Forum Annual Conference 2018: The savior complex in a complex society


Nikki Powell


When I hear a keynote speaker quote Marcus Aurelius, I kind of roll my eyes a little. But when they quote my favorite poet, Mary Oliver, I sit up and listen, because I know that this is one of my people talking. That was my reaction to Grant Oliphant’s presentation at the United Philanthropy Forum Conference in Boston.

Oliphant is known to be a man of words, which I respect, but a man of Mary Oliver I respect even more. He was talking about the role of our philanthropic sector in addressing inequities, disparities, even atrocities in today’s society. He quoted Oliver’s poem ‘Tecumseh,’ which includes these lines: ‘there’s a sickness/worse than the risk of death and that’s/forgetting what we should never forget.’

Oliphant has ideas on what we should not forget: that destiny is not on our side, and that the arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend toward justice. But what I really heard him say was this: no one is coming to save us—we have to save ourselves.

There is much head nodding about what should be done to fix the world writ large, and in philanthropy we often think we have all of the answers. But how often are we applying those answers to our individual selves, the people we are and not just the roles we play at the organisations we represent?

Wait a minute, you say. In a sector devoted to the love of humankind, aren’t we collectively trying to save everyone?

Yes, and yet, this is also true: we can be our own saviors, too.

This is HOW we save others—not from behind a desk, but from in front of a bully, or beside a protester, or on top of our privilege we’re using to gain access. The business of saving the world is not a spectator sport. What I heard Oliphant say most loudly was that we are the answer to our own questions.

Another Mary Oliver poem—’The Journey’—tells us that, though the voices are crying out to us to mend their lives, we have to strive deeper, into the woods, to hear that soft voice we recognize as our own, which we’ll hear when we are ‘determined to do/the only thing [we] could do –/determined to save/the only life that [we] could save.’

Perhaps we are not here to save everyone, but to empower everyone to save themselves.

Nikki Powell is Effective Practices Director PEAK Grantmaking

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