It seems like I spent a great deal of time during college, talking about the problems of the world. Discussions with friends encouraged it, class debates nurtured it and current events demanded it. One class, especially, shaped my view about the interconnectedness of social issues: the introductory course of the Global Health minor. At one point, during presentations, I became aware of the number of non-African students who were taking service trips to Africa. I became curious of the way their backgrounds shaped their experiences in Africa vs. the experiences of an African student, or for those of African descent. Non-African students often spoke of getting more out of the experience than what they feel they gave to the people around them. They also mentioned frequently the joys people had in their simple existence.
The fascinating thing was talking to the other group, the African students with roots already established in Africa. They speak about having to explain “the whole volunteering” thing to their families and having to deal with the complex feelings they have towards aid agencies in the different communities they were stationed in. One thing that stuck with me, from those conversations is the way they struggled with reconciling the wealth and poverty in a country. People who were educated in foreign countries or have families abroad, or work with international agencies like the World Bank are often doing relatively well in their countries. They live in well-established places, yet often next to people who living in very poor conditions, people in lower social classes.
So, I asked my parents this question, on our ride back from Ithaca. How can people drive benzes and mercedes next to people who don’t know where their next meal would come from. So, my parents gave me another perspective. All the problems in the world cannot be solved in a lifetime. A solution someone could give to this dilemma, is for the wealthy person to build a house for his or her poor neighbors. Yet, that would not be the ideal solution. Giving someone something that you think they need shifts the power dynamic between you and the person, and might never make the other person comfortable. Another person might offer this solution: separate the rich and the poor into their own communities, so that no comparison can be made, or so that no one would feel bad (that sounds close to gentrification, no?). The outcome with that, too is that we are meant to live in interdependent societies, and separation put both groups at disadvantages.
So, here’s what my parents offer, as solution: The most important thing that everyone wants, is to be treated as human (read: respect). May the rich find peace of mind in his or her expensive home, and may the poor find peace of mind in his or her humble dwelling. If you are the rich one, treat the poor with respect, never thinking your opinions are higher than theirs. If an opportunity rises and you are able to do so, lend a helping hand. One way to lend that helping hand may be to provide education, or bring resources to that community that people can use to accomplish goals they have set for themselves.
And to think that in my 4 years in college, I never heard this rhetoric (maybe I fell asleep during this part of the conversation?). I feel like we spent a lot of time talking about what’s wrong, flirting with ways to fix them and finally coming to terms, discouraged, with how hard it is to implement systemic change.
Now, I’m reading up on Social Entrepreneurship on PBS, and I run into this quote:
“Social entrepreneurs identify resources where people only see problems. They view the villagers as the solution, not the passive beneficiary. They begin with the assumption of competence and unleash resources in the communities they’re serving.” by David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.
Now, that got me thinking about some social issues in Africa that we’ve talked about in the past: What are some socially responsible and sustainable solutions to Female Genital Mutilation? What about Obstetric Fistula? What about the lack of water in land-locked countries? what about infrastructure not strong enough to withstand natural disasters? We could come with our own solutions, but the first step should be grounding ourselves within the context of these issues, going within these communities and living with them, asking questions, listening and asking more questions.
The first step requires treating the other person as a human…and also realizing that failure will come. Social entrepreneurs often do not often succeed on the first try, but they always move the conversation forward.