Until relatively recently, I’ve been a person who did things without asking why. It has always been easy for me to make “the right choices” without conscious thought; I have a brilliant big sister who I could mimic, an active school community who presented me with opportunities, and supportive parents who guided me. I took all the “right” courses, did all the “right” activities, and applied to all the “right” universities.
I didn’t even realize I was living blindly until I entered university. For the first time in my life, I had chosen to do something my sister hadn’t done and which no one had told me to do – an engineering degree. A few months into my degree, I started to wonder: why am I here? Why did I make this choice? Does this align with my values?
This was the beginning of a personal transformation. I began to reconsider the motivations of all of my choices. This self-analysis made me realize that my values often did not align with my actions. I’ve always believed I had a strong moral compass; I had things I “believed in”, things I “cared about”, things I “wanted to change”. However, as I reconsidered my actions and choices, I realized that I saw my values as external to my everyday life. My life thus far in life had been an equation: If I do good thing x in my extra-curricular activities, and continue to blindly live my morally-mediocre life, it all cancels out and I’m still good. Of course, this had never actually occurred to me, but it must have been hiding in my subconscious mind.
Enter EWB. Through my involvement with my university chapter, I began to learn more about personal alignment and to understand the complexities of the things I “cared about” or “believed in”. It’s interesting that understanding the complexity of global inequity and understanding the complex ramifications of my everyday actions went hand in hand; I couldn’t have learned about one without the other. So long as the things I wanted to change seemed simple, the actions I could take to make these changes seemed simple. Once I saw the complexity of global inequity, I began to see the complexity of my daily actions and the way they reflect my values.
Now, three-years deep into my involvement with EWB, I finally have the words to express how I have changed. At EWB conference in January this year, I remember hearing someone (I think it was Boris) speaking about the importance of intentionality in everything we do. How it’s not enough to agree, to discuss, to compartmentalize our actions into separate boxes. How we must live and make choices always asking why, asking whether we are living up to our own values, and doing things on purpose.
I think I used to avoid considering the moral ramifications of my choices because I was scared. When you begin considering all the things you should be doing to align your actions with your values, it can get frightening. I guarantee you, if you stop and really take the time to think about it, there are so many ways in which your everyday choices perpetuate systems of oppression and inequity. It’s honestly depressing and overwhelming. However, once you start taking small steps towards personal alignment, it becomes easier to consider the systems affected by your actions. More and more mental doors which had been shut by fear begin to open, allowing for thorough self-examination.
For me, the mental doors really began to open when I started preparing for this JF placement. (Finally, you’re thinking, she’s stopped telling me her life story and is back to what I actually came here to read.)
Several doors opened as I considered applying for the placement:
Am I really applying for this because it aligns with my belief in the importance of global poverty eradication?
Or am I seeking personal gain?
More opened as I considered which ventures to apply for:
Which aspects of EWB’s work am I truly passionate about?
Where can my skills can actually make a difference?
And many more opened through the personal development and ethical learning I have completed as part of my pre-departure training:
How can I improve my allyship skills?
Am I racist?
How can I check my privilege and combat privilege based systems?
What is development really, and can I define development as it pertains to other people?
Through each of these stages, I had to make choices about my actions. Some, like applying to become JF, were wonderful and life-changing. Others, like committing to checking my privilege as a white westerner while I’m in Ghana, were continual, unsexy, and everyday. That’s the thing about making intentional change: you can’t just commit to the fun parts. Sometimes you’re going to have to consciously choose a less glamorous or convenient course of action to align with your values. As an example: my family drinks coffee which is not Fair Trade. Drinking Fair Trade coffee aligns with my values, as I believe that people should get paid a fair wage for their work. I asked for a French press for Christmas so that I could make my own coffee, and picked up some Fair Trade coffee beans. It’s way less convenient for me to grind my own beans, boil water, make the coffee and clean out my French press than just grab a cup from the carafe my mom makes. I’m still working on sticking to this change full time; however, I’m glad that I’ve recognized I need to make this change, and that I’ve taken steps towards it, despite the fact that it’s kind of annoying.
If you’re in class with me, you might have seen me scribbling in this orange notebook in class or in our homeroom:
So, the cat’s out of the bag: this isn’t my secret diary. This is the notebook where I’ve been documenting my personal development as JF. As part of the JF program, we have to make and follow a plan for ethical, personal and career-based development so that we are as effective and prepared as we can be on our placements. Essentially, we have to do a whole lot of personal alignment. Like a real engineer, I made my plan by writing a big, dirty spreadsheet, detailing the competency I want to improve, my goal within the competency, the actions I will take to achieve this goal, the timeline for completion, and resources I will need. This helps me stay on track. However, I find it’s too strict a format for reflections on the work I’ve been doing, which is why I’ve been using this journal. Some of the things I’ve been writing about include:
- Events which challenged me or made me feel uncomfortable
- Instances where I have noticed myself being low-key racist
- Concepts which I have learned in school which I can leverage as JF
- Mental health check-ins
- Personal failures in my everyday life
- Instances where I effectively used positive self-talk
- And a whole bunch of other things
I haven’t just been writing about these things sporadically; I have been following my plan, and intentionally doing or noticing them.
This is the crux of what I’m trying to get at: none of the personal alignment, change or development I have experienced would have happened if I hadn’t done it on purpose. You don’t just change as a person by thinking about changing, and the world can’t align with your values if you don’t align with them first. It’s so easy to assume that because you’re living a “normal” life within your context that this must be an ethical net-zero way of living; we all must be inherently ethical, or we all wouldn’t live this way. But that’s just not true. Our everyday choices and actions are often quite ethically unsound and we need to acknowledge that. I am not perfectly ethical, and neither are you; however, we can both work to become better. Making choices to align your actions with your values and improve yourself doesn’t need to be difficult; it can be as simple as starting to compost, taking better care of yourself mentally, considering the impact of your word choice or actually getting out and voting in your next election. The important part is that you actually do something; you think about why you need to do what you’re going to do and then do it, intentionally.