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Volunteering Without White Saviourism

Volunteering Without White Saviourism


How do we volunteer – and involve volunteers in our programs – without falling into the saviourism trap, a concept that rears its ugly head when volunteers feel that we can come in and “fix” the problems of a group or community that we don’t belong to? In this highly personal, revealing and perhaps controversial feature story, author Karen Knight, a long-time volunteer recruitment and engagement consultant, focuses on what she calls “White saviourism” because it’s the most “egregious form.” Knight, who identifies as White and as a “recovering racist,” outlines the “difficult, painful” truth of her racism, interspersed with the history of racism and saviourism. She concludes with five steps to help avoid saviourism in volunteerism, and calls on Volunteer Engagement leaders to run programs without it. 

To read the full article

Sun, 04/16/2023

If you are a "recovering racist", would you be willing to share what you've done to try to improve? If you are from a marginalized community, can you share with the rest of us things that we might not see for ourselves, so we can continue to improve? The more we talk about this issue, and share our personal learnings and experiences, the better our world will become!

Tue, 05/09/2023

This was an interesting read, Karen.

Something that came to mind for me while reading your words above - I'm a woman of colour in a profession that is predominantly individuals who identify as white women.  Not unique to our profession is the fact that DEI learning is often centered and created for a white audience instead of an audience that works within systems where white supremacy culture is the norm, myself included.


Mon, 05/15/2023

Good point, Faiza! Do I understand correctly that you would like to see learnings that are centred around how people of colour can deal with the racism and bias that show up in workplaces? How to protect yourself (physically, mentally, emotionally) or how to initiate change? Or am I misunderstanding your point?

Mon, 06/05/2023

People of colour already have formal and informal ways of dealing with workplace bias and racism.  We have been doing this all our lives and it isn't out of choice or interest. It is how we survive in systems that were not designed for our success.

What I dream of is for all of us together move on from personal reflections and narratives.  Together, we need to start collaborating and putting into action the disruption and reimagining of the systems that keep things like white saviourism alive and well.  We need to move beyond reflecting on realizing our privileges and start acting together for real community outcomes.  That is my hope.

Fri, 06/09/2023

In other words, less talk more action.  Sign me up!  This is something that I think a lot of people would like to do, but don't know where to start, other than taking another workshop.  If you (or anyone else who's reading this!) have specific suggestions, please share them!

Fri, 05/26/2023

Thanks for the article. There is a lot here that I can relate to. I would describe myself as a recovering racist and a member of a traditionally marginalized group as a woman with a disability. When I read about your family upbringing, I thought we could have been living in the same family. The fact that we didn't just demonstrates how wide spread such blatant racism was and still is. I have been part of a number of DEI initiatives throughout my career in various organizations and feel hard pressed to point to any action that made much change. It feels like we are having the same conversations and still being reluctant to go deep enough below the surface or actually change our ways of working. When trying to change procedures or policies or ways of working I have encountered and perpetuated resistance that I am coming to understand as white fragility. Continuing to have the conversations and being willing to be vulnerable in acknowledging our part in the problem is important, so I am committing to continuing my own journey. I hope more and more of us will be willing to face the hard truths necessary for change to happen.


As a woman with a disability, I am just starting to challenge my own internalized ableism. I think this is one area in which understanding the problematic nature of the systems we work within are important. I have bought into the idea that I need to out work others or continually perform in order to prove myself capable. I have looked down on others who have not had as successful a career as I like to think I have had. I have shied away from calling out acts of discrimination to avoid drawing attention to myself. I have also experienced incidences when my advocacy efforts were seen as personal and got responses like, "Sorry if you were offended" or "We need to do such and such for your benefit". I got to a point where I felt like I had less credibility than an able-bodied person would have in similar situations.


Now I find myself working in a faith-based organization doing international development and humanitarian relief. So, the concept of white saviourism is top of mind. We work through local partners who identify and implement their own solutions to problems identified by them. I have the opportunity in my program to offer educational programs for our volunteers where we can learn from our partners. This is good, however the systems we work within are still not equal. We are in a position of being a funder to our partners. Our volunteers are responsible for fundraising, so we are perpetuating the charity model. We were recently in a position of preparing for our strategic plan by seeking stakeholder feedback. We reached out to our partners, but needed to acknowledge that there may be a reluctance to provide anything other than positive feedback as we are still a funder. We are also forced to work within the current requirements of CRA and Global Affairs Canada with respect to direction and control of programs. So, there is still much that needs to change.


Thanks for listening to my rambling thoughts. :) 

Fri, 05/26/2023

Thank you for sharing your "rambling thoughts"!!  You're right, we aren't the only ones who were brought up in an environment of blatant racism, and it's still happening with kids today. You should be proud that you are strong enough (and wise enough!) to admit to being a recovering racist. It's not easy.

Dealing with your own ableism is even harder. The comment you've received "I'm sorry you were offended" drives me sideways! It's not that "I'm offended" it's that "You are offensive!". There's a difference! But when it's all we hear, it's easy to start believing it. Keep fighting it!!

Thank you again for your thoughts. The more we share, the better things will be. Hugs!