By Denisha Gingles, a member of the SkillCorps Kenya October 2017 team

“They’re so lucky I’m here,” a quote found on Facebook regarding someone’s voluntourist trip abroad.

During orientation with Global Autism Project, prior to traveling to Kenya, we discussed how privilege shows itself during volunteer trips abroad. Given the many ways privilege manifests in the United States, one can only imagine how identity is externalized when thrown from a place of comfort while exercising troublesome feelings of superiority. Many people come to this Project with various identities– various religions, gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc. During our trainings we were taught the importance of dispelling paternalism in order to create sustainable change. Though helping others in different circumstances feels great to the soul, the manner in which we do so, affects the impact on those we aim to assist.

From what I learned thus far from Global Autism Project, paternalism equates to a way of thinking and doing which impedes the growth of local communities. While embarking on my journey, I was faced with the question “How does one combat paternalism, if one does not understand or confront their own privilege and western biases?”

Since being here, I found myself tuning in to those moments of unabridged privilege. This tuning allowed me to understand how privilege actually does show itself abroad, even when traveling with an organization that upholds a sustainable model. And while it may be comfortable to ignore those feelings,I believe confronting them is what will ultimately help to advance the mission of helping future generations meet their own needs.

A couple ways paternalistic mindset and/or privilege have revealed themselves during my Skill Corps Kenya 2017 trip:

  1. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to many interested staff members regarding pathways to certification (Board Certified Behavior Analyst). During these conversations, I was reminded in East Africa, this certification is not easily attainable. There is not a school in the country that yet offers coursework in Behavior Analysis. Therefore, in order to study, someone would need to take online classes, assuming they have access to adequate working internet. Also, as a requirement for certification, one must receive supervision hours by a BCBA and work direct experience in the field. This is highly troubling for Kenyans because there is only one BCBA in this region. Even after completing classes and supervision hours, there is not a testing area close by and would require expensive travel to receive. There are many parameters that inhibit everyday Kenyans from becoming BCBAs which essentially does not help the growth of our field in this area.
  2. With that being said, I’ve had to approach privilege in the realm of my profession as well. There have been times where language of our common principles have not reflected the culture in which I am here working with. While our principles are based on humanistic qualities, our jargon and methods of teaching are not written to transcend culture.
  3. Another moment of privilege, I sat at breakfast with a Kenyan man who asked “What is Autism?” That alone speaks to the heightened sense of privilege I hold as an American in this place. In that moment each of my team members hesitated, as if taking in the mounting feeling of astonishment. Prevalence of Autism in Kenya is still unknown, as well as common education on what the diagnosis actually entails. Can you imagine being able to work with persons diagnosed with Autism without knowing what it is? While I was extremely glad he exhibited a thirst for knowledge, asking question after question, the truth of our privilege still remains.

What does any of this have to do with me? Everything. Knowing I came to a country with only one other BCBA, it could be easy to believe I am superior than those at our partner site. I could also believe that no matter the issues of cultural expansion in relation to our jargon and principles, our partners should learn and take on my way of thinking. Lastly, exercising a mentality that all Kenyans should know everything I know about Autism, might alter the methodology in trying to help spread awareness and disseminate information.

Moving past paternalism requires my understanding of myself in relation to the local community here in Kenya. I am not superior because I was given access to study. I am not superior because I have a different belief system regarding our principles. Believing one’s thinking, religion, language, economic status, etc makes them knowledgeable to insert themselves as a powerful figure, bolsters colonialism and paternalism– the antithesis of the Global Autism Project movement. With understanding of our own privileges and biases, we can acknowledge the true experts are the local community and work together in order to expand culturally relevant practices within the field of Behavior Analysis.

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