Pumping People Up About Poverty

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to sit through my fair share of pumping-people-up-about-poverty speeches. As an aspiring public speaker, I have often wondered whether or not I have what it takes to give a speech like this. They usually, but not always, have four parts.

A good one usually starts off with an inspiring Founder’s Story. I have one of those. I can talk about Honduras and the Nutrition Center for orphaned and abandoned kids. I can talk about how the kids were so malnourished and undersized that when I held them in my arms I could not tell their age. I can talk about how a once-dormant personal passion for social justice was awakened by those kids. Yet, if I talk about these things, then I would feel obligated to also talk about how all my efforts to alleviate poverty since that time have in no way made the lives of those kids any better. Indeed, I would have to tell them that most of the benefits of my poverty-fighting career have been captured by me. And, looking back, I would have to tell them that the thought of a strange man visiting, playing and feeding kids at an orphanage is disturbing, not inspiring.

So, I may have to skip the Founder’s Story. That’s all right. I can always start off with some moving misery statistics (infant mortality rates, life expectancies, and differentials in access to clean drinking water). Or, I could also use some kick-ass Hans Rosling-inspired graphics. And, then I can go into the No One Was Doing Anything part of the speech. I had a moment like this. I can tell them how a fire in my belly was raging. I can tell them how I felt surrounded by apathy, cynicism, and resignation. I can tell them how even though I had no hands-on experience in development I decided to do something. Yet, if I tell them these things, then I would have to tell them about what I learned. I would have to tell them that the poor are already hard at work building a better future for themselves, their families and their communities. I would have to tell them that the poor are not waiting for us to file our 501c3 paperwork. They are already doing. I would have to tell them that my decision to make a difference in a community in which my only connection was emotional was not heroic, in fact, it was kind of arrogant.

This is not going as well as I thought. And, I am afraid it is not going to get any better. Because, I will also struggle to give the I have a Solution…and it Scales part of the speech. Here is where the speaker usually talks about the success that his/her program has realized in one community, their plans to pilot the program in another community, and contingent upon favorable results their intention to scale the program regionally and then globally. No lying, this shit gives me goose bumps. But, it’s not for me. I do not believe that long-term sustainable solutions to poverty can come from outside of a community. Yes, technology, vaccines, and bed nets are helpful. But, they do not address the root cause of poverty. Poverty is about power and politics. Anyway, I believe in solidarity. I believe in side-by-side and not top down. I believe in building dignified, mutually respectful relationships with those I want to partner with. This takes patience, humility and authenticity. And, I am not sure how susceptible these things are to scaling.

Okay, I am 0 for 3. However, there is still The Rally! This is the audience on its feet, hands in the air revival-like conclusion of the speech. It’s just like a locker-room at half-time. I have often imagined how I would handle this moment. Would I sweep my hand across the crowd of young people wearing monochromatic wristbands and tee shirts? Would I tell them that they are historic, that they are the generation to end poverty? Would I tell them how their unbridled enthusiasm inspires me? Would I tell them that they can end poverty by taking a few simple steps? Or, would I tell them the truth? I would have to tell them that they will not end poverty. The poor will end their own poverty. I would have to tell them that in the narrative of poverty’s end we are sidekicks and not heroes. I would have to tell them that the narrative that dominates our culture of young people parachuting into poor communities to save the day is not only wrong it is also damaging. I would have to tell them how this narrative unjustifiably steals away dignity and self-respect from already marginalized communities. In fact, I would have to tell them how I hope that by the time their children grow up that powerful and privileged people will no longer be telling the poor how to develop, how I hope that their children will interpret this type of behavior as an historical anachronism, and how I hope that their children will be a bit embarrassed that their parents attended a pumping-people-up-about-poverty spectacle.

It seems like I do not have what it takes to give one of these speeches. Anyway, does the world need another white guy with a microphone telling it how to end poverty? We already have Bill, Nickolas, Bono, Jeffrey, Bill, Paul, Blake, and we can always throw in a British Prime Minister here and there. It is a pretty crowded field.

Well, you never know, there may be a niche market for a white guy with a microphone who takes his audience to school rather than to church.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my This is the Work newsletter.

Thanks. – shawn

P.S. Read the Sidekick Manifesto and Take the Pledge!

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