Christiana Whitcomb ’14 Wins Top Elie Wiesel Essay Prize

Christiana Whitcomb ’14

Christiana Whitcomb ’14

In her first-place essay, “The Ethics of Intrusion,” Christiana Whitcomb ’14 looks at her role as a white outsider from Connecticut who drops into a Native American reservation in South Dakota. In the small prairie town of La Plant, Whitcomb interned for two summers (and part of a third) with an outside nonprofit that runs a summer camp for children, builds durable homes for families and hosts community events.

The 197 inhabitants of La Plant live a hardscrabble life on the windswept, tornado-prone plains. A staggering 99% of the townspeople are unemployed, the suicide rate is seven times the national average, and the nearest grocery store is 35 miles away. On the surface, Whitcomb’s motive in volunteering appears unquestionable, even noble. And so she thought at first, until she began to doubt herself.

“I have been hesitant to stop and question the ethics of this kind of intrusion because, for years, I have been seduced by the positive impacts,” she writes in her essay. “When a struggling family has a new roof over their heads, it seems petty to harp on the negative implications.”

In her essay, she recounts the painful memory of the suicide of a 12-year-old child on the reservation with whom she had been close. While she doesn’t blame herself for his death, she wonders what her presence on the reservation — and her identity as a privileged student connected to a well-funded nonprofit — conveyed to the children in the community.  “Most of [the residents] would say that they really like the summer camp and the new houses,” she writes, “but do they feel these are positive changes that they personally contributed to? In truth, someone else — a white, more privileged outsider — delivered these changes. In a place where self-worth is already so precarious, protecting the confidence of children in their identity seems to me one of the most empowering tools.”

Each year, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity holds an essay contest for undergraduates, looking for essays in which students grapple with ethical issues. Whitcomb received $5,000 for the top prize.

For years, Whitcomb’s closest friends have listened to her mull over the uncertainties she nursed about her work at the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation. But until last year, she had never written about them. She decided to pursue the Wiesel essay competition after her friend urged her to consider it. Her goal, she said, was never to win.

“It was a chance for me to think through and clarify for myself these questions I had been thinking about,” Whitcomb said. “I didn’t expect anything at all — I just thought it would be good for me, personally.”

Visiting English Professor Russ Rymer mentored Whitcomb through the essay writing process, discussing with her the ethical problem she was investigating and reading all her drafts. “Christiana chose to write about a very tough subject, the ethical consequences of even our most charitable and well-intentioned acts,” Rymer said. “…[She] succeeded by reworking and refining her essay to be sure that, while the personal experience and the ethical dilemma were hers, the story’s focus remained solidly on the people she was serving. She viewed the world, and even herself, through the eyes of others. The result is a rare thing: a piece of deep introspection that is not self-centered.

Whitcomb says she’s given a lot of thought about what to do after graduating that could bring about the most positive change to society’s most marginalized people. She’s decided to pursue graduate school in urban design and planning. “I figured out what I was interested in by working on that reservation,” she said.

She said some of the lack of economic development and the weak social cohesion of the community has to do with the way the reservation was designed (it was “plopped into the middle of the prairie”) and the types of housing the people were given (unmaintained trailers). “No thought was put into it,” Whitcomb criticized. “It’s mind boggling to me how this happened.”

Her essay, while avoiding firm conclusions about the rightness and wrongness of humanitarian work done by outsiders, does end with a personal resolution. “It is my personal responsibility to find a time and place for the values that I find important — to understand when my intrusion is harmful, and subsequently when it has real value,” Whitcomb writes.

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