“So, what can I do to end poverty?!”
I get this question a lot. And, I usually get it in an exasperated tone.
I spend a lot of time on this blog, in my classes, and in conversations with family and friends saying things like “Huh, you shouldn’t do this” and “Whoa, I wouldn’t do that”.
I suppose it can all be very frustrating.
It may happen when a passerby with skeptical eyes asks you to explain your simulation of poverty. It may happen when you try to explain to the cashier that you can afford your groceries even though you have to put some items back. Or, it may happen while you are lying awake listening to the rain patter atop the tarp of your makeshift shelter.
Who knows when it will happen? But, it will. It happens to us all.
When I open my door to a knocking Jehova’s Witness, does she see me as someone in need of “service”?
When she informs me of my spiritual poverty, is she rendering “service”?
When my son comes to stand by my side, does she see a child at risk? Does she see spiritual abuse? Does she see another to serve?
A world without poverty has been predicted to arrive by 2035. This is a cause for celebration. However, is it also a cause for consternation?
A lot of us need poor people. Here are just a few of the ways:
o Without someone to ladle soup for, how will we teach our children about gratitude?
o Without a family to adopt during the holidays, how will we assuage our guilt for having it so good?
o Without community service opportunities, how will teenagers pad their college applications?
I was in eighth grade. It was a cold spring morning in Ohio. And, I was holding my mom’s hand in a human chain that stretched across the continental United States. We were ending hunger in Africa.
It was my first act as a do-gooder. And, it was the beginning of my conditioning by the Do-Gooder-Industrial-Complex.
The Do-Gooder-Industrial-Complex spun a particular narrative about the end of global poverty. It fed me a particular set of beliefs, assumptions, and notions about poverty and the poor. It prescribed a role for me in ending global poverty. And, over the years (a lot of years), it motivated me to take a set of actions that I now know were in many cases inconsistent with long-term sustainable development.
I was brainwashed. And, I am not the only one.
She swept the milk, eggs, flour and sugar one by one across the counter, punched each price into the cash register, and hit the total button. Our receipt churned out in a curl. She glanced at us and pressed another button. The receipt lengthened to include a blank space at the bottom. With a quick flick of the wrist, she ripped the receipt away, pressed it against the edge of the counter, and tore off the blank space at the bottom. In that space, she wrote down our family name and the total amount we owed. On the wall behind her, she taped it in a place for others to see. She handed us the remaining part of our receipt and we walked out with our groceries.
I am kneeling down beside her. My tattooed forearm is turned towards the camera. Her drawing of my snake tattoo is positioned just right for a side-by-side comparison. She’s in her Sunday best. Her arms are interwoven behind her back. Her head is titled to the side. And, she holds an incredible smile. It is one of the cutest pictures I have ever participated in. And, I felt this overwhelming urge to share it with others. So, I turned to Santiago (our Program Director in Honduras) and asked “When there’s a break in the lesson, can you ask her Mom if I can share this picture with my network?”
Smugly satisfied with the care I had taken to secure permission, I walked away visualizing the flood of likes and comments that were sure to follow. Thankfully, the values and ethos that guide the work my students and I do with our clients kicked in. And, so did the questions.
Can her mother really say “No” to your request?
I do not know. She is one of our clients, which places me in a position of relative power. And, I do not know her. Therefore, she has no reason to trust me. She has no reason to trust that I will not punish her if she were to deny my request. So, more than likely, she cannot.
Why did you have your picture taken with a child that you do not know anyway? Are you part of her family? Are you a trusted neighbor, teacher, coach, counselor, or religious leader?
This statistic takes our breath away. It should.
This statistic has also spurred many young Americans to take steps to end global poverty. These steps have taken many forms: mission trips, orphanage tours, donating used clothing, and buying a pair of TOMS shoes.
Some have been effective; a lot have not.
How is this possible? Weren’t we the generation that was supposed to end global poverty?
We were. But we won’t. Here’s why:
She sidles up quietly.
She takes my hand.
She laces her wrinkled fingers into mine.
I raise my shades.
She looks at me.
I look at her.
I smile back.
We stand in silence.
We watch my students and her community mingle. They are having coffee, eating donuts, sharing stories, and laughing.
She rocks my arm ever so slightly.
We do not share a language. We do not share a culture. We do not share a country.
We have vastly different backgrounds, histories, and upbringings.
We have overcome significantly different struggles.
We carry with us distinct sorrows and bits of suffering.
We carry with us distinct joys and pearls of happiness.
And, we enter into this moment, with vastly different degrees of power, privilege and material wealth.