Wednesday, October 24, 2007


A guy I went to graduate school with, Kurt Shaw, was recently honored by the school with a "First Decade Award" for his work with homeless children in Latin America. His organization, Shine a Light, links NGOs doing grassroots work while also bringing attention to programs that use the arts to give homeless Latin American children a voice.

In an article in our alumni magazine, Kurt describes and reflects on his work. He begins by describing giving a videocamera to a boy who lives on the streets of Cordoba, Argentina and the film the child created. The boy experienced the act of creating a film about his experiences as a way to give back. Kurt writes:
We have this idea that the poor are, well, poor. Children, blacks, any oppressed group: they are defined by their lack, by what they are missing. The more time I spend on the streets and favelas of Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, the more I realize what a completely wrong that idea is. In fact, the poor are immensely rich: in art, in culture, in kindness and laughter and solidaritiy. And like anyone else, they become richer when they have a chance to give this wealth, instead of feeling like they must always be the victims of charity.
Later, he writes:
In church when I was a kid, we learned how to give gifts: the offering for the Heifer Project, the CROP walk, door-to-door collections for Church World Service and UNICEF. All of that was great, of course, and I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now without it. But now that I know the kids who get the donations I gave, I'm more concerned about it: when their gift comes from no-place and they have no way to give a return gift, they end up in an eternal debt. Charity without relationship, without love--to use the Christian word--becomes not only paradoxical, but damaging. Without a way to pay in the same currency, they pay with their dignity and autonomy; it's not chance that debt and guilt are the same word in Greek.

What I'm saying, I guess, is this: charity and sacrifice and altruism are the wrong metaphor. We have to come to see social change movements as an opportunity for relationships. And in that exchange of gifts, we all become richer.
I was so moved and inspired by Kurt's essay that I wanted to write to thank him, but haven't yet. His words spoke to me about the work I do as a fundraiser for an organization working with marginalized children--challenging me to be thoughtful about what I do and how I go about it.

It's a complicated thing because I'm on the side of the process where I solicit acts of charity. I feel very good about the fact that the kids my organization serves are encouraged and supported to use their voices and to give back. We talk a lot about the difference between taking and receiving--we teach our children and young adults about the power and connection you can experience by allowing someone to reach out to you with the understanding that you also will give to others.

Many--probably most--of our donors see their gifts as building a relationship with our kids. But there are those who are throwing money at a problem that troubles them but they really don't want to think about too much. Then charity really does feel like a wall dividing a donor from a seemingly-passive recipient. I imagine that this is why some people feel their lives are enriched through giving, while others feel anxious about being asked to give--each charitable contribution leaves them feeling more impoverished.

When I worked with the Quakers, there was a written policy that images used in publicizing programs would be respectful, positive, and humane. For instance a program working in an area experiencing hunger would depict people farming or milling grain; not flies crawling across a baby's eyelids. In my own work, we sometimes show kids receiving a gift but mostly we show them being the interesting, creative, strong individuals that they are. I take a lot of photos and share a lot of their words about their own volunteering and work giving back to the community.

There's a lot more to say, but last night I wrote about Kurt's article in my diary, and his words became connected in my mind to the bedtime story I read to Kinnell about Gossie the Goose.

Gossie is a gosling who loves to wear red boots every day. One day she can't find her boots...until she finds them on the feet of another gosling! "Nice boots!" says Gertie, clomping around in Gossie's favorite boots. Does Gossie feel robbed, angry, and poor? No, the last page of the book shows the two goslings playing together, each wearing one red boot.

It's such a simple childhood lesson--if you share, you will make friends. Or as my mother and grandmother used to say, "Share and share alike."

I like that phrase. We each give what we can, and in the process not only our possessions are shared, but also our common humanity.

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