Last week, during a panel discussion about the ethics and tactics of Yale volunteers in New Haven, Dwight Hall Executive Director Peter Crumlish DIV ’09 cautioned Yalies working in New Haven against viewing themselves as “saviors.”
The term “savior complex” is thrown around a lot, but rarely defined. Unpacking the concept is important for two reasons:
First, doing this will allow some Yalies to recognize the “savior complex” in themselves and change course before their behavior has negative consequences.
Second, and just as importantly, using the term “savior complex” loosely and liberally can have a chilling effect on service and activism. Thoughtful and mature Yalies may avoid volunteering because they fear appearing condescending and out-of-touch, and are understandably hesitant to offend others.
Working with people who are different from you -—perhaps less privileged than you — doesn’t automatically perpetuate the “savior complex.” It’s useful to label what is and isn’t problematic behavior for Yale volunteers, so that responsible Yalies can engage with the city without the fear of being patronizing.
This isn’t a call-out column. No doubt, Yalies afflicted with the “savior complex” need to recognize and change their behavior for their own good and the good of New Haven. But the “savior complex” isn’t the mark of a morally bankrupt person — it suggests a good soul whose generous impulses are filtered through a very distorted perspective.
The “Yale Savior” believes that their presence itself makes everything better. They believe they have something innately special to offer New Haven: a new level of intelligence or creativity, or a “unique” or “innovative” idea (New Haven already has these in spades). They see Elm City residents as the desperate, struggling masses who need their help to lead a meaningful life. The Yale Savior doesn’t roll up their sleeves and help community members make progress toward solutions — they believe they are the solution.
This doesn’t arise from meanness, just arrogance and affluenza. It’s the product of a culture, prevalent at Yale and its feeder schools — a culture that tells us we’re brilliant, elite, special. If someone has internalized that myth, why wouldn’t they want to share their “specialness” with the huddled masses?
It’s a benevolent instinct, but it has serious consequences. Time is a valuable resource, and the Savior wastes it by talking about their own ideas for “fixing” New Haven. Trust is also capital, and the Savior erodes it by being unwittingly condescending. They strain campus-community relationships and make it harder for other volunteers to do real work.
So what should students do if they want to be active citizens and volunteer in the New Haven community, cognizant of their privilege? Should they just sit on the sidelines? Of course not. Students shouldn’t disengage with the Elm City for fear of exhibiting the “savior complex.” Rather, they should engage with meaning and humility.
First, listen. You likely don’t know the history or culture that contextualizes a lot of activity in New Haven. You almost certainly don’t know the strategies and best practices that guide nonprofit and government decisions in the Elm City. And you definitely know nothing about the unique stories and struggles of the people you’re working alongside.
You can, however, learn these things if you’re willing to do what Yalies rarely do: stay silent and actively listen. If you accept the fact that you don’t have all the answers, and muster the patience and humility to learn from New Haveners, your work will be imbued with greater understanding and purpose.
Second, honor your commitments. Frankly, the volunteers that give Yale its bad rep in New Haven aren’t the snobby ones, but the flaky ones. I’ve heard too many cautionary tales of Yalies who have gone into schools, built relationships with students and then vanished when midterms rolled around, leaving behind heartbroken students and jaded administrators. (It’s one thing to re-evaluate your commitments at the end of a year, but quitting volunteer work mid-semester is especially tacky.) Your work ethic and reliability reflects on all Yalies, and a broken promise will make neighbors and institutions wary of students for years to come. Conversely, keeping your word builds trust.
Finally, be yourself. Get involved with a group aligned with a cause you’re passionate about — education, racial justice, the environment. Take on tasks you like to do and do well: grant-writing, graphic design, tutoring or just moving boxes. Be friendly — ask questions and get to know people.
New Haven’s thriving community of nonprofits and activists is idea-rich but under-staffed. If Yalies follow these simple guidelines and avoid the “savior complex,” they will be welcomed with open arms.
Fish Stark is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .