Assessing the Two Dollar Challenge

Wow.  I am sitting here at Hyperion Espresso as customers are picking up today’s issue of the Free Lance Star.  The Two Dollar Challenge in on the front page.  Their comments – well, let us put it this way – they are not so generous.  I think they can be categorized as running the gamut from the mocking to some good-natured ribbing.  Comments in the latter-category include “I wondered if they were using the facilities in dorms – if so that is cheating.”  “They used a tarp – oh that is cheating.”  “The challenge ended before the rain – oh that is cheating as well.”

These comments arose as a party of four was enjoying their espresso this morning.

I understand peoples’ skepticism.  In the low-to-middle income neighborhood that I grew up in, there was not a lot of patience for do-gooders.  Their “do-gooderness” was a luxury no one in my neighborhood could afford.  Hell, it could have easily been me as a young man or some of my family members making those comments.  These criticisms may sting a bit, however, they are beneficial in the sense that the legitimacy – indeed the appropriateness – of the living on $2 a day project hinges upon our ability to address them head on.  However, it is not the Hyperion crowd that is my concern.  I am primarily concerned with the people of Siete de Abril.  If they were to bear witness to our circumstances, choices, and behavior over the course of the challenge, what would they think?    

If they were to visit our mock-shanty town last Thursday or Friday, they would bear witness to one of the many limitations of the challenge.  There is food everywhere: bagels, pizza, donuts, crackers, cakes, fruit, soda drinks, and coffee.  Like I have stated on multiple occasions, the Two Dollar Challenge is conducted within the confines of a wealthy society.  It is near the end of the week that word about the challenge spreads around campus.  Members of the university community walk past, see us sitting outside our shelters, and ask us if they can help out.  On a number of occasions they simply return bearing the aforementioned gifts.  It is also the time of year that there are multiple events on campus where food is freely given out at cookouts and the like.  It is only on Monday, Tuesday, and maybe Wednesday that we most closely approximate the $2 a day income constraint.  The bottom line is that none of us live on $2 a Day.  However, within this limitation lays one of the values of the challenge.  It makes us aware of the abundant wealth that surrounds us.  Whether that wealth is denominated in bags of bagels and donuts discarded at the end of every business day by local establishments or the generosity of our community, this is wealth that most of us take for granted.  Some participants take advantage of that wealth some don’t but regardless of whether they choose to do so or not they recognize it for what it is – wealth and resources that those actually living on $2 a day in developing economies do not have.

If they were to visit our mock-shanty town anytime between 7 pm and midnight the scene can sometimes have the feel of a festival – participants may be playing Frisbee or flag-football or simply hanging out together enjoying each others’ company.  The Two Dollar Challenge asks participants to rely upon each other.  Every night we come together to pool together resources, strategize, and talk about the day.  Individually we are more tired than usual and more hungry than usual; however, it is not all doom and gloom.  The challenge is being taken by young people placed in unusual circumstances.  Necessarily, there will be smiles and there will be laughter.  Amusing stories are shared and consequently published in blogs.  In this coming together every night, however, lays one of the strengths of the challenge.  The shanty-town is an extension of the classroom.  It is in that last hour before heading off to sleep under the tarp in Ball Circle that my students and I reflect most deeply about the challenge – recognize its limitations and talk about ways to improve upon it.  Indeed, it was in one of those mid-night talks that we recognized that the challenge – by asking us to gather cardboard from dumpsters and bagels and donuts at the end of the business day – inadvertently makes us a source of competition for the homeless here in Fredericksburg – an issue that we have to address more deeply before taking the challenge again.

As I was leaving those four Hyperion customers, their conversation had turned away from some good-natured ribbing of the challenge to the issue of homelessness in Fredericksburg.  That more than anything maybe the value of us living on two dollars a day – it is a conversation starter. 

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Thanks. – shawn

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