02/11/2013 04:04 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

Be Mine, Except in International Development

Valentine's Day is upon us, and those little candy hearts pervasively sugaring the public sphere with the words "Be Mine!" got me thinking recently about the possessive language we use to describe love.

I first belonged to Teresa.

I was sixteen the first summer I observed her clinic in Quito, Ecuador. Teresa, generous of spirit and possessed of a practical, winking kind of wisdom, is the matriarch of a good-hearted family that hosted high-school exchange students. She's also the executive director of Ecuador's largest family planning organization. The nurses there took me under their wing; took me to lunch; let me look through their microscopes; and let me observe heartbreaking consultations with girls my age who already had three children and were afraid their husbands would find out they'd asked about birth control. Teresa called me her "hija Americana," and one of the nurses joked with her about the contrast between my blonde hair and blue eyes and Teresa and her husband's dark complexions. Teresa slyly said that she kept a few foreign men on the side.

Then I belonged to Olga.

After my first year of college, I left and took an independent contract with the Swiss Agency of Development and Cooperation to work in Syktyvkar, a city near Siberia, at the Silver Taiga Sustainable Forestry Foundation. It was 2003, before Putin got quite so scary again, and Russia was enough of a post-Soviet free-for-all that I had something called a Humanitarian Visa, which was so long it folded out of my passport. Olga, the administrator of the Silver Taiga office, made sure I knew whose desk to use that day to edit archival forestry documents; there was no extra workspace, so it depended on which forester or ecologist was out in the field that day. She took me dancing in one of the small, blue-collar city's two discotheques, and when I was hungover afterward, she gave me kefir. She called me on one of the last days of fall to bring me to eat sheishkabobs by the river, saying it was a crime not to be outside before winter set in. She was twenty-eight, which is how old I am now. She called me her "little girl," and I was.

Then I belonged to Altai.

In her early thirties, she was easily the youngest and only female higher-up at Mongolia's Ministry of Justice. Educated at the University of Bonne, kind, elegant and reserved, it wasn't enough that she held such a high position in the Ministry: she had to be an incredible poet and short story writer, also, and I was there to edit the English translations of her stories. I did so in a corner of her office, watching groups of older, Soviet-attituded men troop noisily into her office, talking at top volume. They'd all look at Altai, who would say a very quiet word or maybe two, and in swift order they'd clomp off to do her bidding. I tagged along on Altai's trip to the Chinese border in large official vehicles that would occasionally be stranded by a river of sheep overrunning the road. I wasn't to know the purpose of the trip, and I joked with Altai that I followed her around as trusting and unaware as a duckling, so she took to calling me her "baby chicken." I'd been through a terrible experience with a much older and married former mentor in New York, and wasn't so sure I wanted to be in the world, wasn't so sure I'd make a fit partner or mother someday. This I confided to Altai, who seemed to have it all together. "But don't you want to know every stage of life?" she asked. "You were a small girl, now a sad young woman, but then the mother, the old wise grandmother? There is so much left to know what is like."

Of course, she was right.

Then I belonged to the Survival Girls.

It began with me and four shy, traumatized young women refugees from Congo sitting together in a dirty room in a church compound in a slum of Nairobi, Kenya. I was there to hold an arts workshop for a few weeks with female refugees and hopefully produce a piece for World Refugee Day to perform. I gave the girls the first girls-only space they'd had since undergoing some of the most unimaginable physical and emotional trauma and violence possible this side of death. Rape is a shaming event for the women who suffer it, especially in their communities, but once these dynamic and talented Congolese girls realized that it was safe to talk about it, they decided also to create about it. The girls not only produced an original piece of theater about gender-based violence, but their group still thrives today, nearly two years later: The Survival Girls, a self-sustaining community resilience project--a girls' theater troupe that has been contracted to perform all over Nairobi about issues ranging from AIDS awareness to female genital mutilation. The UNHCR personell who knew me as a volunteer referred to them as "Ming's girls." I called them my girls, too. The Girls referred to me as theirs: as "our Ming."
And I was. And I am.

Which is why it managed to surprise me that when my essay about the Survival Girls was chosen in a worldwide contest for inclusion in USAID's Frontiers in Development publication last year, the edits I received voiced concern about my use of possessive language. "Calling them 'your girls' might come across as condescending," one reader put it gently.

Wow, I thought. That's true. I have now done various kinds of development work in ten countries over the last decade, in each case entrusting myself to the care of those who knew the lay of the land, accepting their generosity with the boundless gratitude of someone who knows she'd be in over her head without it. I had no problem being identified as belonging to those care-ers, who are some of the most incredible humans I know. I'm ashamed that I didn't realize what a problem it was to identify them as mine, though. Development work is inescapably a framework of a person (or team of people) of privelege from one nation introducing themselves into the communities and environments of another nation, to do things or have things done by the local population, purporting to know what's best, to know enough to "help." And, as development work is part of what I do, I live on the side of believing that it does help much more often than not. But it's unlikely that the contemporary international development framework will ever fully escape the ghost of colonialism based on the presumptions inherent in it alone. Presuming to know what is best for another culture and how it should change is a heady position that smacks of the largest systematic and rutinized enactment of violence in modern history. It's also a position that is hard to divorce from the (hopefully) beneficial business of international development today, but the editors of the USAID book were right to call me out on one of the ways I unconsciously informed the more nefarious side of that connection. I do presume to know what's best for the girls insofar as I show up to lead workshops, which is a nice, hopefully-helpful form of bossing other people around. Like, oh, I don't know, Thanksgiving, international development is largely seen as a positive, but it grows out of a shady and violent past.

And ours is a past whose worst undercurrents we can unintentionally reinforce with our words. A piece of my forthcoming book about the Survival Girls is extracted in The Better Bombshell, an anthology pairing artists and writers to examine the female role model. In it, author and activist Rick Bass interrogates the very words "better" and "bombshell," asking if those words are the best ones to use, and whether they reify the best messages. The words we use perpetuate the constructs of power in which we live, and our conciousness of that fact determines how many abuses of power our choice of words perpetuates. I will belong to the Survival Girls for the duration, but they do not belong to me. They are "my girls" in the sense that my writing students are "my students," but context determines to no small extent ethical participation in any power differential: it's simply not the same thing to refer to the Survival Girls as "mine," because a dirty church compound in a country that they cannot leave, and that I can, is not the same landscape of power and agency that a classroom in Indiana is. My choice of words would do well to reflect the reality of that distinction as long as that distinction exists--though the hope of development work is that, someday, it won't.