Effective Altruism

I’m new to a city I have never visited, but I know of people who have been here, who have lived here, who work here, or in the nearby area. In two weeks, in self-isolation and then out of it, they have all met me – and each one of them has spent time to ask if I’m okay and if I’m settling in fine despite the strange circumstances. By nature, I’m grateful for the privilege that has seen me travel and adapt to different environments so learning the ropes has not been a challenge, but I can recognize how critical community-building and the assistance that others provide through most processes is. Through this essay, I’m hoping to explain my perspective as to why providing community is effective altruism. I’ll make this clear: I’m not arguing that one form of altruism is more effective than others, nor will I engage with how other forms are more effective. Through four stories though, I hope to communicate what community has the capacity to achieve, and how applying this principle of community on a more macro-level will allow for greater inclusivity and empathy.

Last year, as a prospective postgraduate applicant, I contacted somebody who had successfully completed an application to a top University in America as a fresher – a rarity particularly because of the University’s clearly indicated preference for work experience. My ambition was to learn from their application, and take the advice they could impart and apply it to my own. I wasn’t successful. A week ago, I discovered that the same individual was going to be at Cambridge, and reached out in the hope that I would be able to meet. Prompt replies and a we figured out a meet-up, where having only previously interacted with each other virtually – we actually began to speak about things we couldn’t learn about each other on the internet. My takeaway from the evening was that I had spoken to somebody I would be able to speak to for a range of things, or work next to anywhere and enjoy their company.

In my third year I reached out to a lecturer at Cambridge in the hope I would receive a reply allowing me to carry out some research under their guidance, and received just that. I got here and was able to establish contact once more. One coffee meet-up later, I left with the sense that there was a commonality of background and interest that meant I could seek out help if I required it.

My mother’s school classmates both live in this country, both one hour away from Cambridge. Both visited me in consecutive weekends, asking not only about my well-being but providing home comforts and food. With one, I spent an hour chatting about their experience in the UK, and left feeling inspired to work hard and make the most of my time here academically. With the other, I spent five hours exlporing the city – having been let out of self-isolation at long last, and came away with the knowledge that it was possible to discover, slowly, a balance of the things I was passionate about, despite any pressures that may arise. Both allowed me to look at others’ lived experiences and say, I could pick up on things from that – but more critically, reach out if I came across things unfamiliar to me.

In the past month, we’ve been trying to figure out how to most adequately construct an alumni association for our school – and how best to collaborate with our alma mater to make things happen. The entire process has seen people much senior to me, and much junior to me provide perspective that corrected my biases. A call for help yielded a plethora of responses, several unexpected, but a real desire to create a community has emerged.

In all of these interactions, I have observed my own selfish motivations that prompted them: seeking out learning, companionship, friendship, mentoring, and network. So this evening I asked myself if there was a more selfless way to look at each of them. What I recognized was that none of these were monetary transactions, but lived experience allowed for individuals to share some of their time to assist somebody else. No other resources, just time. Time that yielded individual interpersonal connections that allowed community to be forged – and a sense of belongingness and direction.

Effective altruism seeks to find the most effective way to improve others’ lives. The creation of community through shared, lived experience to me, is an example of this because it allows people to observe and learn from somebody else things that no book could teach.

Imagine the creation of communities that fostered a similar exchange of experiences among people who have similar backgrounds, particularly from people who face similar barriers. How inspired would that leave people? How much motivation would we be able to impart? How much motivation would we be able to gain?

Being inspired, how many more individuals would have the opportunity, or at the very least, the enthusiasm to attempt to break down a similar barrier?

Wouldn’t that make our lives better.


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