“I Laughed, I Cried:” Gada Mahrouse’s Keynote Address for the Nongovernmental Impulse Symposium
Guest Writer: Martha Webber

Monday, April 30, 2012

Poster for the Symposium
[On April 19-20, 2012, the Nongovernmental Impulse Symposium was held as part of the Graduate College’s Focal Point project. The following account of the event’s second day was written by Martha Webber, a graduate student affiliate of the Unit and one of the project’s participants.]

“I Laughed, I Cried… I Changed the World: The Racialized Politics of Emotion in the Making of Global Citizens” – Gada Mahrouse’s Keynote Address for the Nongovernmental Impulse Symposium

Written By Martha Webber (English/Center for Writing Studies)

On Friday, April 20, Dr. Gada Mahrouse of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University opened up the second day of the Nongovernmental Impulse Symposium, a two-day event dedicated to “negotiating theory and practice in the global governance of care.” As the culmination of a year-long Graduate College Focal Point project, the symposium brought three keynote speakers together with Illinois faculty and graduate students working across disciplines in the field of critical nonprofit studies: an area of inquiry that researches the rapid expansion of the global nonprofit sector and its impact on cultures, communities, environments, and development as state funding recedes.

In their most recent report on the nonprofit sector, the National Center for Charitable Statistics of the Urban Institute shows that while the number of registered nonprofits increased by 19% from 1999 to 2009 in the United States, the number of “reporting nonprofits” (IRS-filing organizations with greater than $25,000 in gross receipts) grew 48% in the same period. In 2009, these nonprofits reported $1.87 trillion dollars in revenue alone – over $600 billion dollars more than the gross output of the entire retail industry in the United States for the same year. Clearly, this is an industry with the potential to impact the lives of average people,in the United States and elsewhere, including access to health care, engagement with art, or participation in religion.

Mahrouse opened her keynote address by explaining her research within the larger field of nonprofit studies: she currently researches how Canadian-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) create programs that produce and promote ideas of global citizenship for Canadian youth and undergraduate students. She questions whether the constructions of global citizenship she has encountered in these programs can accomplish the social justice goals they claim to. Her lecture provided a sketch of the analytical framework she applies to understanding how “first world” subjects are constituted through these programs: the first program, a two-year university “North-South” educational concentration that includes two short study abroad stays with host families in “developing” areas and the second program, the “international charity and youth movement” Free the Children.

The first two elements of her analytic – framing the programs historically and pedagogically – were obvious areas of inquiry for her research, but the third element – emotion – came as a surprise. In her early interviews with study abroad students who had returned from a two-week stay with host families in Nicaragua, participants revealed that their experience affected them most significantly emotionally, rather than the educational gain she had expected them to identify. For example, one participant responded to an open-ended question asking her to characterize the study abroad experience by wistfully speaking of her host family and saying, “I will probably never be one of them in this way again.” This response was far more typical than she expected: indeed, nearly half of the students used the word “love” to describe the experience they shared with their host families. Although she did not doubt the veracity of the emotion these participants claimed, she wanted to know: Why familial love? Why with such intensity after a short duration? And why in an environment where the participants also identified the language barrier as a significant challenge? This prompted her to turn to theorists of affect and emotion like Sara Ahmed to consider “how the person who feels orients herself toward the object of her feeling”; she began questioning what emotions are displayed, by whom, and to what end during these encounters produced by NGOs.

Stage Shot of a We Day Event - featuring unidentified speakers and Free the Children founder, Craig Kielburger
Her second case study, a recent “We Day” event sponsored by the NGO Free the Children, demonstrates this emotional response on a large scale. These events gather Canadian youth in arenas across the country and offer a dizzying panoply of contrasts: in a matter of hours, an audience in the tens of thousands may hear a song performed by Justin Bieber, then view a video flashing visceral images of human rights violations, followed by listening to a speech from a former child soldier and then viewing a magic performance. Again Mahrouse encountered intense displays of emotion, in this case a sharp contrast – from cheering to crying – within a matter of minutes. At the center of these events are We Day’s young founders, brothers Craig and Mark Kielburger. Typically, audiences emotionally erupt in response to their presence on stage, Mahrouse claims, not unlike Beatlemania.

Participants leave these events feeling that they have “done” something, what Mahrouse described at one point as experiencing the “redeeming powers of vicarious action.” After purchasing Free the Children merchandise and cheering the Kielburger brothers, who are seen to embody the global reach of the organization’s humanitarian projects, We Day participants feel a sense of civic virtue--not from taking direct part in a humanitarian effort, but from witnessing those who do. These youth are invited to care about global humanitarian issues through “domestic empowerment programs” like We Day, but not invited to feel complicit in the processes and conditions that create the humanitarian problems the organization aims to address. Instead these organizations foster audience identification with suffering through an uncomplicated “there but for fortune” narrative that suggests sheer luck in the location of one’s birth provides life advantages, negating completely complex histories of forced removals, colonialism, and neo-imperialism that continue to shape the global political landscape. Providing a quick reading of Free the Children’s primary mission to “empower children in North America to take action to improve the lives of fellow children overseas,” Mahrouse asked the audience, how can this model – of “empowered” North American youth acting “to improve” fellow children – claim to make transformative social change?

Race is “both everywhere and nowhere” in such programs, Mahrouse reported. The study abroad program invites its predominately white, female participants to forge a connection to their host families by introducing the language of kinship prior to their departure, a move that does not open up space to consider ethnic difference productively. The We Day events never mention race to their predominantly white Canadian youth, even as they flash images of tortured and emaciated young people from Africa and Asia. The contrast in appearance of the event’s performers (a Zimbabwean wearing “traditional” dress may stand next to a Kielburger brother in jeans and a t-shirt) visually reinforces a vast divide between “authentic victims” and “modernized white activists.” Mahrouse thus concludes that the global citizenship she encounters is highly racialized and mobilized through first world power and collective displays of emotion.

Arena Shot of a We Day 2010 Event
In the question and answer period, Mahrouse asked if “moving” emotionality is a good thing. Audience members engaged with this concern, thinking through the possibility of fostering an ethic of care that goes beyond “creating self-centered emotional identification” and questioning the use of emotional manipulation in rights campaigns. I raised parallels between Free the Children and Invisible Children, the US nonprofit whose recent video, Kony 2012, sparked both intense identification and outrage – in part because the video’s format asks viewers to identify with the organization founder’s tow-headed son, suggesting that to be able to recognize the value of Ugandan life, one must extend the valuation we already possess for the lives of white Americans. Close to the end, fellow keynote speaker Jai Sen, Director of the India Institute for Critical Action, urged the audience not to reject the emotional aspects of activist experiences outright, acknowledging value in the affective experiences of activism and the moments of transformation they may bring.

I want to acknowledge the efforts of the Nongovernmental Impulse project organizers in making the symposium possible: faculty members Soo Ah Kwon and Mimi Nguyen> and graduate students Sarah Casinelli and Fay Hodza. The seminars and public events they organized over the year created a productive space that asked participants to examine our own positionality as we operate as academics and activists within and outside of the academy.


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Lauren said...

Thanks, Martha for this very clear and interesting recap of a lecture I wish I could have attended. I'm not sure if Sarah C. is reading but, if so, I wonder if she sees some interesting overlaps between the emotional narrative you describe here from Mahrouse's lecture and the one the kind Lofton described a few months back in relation to her Oprah book.

Sarah C said...

I am reading this and I completely agree, Lauren! I thought of similar connections as I was listening to Professor Mahrouse's talk. Emotional narratives seem vital in shrinking distance, space, and time when it comes to "helping" and "healing." Of course, at the same time, they also reinforce difference and geopolitical power dynamics.

Great write-up, Martha!

Lauren said...

We are on the same wavelength. :)

Zsuzsa Gille said...

Dear Martha,
Thanks for this great summary. I am forwarding your post to my grad students sho focus on NGOs and civil society.

I do think one of these years we ought to have a Unit year on emotions and love. All leftists now talk about love! See some of the discussions we had at the Beyond Utopia conference.

I also wanted to call people’s attention to a critical take not just on Kony but also on ted.com by Teju Cole, who puts all these phenomena under the rubric of “the white savior industrial complex”: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/


Lauren said...

Thanks so much for that link, Zsuzsa.

Zsuzsa Gille said...

Actually, this is the better link:


Lauren said...

And thank you again!

Unknown said...

Martha, I thank you for posting this very useful summary of Gada Mahrouse’s Keynote Address. I was especially interested in the issue raised about emotion, as it reminded me so much of what happened here in the UK when Princess Diana died and the public displays of grief that silenced and intimidated so many of us who did not share in it. Also, I meet many people engaged in forms of "solidarity" and "international activism" work who experience similar states of heightened emotion and "bonding" during their stays in Israeli Occupied Palestine and other places around the world. I often find myself cast in the role of cynic, spoiler or hard hearted hannah when I question the veracity of their work and its impact on change. These new forms of tourism, as I see them, are "character building" jaunts for middle class youngsters (in the UK). I'd like to see more work done to expose the corrosive impact of "charity" and "welfare" models of support promoted in western nations. The passive emotions of sympathy and compassion dressed as "love" - act as protective shields around illiberal and unequal relationships between donors and recipients and fend off criticism and challenge. "Doing Good" is doing a lot of harm and shoring up the status quo.

Anonymous said...

David Jefferess has published similar arguments on the Me to We social enterprise, as well as on the relation between benevolence and global citizenship education, and the idea that humanitarian programs like these exhibit a "post-racial" politics.

Here are the links to the articles:




Anonymous said...

Hi, I enjoyed reading your article. I just wanted to say though, to go to We Day teachers bring students who have not only learned about, but have also taken action on both a local and global cause. So the day is meant to celebrate that and inspire more action for the year to come.