I was a little taken aback when I received the first of several emails exhorting me to donate my meal swipes to the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project. Since I am not currently on a meal plan, I found myself without any meal swipes to give. That didn’t matter — I could just click on the alternate link at the bottom of the page to donate directly — but doing that still felt decidedly different from participating in the YHHAP fast.
Of course, there’s a pretty compelling argument to be made that the cost of eating out for a day is usually greater than the amount YHHAP receives from our forfeiture of dining hall meals. So why don’t people just donate directly?
There are a myriad of ways to answer that question: The process is set up so that it’s easier to donate your meal swipes than to give directly. And giving up your meal swipes makes you both part of a tradition and a community. Neither you nor your friends will feel extravagant eating out together.
These factors add up to make the undeniably gimmicky YHHAP fast an invariable success. Last Spring, it raised $13,000 to fight homelessness in New Haven. Behind these factors, however, lies the subtler question of what it and other similar charitable activities are actually meant to accomplish.
There is the stated and very real goal of alleviating and preventing homelessness. Even in referring to the event as a “fast,” there is a gesture towards a shared experience of hunger, as well as a resulting sympathy for those whom YHHAP seeks to help. This is even truer of the YHHAP sleep out, when students campus out on Old Campus for a (usually chilly) night to raise money for the homeless.
No one considers the YHHAP fast akin to real hunger or the sleep out an actual simulation of the lack of heat or shelter. On the Dwight Hall website, the last sleep out was marketed as a fun mix of camping and partying. Why do these most visible of fundraisers share that pretty minimal gesture towards the experience of common hardship?
It’s worth noting that even if participants actually sought to subject themselves to the bodily mortification of true homelessness — by, for instance, enduring real hunger and real cold simultaneously — they’d still only be able to say they’ve experienced some portion of its physicality. The accompanying worry and insecurity can’t be felt in a safely “non-real” atmosphere.
Yet our fascination not just with helping those who need help, but also experiencing what they experience, permeates charity far beyond Yale. There’s the massive proliferation of so-called service trips over the last decade, during which high school or college students spend thousands of dollars to travel to a poor country in order to help build a school or house or well. These are stupendously inefficient ways of helping people, but they allow relatively affluent American teenagers to claim some “experience” of extreme poverty, and thereby be aware of it.
I hardly compare a couple weeks spent doing a rather poor job at manual labor to the effective work done by many Yale students to make a tangible difference in our community, country and world. Nor do I impeach the YHHAP fast, which, through some very good marketing, proves an excellent fundraising tool for a laudable cause.
But it’s worth noting the amount of time several non-profits and charities dedicate to “raising awareness” about problems through simulating these problems themselves. Some of this is necessary for fundraising, but much of it seems independent of any fundraising strategy and rather finds its validation in awareness as an end in and of itself.
Part of me feels that awareness as its own cause distracts us from addressing the very issues we are supposed to be aware of. It’s better to spend money helping people than promoting a faux sympathy for hardships that most of us can’t imagine. At its worst, such a sympathy can lead to a sense of complacency, if not among actual activists then at least among the people they seek to educate. We tell ourselves that we have come to understand something about hardship, which relieves us of the responsibility to actually do anything.
On the other hand, some stories need to be told. If told right, they can turn the objects of charity into more than objects, thereby inspiring us to empathetic action.
Nonetheless, we must remember that understanding of someone’s plight is important only insofar as it leads to kindness. Understanding by itself is not and cannot be our goal.
Harry Larson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .