Today, at my work, we watched a film called Stranger With A Camera, which told the story of murder of a Canadian filmmaker, Hugh O’Connor, by Hobart Ison when O’Connor was filming a family who lived in a rental house on Ison’s property. Ison’s anger was the expression of anger felt by many throughout Appalachia, who felt that film crews and photographers were taken advantage of their situation. Shows like Charles Kuralt’s Christmas in Appalachia emphasized the extreme poverty in which many of the people lived but completely ignored people who were doing much better. The entire region was labelled as being in poverty and needed to be helped out of this state; many of the residents resented that label and became angry at the notion that they needed help. People in the area portrayed by the film were fiercely independent, and even if they didn’t have much, what they did have had been earned.
One anecdote that one of my bosses told us after the film was how she was sent to this exact area as a part of the VISTA program established as a part of President Johnson’s Great Society. When she got there, as a college student from New York, she was greeted with suspicion and hostility. She wasn’t able to do much of any of her stated goals, which included programs and classes at a local community center. At one point she was poisoned by one of the residents and was sick for three straight days.
All of this is to say that programs like VISTA, which aims to fight poverty, must first establish a rapport with the people whom they are trying to help. Sending college kids into impoverished areas for a summer, like the VISTA program did, is not going to really help anything. You have to understand the community with which you are working first; when I was watching the film, the Clifford Geertz’s idea of thick description came to mind. In order to understand a community, you can’t just look at the actions they are performing, but you must also look at the context in which they are performing them. Geertz used this in his studies of tribes in Indonesia, but its principle can be applied here as well.
A blog that I sometimes read, Blue Virginia, has as its slogan “Think Globally, Blog Locally.” I think that phrase can be adapted to many walks of life, including this. The further away from the local level you get in government or any sort of aid organization, the more difficulity there will be in actually helping people. Appalshop, the organization that produced the film Stranger With A Camera, is a local organization whose goal is to “support communities’ efforts to solve their own problems in a just and equitable way.” These types of organizations are the ones who do the most good in a community since they are a member of that community.