The Impoverished Humanitarian

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My senior year of college I took a grant writing class. One day one of my classmates said that he believed that everything, even non-profits, should operate like a business or a for-profit venture. Eye-rolls abound in the classroom, his sentiments were shrugged off and even passionately rejected by much of the class (myself included.) Two years later his words still reverberate through my head -but I’m no longer rolling my eyes.

So what has changed for me in those two short years?

-Looking for a non-profit job in the proverbial “real world.”

Like most recent college grads, I was not born into the privilege of money. I have loans, I need money to eat, for shelter, for transportation, etc. UNlike most recent college grads (or at least some of them) I am really passionate about fighting poverty and would like to apply my talents, knowledge, and abilities to the cause. This means getting involved in the non-profit world. The issue that arises from this is that it is hard to get a job in the non-profit world as most non-profits run largely on volunteerism. While volunteerism is not completely a bad thing, for me it is almost completely out of the question because of the aforementioned needs that can only be met with a position that pays.

Furthermore, I have found that there is some level of hypocrisy to be found when an organization that is trying to help people get out of poverty is forced to doom a large portion of their workforce to the same fate.

Dan Pallotta, in a talk he gave for a TED Conference, expounds upon this idea further. He too believes the stigma placed upon non-profits that pay their workers decently is stunting the growth potential for these organizations, and is driving out some of the most talented people to the for-profit world because of the inability to earn a decent living in the former pursuit:

We have two rule books: we have one for the non-profit sector, and one for the rest of the economic world. It’s an apartheid and it discriminates against the non-profit world […] We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money NOT helping other people. You want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids -go for it, we’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine, but you want to make half-a-million dollars curing kids of malaria and you’re considered a parasite yourself.

He makes an excellent point. It seems to me that there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a company to make as much money as it possibly can exploiting people, animals, and the environment, but placing monetary limits on organizations that are set to help protect those same potentially vulnerable things. Essentially, it is like rewarding a child that destroys a room for his own personal enjoyment, yet punishing a child that tries to clean up the mess for the betterment of those who occupy the room.

I understand that the idea of paying non-profit workers larger salaries is an idea that opens up a whole host of potential complications. Many would argue that human nature is to be selfish, and that non-profit employees would exploit their position for their own profit. Honestly, this could happen with some organizations. However, just as non-profits have a strong obligation to their patrons to provided services that help them with their plight, conversely, businesses have an obligation to their customers to provide an excellent product. If a business has a crummy product and/or crummy service, the business fails. What’s wrong with non-profits operating similarly?

 

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Title: Traditional Business, Social Entrepreneurship, and Non-profits
Watercolor on paper by author

MLK Day

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If Google and social media didn’t clue you in, today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day -a day that is often riddled with postings on social media of quotes made famous by the great orator himself. Many of these posts focus more on abstract themes like love, sacrificing for others, standing up for “things that matter,” faith, and change among others. While I find these quotes to be important, relevant, and inspiring, I am also really inspired and empowered by the quotes where he explicitly calls out and stands against the status quo. With that being said, here are a few MLK Jr. quotes that I find very inspiring:

On Poverty:

“There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are words that must be said.”

Economic Systems:

“…communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

Society:

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

I urge you to reflect on these words of King and how he used his life as an agent of change for the greater good.

“Where There is Despair, Let Me Sow Hope.” -St. Francis of Assisi

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While I have written a lot about Kiva in my posts about micro-finance, there are many other organizations that do micro-finance work that deserve recognition. One such organization is Sow Hope, a non-profit located in my surrogate hometown, Grand Rapids.

After my seasonal job ended in November, I went on a trip through several parts of the country including Pennsylvania, Maryland, and eventually ended up in Chicago for a weekend. While there, I had the opportunity to attend a showing of the documentary that Sow Hope produced and to participate in the question and answer session afterwards. I learned a lot about the good work the organization does; it has helped nearly 40,000 women globally to become empowered through programs in healthcare, micro-finance, literacy training, and clean water initiatives. I also learned that despite the volume of women it has helped, it is a rather small, and streamlined organization: having a small, volunteer board of directors and two paid staff members. I was drawn to that aspect of the organization because it reminded me of an organization that I interned for my sophomore year of college, ANSWER. What drew me to both of these organizations is the transparency that they offer as well as a stronger emphasis on community.

So I urge you to check out Sow Hope, and if you feel compelled by its story, find a way to volunteer your time, money, skills, and talents to further its cause.

I’m Baaaaack! With a Creativity ATTACK!!

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I happened to log on today (after taking a rather long hiatus) and realized it is my blogging anniversary. What a year it has been! I also feel the need to explain my absence for the last few months. In addition to working overtime since August, I also decided to take an informal sabbatical in order to focus more on reading and just absorbing the world around me (a necessity for any writer or artist.) But now I’m back, enriched by the books and articles I read and the observations I made during this time. With that being said, I am revisiting some familiar topics in this post-sabbatical post highlighting some articles, cartoons, and websites about creativity that have inspired me.

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Taking the creative path is certainly not easy, which is why many either give up on it, or else don’t even consider it because it’s not “practical.” Those that do end up following it find themselves facing a lot of obstacles, mainly: time, inevitable failures, and even their paradoxical selves. So what do these obstacles look like?

Time: According to Malcolm Gladwell, true mastery of an art takes 10,000 hours. (What does that look like? Here is a great diagram that plainly illustrates that!) Time is the first thing that people must understand when they are working on a new medium. With that being said, sometimes it seems like society is plagued by the idea of the prodigy. People see other people “come out of the woodwork” to achieve enormous success for their talent and believe that it can happen to them. What they often fail to realize is that those people had probably been cultivating their talent for years, but the reveal is all others see. Everyone thinks that talent is placed in a vacuum and if you’ve got it, all you need is to be discovered and the rest is history. In fact, it’s all about taking what little talent you do have and running with it: immersing yourself in the successes of others in that field, learning, growing, absorbing, trying, and yes, of course, failing.

Failure: Although I know I have mentioned it here before, it bears repeating that failure is a huge component to any creative process. (This cartoon does a great job illustrating (haha) this point.) I failed epically recently. My brother and sister-in-law just had a baby and they wanted me to paint/draw/create in some way, some artwork for his room. After finally deciding what I wanted to make (scenes from Narnia!), I set out to draw some preliminary sketches. In all honesty, they were pretty awful. They looked like a fourth grader drew them:

This isn't embarrassing at all...

This isn’t embarrassing at all…

I knew that I couldn’t give up, though, because my siblings were counting on me. Of course there was a voice that crept into my head saying plenty of negative things, but after I abandoned the original sketches and honed my vision a bit more, I, in a nearly effortless attempt, created these:

If I didn't know any better, I'd think these were drawn by a different person than the first picture.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think these were drawn by a different person than the first picture.

If I had given up after the first few attempts, renouncing my ability to draw, these images would never have happened and I would have had a false view of myself. My initial issue was not that I couldn’t draw, but that I had to release myself from all the preconceived ideas I had attached to myself and drawing. I also had to realize that that day/headspace I was in, for whatever reason, might not have been right for the task I was attempting to undertake. This leads me to the final obstacle:

Paradoxical Self: Creating great art is all about finding balance. As this article highlights, creative types are usually paradoxical: they are often equal parts introvert and extrovert, proud and humble, and even have a sense of androgyny. Thus, art is created often by straddling the line between seemingly conflicting parts of the self. It is harmony. It is yin and yang. People who are seen as creative have been able to find this balance by exploring the extremes in their own lives and then marrying them in their work.

Now at this point it would be nice and fashionable to say that true success in a creative field means overcoming these obstacles in one great and final battle, but that approach is both simplistic and unrealistic. Creativity is not about overcoming obstacles so that one can create; rather it is about creating in the midst of and often because of obstacles. As I alluded to in the part about the paradoxical self, it is the tension that makes art so spectacular. It’s figuring out how to flirt with failure but not take yourself too seriously when you are successful. If you want to be creative, you must realize that you are both better than you think you are and worse than you think you are. All you have to do is keep pushing yourself through the hours of failure and self and gently coax the genius out of you but not giving up when that genius seems to suddenly disappear.

Why Raising the Minimum Wage Is Good for the Economy*

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mcdonalds-budget

With the proposed minimum wage bill gaining some press as well as the laughable sample budget that McDonald’s has produced and has now come under fire for, minimum wage debates have begun to take place in the country once again. While some believe that minimum wage should be increased because it has not kept up with inflation, others believe that an increase would only hurt workers by making lay-offs and job shortages a harsh reality. While there is no real way of knowing how an increase in minimum wage will affect the economy until it is in place, with some careful analysis of the current economic climate and spending habits of the minimum wage earners, a clearer picture of a solution to this issue can be painted.

Being an economist/social scientist means predicting human behavior. This often proves difficult because humans are not very predictable. So while economists say that based on the law of demand and past behavior an increase in wages will not lead to an increase in spending, it is merely an educated guess. Therefore, those who argue against raising minimum wage have claimed that in the past raising the minimum wage has not boosted the economy, and are correct; however, their current predictions are rooted in past attitudes and behavior which does not necessarily reflect the present climate. I believe that a better way of predicting human behavior is to not look at the past, but rather the current attitudes

With that being said, here is my prediction based on what I have found to be true (or at least mostly true) about today’s workforce. I predict that an increase in minimum wage, given the current economic climate, will lead to an increase in spending. I believe there are two assumptions that are being made by economists about the workforce today that do not seem pertinent to the times. One of these assumptions is that raising the minimum wage will only hurt millennials because it will make unemployment rise. This may be the case to a small degree, but I believe that while a rise in minimum wage would lead to a temporary dip in employment at first, when these workers begin to earn more, they would begin to spend more and thus create more jobs. It will also free up jobs as these workers will no longer need to work multiple jobs in order to get by.

The second unsubstantiated claim about the current minimum wage workforce is that an increase in pay will not mean an increase in spending. While this has been true in the past, I believe that today the cultural climate is right for spending tendencies to be affected by an increase in wage. So what makes the cultural climate different? The main difference is generational. In the past, other young employees (i.e. when the Baby Boomers were young) were more likely to save extra money while the youth today are more focused on spending and material gain. Seemingly every week there is a new report out dedicated to millennials and their materialistic tendencies (usually cast in a bad light.) Many of these reports neglect to mention, however, that although these materialistic tendencies may not be completely commendable, they certainly can help the economy.

So what would more money in the hands of the younger generation look like? In 2012 there were 284,000 college graduates working minimum wage jobs. If their wages were to increase by $3/hour, given the materialistic tendencies of these workers, that would mean an increase of purchasing power of $120 per week (although this does not factor in taxes). Then if that number is multiplied by the number of millennial-grads in these jobs that would generate approximately $35 million more revenue every week. Even if these workers only spent $1/hour more of their wage increase, they would still spend $11 million a week. Furthermore, these figures don’t even take into account those millennials who are working minimum wage jobs and don’t have a college degree, although it does assume those who have college degrees are working 40 hour work weeks.

The industrial revolution happened at a time when the exploitation of workers became too extreme. Young children worked in factories, people lost limbs on the job, and many developed health issues such as respiratory problems as a result of a lack of concern for the workers. While the physical safety of the workers is protected today, a lack of concern for the financial safety of those workers is a harsh reality. We need a new industrial revolution -a service industry revolution. Today we need to reevaluate the economic structure of this country in order to help it grow and protect the workers at the bottom. Economic inequality as staggering as that which exists in the US today will only make the country weaker and less stable. An increase in minimum wage will lead not only to a more stable social and economic climate, but could also lead to economic growth and potentially an end to one of the greatest recessions our country has witnessed.

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*I wouldn’t be a good journalist if I didn’t admit to having a bias with regard to this subject. I am a millennial who has a minimum wage job. While this makes me partial to an increase in wages for my own benefit, I believe it also makes me more qualified to speak on the subject than a successful “boomer” because I am living this reality.

For more on this debate and to see the articles I researched in this process check out the following links:

http://washingtonexaminer.com/op-ed-raising-minimum-wage-will-kill-jobs-for-young-millennials/article/2529084

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/01/millennials-cost-basic-needs_n_1468938.html

http://ourfuture.org/20130405/the-sinking-american-electorate-young-and-in-peril

http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Articles/2012/05/15/Millennials-Young-Broke-and-Spending-on-Luxury#page1

http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Articles/2012/05/10/How-Millennials-Are-Saving-the-Economy#page1

http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/02/09/young-underemployed-and-optimistic/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesdorn/2013/07/22/the-minimum-wage-is-cruelest-to-those-who-cant-find-a-job/

http://www.raisetheminimumwage.com/facts/entry/amount-with-inflation/

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/mcdonalds-ceo-try-living-on-mcbudget-of-25000-2013-07-25

http://blog.acton.org/archives/58278-appreciating-mcdonalds-beyond-minimum-mindedness.html

http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/my-money/2013/02/05/low-skill-jobs-with-the-highest-concentration-of-college-graduates

First World Problems

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My new favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quote is this: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ” To me, this quote not only challenges the traditional idea of what helping the poor and being compassionate is, but also provides a valid critic of the way our government, non-governmental organizations, and economic systems are structured. While one can read it as a single person giving money to “a beggar” it also could apply to the idea of charity as a whole. Many corporations give millions of dollars to a non-profit that may do some good, but doesn’t actually change anything or end the cycle of poverty. The same can be said for a government; like the US for example, which will give nearly $50 billion of aid to other countries, and yet these countries can never seem to get out of poverty. Perhaps the notion of charity needs to be reevaluated.

This is what I like about micro-finance. Although it is not perfect, it seems to challenge the traditional structure of aid. It is more empowering than handouts. With micro-finance, people are given money, yes, but they are also given respect and accountability.

So with that being said, two days ago I made another loan! This time it happened to be to someone in the US. Unfortunately, I must admit that I, although I’m sure I’m not the only one, tend to be a bit biased against people asking for loans in the developed world (especially the US). I unconsciously assume that they do not need the loan as much as those in less developed countries. This is a common misconception, to be sure, and it can stand in the way of the reforming a pretty flawed system like that of the US. When I think of it at a more human level though, such as in terms of my own struggle with this project, I can more easily understand the plight of someone in the developed world.

So I encourage you, whoever is reading this, to take a minute to check out this other entrepreneur’s blog, shop, and kiva profile (she still needs lenders!) Although there may be people who are in more dire financial conditions, we can’t forget our neighbors who may still need our help as well.

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Catarina’s Loan: http://www.kiva.org/lend/597599

Catarina’s Shop: http://docerelashop.com/

Catarina’s Blog: http://blog.docerelashop.com/

P.S. She makes stamps too! Talk about a perfect loan for me to help with!

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Today (July 12) is Malala Day

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When people think of role models, they usually think of those who are older, who have lived long enough to have gained some amount of wisdom about the life that we are all living together. Rarely does a 16-year-old girl come to mind, but when one watches the video footage of Malala giving her speech eloquently, calmly, and passionately to the United Nations, one can hardly keep from admiring her.

Growing up in The West, I can’t count how many times a minor infraction can lead to much anger from myself and others during the day. A sloppy parking job, cutting in line, or even indecisiveness on someone else’s part can make another person fume for several minutes, or even hours.

Grace is nonexistent in those scenarios, and yet one can find it abound in this 16-year-old girl who has been shot in the head for simply trying to go to school. In fact, instead of reverting to anger, she draws upon the strength and wisdom of some of the most peaceful people to have walked on this planet–Muhammad, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., The Buddha, Mother Teresa, as well as a few more. She understands Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that “hate cannot drive out hate,” and inspires those who watch her speech to understand and believe in those words as well.

While I was left in awe of her strength and eloquence while watching this speech, what I felt the most, as I am sure was her intention with her speech, was inspiration and empowerment. I was inspired to keep going, to continue to use my voice as often as necessary and appropriate for justice, peace, and equality. I was also inspired to stop taking my freedom for granted but at the same time to keep fighting for freedom until equality for everyone is achieved.

So today, Malala Day, I am taking up my “pen” (well, cyber-pen) as Malala suggests because I can and because it is my right as a global citizen. I am writing to encourage others to take up Malala’s cause and empower themselves and others through education and using their voice to push against the status quo. I am, as Malala said, “call[ing] upon our sisters [and brothers] around the world to be brave, to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential.”

Heartside GR: Gentrification or Blended Community?

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Much of life is lived -if we are living it right, and honestly- in the tension. It is in those moments that can be found not in the perfectly cultivated and contrived moments, rather in those moments where our own control is forfeited to that which forces our consciousness to really pay attention to what is around and in us. Inner and outer tensions abound, the most open and fully engaged lives are often lived by people who are able to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this is rarely how society functions and instead we live in blandness and comfortability if we are “lucky” or else fear.

Welcome to Heartside

Welcome to Heartside

In my city, one of the most uncomfortable places for many is the Heartside Neighborhood. Often thought of as Grand Rapid’s “Skid Row,” the Heartside Neighborhood (usually referred to just by a single street name: Division) is where a large majority of the city’s homeless/poor reside and is also subject to much fear, disdain, and apprehension by the other parts of the community at large…

And it is also becoming one of the biggest sites for “urban renewal” (although not quite to the gentrification level) in the area.

Could problems arise? Yes. Have they already arisen? Possibly. Is there tension? Undoubtedly. Should this lead to a zero-sum geographic battle between the original, poor occupants and the new, affluent ones called gentrification? Absolutely not. It should be seen as an opportunity for growth, honesty, and mutual gain between seemingly contrasting parties.

For now, Heartside is in a liminal space. It is neither the run-down “eyesore” it used to be, nor is it completely “cleaned-up” and posh. Some of the trendiest businesses and loads of art galleries have moved into the stigmatized area. However, they have not driven out the poor that already occupied the area, as true gentrification is known to do, but have built around them. Besides, the area has been home to the missions (that claim they are not going anywhere) long before it was home to these businesses. One of the local missions even has a large art gallery itself that features art and a newsletter filled with poems and stories all created by its patrons which could act as a buffer zone between the homeless, mentally/physically ill, and drug addicts that live in the area and the business owners and artisans that work there.

The artists in the area have begun to band together to transform the area into “The Avenue for the Arts.” However, instead of these artisans running the mission patrons out of the area, the current set up seems to offer the chance of collaboration and a symbiotic relationship between people who may seem very different at first, but may very well have similar stories.

I visited the area a few weeks ago for the annual market that is a part of the Festival of the Arts celebration, to see a plethora of Heartside Ministries patrons sitting outside the mission, proudly displaying their artwork for sale alongside traditional artists and business owners. Let’s hope this image remains, or better yet, the groups homogenize even more.

In a polarized world, truly diverse areas are rare. Heartside has the opportunity to do it right, if it dares, and lean into the tension that the area presents to create a vibrant, homogenized neighborhood.

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To learn more about this area, follow the links:

http://therapidian.org/development-heartside-part-one (parts two and three can be found on the sidebar)

http://www.avenueforthearts.com/index.php

http://www.dwellingplacegr.org/

The Business Section

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By Paulsmarsden (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today I have created my own business section for you. I have compiled some links to articles and business resources that may be useful if you are looking to start your own business as well as some interesting/inspirational pieces. This is particularly geared toward those who would like to start a small business in “developed” countries and in particular the US.

For general business resources including mentoring, workshops, templates & tools, and definitions for business related terms here are two resources:

http://www.score.org/ -A lot of great resources are provided like how to write a business plan, and information on the legal, financial, marketing, and management sides of a business.

http://www.investopedia.com/ -This has a great business dictionary, professional quizzes and tests, personal finance and investing advice.

Another good resource to have is a funding source like kickstarter.com. Kickstarter funds creative projects and has funded over 42,000 projects to date. Micro-loans are also available (as I have talked about a lot on this blog) and are not just for those of developing countries. Kiva.org is a great resource for that.

Here are a couple of articles that challenge some of the traditional ideas in business:

An article on creating a Business plan or business map?

Another article that challenges the need to attend business school

Finally, an inspirational yet in some ways challenging article about a business that I frequent and its business model: “For-Benefit” business

I’d like to end this post by encouraging you, if you are a budding entrepreneur, to think creatively about your business and find out how you can make a greater impact worldwide as well as in your community with it as a for-benefit business. Henry David Thoreau advised individuals to “be not simply good; be good for something,” but his advice can also apply to business. For-benefit businesses seeks to not only provide a good product and good service but also be “good for something” as well.

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