does nothing. Instead it should be a spring for action, a catapult for change.

If Boston College and volunteering with the Good Shepherd Sisters have taught me one thing, it was the responsibility to be men and women for others with love and zeal. Volunteering in Baltimore and then in Nong Khai, Thailand, has allowed me to recognize my privilege, check it at the front door, but not forget that it is there, in hopes to one day use the opportunities I have been given as a springboard to work towards a better future for all, even if that means just living a life of passion doing ordinary things with extraordinary love.

[Bridgid O’Brien served an international Good Shepherd Volunteer in Nong Khai, Thailand, working with an organization that provides care, resources and income-generating opportunities for individuals affected and infected with HIV/AIDS, for a year. She recently returned to Boston.]

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