A Hot Cup of Status Quo

“If you want to change the world, stay home.”

This was advice from a friend doing her PhD in educational inequality. It came up while we were discussing global volunteering programs. “Instead of playing sports with Third World orphans, walk downtown and take a look at what your local multinational mining company is doing to the earth.” In other words: think globally, act locally and with stark honesty about the lens of privilege through which you see the world.

Later in the day, I walked by a Second Cup (a Canadian coffee chain; like Starbucks but more polite). Plastered across their windows are photos of children from the developing world, smiling perfect smiles that make poverty look kind of fun. Above, a poster reads, “Want to change the world? Start here.”

The phrase “change the world” caught my eye, as it always does. I’ve thrown this phrase around like so much confetti throughout my career in youth empowerment and social sector marketing. Only recently have I started to think about what it really means.

To change the world is to uproot current dynamics of power. It is a systemic, political process. It’s not easy to overthrow the status quo; resistance comes from both the powerful and the powerless. Each has much to lose. That this message didn’t make the final draft of the poster at Second Cup is not surprising.

The poster is publicity for a partnership between Second Cup and a Canadian NGO called Free the Children, which provides access to education, healthcare, clean water, and livelihood training internationally. From the little I know about the organization, they are very good at what they do. However, at no point on their website or in their literature do they claim to be changing the world. Instead, they sum up their development philosophy as this:

“If we’re going to help children break free from poverty, we must first empower their mothers, improve their schools, outfit their health clinics and build their water facilities.”

I was relieved to learn that Free the Children doesn’t claim to be changing the world. Word choice goes deeper than just semantics. The uncomfortable and inescapable truth is that Free the Children is operating within the status quo. No matter how village schools they build, no matter how effective they are at putting local communities at the center of their development programs, they are, de facto, the ones in power. You can see it in the language they use: “if we’re going to help…we must…”

First World power and Third World suffering.  We are strong, the Other is weak.  It’s a message too bleak for a poster, but it’s exactly what Second Cup wants to convey.

A premise:

A multinational corporation starts a mining operation in a poor country. Though it provides employment to the local community, the mine’s environmental degradation destroys local sources of food and livelihood. Children in the community are left hungry and without access to clean water. The poor country’s government does not intervene; many of the most powerful ministers are in the pocket of the multinational corporation.

Will Second Cup then launch an anti-mining campaign, denouncing the multi-national responsible? Are they going to ask you to donate a dollar to purge the corrupt from the foreign country’s ministries?

No, because taking a political stance like that would be picking a side. And for Second Cup, picking a side is equal to introducing Poison Lattes as the newest item on their winter menu. Picking a side means disrupting a status quo – not the one that keeps children hungry, but the one that keeps Second Cup in business.

If the water by the mine isn’t drinkable, it’s safer to support an NGO that provides clean water than it is to go toe-to-toe with the mining company who poisoned the supply. Treat the symptom instead of the disease. It’s better for business.

So we’re left with posters on the window whose claims are appealing but inherently misleading. We’re led to believe that by buying coffee at Second Cup, we are doing our part to change the world. We’re given the permission to feel satisfied that we’ve done our good deed for the day. I’m now deputized as a responsible citizen of the world. Thanks, Second Cup.

This sense of satisfaction can transform itself into a shield. Even if I don’t like what the mining company is doing, it’s going to be pretty damn hard to change the way the they do business, what with their lawyers and money and big drills. Thankfully, I’ve already changed the world today – a giant, faceless corporation told me so. So, know what, Acme Mines? Let’s call the whole thing a draw.

Had Second Cup’s poster proposed to feed hungry children instead of change the world, I wouldn’t have written this. But it didn’t. It asked me if I wanted to change the world. The poster is a glimpse into the inner mechanisms of a system, one that congratulates you for challenging the status quo when you’re actually buying into it.

Can I pour you a second cup?

Special thanks to Amanda Gebhard for the inspiration. Read her article “Pipeline to Prison: How schools shape a future of incarceration for Indigenous youth.”

2 responses to “A Hot Cup of Status Quo

  1. Hey! I’m glad you started to blog again. Seems like you could make a distinction between “changing the world” and “revolutionizing the world”. Though I would love to see more people and corporations (are they people too? I still don’t know) accomplishing the latter in the way that you describe, I think that not everyone can, for a variety of different reasons. Most are capable of doing what is within the status quo. Though that may not be enough to revolutionize the world, I hope that even small gestures of charity have the potential for positive effect on the world.

    • @Alex, thanks for your comment.
      I agree; it’s important to make a distinction between change and revolution. This distinction is blurred every time someone claims that an act of charity changes the world. Charity plays a very important role in helping people living in poverty meet their basic human needs. At the same time, by default, it enforces an inherent power dynamic, one which the West has a vested interest in maintaining.
      I think that those of us lucky enough to live in privilege do have a moral obligation to participate in acts of charity; it is an immediate way to alleviate the kind of suffering we don’t have to experience on a daily basis (such as hunger). The analogy that comes to mind is that of the western tourist who comes across a hungry child begging on the street — you can buy him a meal today, but he’ll still wake up hungry tomorrow.
      So, to clarify, I’m not calling for an end to charity; I’m calling for stark honesty and awareness, especially from within the world of corporate social responsibility. If CSR can use marketing to shine a light on the uncomfortable power dynamics of global poverty — instead of sweeping them under the rug — it might just change the world.

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