The Impoverished Humanitarian

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

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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.

First World Problems

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!

Heartside GR: Gentrification or Blended Community?

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 Moocher Class” revealed

So I was catching up on The Daily Show last night and this segment came on. First of all, I would like to say that I admire the way The Daily Show is able to point out that what in the mainstream news is supposed to be seen as intelligent, serious debate is actually ludicrous and laughable.* I also am fully aware that it is not an official news source, but these days, what is? I appreciate that the show brings some really serious flaws with our current political structure, and the thinking of those who find themselves broadcasting about that political structure, to light. With that being said, here is my response to the information that is presented in the video:

It pains me to think that I live in a country where people believe that the poor are the “moocher class.” While I am not disputing whether or not there are people that abuse the system (I am sure that there are) it is unjust and egregious to assume that every person that is poor is so because he/she doesn’t want to work and is content being an economic parasite. Those who assume such things act as if they’ve never paid attention to the news**, the economic status of the country in which they reside, or have ever come in contact with anyone who has made less than $100,000 a year.

In what ways are these people who are supposed to be broadcasting the news exhibiting that they really know nothing about current events? Well it is no secret that unemployment has been high, and underemployment even higher. And I’m sure even a simpleton knows that many blue-collar jobs have been sent overseas which has led to greater profit for those who are running the company and the demise of many of those who were seen merely as “dispensable” employees. Jobs that were once seen as secure no longer are and that has created a growing poor class in America along with the greater need for government assistance (a necessary evil in many cases.) Somehow, these political pundits and politicians seem blissfully unaware that in fact these numbers are affecting actual humans and have hit the poor FIRST. What do they need to worry about though, really? They are just phantom numbers, rendered arbitrary in their lives. I mean they still have jobs… for now.

The video made me think of another, more serious video (film, technically) I saw recently called, A Place at the Table and how I wished those saying that the poor are nothing but a moocher class would sit down and watch what is happening to their own country. Here is the trailer for that, but know that it does not do justice to the heart-break that one receives when watching the full film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArI_ZHc-n5A.***

If you ask anyone in this second film if they take pleasure from getting government assistance, from feeding their children food that is in many cases handicapping them both temporarily and permanently due to lack of sufficient nutrition, I guarantee that they would say “absolutely not.” But as one woman in the film who is working a low-paying job along with going to school says: “you can’t tell your kids that they’ll eat in two years.” The government assistance which -ahem- ISN’T MUCH and means that they can primarily afford food-like substances such as soda, is what is keeping them alive. I believe that is what sickens me most about the juxtaposition of these two videos -the parts about the soda. In The Daily Show video, one person claims that if we tax soda, it is only hurting the poor. Yes, because all poor need soda to survive (insert eye roll here)… well let me amend that: calorically, yes, in a way they do, nutritionally, no, it is killing them. It is one of the few foods that they can afford, true, but why? More importantly, who would the tax on soft drinks actually be hurting? The poor or the producers of the soft drinks?

“Mooching for life” takes on a whole new meaning here… many of the poor in America are forced to humiliate themselves by essentially begging for food and then receiving food that is basically poison. With that, at least the politicians can rest assured that the “mooching for life” that the poor are doing won’t be for too long because they will die sooner than those who do not need to subsist on nutritionally inert foods paid for by government hand-outs.****

I shall finish this post where The Daily Show video begins: with the quote from the man lamenting that there are “people who are perfectly content to live at the expense of others.” Honestly I couldn’t agree more with this statement. It is abhorrent that we have a group of people in this country who are willing to compromise others’ health, security, and even lives for their own fortunes. Maybe the poor wouldn’t mooch if the greedy class didn’t take so much from them to begin with.

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*Well, perhaps tears of a clown describes it better.

**which they are somehow in charge of broadcasting

***It is important to note that this film does not tell the whole welfare story in this country and shows only those with heart-wrenching stories for a reason. It is just as biased as those who claim that the poor is a moocher class (or just as biased as I am, for that matter), but together it is easier to get a glimpse at what is actually going on.

****What are subsidies but glorified government hand-outs anyway?

“How I would love a Church that is poor and for the poor!” –Pope Francis

When I heard what name Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had chosen for his Papacy, I smiled and thought: “How fitting.” Francis. While I am not Catholic (although I did go to a Catholic college) my favorite saint is Francis of Assisi and I knew without even watching this video that that was who his inspiration was.

Saint Francis (Francis of Assisi or San Francisco for my latino amigos) lived a luxurious life during his adolescence but slowly began to see his love of money, luxury, and beauty was his biggest downfall. He started giving everything he had away or disposing of it anyway he could. He slowly gained followers and they took up the passage Matthew 19:16-26 (the story where Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to sell everything and give to the poor) as their adage. Saint Francis served the poor from then on.

While Latin America holds the largest percentage of the Catholic population with 39%, or over 425 million of the world’s Catholics living there, it also has about 167 million people living in poverty. This number is also significant as it marks the lowest level of poverty in Latin America in three decades. Pope Francis lived in Latin America during a time where the continent had some of its biggest struggles with class and unequal distribution of wealth. He has seen first hand the devastating affects that poverty can have on people and society and during his time as a Cardinal there he chose to live alongside the poor rather than above them just as Saint Francis had done. I suspect this will be his approach to his papacy as well.

¡Viva el papa de Latinoamérica, el papa de la pobre!

How Poverty Affects Everyone, Even the Rich

One of the most frustrating things about the issues of poverty and social justice is that often times it feels like no one really cares. Sure many people may hear a statistic or see a picture of a hungry baby and feel sad, but they usually carry on with their day virtually unaffected. Or worse yet, they are confronted by a homeless person on the street and they hand them a couple bucks or some loose change in the hope that that will appease them. In the hope that they will disappear. They refuse to engage them, hear their story, acknowledge that they are human, and they especially try their hardest not to think of them again. They are part of the scenery of a big city, not people, just ugly, moving statues that for some reason terrify those who are more fortunate. Why is this?

I believe there are many reasons why, but one of the main reasons is that it either doesn’t affect them or they refuse to believe that it affects them. Many rational and intelligent people can see that certain issues, if they don’t affect them now, can affect them in the future, making those issues easier to take up. Causes like cancer awareness/research, environmental issues, domestic violence, etc while all noble, are to varying degrees tainted with the threat that it will affect the person intimately at some point in their lives. Rarely do people (in the US especially) see poverty affecting them intimately until it is too late. That is because wealth (or perceived wealth) is the cultural norm and it is thus revered as a fulfillment of our constitutional obligation to the pursuit of happiness.

Poverty is also ignored by the masses because it means that people have to care and get emotionally involved. They know it is easier to keep emotions at a platonic level so that their lives can remain unchallenged and thus unchanged. Change means being uncomfortable, or worse yet, could lead to pain and most people (especially in the West) do everything to avoid discomfort. They keep their eyes down, keep their slippers at the edge of their bed, buy and install electric towel warmers in their bathrooms, start their cars from indoors to warm it up on a snowy day, and most tragically, they have refused to talk about the issues that really matter.

Quickly, however, this obsession with comfort creates a numbing effect. Because people can no longer feel pain or discomfort, they can no longer feel joy and connection. As Brené Brown said in her TED Talk: “You cannot selectively numb emotion.” Furthermore, when people seek to numb their emotions they end up numbing the most human part of themselves. Thus it is imperative to understand that when people refuse to take on the burdens of others and become emotionally invested in their stories, they are not only denying those “others” but also denying their own humanity.

By Darwinist, originally posted here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/darwinist/23092205/

Poverty’s Complexities

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Poverty is a very complex issue and that is what makes it difficult to combat. For that reason, I am writing this post to quickly address what the issues surrounding poverty may include so that if I talk about these sub-issue later on, it is understood in that these are not coming from left-field, but are relevant to the topic of global poverty. The problematic issues include:

  • Agricultural Subsidies
  • Globalization
  • Gender-Inequality
  • Corruption
  • Racism
  • Zero-Sum Game/Fallacy
  • Education
  • Health -Venereal Diseases, Malaria, Obstetric Fistulas, etc
  • Ecological Health
  • Social Entrepreneurship
  • Food Scarcity/Surplus
  • Hierarchy
  • Charity
  • Foreign Aid

And of course a few solution-oriented (and slightly less tangible) issues that I’ve touched on already in this blog:

  • Ingenuity
  • Creativity
  • Risk
  • Choice
  • Freedom (from and to)
  • Cooperation
  • Compassion

For more information on the problems surrounding the issue of poverty (and ideas on how they can be solved) I recommend checking out this website: http://www.povertycure.org/issues/ and/or watching the DVD series: “Poverty Cure.”

Poverty Cure was created by the Acton Institute -an economic think-tank in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This campaign conducted a solution-oriented look at global poverty and empowers not only those who are impoverished, but also those who may not be and are concerned about poverty. In the words of my friend Matthea who worked on the project: “It makes you feel proud to be a human!”

Hint of What’s to Come: A Look at Poverty and Economic Inequality

Map of the UN’s human development index report. The darker the blue, the more developed the country. Image found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:2011_UN_Human_Development_Report_Quartiles.svg

I am currently working on a large project (a prezi, to be exact) on poverty and economic inequality. (Yes, this is what I do for fun.) I will be posting it when I have finished it, but until then, I will give a teaser (or two).

When researching poverty facts I came across this quote that I found to be quite poignant and combines a lot of different ideas that I am learning in my post-grad study of economics, work, human development, etc.

“Human development is about much more than the rise or fall of national incomes. It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests. People are the real wealth of nations. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value. And it is thus about much more than economic growth, which is only a means—if a very important one—of enlarging people’s choices.” —Human Development Reports, United Nations Development Program (found here: http://www.globalissues.org/article/4/poverty-around-the-world)

By this definition it can be argued that even some countries traditionally seen as developed are actually under-developed. Take the US for example. Has the country really done what the second sentence of the quote says? With underemployment near 20% and people holding on to their jobs regardless of whether is matches their skill-set, interests, and needs, the answer is no. People in the US are not reaching their full potential in the working world.

Meanwhile, economic disparity is at an all-time high and the richest 1% of the population is still getting richer. This is contrary to means of development, however, and economic inequality that high is actually something that is found in many developing countries. In fact, according to an NPR article, the US’s economic inequality rivals that of the Sub-Saharan African countries of Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. These countries according to the 2011 UN Human Development index rank 150th and 170th respectively on the development scale. This raises an important set of questions: is it possible for a country to move backward on this scale and is that the future for the US? With all the talk of “racing to the bottom” that is creeping up in economic conversations, it is getting harder to answer those questions with a “no.”

International Human Development Indicators – UNDP.