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The Unexpected Way Organizations Exploit Vulnerable People

By Tim Schwantes on July 20th, 2017

Imagine this scenario: you’re part of a group of summer interns working on healthy community projects, each with a specific focus that requires a deep understanding of the local context and engagement from residents. You’re excited to start talking to residents, and you know the assignment aligns with your interests. However, early in your project, tragedy strikes: in the community where you’ll be working, gang violence erupts and some young people are killed. All of the sudden, the project you were assigned seems less important for residents, and you’re unsure about next steps. Should you continue working on the strategy you think will help make the community healthier, despite what’s just happened? Or do you shift gears to respond, regardless of what your supervisor may think? Is there another option?

Summer is a time when many organizations hire interns or temporary workers, typically for specific initiatives that benefit organizations’ needs and students’ desire for real-world experience. In nonprofits, government, and other community-focused agencies, this often involves having students engage with the public. Working alongside communities—especially those with long histories of being overlooked and, paradoxically, “over-researched”—requires that people with experience, understanding, and skills are there to navigate and adjust to real-time needs, even if they don’t fit neatly into an organization’s agenda.

But how often do we put those with the least experience (or lowest pay) on the front lines to do challenging work that requires them to make difficult choices?

Moral exploitation is the practice of taking advantage of people with little power or few alternatives and putting them in situations where they’re asked to make difficult moral decisions. Examples include soldiers, migrant farm workers, and caregivers. Soldiers expect physical and mental rigors, but may not consider the ethical or moral dilemmas they’ll encounter as they have to make split-second life-or-death decisions. Migrant farm workers may be in vulnerable positions where a supervisor or superior knows and takes advantage of their immigration status by asking them to work in compromising or harmful conditions. And overworked and underpaid caregivers may be tasked with making tough decisions about the health of children and older people. These dilemmas are common in education, social work, law enforcement, and healthcare systems, as well.

Even in the public health sector, we’re used to these norms. People working on the ground are often paid less or are volunteering, and they may be eager for opportunities to advance their careers. Supervisors can unintentionally take advantage of this combination of factors. When an initiative has a set agenda with specific deliverables and all goes well, people at the top can take credit. But when things don’t go as planned or community needs don’t sync with the organization’s agenda, people actually doing the work may get blamed. In the public health field, this can be framed in different ways: “they” didn’t maintain fidelity to the method; they got sidetracked or distracted; or, simply, they made a poor choice.

We have accepted this moral exploitation as common practice in the social change sector.

Typically, resources are limited, and it is lower risk for an organization to put someone with less experience or pay into situations where the desired outcome is unclear. However, we know this can do more harm than good for the community. Unclear expectations don’t equate to less important outcomes. And when an outsider comes in with good intentions, they still may be misguided or have limited experience to appropriately support communities and honor their needs.

To avoid putting students, interns, volunteers, or others who lack seniority into the first scenario, we can make sure that host and partner organizations are providing support and helping them navigate their work—a key difference from people who are morally exploited.

As organizations working toward healthy community change bring in new or less experienced people, we need to make sure that they receive regular check-ins, simulation exercises, supervision, and mentorship opportunities. And when tough choices come their way, we need to let them know this: they don’t have to make those decisions alone.

Tim Schwantes

Senior Project Officer

Life-long learner, connector, listener, privilege checker, and triathlete.