Some people have bright lives and Rory Smith, a revolutionary-thinking young man, is one such example. He works half a year in Mexico in an NGO Escalando Fronteras helping children enmeshed in youth gangs and the rest of the year in Sweden educating refugee children and as a freelancing journalist. We jumped deep into a discussion about troubled youth, immigration, bullshit jobs and meaning of life. Enjoy!
How did you come to found an NGO?
As a part of my Master studies I worked in the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) in the Mexico City and saw that Mexico had a high youth gang population. I met Nadia Vasquéz and in 2012, we launched a pilot project in Monterrey. It is a highly corrupt city with a lot of money in a few hands. There is the richest municipality in all of Latin America and then pure poverty all around.
It seems that the safe environment of an UN office was quite different to reality.
Yeah, it was a lot of administrative work and I did not get to do much in the field which I enjoy. The UN is generally very conservative about drugs. When we are talking about supply side, you are attacking the drug dealers but you are doing nothing to attack the demand. It is easier to proclaim a war against drugs and speak about bad and good guys. It is almost neocolonialist. Instead of making drugs illegal you should attack the demand side via prevention, treatment, and addressing the social inequities that often result in drug use and dealing in the first place.
How does this situation affect the communities you work with?
The children we work with are 7 to 13 years old and have grown up in harsh conditions of physical and emotional violence, parental abandonment, drug use and criminal activity. They consider these conditions normal. We use rock climbing as a means to support them in their studies.
Why did you choose rock-climbing and not other sport to help them?
We felt that rock-climbing gives them the same kick as selling or using drugs but in a safer atmosphere. It becomes their identity. They can front their own fears and frustrations and let them go in order to finish the track. It gives them internal satisfaction. They train twice a week in a gym and spend one day outside climbing. It also gives them discipline in their life full of chaos. It creates a positive circle where more experienced children get leadership positions and reinforce other kids.
How does the community feel about it?
Some parents are supportive, some less. We have never experienced anything dangerous against us but violence happens to children who return to their neighborhood. It is their daily bread.
How do you get funding?
We get financial support mostly from climbers and some from the government. But Mexican government is highly corrupt and the NGOs are as competitive as businesses. Everyone is fighting to get money. I am asking why it is so easy to make money and why it is so difficult to do good? What is wrong with it? It would be great if we had a billionaire philanthropist who would support us until the end of ages.
That would be great! Rory, what do you do when you are in Sweden?
I try to integrate refugee children into Swedish society. I think we have to think about refugees as attending their job interviews. You and I go to an interview and it is easy but these people have gone through rape and extortion in their country and they come in essence for a job interview. Yet we are sending them back. Instead of taking refugees, policies are exporting development aid but this is not really helping. If you look at long-term studies of countries from which many immigrants originate, immigration will continue – similarly to levels of human satisfaction – until a certain amount of income is generated within these same countries. That means that many in the so-called middle class developing countries will continue to immigrate until standards of living increase substantially. I would say we are in time where we have to reconsider many policies. Putting up walls and exporting immigrants what Europe is doing is a very short-sighted strategy in my opinion.
What should be done then?
I do not know but I think there is not much solidarity in Europe. You have some countries which take vast throws of economic refugees and some are very conservative. The Czech Republic is very anti-immigrant as well as Croatia. The right-wing politics is growing and that is also happening in the US. I have no idea what should be done. I think the job market is precarious.
What do you think is wrong about the job market?
If you and I want to work in the social sector, we probably cannot, we are going to be paid like shit, even though we are delivering a public good. Whereas we can study business and make millions of dollars but what are we actually contributing to the social good. Most of this money isn’t spread equally across society. It becomes rent free income for a coterie of elite businesspeople. There is a growing frustration in the young population which comes to the job market and there is nothing for them. It is quite depressing to go to Greece. The workforce is well-educated, works hard, gets no money and there is no future in that country.
I feel there is a huge gap between university and job market. Either you get a badly paid job and do something you love, or you do a bullshit job and get a lot of money. I dare say it is not only a question of Southern countries.
It is a new form of brain drain within countries. All these corporations take in new people and enmesh them in the business world. Many US people are indebted after university, but they have to pay it off, so they accept these positions because they are much more highly paid than working in the social sector, even though the overall good of the social sector arguably makes society much more rich. Take example of journalism. People expect information to be free. People forget that to do investigative studies requires money and resources because we are getting some part of truth. And preferably this money should come from the people, not businesses, advertisers, or rich individuals whose influence over the direction of media outlets ultimately contravenes any notion of unbiased media. It is almost impossible to earn living from journalism.
What could be the solution?
I always take an example of anarchism as in community grassroots organizations and local collectives. My question is why do we even have a state if it does not give the basic human needs? I believe that state should provide free education, free healthcare and very basic services. Otherwise you get a business-oriented model for providing these services which always somewhere will evidence a gross and ineluctable conflict of interest. The best and most efficient medical systems in the world are in Scandinavia and there is only one provider: the government. In the US federal government is disappearing. And maybe it should. The governments of individual states have outpaced the federal government in implementing progressive policies that contribute to the public good. Think Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Colorado, etc…
Can you think of any examples of good states?
I would say Finland, Sweden, Denmark or Germany. I was born in the US in a middle class family and from that moment my options were set. We forget this. You cannot create an identity based on luck. I did not choose to be born in the US or Burundi. The fact that we identify with countries is untenable. We should identify ourselves as humans. Nationalism is a lot of hubris and ego. In 2016, we should be able to supersede this.
This is an interesting notion. How did you come to these thoughts?
I first came out of the bubble when I went for exchange to Argentina. I was shocked to see how the world was different to how we thought it was in the US. The ex-president of Uruguay once said that either you are happy with not a lot or you are never happy. You have to leave your bubble, your place in society, and preferably your country of birth for long periods of time to glean this kind of perspective. That is something that governments should think about implementing in order to expand the human consciousness and promote some sort of unified human existence: a mandatory year abroad, and not to some lush playground of the developed World, but to where most of humanity resides, in situations of extreme precariousness.
What is a meaning or sense of life for you?
For me it is getting over the fear of death. Why am I afraid of death? Why are we? You get little glimpses of that when you are in nature or traveling on bus or train and for a moment the fear stops. I could die in that moment and it would be ok. When you think about death, you start thinking about your life and about whether what you are doing is worthwhile. I think everybody believes they are contributing with something good, whether you, me or the guy in Goldman Sachs making millions of dollars. Maybe we all try to convince ourselves that we are operating to help the world. Maybe that is the ultimate human tragedy, that we are all blinded by hubris, by our notions of doing-good. Who knows? Just a little food for thought.
This has become a deep discussion.
Well, I think people do not have meaningful conversations anymore. We glance subjects and try to deflate everything with humor, laughter, or, and all too often, really shitty satire. There is a place for humor, it can be an effective tool, but all too often we use it when we are feeling uncomfortable instead of facing up to the origins of that discomfort. To have a deep conversation is hard. People want to have entertainment all the time. People are very uncomfortable with it. I do not know when it became bad to be intelligent and intellectually demanding. Why should it be elitist? I never really learnt anything during the years of my schooling, what I have learnt came from experience. When did it become negative to use your brain? We need to reempower the notion of thinking critically and demand it from everyone. Otherwise we learn nothing and go nowhere.
Thank you for the discussion. Wishing you happiness and fulfillment in your life, Rory.
Copyright: Rory Smith