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November 22, 2012
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A post on meetings–but read it anyway

Greetings from the post-Thanksgiving, pre-winter-break world of Growth Through Learning. As it happens, this is also the newsletter-sending, scholarship-application-reviewing, spring-fundraiser season at GTL. Fortunately, we have a lot of Kenyan coffee.

In the midst of all of this, I have been busy with meetings. And actually, these have been fantastic. Yesterday, for instance, I had the pleasure of meeting with a man whose job it is to support nonprofit work throughout the world. Specifically, he works with donors–people who want to give what most of us would consider large sums of money but who are concerned that those sums will not be enough to “make a difference.” His job is to figure out how, through whom and where the money can make that big systemic change everyone wants.

I understand the instinct: faced with the enormity of poverty or hunger or child sex trafficking, or any of the other horrific conditions that plague our world, most of us just want to jump in and yell “Fix it!” And we search around for the magic key that will unlock the problem systemically and solve it logically with the least expense to the world, at large. I am certainly not going to argue against those who believe we can and should solve the problems that bring misery to too many people (and too many animals, as well, while I am at it). But I do think this search for a large-scale solution has its own problems.

A friend asked me many years ago how I could stand to work day after day on a social problem that seemed endless. He put it like this, “It’s as if you walk into a messy room, and all you can pick up is the underwear on the floor”  (I didn’t say my friend was a poet). I think my response at the time was that I would be pretty darned happy if I could just get rid of the dirty underwear, but the question itself overlooks something. My friend’s question is a version of “why work so hard to help one person at a time when you could be looking for a way to change the whole system?” and that question rests on the assumption that we will always accomplish more when we work at a problem from the top, from above, from a distance, systemically, etc…

Sometime we forget that there is no real place  “at the top.” Our  “above” is an imaginary overlook that rests on a mountain of equations derived from data points and translated into graphs and pie charts for easy comprehension. You know what I mean; it looks something like “50 million people live in country A, 34% work in agriculture, 46% of girls go to school.” Like everyone else, I rely on these numbers to get a sense of things. Mathematical data offers us a perspective that, frankly, does not have a whole lot to do with how we experience the world. For this reason the numbers on which the whole idea of scale or systems rest seem to make things almost superhumanly clear (which is why the surprising statistics seem so terribly nifty). But people actually come in individual sizes, and when you meet one, they don’t actually resemble all those numbers we’ve assigned to them.

Well, except this guy who sits outside MIT, but I think that proves my point:

photo by Peter Payacks, published in Cantabrigia (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/cambridge/2010/12/29/about-that-numbers-sculpture-at-mit/#axzz2Df5FKcsp)

If you are dealing with actual people instead of mathematical fantasies, then you will find that the individuals in front of you are often full of surprises, full of ideas, experiences, flaws, frustrations…full of all kinds of things that did not show up in the numbers. And if you are trying to deal with a horrible and intractable human problem, then you will find that meeting an actual person in need is surprisingly…invigorating. Because after all, you are human, too. I have watched too many advocates and donors burn out over the years because they were trying so hard to fix the numbers in front of them that they never had the chance to replenish that humble sense of person-ness. And they never got the chance to see how ridiculously, impossibly resilient human beings can be under even the worst circumstances.

We should fight to change systems, cultural norms, and other large-scale structures that are not working to our benefit. We should also give ourselves a break sometimes and sit down with one of those people we want to help. Even with a person I don’t particularly like (because genuine need doesn’t always come with social charm), I have always found that a few minutes face to face makes all of those numbers fade into away into mere data points and abstractions. And unless and until we all begin to look like that guy on the MIT lawn, we’re going to have to put the paperwork aside from time to time and sit down at a meeting.

1 Comment

  1. brookskeene says:

    Very nice. Since I work in water and sanitation, I usually expect funding to be geared at underlying systems and also expect it to leverage local institutions and capital. Otherwise, the sustainability and the potential for impact at large scales–for services that must be there every day–is missing. For education, I think I buy the opposing argument a bit more. The sustainability is present regardless. An advantage incurred for an individual is sustained throughout that person’s life and has knock-on benefits that are incalculable.

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