Washington DC: Embracing privileges that we don’t innately deserve

Yes, this post comes from the same person who told you in 2011 that we should by no means feel guilty for being privileged. I said that after the great experience that I had at the conference Plan País at Yale University, where young, bright and extremely privileged Venezuelans gathered to discuss the future of their country. Back then, after hearing Lorenzo Mendoza’s (CEO of Polar) final speech, I realized that one of the few obvious truths that the Bolivarian Revolution pointed out –that one of the worst problems in Latin America is inequality– had managed to make a lot of people (especially the youth) feel guilty about their wealthy or privileged origins. What good comes out of guiltiness? My conclusion back then was that guiltiness doesn’t equal actions, and that privilege must be embraced and used responsibly for just causes.

Not feeling guilty of our privileged origins –along with the opportunities that we’ve had– however, doesn’t mean that we should not think about them. In fact, embracing them means to be extra-aware of their existence, and the fact that we are where we are not only because we are smart and hard workers, but also because we had the opportunities that others didn’t have. I know that many of you don’t believe in luck… in fact, the idea of it bugs me too. But it is undeniable that a coin is flipped every time a baby is born.

I write this because I have been living in Washington DC for almost three months, and I have met an unusual amount of young people who think that the world owes something to them. Fortunately, I have the good luck to work with a down-to-earth team, and to have a few old friends who keep my almost inexistent social life awake; but unfortunately, almost all the new young people that I have met are very full of themselves and very unaware of what involves them being here. This is not new. In fact, I have been told that egocentrism is a trend amongst the youth in DC. As a result of this, I decided to point out how many privileges influence our stay here.

First, DC is the city of unpaid internships. It doesn’t really matter if you work for the hill, an NGO or even some profit-making firms; an unusual amount of internships are unpaid. Why? Because cities like DC and even NY can afford it (and are not under unforgivable EU regulations). In other words, more than enough people are willing to work for free in one of the main centers of knowledge in the world. If you combine this with the fact that the average rent and transportation here are more expensive than in Paris, you begin to realize that if you are young and want to do an internship here, you need to have incredible saving skills or very generous parents.

Second, while it is true that many people have come to DC after fair and long online applications, for what I have gathered and experienced: contacts matter, especially on the hill. For those of you who thought that this only happened in the developing world, well… you are wrong. Some people get their internships because their father knows a congressman or congresswoman, because a professor referred them to a friend, and so on. Now, I don’t necessarily think that it is 100% wrong to use contacts (that would be extremely hypocritical), as a matter of fact, when some organizations get hundreds of similar and equally qualified applications, a referral comes in handy. However, when thinking about your current internship or job, maybe you should remember the hundreds of equally qualified applicants who didn’t know the people that you knew.

A couple of months ago I was working on an application for an internship in the fall at an organization that I love. The long application required official transcripts, two letters of recommendation, CV, cover letter and more. It so happens that I met the person in charge of the program and after a long conversation he told me to only send him my CV and a writing sample. I sent him what he asked for and after a couple of weeks he replied saying that he was sorry but that all the places had been filled. Of course I was sad, but at least they saved me a long and tedious application that, by the way, is still up on their website. I won’t ever say the name of the organization, but I pity all the people who must be working on that application as I write this.

I could go on and on… but I won’t. I think that you get my point. So please oh please DC interns, stop acting as if you innately deserved these opportunities, or as if the world owed you something. Remember that your position of privilege is a huge responsibility that has been given to you almost by chance. Yes, you are probably – and hopefully– really smart, but so are a lot of people in the US and the world who don’t know the right people to fulfill their ambitions or who cannot afford to follow their passions.

Marcela Colmenares

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2 thoughts on “Washington DC: Embracing privileges that we don’t innately deserve

  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s possible, maybe probably, that the tendency to exhibit a “the world owes me something” or “I deserve…” attitude is one that is too easily adopted – I know that I’m guilty of that. I think sometimes that attitude originates because some feel that they’ve done a ton of work and are thirsty for the rewards they expect and/or were told would be given if they worked hard etc.

    Thing is though, it never really is just about working hard. Meritocracy based on due diligence, perseverance, putting in your all and more is a respectable, honorable ideal that does not translate to lived experiences for many. There are systems, practices in place that do bestow privilege based on a number of features, often social constructs / categories such as gender, class, age, etc., regardless of the individual’s attitude, aptitude and efforts. Those privileges cannot be ignored – I do think it’s important that everyone, be it the incredible wealthy / powerful individual or the person who is down-and -out (e.g. unemployed, broke etc) recognize that where we are today is a result of factors besides ourselves. For the former, hopefully that will incite them to make decisions that do not denigrate or exploit others or the environment for their own profit, and for the latter, hopefully such recognition will serve as hope and motivation to keep fighting for the life they envision having.

    I agree with you that where we stand today is never just a result of our own hard work and efforts. It’s a culmination of numerous factors and privileges that are not necessarily earned by us, but rather just happened to be there for us. Forgetting that came lead to an unhealthy, annoying, egocentrism that hinders us from recognizing and respecting the valuable humanity, individuality, and potential that resides in each person we meet.

  2. Yukiha M says:

    It’s possible, maybe probably, that the tendency to exhibit a “the world owes me something” or “I deserve…” attitude is one that is too easily adopted – I know that I’m guilty of that. I think sometimes that attitude originates because some feel that they’ve done a ton of work and are thirsty for the rewards they expect and/or were told would be given if they worked hard etc.

    Thing is though, it never really is just about working hard. Meritocracy based on due diligence, perseverance, putting in your all and more is a respectable, honorable ideal that does not translate to lived experiences for many. There are systems, practices in place that do bestow privilege based on a number of features, often social constructs / categories such as gender, class, age, etc., regardless of the individual’s attitude, aptitude and efforts. Those privileges cannot be ignored – I do think it’s important that everyone, be it the incredible wealthy / powerful individual or the person who is down-and -out (e.g. unemployed, broke etc) recognize that where we are today is a result of factors besides ourselves. For the former, hopefully that will incite them to make decisions that do not denigrate or exploit others or the environment for their own profit, and for the latter, hopefully such recognition will serve as hope and motivation to keep fighting for the life they envision having.

    I agree with you that where we stand today is never just a result of our own hard work and efforts. It’s a culmination of numerous factors and privileges that are not necessarily earned by us, but rather just happened to be there for us. Forgetting that came lead to an unhealthy, annoying, egocentrism that hinders us from recognizing and respecting the valuable humanity, individuality, and potential that resides in each person we meet.

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