the water we swim in

the water we swim in

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the second in a series inspired by the book. Read the first post.

Josué:

After reading A Path Appears, this was the quote that really sunk its teeth into me and wouldn’t let go:

“To be harnessed effectively, idealism needs to be grounded in a practical sense of how to get results and a grassroots understanding of the lay of the land.”

Idealism is something we see in nearly every social entrepreneurial effort and in the work of so many of our clients. They—and we—believe the work they’re doing will make a difference.

Idealism is tricky, though, and I’m glad Kristof and WuDunn mention it. At my worst, I can get swept away by or grow cynical towards grandiose idealism. The need for harnessing idealism in an effective way cannot be overstated—practicality and cultural understanding are vital to seeing idealism succeed.

Ashlie:

It’s interesting that you mention being cynical towards grandiose idealism, because I think I’m also guilty of that. Too many people, especially young social entrepreneurs, think they have found the next big idea that would solve one or more of the world’s major issues. But helping people is harder than it looks. When I was younger, I thought I understood the word idealism and I used it often. After taking some time to look at it again, I’m not so sure anymore.

Oxford Dictionary defines idealism as “the unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection.” It almost sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does this also mean an idealist is someone who is unrealistic and impractical? I thought we referred to our global thought leaders as visionaries. There should be more hope and fight in us, rather than playing a feeble role that sets us up for failure.

Idealism is usually a term applied to an idea, objective, or plan considered to be unrealistic. Does this then mean the global elimination of poverty and injustice is idealistic and, therefore, not worth fighting for? These perceptions of idealism, as they relate to international relations, may be ambiguous, but they probably trace their roots back to some discouraging interpretations of human nature and/or diverse cultures that coincide with a historic judgment on the difficulty of peaceably achieving radical change in world affairs.

Josué:

I agree we tend to think in idealistic terms when we imagine a global solution to a nasty problem. But I think idealism has its place, especially if it’s rooted within a community. Kristof and WuDunn portray so many heart-wrenching failures by social entrepreneurs who lacked the cultural aptitude for their solutions. Understanding the needs of the people is one thing, but developing a solution that’s birthed from the community is another.

The culture piece reminds me of this parable by the saintly David Foster Wallace: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

Culture is the water we swim in—it surrounds us so wholly that we are usually unaware it’s there. This is, I think, the larger issue—even bigger than idealistic altruism. Often, people move so quickly to solutions that we forget to pause and take in the people with whom we are working. People can be blind to the culture of others, and may automatically assume they live under the same cultural rules that we do.

With your travel and aid work around the globe, I imagine you have tons of experience in this very thing.

Ashlie:

I have been lucky enough to visit many places, meet incredible people, work on a variety of projects, and experience many things in my life, but progress never came without communication and connection. It was important to enrich my time by immersing myself in the local culture. I was respected more by the community if I wore the local fabric, swallowed a plateful of fufu, joined the dancing circle, learned phrases in the local language, and made an effort to visit with people in the community.

I first travelled to Africa when I was 18 years old and, I have to admit, I was both naive and idealistic. I truly thought I could change the world. I spent the summer volunteering at the Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp just outside Accra, Ghana, which easily became one of the most transformational experiences of my life.

I remember one incident very vividly: One morning, I was walking from the volunteer house to the organization’s main office. Rugged, red dirt paths radiated through the camp, connecting humans with homes, barbershops with bars, and schools with sewer streams. I had my head down, paying close attention to the bumps and dips in the street so I wouldn’t trip. I must have been walking fast and dodging people along the way, much like I normally did on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston where I went to college, when a hand grabbed my arm. I looked at the person holding me and she said, “Polé, polé.” The phrase meant to “slow down,” but more in the sense that I needed to lift up my head, ease my pace, smile at the people I was passing, and take in the colorful culture around me.

We may be aid workers, social entrepreneurs, researchers or travelers—all with a purpose or plan—but we’ll never get where we want to go by moving fast on a course toward a pre-determined destination. We must learn to observe, listen and engage with the culture before we try to inject ourselves and change it. From pilfered Toms shoes to abandoned flush toilets and poorly designed farming techniques to unsustainable microfinance programs, I am well aware that big ideas come and go. The ideas that last and influence are those that are woven in the fabric of the culture.

Josué:

Ideas woven in the fabric of the culture is a beautiful way of describing the work of the social entrepreneur. The greater we are able to root ourselves into the culture, the greater we can respond with ideas that find traction within the community.

I love how we often joke at Aggregate that “Anthropologist” should be added to our job description. So much of what we do is developing that grassroots understanding of a culture or community. We study communities—pockets of people struggling with a common problem and striving toward a common goal. Through our study, we are able to discover solutions that respond to the real needs of a community rather than just meeting the desires of our clients.

I find that it’s by using an anthropological lens to view our work that we’re able to turn idealism into reality. It roots our idealism within the community we’re working for.

Ashlie:

At Aggregate, we seek deeper explanations that help influence our ideas, recommendations, and proposals. We enrich our work—and, therefore, our clients’ work—with our intimate understanding of a certain group, organization, community, or issue area. Ultimately, this helps inform our strategic approaches to communicate value propositions that make philanthropic efforts effective.

Each day, I’m blown away by the caliber of this team. Professionally, we are able to match our altruism with practicality, and build upon a company culture and tradition of strong realistic idealism.

the empathy cycle

the empathy cycle

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the first in a series inspired by the book. Stay tuned for two more posts, coming soon.

Barbara:
I’ve written before about why I and my colleagues choose to do mission-driven work, and Alison recently shared why Aggregate makes donations throughout the year. But what are our underlying motivations for these donations and deeds? Do people give because it’s the right thing to do, or because it makes them look good, or because they enjoy helping others?

I make a yearly personal donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation because my grandfather, his brother, and my great grandfather all died of complications related to Parkinson’s disease. It is something I wish no family to ever go through again and I know it’s a long battle to get to a cure. And so, I do what I can to ensure a cure is eventually found. Similarly, I dedicate time and money to environmental conservation groups because I care about the health of our world and living creatures, and personally value being in nature.

Qui:
Personal experiences often determine how I spend time and money, too. Last year I became a mom, which is challenging under even the best circumstances; you can imagine why I started zeroing in on ways to help other mothers and single parents. Now I can relate to and help carry the load for a subset of humanity that I didn’t previously empathize with.

More research is pointing to the fact that channeling money toward others—not ourselves—means the giver walks away happier, and healthier. Kristof and WuDunn peel back some of these layers in their chapter on the neuroscience of giving, citing multiple studies which reveal lower stress and longer lives of people who volunteer and donate. I wonder if our proximity to a cause also affects how we feel after giving time, money, or resources.

A weaker connection might reduce motivation to participate, in my case, prioritizing causes based on where I live, and what I’ve lived. So, then, what about causes that aren’t close to home, or the heart?

Barbara:
Some people balk at the idea of “outsiders” becoming involved in communities that aren’t their own. We’ve all heard, “If it’s not happening in your backyard, it’s none of your business.” I am a straight, white, cisgender female from a middle class family. I don’t fall within any minority or at-risk population. I did not experience racism directed at me growing up, or harassment and abuse based on my sexual preference, though many of my friends did. I will never experience many of the hardships so many people face worldwide, such as not having access to health care, well-funded schools, and healthy food. I recognize my privilege.

Why do I care about ensuring equal rights and opportunities for at-risk and minority populations if I am not a part of that population? I contribute to organizations working to eradicate these disparities because I have empathy for the people living with these issues each day. It is important for the health and stability of our communities for everyone to have equal opportunities and representation. Everyone should have access to these things I consider basic human rights, and as an ally, I have the power to follow the charge of those living these experiences to see where and how I can help. 


Qui:

You’re a living example of caring beyond yourself to look after essential issues, even if you’re not in the epicenter or on the periphery of those issues. So many organizations hustle every day to reframe stories and statistics to make them more relatable to potential donors who feel removed. In the midst of feeling overwhelmed, lending words and resources can provide us with a sense of productivity, as opposed to doing nothing and feeling guilty as a result.

This is why I genuinely struggle with those who take carving knives to altruistic intentions, which can never be purely selfless. Let’s be clear—I’m very in favor of of the “warm glow” theory of giving. It sounds like you are, too. It builds empathy, a basic building block of humanity.

Here’s the rub: empathy and happiness that results from giving is too often a luxury. While we bask in the afterglow of our good deeds, those trapped in the labyrinth of meeting basic needs can’t always afford to be empathetic. And according to the research I mentioned above, that exasperating cycle means shorter and less healthy lives for those who aren’t in a position to give.

Barbara:
Violence and disparities in health and education can chip away at empathy, or jeopardize it all together. One of the biggest and most heart wrenching recent examples of the importance of empathy, particularly as it relates to violence in America, can be found in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. Perhaps if there was more empathy for and within these communities in general, resulting in more action and policy change across the board, these events never would have occurred. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but a compelling thought nonetheless.

While empathy is difficult to measure, organizations like Ashoka are working to study the long-term effects of encouraging empathy and trauma-informed care. In schools where outcomes are being studied, there have been reports of reduced bullying and ethnic and racial tensions, increased capacity for conflict resolution and openness to others, and increased attendance (source). It is critical to social and economic security to ensure we are teaching the younger generations empathy and setting them up for success—particularly at-risk youth who may not be able to afford empathy and generosity toward others when their own basic needs aren’t being met.

More and more, it seems empathy is a privilege. If empathy and the ability for action are a privilege, what better way to use that privilege than to help others?