Poverty

Empathy on the 1 Train

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“I’m a single mother of two and I’m selling…”

I didn’t listen further to the woman stepping onto the 1 Train, assuming I knew the rest of her announcement.

As she made her way towards me—fruit snacks and chips packed neatly in a cardboard box—I averted my eyes to the ground, feeling guilty for rarely giving money. In the corner of my eye I see the graying man next to me frantically digging through his backpack. Scavenging through all his pockets as she continues towards us, I figure he’s looking for his wallet. “If he can’t find it, I’ll give him a dollar to give her,” I tell myself. I know I have one.

The woman stalls in front of us; three strangers united, waiting breathlessly. He finally grasps something with his hand…and pulls out a pack of Orbit. “He keeps his money in a pack of gum? That’s weird,” I think, certain he will be giving her money. He proceeds to pop a stick of gum in his mouth, physically sigh in relief, and do whatever we pretend to do on our phones. She continues on past us, repeating her speech, and my heart sinks.

I’m shocked and disappointed. No, I’m infuriated. What was he thinking? Where was his empathy?! I sat there, judging him.

And then I sat there, judging myself. Am I really any different?

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Getting Social Impact Advertising Right

You’ve seen this type of advertising so many times now that you’re desensitized to it. There’s a sad song playing in the background as you watch a slideshow of dehumanizing photos, while the narrator simplifies the issues and urges you to “make a difference.” You see it for charities supporting public health, orphanages, and even pets. You saw it in campaigns like KONY 2012. It’s known as “poverty porn.” There have been a number of clever video campaigns mimicking or combatting poverty porn.

But I haven’t come across anything as effective, funny, clever, or powerful as this 2012 ad from the Rainforest Alliance. It’s entertaining and relatable. What I love most though is that it has a strong and easy call to action at the end.

To learn more about storytelling for social impact that is not poverty porn, check out the work of the great team at Regarding Humanity.

Reframing “Bottom of the Pyramid”

A report, by Pablo Sanchez of Roots for Sustainability and Fernando Casado Cañeque of Center of Development Alliances, calls for reframing “bottom of the pyramid” (BoP) to consider access to resources and basic amenities, and not just income. They argue that research and work that measures BoP by only economic factors such as income misses an opportunity for more holistic data and analysis by also considering access to goods and amenities and social factors.

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Why do you give?

Tibetan Buddhist monk in red robes handing out...

At a recent potluck, the conversation turned to the issue of homelessness and how we can address it, as individuals and as a society. Someone remarked that they feel good if they give a homeless woman a dollar, and then they continue on with their day. THEY feel good.

The issue of homelessness and giving to homeless and beggars is complex, and I struggle constantly with deciding how to view and approach the issue–especially after growing up in Santa Cruz, which has always had a large homeless population, and being approached by beggars nearly daily in India. As I thought more about this issue, it seemed that everywhere I looked and read there were articles and videos discussing generosity and homelessness. I think it boils down to two concepts: why do we give and how do we treat others?  (more…)

Nine Months of Learning and Failing in India

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When I moved to India in July 2012, I expected to come away having left a demonstrable, long-term impact at the affordable private school I would work with.

As soon as I settled down in my job, I realized that the work would be a lot more challenging, complicated, and slower than I could have ever imagined. Yet, I didn’t want to settle for what I thought were more unsustainable, easier, or smaller-scale projects. I have ideals about social enterprise work that is sustainable, well planned, and intentional, and that addresses the root causes of problems as opposed to just surface issues. Even though I was primarily responsible for work at just one school, I still wanted to think big.  (more…)

Question of the Day: Exploitation in Social Enterprise?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about exploitation. How do we end exploitation in the workforce? In society? How do we build social good models that don’t continue to exploit individuals in a new way? How do we advertise and raise awareness about social missions without creating “poverty porn?”  Is exploitation in some form or another inevitable?

I came across this blog post that encapsulates some of my many questions and concerns quite well.

“Though we didn’t reach an agreement, this conversation did bring up very important ethical issues for social entrepreneurs. When creating a sustainable organization for BoP populations, are we creating a social enterprise or have we created a way to legalize social exploitation? As Talent would ask, “when you employ people from impoverish communities are you simply utilizing your access to cheap labor?” When financing poor entrepreneurs are you simply exploiting debtors? When providing micro-insurance to underserved populations are you simply exploiting the poor?”

Perhaps this is over thinking the issue too much. But I have many questions and doubts, and no answers.

What do you think?