Upward in Life, Forward in the NGO sector

Editor’s note

Last weekend, Xiaoxue’s second child was born. Looking back on the path she has taken while embracing this new life, Xiaoxue presents us with a touching story of how a NGO worker grew into her role. In the article we can bear witness to her relentless search for justice and the meaning of life, and her aspirations for social reform—only sophisticated and sensitive souls could possess a spiritual world of such richness. She has never stopped trying for the better, encouraging us to have faith in the future of the Chinese NGO sector.

My Childhood

I grew up on the black soil of North Eastern China. It was the decision for China and the former Soviet Union to jointly create new farmland(中苏共建友谊农场) that sent both of my two grandfathers to the land of forests and meadows. My mother’s father had fought in the Chinese War of Liberation and the Korean War; as a retired soldier, prudence and integrity had marked his life, and he had never taken advantage of his position for the benefit of his family. My father’s father was an educated technician; he was a hard-working and righteous man who, during a period of time, suffered from political persecution because of his honesty. My environment growing up might have cultivated the strong desire for fairness and justice which I have had since I was young. I would stay at each of my grandmother’s homes one day and switch to the other’s the following day, and I would not change this schedule during my vacations. People would see me every time fights broke out in school, because I was always there to stop them.

During the 1990s, with the increasing population flow and the migration of workers, the business in state-owned farmland was declining. My father started to leave home for work when I was in 6th grade in primary school, and he went in turn to Laos, Libya, and Shandong and Yunnan provinces; two older female cousins who were ten years older than me also left to work in Beijing. I was a “left-behind child” in today’s terms. I did not acknowledge the meaning of their leaving at the time, but I admired them for going to far-away places. But they seldom wrote or came home, and I remember me and one of my elder male cousins writing letters to blame them for that. Looking back now, I think maybe they did not write back because they were not in the mood or were tired; after all, we did not know anything about their life back then.

My College

My teenage years ended with my successful entrance to university. I got an offer for a popular major —electronics and information engineering at the China University of Geosciences(中国地质大学)in Beijing. My middle school Chinese language teacher strongly suggested that I choose to major in Chinese literature, and I didn’t listen; but a few years later I stepped into education, so maybe it was just meant to be.

College life was colorful. During my freshman year, as the secretary of the Youth League branch(团总支部书记) in my department, I devoted myself to organizing student activities. I got bored with student activities as a sophomore, so I started taking up part-time jobs like being a selling agent on campus, events organizing and writing. I had got fed up with part-time jobs too by the time I entered my junior year. Then I accidentally joined the campus debate club, where I met the love of my life who I later married. During senior year I prepared to apply for graduate school, and I finally set a goal: the program of economics and administration of education in Beijing Normal University.

The key for me during my college life was to try things that I was interested in. I tried new things; towards some of them I was unenthusiastic, so I stopped doing them; some I found fascinating, so I kept on trying. During this process I discovered myself, I explored myself, and I found myself. I think this is what college means to Chinese youth— it means granting them plenty of time and liberty to explore their true selves, worn down by the previous 12 years of exam-oriented education. I believe this is not just a waste of time: utilitarianism does not lead one to success, and a person’s success does not have to follow a linear path; as long as you do it with your heart, what you have done will benefit you eventually, even if it seems irrelevant at first glance. This is what my experience has taught me.

My six cousins were also fighting for their future while I was in college. Going down different paths, we have all found our places in society. I think it is because of the optimism and the desire to make progress that my family possesses. Influenced by my family, I believe one has to strive to support oneself, and blaming other people is not a solution.

Entering the field of philanthropy

Above are my earlier experiences, and you can see that they have nothing to do with my current career in philanthropy. Indeed, it was only after my senior year at college that I started to come into contact with this field. It all began by accident. One day my counselor said that I was going to receive a philanthropy (公益)award. I was confused, thinking: “Why would I get an award for craftsmanship (工艺)? Was it because I made a good hammer in the metal processing course?”(craftsmanship and philanthropy are pronounced the same in Chinese). When I received the award I found out that it was entitled “philanthropy” rather than “craftsmanship”. This is telling of how unfamiliar I was with the field. I do not know if it was a matter of “a gift blinding the eyes”(拿人手短), but I have been bound up with philanthropy ever since.

My first experience of philanthropy was in the summer vacation of 2005. The vacation was not stressful for me as I had already been accepted as a graduate student in Beijing Normal University, so I searched the internet to see if there was anything I could do. At the time the Chinese Federation for Corporate Social Responsibility (CFCSR中国企业社会责任同盟) had just been set up. They were recruiting volunteers, and so I went. Some famous enterprises, such as China Merchants’ Bank, Cisco and Vanke were members of the federation, and while they paid their membership fees, the federation initiated projects. The first two projects the federation launched were a volunteer teaching project for poverty alleviation (助教扶贫)(which recruited college students to teach voluntarily in Guizhou province for a year) and a teacher development project which trained teachers from Gansu province in Beijing. At first I was a volunteer, but then I became a part-time worker who was in charge of the recruitment and delivery of the second batch of volunteers, and I also helped with the arrangement of the teacher development project. From my first time in the field I recognized that many factors can affect the launching of a project. The needs of the project’s target group can easily be neglected when time and resources are limited.

After that summer I began my master’s studies in Beijing Normal University, during which I almost by coincidence joined a student group called “the Children of Farmers—the China Rural Development Association (农民之子—中国农村发展促进会). The group was permeated by an atmosphere of democratic debate and its weekly meetings were always full of fierce debates and different opinions. The different sides would usually be unable to reach a consensus, and the following week the situation would be the same. I am an objective-oriented person who values efficiency and results. Their style of discussion and decision-making was new to me at first, but it later became unbearable due to their low efficiency. I had thoughts of leaving many times, but I carried on.

It was after several years that I found the group had reshaped my values. One of the incidents that impressed me most deeply was the time when we came back from a field research in Hunan. A senior student complained with indignation that a woman had been forced to have an abortion because her baby was a “child in excess”(超生). I disagreed with him and could not help rebutting, saying that the planned birth policy is necessary for the development of the country, that the woman had violated the policy first and I could not understand why he was so angry. He fired back at me: “do you think a policy should ignore basic human rights? Have you seen what she was like? What would you do if that woman was your sibling?” I was shocked by this conversation. I realized that a person could easily lose their empathy when they were exempted from the sufferings of others, which in this case was turned into far-away examples and figures. It also hit me that although personal striving is necessary, it is far from enough: only with just social structures and social rules can one’s efforts truly pay off.

Affected by the “Children of Farmers”, I paid more and more attention to social injustice. The thesis of my final dissertation was “the integration between migrant children and local children”(流动儿童与本地儿童融合状况的研究) . I designed a measurement scale using a social nomination method to see if the children’s selection of friends was affected by where they were born or their registered residency. My result was that it was basically not affected. One time on a bus, a woman caught sight of me while I was reading my draft. I introduced my topic to her and she was thrilled by it. She told me she worked for the commission of education and she thought my topic was worth researching. Hearing her words, a stream of delight poured through my heart. Just as I was about to explain further, her face turned angry and she raised her voice, saying: “those migrant people have taken up too many resources in Beijing, I think they should all be sent back.” I was too dumbfounded to say a word before she got off, feeling deeply depressed: she was all smiles just a minute ago, and she works for the commission of education! It occurred to me how serious the problems of social discrimination and social injustice are. Comparing students’ indiscriminate attitudes in making friends with the discriminatory views that woman held, I understood the importance of social context: people who think like that woman are influencing the attitudes and values of the next generation.

In the society

Time went by fast. After I finished my master’s degree, I started conducting research about social attitudes at the Horizon Research Consultancy Group (零点研究咨询集团). This is the kind of research that I like: it concerns the public and society, and it reflects the genuine opinions of the public. Once Horizon undertook a project financed by the Ford Foundation, which provided chances and help for college students to run philanthropic start-up businesses (it became known afterwards as the Black Apple Youth黑苹果青年). The project sought to enhance the abilities of college students and to cultivate talent for Chinese philanthropy. I happened to be the project manager. It was different from the usual research projects conducted by Horizon, and I had few previous experiences for my reference, so I had to consult people who work in the philanthropy sector while at the same time doing and discovering by myself. My job at the time was primarily involved in publicizing our projects at colleges, filtering project proposals, and organizing review meetings and trainings to mentor the implementation of the projects. With good luck, the projects soon began to gain in reputation, and my boss, Yuan Yue, began to receive requests for interviews and invitations. But as the project entered its second phase, my boss and I had some disagreements.

I thought Horizon should make an effort to improve the trainings and the quality of the project, after which we could expand them to more students and universities. I worried that it was too early to enlarge the scale of the project and that its quality would suffer, and our resources would not allow us to support such a plan. Yuan on the other hand believed the project should try to cover as many colleges as possible, in order to attract more students to sign up and expand our influence. Her logic was that there would be no funds and resources coming in if we did not elevate the scale of the project. Looking at the cycle of “scale-influence-resources”, Yuan held that we should not wait for resources to come to us before upgrading, but rather the other way round. Now I can understand his point of view, but at the time I could not convince myself to follow what he proposed, and so I chose to leave Horizon. This happens a lot: people always understand things better when they are not directly involved in the business. But to be honest, I would do the same again if I were given a second chance.

I became a full-time philanthropic worker at the Narada Foundation (南都公益基金会) after I left Horizon. As my journey in the field of Chinese philanthropy is unfinished, I can not claim that my comments are particularly objective. Speaking of NGO workers, I adored people who work in philanthropy before I entered the field. I admired their moral stature and their spirit of sacrifice and could not accept anyone looking down upon them. But when I became one of them, I found the quality of NGO workers to be uneven. I realized that it is not a person’s profession that makes their reputation, but rather their work ethic and the value they create. Speaking of the philanthropic sector, philanthropy appears to be a sublime mission with great expectations, yet in the current phase, the sector in China lacks fundamental competitiveness, and the professional ability to effectively intervene in social problems; the sector also needs to improve its marketing and enhance its influence, along with its operational mechanisms, in order to guarantee the continuous working of its institutions. It is like the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” — the brainless cornfield scarecrow, the woodman without a heart and the cowardly lion all manage to find ways to fight the evil wizard and win back their wisdom, love and courage. In the process they unleash their potential and fight with great unity. So I wonder if China’s philanthropy is moving along the same path: some of us have already fought down the wizard, some are struggling on the way there, and some have only just started…

A friend of mine once asked me if I regret any choices that I made. I think there are two things that I will never regret: studying education and working in the field of philanthropy.

In Brief

Xiaoxue, a young mother, presents a touching story of how a Chinese NGO worker grew into her role. In the article we can bear witness to her relentless search for justice and the meaning of life, and her aspirations for social reform.
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