How do we walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? It’s not easy. They don’t always fit well. Sometimes we don’t like the style, the material they’re made from, or the way they pinch. Other times, we wouldn’t be caught dead in them–it would ruin our fashion image. What if you were in a part of the world where you couldn’t afford shoes in the first place and just getting food for your family was enough of a challenge? We want the power to choose our shoes, (and everything else in our lives), and we don’t want to be in a position where we have to take whatever shoes we can get. But what if it doesn’t work out that way? If you need help, how would you want to be treated? What kind of help would help you?
In English class I read a story called “Is There Life After Welfare?” written by a former welfare mom. In her story, we met a news story, a faceless statistic, and a self-described “hussy.” But that’s not all. We met a resilient woman who is an author, a college graduate, and someone who can teach us about helping. We need to see through her eyes and try to walk for a morning in her shoes. Many who have much to say about “those ‘tramps’ just using the system” have no idea what it’s like to work for minimum wage for long hours and still be looked at as a bum; to be treated like dirt because the only insurance you can get is medical coupons, or because food stamps help you feed your children. They haven’t been nameless faceless nobodies to a stranger with power to approve or disapprove the paperwork that either helps provide a house for your kids or leaves you homeless. This woman’s story provides a different view than we normally get from our self-righteous high horses and comfortably distanced lives.
Many of us have never had to live without choice. Many of us have never really been poor. I have never been poor. I have always lived in the wealthiest country in the world and had access to plenty of food, to transportation, to a dry place to live, and skills to get some kind of job. If I want to pay the price in money, energy, commitment, paperwork and homework, I have the choice to get an education. I’m not only white–I’m a white American, so there’s a whole system that supports my success, unlike that of others with richer skin tones. Unfair? Yes.
Although I have wealthy friends who have at times been appalled at the so called “poverty” evidenced by the cars we drove (or push started at times:), the outhouse we used while we waited to afford indoor plumbing (while we were building a home), or the fact that we are currently in a functional rental triplex and not the owners of our own palatial dwelling space at the moment, my life is blessed. I am privileged and grateful.
My husband and I are on the board of a local non-profit that provides help to internally displaced people in Burma, among other things. As a non-profit, we wrestle with how to best give without demeaning those on the receiving end; how to give ownership and empowerment, while maintaining stewardship of the resources we are responsible for. The IRS and the donors need one thing. Those on the receiving end of the gift need something else. In America, agencies proudly put their name on projects….”brought to you by______,” or “your tax dollars at work.” We “give,” but too often it’s still all about us.
We have tried to go a different path in this, following the example of friends who have worked overseas with community development for many years. They have seen the problems that occur when the giving takes away from those receiving and demeans (like welfare) those we are attempting to empower. So, if you look for “World Aid projects” overseas to be identified by big plaques or banners with our name on it, you won’t find them. You’ll find schools, clinics, orphanages, and food supplies under the name and management of the communities who benefit from them. Our job isn’t to make OUR name known; it’s to build up the communities we serve. While it is necessary for to be able to demonstrate to donors and the IRS here in the US and elsewhere what their generosity has accomplished, and so to be able to say “what World Aid did this year….”, on the receiving end, it is not necessary or helpful for it to continue to be “our project.” Our side of the accounting/giving equation needs to demonstrate our stewardship and accountability, but on the receiving end, those we serve need ownership and power of their own lives and over the resources we have been blessed to be able to give them. It wasn’t ours in the first place (it’s been given to us to us to give), and after we give it, it’s theirs, not ours.
It all seems to go back to the golden rule—treating other people the way we want to be treated. Community development and human development….do they have to be that different? Is there a way to help empower people without making them nameless and faceless? Can we learn to listen to each other’s story? Can we discover what makes the difference between those who rise above their circumstances and those who don’t? Is it luck? Character? Attitude? Or is it realizing how much power and choice they do have to make things happen, like Annie Downey?
America is not the center of the world, but only a part of it. There is great poverty of many kinds here, as well as in the countries my heart is attached to in Southeast Asia. Americans have much to teach, but also much to learn from our sisters and brothers in places we can’t pronounce, and in the houses next door. Everyone has a story and a dream.
All of us can change the part of the world we are responsible for, if we’re willing to pay the price. For some, the path to dignity means long hours, faceless interviews and menial tasks for low wages. For refugee friends, it means leaving the familiar and taking a risk that the promise of America is real, and that if you work hard and listen well you can learn to survive in a place where the government might not be the enemy, you can be free, and your kids can get an education. For us at World Aid, it means listening to the hopes and needs of the communities we work with. They already have the culture, the language and the heart. We can help provide funding and help share their stories with the rest of the world. One of their fears is being forgotten….that no one knows their story, their reality, or their dreams. If we listen to each other, and learn from each other, treat other people the way we want to be treated, that can be changed. The Golden Rule still works.