I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.
- Eduardo Galeano
'Solidarity over charity' is a philosophy of engagement and also a practice that underpins our approach to social change at Thoughtworks. It’s core to our culture and is a lens through which we see the world.
Charity is something you give to those 'less fortunate than yourself'. It suggests a belief in a hierarchal system, an 'us' and a 'them'. It creates a power dynamic that further reinforces systems of oppression and economic inequality.
Solidarity, by contrast, takes a systems change approach. Its foundational philosophy is that all relationships and power dynamics are multi-directional and acknowledges that everyone has wisdom and resources to solve problems.
The writer Tim Wise offers a helpful framework to understand the differences between solidarity and charity:
Who creates the problem? Charity work is often based on the premise that marginalized people have some sort of deficit. Those who work in solidarity, on the other hand, understand that conditions of inequity are created by the dominant culture.
Who holds the knowledge? Charity work flows from the premise that the giver has the expertise to decide both what the community needs and how to provide it. Solidarity work, however, assumes that the recipient community is in the best place to determine its own needs, and they have the right to determine how and when and if a service will be provided and by whom.
Where is the accountability? Charity work turns accountability inward so that the organizations providing services are ultimately only accountable to themselves and their funders. Yet, solidarity work turns accountability outward so that served populations decide whether or not the work is beneficial.
At Thoughtworks, we strive to be engaged global citizens advocating for equity and justice not only as Thoughtworkers but in every aspect of our lives.
We talk about one’s personal journey at Thoughtworks, recognizing that we all come from different backgrounds and life experiences that have shaped our worldview. Part of being a Thoughtworker is committing oneself to learning, being open to new ideas, challenging assumptions, and engaging in dialogue about complex issues. It means thinking about the ways to contribute individually and collectively to local and global social movements working to change unjust systems. And not only during business hours.
A 'solidarity over charity' framework also means that we recognize our economic and social privilege — and use that privilege to stand in solidarity with those who need access to the systems and benefits it has given us.
As an example, we believe in leveling the playing field for those who have been excluded from opportunities in the tech sector. We do this not because we are extending charity to those less fortunate, but because we fundamentally believe in the power of diverse voices in making Thoughtworks a great company and in delivering high-impact solutions to our clients. We invest in initiatives that attract diverse technologists to Thoughtworks because we believe that we are better, and the tech sector as a whole, is better for it.
Our deep partnerships with social movement partners have helped us evolve our thinking about the solidarity over charity mindset, and informed our decision to create the Office of Social Change Initiatives (OSCI) a few years ago. Those relationships continue to inform our social change strategies, our culture, and, in some cases, our professional services work.
What we’ve learned is that a solidarity approach requires us to partner with movements on systemic approaches. Similar to our professional services clients, we need to spend time to assess their needs and challenges, understand their stakeholders, and learn about their complex challenges and opportunities. When addressing issues of social and economic injustice, we often see one-dimensional solutions that don’t address the broader systemic issues that cause these problems.
Increasingly we are developing systemic approaches with our global movement partners, building ecosystems of technologists, service providers, policymakers, and activists working together to create change. We want to leverage technology as a tool for this change, but armed with new design and mapping techniques, we are also working to bring visibility to technological dynamics that reinforce systems of oppression and injustice.
Bahmni is one recent example of a systems approach Thoughtworks has pursued to make a larger impact. Recognizing the need for a common toolset in low-resource hospitals in countries such as Haiti and India, and building on our global volunteer work contributing to OpenMRS, Thoughtworks embarked on a multi-year commitment to develop and scale Bahmni, an open-source hospital information system. In addition to building a product roadmap informed by a core group of partners, we set out to build an ecosystem of support around Bahmni, which included finding implementation partners, funding partners, and other organizations that might be willing to contribute to the improvements of the product, either as volunteer contributors or users themselves.
Doctors without Borders has been one of the most critical partners in the development of Bahmni, using it in many hospitals around the world. And now that we’ve built that strong ecosystem and foundation of supporters around Bahmni, we have asked our most engaged partners to respond to the needs of global stakeholders and take it forward.
Thoughtworks’ size and geographic diversity gives us opportunities to make a sizeable impact in a variety of domains. Our solidarity over charity framework ensures that our impact is systemic, far-reaching and sustainable.
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Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.