Unfortunately, it didn’t.
Unfortunately, it didn’t.
“So, what’s trending these days?” If I made a nickel for everytime someone asked me that, I’d be rich by now.
But to stay relevant, I end up succumbing to the “discover” button on Twitter to check which hashtags are blowing up.
FYI, today they happen to be:
(Yes, of course! It’s April Fool’s Day and the start of baseball season!)
It’s our conscious (or subconscious) desire to be in the in. Be in the know.
When I first moved out to the east coast, I didn’t speak the lingo. My Californian “dudes” and “bros” clashed with the New Yorker “yooos.” Definitely took me a while, but I started to catch on.
And that’s the interesting thing that happens with words and phrases. They trend, and you grow accustomed to them. They become a part of your everyday vocabulary. (i.e. even ridiculous acronyms such as YOLO, SMH, and FOMO stick).
In international development, we are getting in the habit of using trendy words without really thinking twice about them. “Empower.” “Underprivileged.” “Save.” “Educate.” Sure, all of these words are powerful, but are they necessarily helpful in our work? Do we use them to attract new donors at the expense of portraying the people we serve as helpless and in dire need of our rescue? A poppy mission statement at the expense of skewed paradigms?
If we empower, does that mean we have the authority to strip that power? Save from whom? Save from what? Educate for what purpose? We fiercely need to ask these hard questions.
Our words carry weight and if we’re not careful with them, we may end up allowing our paternalistic views to shape discourse and dialogue, further slowing development. And those we serve don’t want and surely don’t deserve that.
Let’s trend that.
Today’s culture reeks of “to-become.” We gloss over the urgency of today and cling to the optimism of tomorrow. Giving is no exception.
Our implicit logic screams at us: “I don’t make six-figures yet, but when I do one day, I’m going to give. OR, I have this crazy idea that’s going to end global poverty one day, but I have to establish myself first, so for now I’ll keep it in my side pocket.”
So then, what is giving? Giving is generosity? Giving is gifts? Giving is sacrifice? We continue to search for the definition of giving, pairing it with correlative words. Yet, we continue to overlook the word IS. That could be where the answer lies.
“IS” is the present verb form of “to be,” rejecting its nemesis “to become.” Further, it serves as a linking verb that modifies the predicate adjective or the predicate nominative. Under these definitions, “Giving IS” poses to us an incredible yet uncomfortable challenge. Will we continue to see giving as a scaffolding process in which we merely diminish it as a potential and possibility? Or do we see giving as a re-identification of who we are today, acting as a critical component of defining how we shape our world?
Today is International Waste Pickers’ Day, a day in which we remember the 15 million people who make a living from recycling.
So, why does this matter at all to me?
1) a majority of the waste pickers reside in urban slums, so it directly touches the work we do at The Supply.
2) it hits home. literally.
When I first started The Supply, my mom was not thrilled (understatement). Her arguments were endless, but for the sake of brevity, here are bullet points of her objections:
This resistance at first was crippling. I wanted her to be proud of me, to support me, and deep in my heart, to love me unconditionally. The weight of her disappointment at times was overwhelming.
However, I continued to follow my heart and continued to pursue what I believed in. I didn’t speak to my mom much about the growing success of the organization, and definitely not the failures and challenges. Little did I know she was watching from afar.
Fast forward to two years ago, when I visited my parents back home in Los Angeles. On my way to grab a drink from the garage, I noticed piles and piles of filled trash bags littering the floor. My initial feeling of disgust turned into curiosity when I opened one up and saw cans and bottles. (My mom collects everything from magnets to trinkets, so I just assumed it was another one of her collections).
The next morning, my mom woke me up bright and early and told me we were going to the recycling center. [insert curse words in my head.] We loaded the car with the trash bags and headed to the nearby Ralph’s (grocery store).
For the next hour, we dropped cans and bottles into the magical machine. The people waiting behind us were both pissed off and fascinated by how many cans we had.
In the end, a receipt popped out, and the grand total from our entire morning of recycling was a whopping……$17.42. I remember blurting out “$17.42??? We did all this for $17.42??”
And then my mom looked straight at me and said “$17.42 might not mean a lot to you, but it means a lot to me, and it means a lot to the students in Kenya who can’t get a proper education. I’m proud of you son for everything you are doing for these students.”
I was floored. Not only by the truth behind my mom’s words about the plight of students, but the support from her that I had yearned for for years.
You see, my mom has spent the majority of her years as a housewife taking care of my brother and me. Even if she wanted to support our organization, she was limited. She doesn’t have large networks, doesn’t make any money, and can’t speak eloquently about our issue or organization. But, she knew she could do something. That’s when she decided to start rounding up cans and bottles from friends, family, and neighbors.
Since that day, my mom has been a huge advocate of The Supply and an even bigger advocate of me. Or more accurately, that’s the day I solved this life-gripping mystery. I had never felt so liberated, so activated, so inspired.
To this day, Mama Kim continues to collect cans and excitedly clips out any newspaper/magazine articles about me/our org. She is our #1 fan. No one will ever recognize her for what she does,
But her trash-bag-fingerprints have left an indelible mark on me…
and on this world.
As urban slums grow from 1.5 billion to 3 billion people within the next 20 years, urban policy, which currently revolves around displacement and slum demolition, will have to inevitably shift to slum upgrading.
Within this framework, our organization is investing in relevant education solutions to empower slums communities to create change from the bottom up.
In a nutshell, our work is long-term and aims to keep urban slum dwellers in urban slums. We’ve conducted research collaboratively with the community to come up with this unique solution centered around a community school/civic education model; however, undoubtedly it creates a huge branding challenge.
THE CHALLENGE OF “SUCCESS”
The challenge exists in conveying what “success” in these slums looks like. Most donors want to see their donated dollars make quick, visible transformation. Granted, most of them understand that education is crucial and know that their investments may not necessarily see immediate returns. However, there is still an inclination to rely on WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) logic to frame our understanding of transformation. We’re used to seeing successes of education measured by increases in test scores and college acceptances.
Further, generally speaking, the “American Dream” metanarrative has crafted many of our ideas of what the purpose of education is supposed to be: an escape from poverty and a gateway to a “better life.” Therefore, many want to see our children be “successful” under these same standards, removed from the horrors of slums and placed in a “comfortable” life somewhere else preferably in the city center. But the questions we constantly challenge our donors with are: what’s a better life? set by whose standards? and for what purpose?
NOT SEXY BUT TRANSFORMATIVE
So, what does success realistically look like? Poverty to a little less poverty, families securely living in slums they call home, and healthy childhood development. Yes, not very sexy, and uncomfortable to some, but responsible and transformative.
On a side note, I’m excited about this new project called Informal City Dialogues from Next City that shines light on the potential of these urban slums. Check out their trailer here: http://goo.gl/dnqyq
There’s that little voice inside all of us that dares us to feel.
We live today in an era in which for many of us, degrees from good colleges and high paying jobs just don’t satisfy; they are only a means to a greater end. We seek meaning in what we do.
Yet, the outside din shrouds these epiphanies and realizations.
“Study hard. Go to a good college. Go get a good paying job. No time to waste!
For a lot of us, this tension (or more like a contentious battle) is real. We tippy-toe the line, pulled one way by our intentions, yet our feet move in the opposite direction.
I often hear, “I can only make a significant difference when I make millions,” or “I want to volunteer, but I have to get into college first.” Clearly, in both scenarios, the intention is there, but something always holds us back. We stay safe, keeping discomfort in our back pockets.
We want our lives to have storybook narratives, a straight upward trending line headed towards climaxes and turning points before easing into a “downward” slope (We absolutely hate anything that looks remotely like a scatterplot). Yet, what we don’t realize that is that often by doing this, we’re not even living a life that breeds any story at all.
Tell me about that semester you took off to campaign for a candidate or about the summer you spent working at an orphanage abroad. Tell me about that internship you took not because of the pay or the career opportunities, but because you just wanted to do it. Tell me about the days your “direction” beat out “intention.”
I’m 29 now, and in the last decade, I’ve switched my undergraduate major 5 times, had three different full-time jobs, interned as a mascot for a minor league baseball team, went on a month-long cross-country tour with a band, travelled to 15 different countries, gone to grad school twice, and started a nonprofit.
Yes, there is always the temptation to think that the grass is greener on the other side. It’s only human.
But, take it from me, there is time to waste. Stories to tell. A life to live. People to love. A direction to take. And a day to feel.