Give, not ‘give back’
By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
As my project helping North Korean refugees has grown, it has, unfortunately, also attracted more volunteers saying they want to “give back to the community.” It is now so commonly stated by applicants that I am pleasantly surprised when it isn’t mentioned.
When it is, I usually start counting to 10, to calm down.I must remind myself that they are signing up to help. Still, for years, I have grumbled to friends about “giving back” to an amorphous community. A friend who grew up in a rough area said that instead of “giving back,” he would send his old neighborhood a bill, to be compensated for the many beatings and robberies he had to endure as a youngster.
Because some of the North Korean refugees ask why our tutors help them for free, we began asking volunteers to explain. Their responses varied, but much to my chagrin, too many saw the wonderful project that I helped create as a great opportunity to “give back.”
I am thrilled they are volunteering, the project depends on them. If “giving back” motivates them, so be it, I will just count to 20 and get back to work. I make it clear to them: there is no duty or obligation to return anything you haven’t taken, so you don’t need to “give back” in order to join us. This is a win-win situation, with both sides voluntarily joining and making a commitment to each other.
Saying that you want to “give back” makes as much sense as saying that you want to “volunteer back.” When someone gives money to a charitable cause, they don’t say they want to “donate back.” I do give my time and money to activitiesthat I believe ought to be done, as I have done for the last 15 years, but I tune out when I am told that I need to “give back” or have an obligation to help.
The people who need to “give back” to North Korean refugees are the rulers of North Korea who have taken so much from them. They blocked their freedom of locomotion, stole their right of self-ownership, and violated their human rights. The rest of us don’t need to give back, but we can give, volunteer or donate our time or resources to help those adjusting to life outside of North Korea.
It may be that giving back to an amorphous “community” is my main gripe. A “community” doesn’t tutor or get tutored. But individuals do. You aren’t obligated to “give back” to a particular person any more than you are obligated to give to an undefined a community that may not want what you are offering.
My project has attracted some unlikely volunteers: North Korean refugees. In January, a North Korean refugee whosaw my TV podcast with Yeonmi Park learned that I was involved in many activities related to North Korean refugees. She asked if she could volunteer.
I was floored. From what I have heard, civil society barely exists in North Korea (and, from what I have heard, volunteering for strangers is still a relatively new concept in South Korea, too). In our first two years, no North Korean refugees asked to volunteer with us. We now have two.
Another North Korean refugee who recently entered our project made a financial donation. All of these refugees were inspired by the volunteer tutors and staff. Other North Korean refugees who have not volunteered yet said that they were thinking, for the first time, about volunteering to help others. We are building a community of volunteersthat now includes North Korean refugees. It is not based on an obligation to an unspecified community ― rather, it is individuals coming together to get something practical done.
Last week, another North Korean refugee donated $500 to our project. She didn’t consider it a donation and said she doesn’t understand volunteering. She has not been a participant in our project, so it wasn’t a return favor. From watching my updates on Facebook, she felt the urge to “give a gift to show my heart.”
Yes, I am irritated by the volunteer tutors in my project who say they want to give back, but thankfully, their actions speak louder than their words. They have, through their actions, inspired North Korean refugees to volunteer, donate, and to give. They have perhaps indirectly introduced the idea of civil society into North Korea via those refugees still in contact with family there. They have seen a new way to interact with people, making new friends based on common interests.
I will try to rememberthat, as I’m counting to 10, if and when a North Korean refugee tells me that he or she wants to volunteer with us, in order to “give back.” I won’t like it, but I will understand.
The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co.in Seoul and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at:CJL@post.harvard.edu.