This is my reflection on one of our recent classes with Mark of TellTheirStory.org
It seems that there were two basic areas we talked about with Mark…related but distinct. Ill start with development.
I do of course really appreciate the approach of micro finance, partnering with people in empowering relationships, and involving investors and donors in a very real way. Jacqueline Novogratz’s idea of patient capital (long term investment where the return is more about social change then a monetary percentage), is a really compelling idea to me, and is very closely related to what Mark is doing.
The thing that stands out from that conversation was the idea of approaching economics from a standpoint of scarcity or plenty. I do think in terms of plenty…I have no doubt that there is plenty for all. But I guess it seems like it depends on what you are measuring. Here is my worry: what if there are some things that do have to be given up to allow others to have plenty? The easy thing to pick on is anything we have the can derive from exploitation (cheap stuff, diamonds, coffee, sugar). What if we, as people with plenty, think we don’t have enough to make sure factory workers in China are paid a living wage? Now, I don’t want to be cliche with this stuff, the issues of trade, labor, wage, exploitation, etc. are very complex (see The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade), even if you just try to look at one single industry. Understanding it on a global scale seems impossible. But my worry stands; what trappings of plenty are possible because somebody has less?
I’m not sure where im going with this. I guess that I wonder if there is in fact something that has to be given up? I’m not talking about some sort of redistribution of wealth, that those with plenty will have to have nothing so that others can have something. But, it seems that there are some things we have that are built on the shoulders of the poor. It seems that this a lot of it is unimportant stuff though, cheap stuff from wal-mart. I don’t know, I might just not understand the economics of it all well enough, but it seems like this issue is less cut and dry then just saying that everybody can have everything. I found this picture a long time ago painted by the artist Banksy:
I think about it a lot. So, what if we are unwilling to pay 10% more on a meal so that the guy washing dishes can earn enough in a 60 hour week to pay rent? Part of this I suppose has to do with thinking long term. The person buying the meal might happen to own an antique shop. If this person only thinks short term then this is a situation of scarcity. There are only $10 in the meal and they have to be divided up. Somebody does not get enough. Or the customer can give up the extra dollar and pay $11, thus insuring that everybody had enough, except that he is out the dollar. In the short term he loses. But, I suppose, that if you look in the long term he might not. If all the dishwashers in the world have a bit of extra money some of them will start collecting antiques, and he gets his dollar back. I don’t know…i think i would need a degree in economics to really understand all of this!
There is another issue around this that we did not really talk about but it is related. For the sake of simplicity lets say that we (us) are obsessed with having stuff, with being comfortable at all costs, that we have built walls between us and nature, that we don’t know what it means to be connected to people, that we have to be entertained, that our priorities are wrong…all the negative stereotypes of the privileged that you can think of. So, say we invest patently, empower people, develop economies and create wealth. Are we just giving people tools to be us? To end up in a life obsessed with having stuff, with being comfortable at all costs, with walls between them and nature, without connections with people, needing to be entertained, with wrong priorities? I have two thoughts about this right now:
First, Jacqueline Novogratz returns. She has some interesting things to say about this. First, she throws out the romantic view of poverty. This is the idea that people with nothing are really better off because they understand family, community, and generosity. These things may be true, but the also have to walk five hours a day to get water, are always hungry, and their infant daughter died last week. So, Jacqueline says that we are giving people a choice. Through smart investment and development we allow people to choose to stay where they are, or to start down the path of developing economies and all that comes with that (good and bad). If they are really better off where they are, they will stay.
Second, I think this issue speaks to part of why development and spiritual formation go hand in hand. The thing that prevents people from becoming us is having the right person at the center of the story. If I am at the center of the story then naturally I can become obsessed with having stuff, with being comfortable at all costs, have to be entertained and with wrong priorities. However, if Christ is the center of my story then I probably will still become all of those things, but I will be fighting it. Christ will teach me to use my stuff to help others, to bring comfort to others, for my entertainment to be something more then mindless, and to have right priorities.
There is a bunch of stuff about this at Speaking of Faith if your interested.
On to story.
It is clear that Mark has thought about story a lot more then me, which is not surprising. It’s also clear that I have thought about economic development a lot more then story…
The question of exploitation is obviously important to me. I want to make sure that as I record what people have to say and take their picture that I do not use them, manipulate their words, be untruthful. I am really still processing this. I think the biggest place where this tension exists for me is when you are telling stories for the sake of an organization or project. Tomorrow I am going to start making a list of people i want to interview for a specific project. This project has a broad purpose, essentially it is to profile the community around the church so that we can give a taste of east Tulsa during a fund raiser. All i have to do is document what is, what people really say. Yet there is a temptation to shape the story. I want to show a “realistic yet hopeful” view of the community. I am already putting my agenda on it. What if there is no hope? Then what? In this case it’s actually not really that big a deal. I really can just show what I find. But what if Mark goes out and interviews a local hero and by the end the gist is “we have been working hard for 10 years, and now the water pump is broken, im tired of this, one of our co-op members stole all our money, and we are no better off then we were 10 years ago. It was better when people just showed up every now and then and gave us free food.” Then what? If it were me I hope I would be willing to take that story, put it in context, put it on the web site and be honest in saying that what we do is hard, that we don’t always have the answers, sometimes we might be wrong and make mistakes, that there are setbacks, and that it takes perseverance. But I think i would probably be scared to.
In the end I think that this is not solvable. You just have to know that this tension exists, and make sure that you are constantly checking yourself.
The most encouraging part of the conversation was hearing mark talk about the value that recording somebodies story brings to them. That just by taking the time to listen you help somebody feel like they have worth and value. Over the last several weeks as i have been interviewing a few people I think that is part of what I have enjoyed the most, is that they have seemed to really appreciate getting to share a bit about themselves with somebody. I have enjoyed hearing the stories and have learned from them, but i think (hope) that they felt valued because of the time I spent with them.