For Cal Students Looking to “Do Good”: The Global Poverty and Practice Minor (A Graduation Speech)

For Cal Students Looking to “Do Good”: The Global Poverty and Practice Minor (A Graduation Speech)

By Shrey Goel

Shrey Goel with Prof. Ananya Roy
Shrey Goel with Prof. Ananya Roy

The pre-Global Poverty & Practice Minor student is a particular, but not unique, sub-species of the Berkeley undergraduate. Often, these students come to Berkeley impassioned but without direction. They want to challenge the status quo, advocate for those in need, and represent a cause that is being ignored. Deep down, they just want to do something meaningful. I know I certainly did—I had a desire to “do good,” and maybe a bit of me even believed that desire set me apart from others. You see, my parents taught my siblings and me to always recognize our privilege and value the idea of “giving back” to those in need. In high school, I began to tap into that social consciousness, exploring issues like social welfare, affirmative action, and inequality. So perhaps you can understand that for many in my cohort, myself included, when we first heard about the Global Poverty & Practice Minor, there was no question about it – this was our mission, what we came to Cal to do. GPP was our calling because we cared about poverty and inequality. What we may not have realized then is that we were late to the game; GPP was already one of the largest minors on campus and the debates about how to address poverty had already been raging long before we even arrived at Berkeley.

But perhaps it’s a good thing we didn’t realize it at the time. Our naiveté made us ideal candidates for what GPP can offer. I must confess, I had never cared enough about course material to take notes the way I took them in GPP 115, the inaugural class into the minor. Sitting in Wheeler Auditorium, I found my hand scribbling away, racing to capture the nuance of every point of Professor Ananya Roy’s impeccably delivered lectures. Those lectures were riddled with ethical dilemmas, forcing us to confront ideas like the savior complex, simplistic notions of the poor as victims without agency, and the development industrial complex. And at the end of the day, the message was this: you are guilty. We are all inextricably implicated in systems of power. There’s no silver bullet but ignorance is ethically indefensible. So what will you do?

At it’s best, what GPP does is lure us in, with our fledgling social consciousnesses, and throw us into debates raging in the world of poverty and development. In doing so, the minor presents students with an opportunity to contribute to those debates. Then, through the help of our GPP 105 Methods Course taught by Clare Talwalker and Khalid Kadir, we are taught to engage in a form of scholarship that is simultaneously nuanced, critical, and self-aware, as we learn to contextualize our looming Practice Experiences in the “real world” of development work.

Our Practice Experiences cannot be summarized through any one anecdote. Some of us worked for local organizations, others abroad. Some of us worked in offices, others in the field, some of us performed administrative tasks, others labored to build things. But more importantly, some of us worked for organizations that pursued “Band-Aid” solutions, and some of us for orgs that sought to tackle the causes of poverty at a deeper, more structural level. It wasn’t always something we had control over, and the work was sometimes frustrating for many of us, but in all cases, there was plenty to take in.

Although our Practice Experiences varied, returning from them and taking the GPP 196 Capstone Reflection Course was, for many of us, a cathartic experience. Our instructors Khalid Kadir and Cecilia Lucas pushed us to take our experiences and actually engage in the iterative process of reflection, never allowing us to become complacent in our critical assessment of our organizations or our roles in them. The reflection course provided us with a setting to connect to our peers in the minor—the few other people who could understand what it meant to wrestle with the ethical dilemmas presented by our practicums—and the course facilitators helped us to find support in one another. We came to see that the empathy and perspectives of our classmates were as indispensible to the learning that took place as the mentorship we received from our instructors and the support we received from our program coordinators, Sean Burns and Chetan Chowdhry, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to hone and improve the minor.

GPP seeks to mold us into citizens who will advocate for the rights of the marginalized to be heard in the dominant narratives of the global political economy. The irony of pursuing a minor like this at an institution like Cal, however, is that even public education is expensive these days; thus the rising cost of public higher education is excluding many voices from discussions of the very systems which affect them most. Yet another irony of pursuing a minor like GPP is this: if it weren’t for the depth and richness of the GPP curricula, with its focus on teaching us to critique and challenge everything, including our very education, I might not have felt my education was worthwhile. For me, the heart of what GPP offers is all about self-reflexivity. Self-reflexive scholarship, to me, is about never letting yourself off the hook. It’s about challenging yourself, your ethos, and your motivations, as well as the motivations of the people and organizations around you to demand better.

Today we are here to share—to share with you all, our friends, family, and faculty who have supported us, this celebration of all that we have accomplished. But I believe we are also here to share with you our challenge: our mandate as global citizens and graduates of the Global Poverty & Practice Minor. It’s a challenge that I believe is fundamentally about remaining self-reflexive. Holding on to a social consciousness and having social-welfare-aligned political views are simply not enough. Rather self-reflexivity necessitates that we never stagnate in our pursuit of praxis—in the endless oscillation between action and reflection, which inform one another and lead to true learning. Self-reflexivity asks us to never become complacent in self-congratulation and always be willing to point the magnifying glass inwards; as anthropologist Laura Nader encouraged us to do, to be willing to “study up” and critique the power structures of the institutions within which we operate; and also, most importantly, to seek out and always remain accountable to those whom we purport to help, never allowing our voices to speak over those who are being ignored and helping to carve out spaces and build platforms for them to be heard.

Graduating as a GPP Minor comes with a responsibility, and that responsibility is to recognize that the job is never complete, but is also constantly evolving. That job cannot be done alone. So as much as today is about celebration, it is also a call to action. What we students have learned and experienced through the minor is a window into how we all can push ourselves to engage in the discussions and processes of change taking place in communities around the world. So on that note, I’d like to end by recalling the prompt I left GPP 115 with: we are all inextricably implicated in systems of power. There’s no silver bullet but ignorance is ethically indefensible. So what will you do? But more importantly, what will we do together?

Shrey Goel graduated with a minor in Global Poverty & Practice and a BS in Environmental Science, for which he wrote an honors thesis based on his GPP Practice Experience. After graduation, he plans to work in the Bay Area and apply to medical school.

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