Kyende Kinoti | December 11, 2020
A few years back I read All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks, who is a feminist theorist, writer, and academic. This book introduced me to the “love ethic”.
The love ethic is a value that encourages dialogue, understanding, and interconnectedness between all living beings. It is the idea that we should not only practice love in all spheres of our lives but that everyone has a right to love. While reading this book, I began to think about what a love ethic would look like within aid, philanthropy, governments, and nonprofits; and how listening is central to the love ethic.
Before going any further I want to offer the definition of “love” I am using. Similar to hooks, I will borrow Erich Fromm’s definition of love which states that it is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” placing particular emphasis that love is not something that one has to do but rather chooses to do (hooks, 4). I interpret this “spiritual growth” as deepening one’s understanding of the self as interbeing.
Indeed, it is safe to say that the fields of aid, philanthropy, government and nonprofits lend themselves to work that is primarily driven by love. Those of us who work to better the world should ideally be conscious of our interconnectedness to communities, the environment, and animals. However, this is not always the case, as we see in ongoing conversations about the colonialism that continues to exist in these industries. Colonialism and white saviorism illustrate that the consciousness of interbeing is absent in our work. We largely see this absence when organizations fail to listen to and respect the communities they seek to serve.
A year ago, I wrote an article about decolonizing development that looked at the paradigm shift that needs to happen within the development industry. In a colonized system we see that the love ethic breaks down when we choose not to listen to those at the center of their own lives, instead, the prevailing voices are those of experts or donors who are far removed for the truth and experiences of communities they claim to serve. Love is absent when we hold that certain groups possess a monopoly on knowledge even when that knowledge is about another’s life.
An approach led by the love ethic will embrace “a global vision wherein we see our lives and our fate as intimately connected to those of everyone else on the planet” (hooks, 88). This understanding of interbeingness promotes the idea that we are all equals, hence, no group has exclusive power over knowledge. Acting according to the love ethic involves listening to understand the lived experiences of others and accepting their narrative as the truth of their lives.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of being part of a LabStorm hosted by Jóvenes de Puerto Rico en Riesgo – a nonprofit working on youth development. This LabStorm was special because the youth at the center of the nonprofit’s work were actually present for the conversation. Their presence allowed for program supervisors to get direct feedback from the people they are serving on what would be the best way for them to close the feedback loop. The supervisors received the proposals from the youth with openness and seriousness, and not once did they use the age or position of the youth as a way to undermine their suggestions. What ensued was a beautiful example of what a horizontal dialogue looks like whereby each party has equal footing in the conversation and all listening is done with the intent to hear. This empathic listening is, in essence, what I believe the love ethic would look like within the fields of aid, philanthropy, governance, and nonprofits.
The next time you are planning a program, or collecting feedback, or analyzing the outcomes of your work, embrace the love ethic in your process. Respect that the individuals you serve have agency and expertise within their lives. Listen to them deeply and authentically. See how your and their lives are intertwined. And as Jóvenes de Puerto Rico en Riesgo says, “when you don’t know what to do, ask yourself, what would love do?”.