All posts tagged “dignity

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The Creative and Destructive Power of Stories

Not long ago I was reminded of the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wonderful TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, which first started making the rounds some five years ago. As I re-watched it, I was struck by the continued relevance of her message:

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

We absorb stories in many different ways, but it has occurred to me lately that one of the most formative ways that stories take shape in our imaginations is through news headlines. In truth, few of us read entire news stories in print or online, and even fewer of us have the attention span that so-called “long-form journalism” requires. And for what it’s worth, I’m not aware of many people who actually watch the evening news in any sort of intentional way. But if you’re like me—someone who is on Twitter and Facebook with some regularity—you have a pretty good feel for what today’s headlines are. And when it comes to shaping the way we see the world, that’s a dangerous thing.

Adichie reminds us that no person, place, or issue can be understood through a single story—much less through a single headline. Without the broader picture that multiple overlapping stories provide, we’re left with stereotypes. Stereotypes, of course, generally aren’t entirely untrue. But they are always—yes, always—incomplete.

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African men, Hollywood stereotypes, and the Golden Rule

This video has been going around the interwebs the past few days so you may have already seen it, but if not, it’s a must-see.

Benard, Brian, Derrick and Gabriel came up with this idea after watching Alex presents: Commando from Mama Hope, a nonprofit doing community development work throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Here’s more on Mama Hope’s “Stop the Pity” campaign:

Take the word AFRICA… without thinking, what images immediately come to mind?

War? AIDS? Genocide? Or maybe the vision of a small child with a swollen belly, surrounded by flies? … Too many non-profits ask for your pity by depicting poor, helpless Africans. But like any stereotype, this portrayal has more exceptions than truth.

Mama Hope feels it is time to re-humanize Africa and look to the positive change that is happening. Through a series of videos Mama Hope wants to show the light of the people we serve in Africa. We aspire to introduce our partner communities to you with the integrity and brilliance that we witness everyday. In these videos we feature the shared traits that make us all human—the dancing, the singing, the laughter and bring the compelling truth of their lives to your living room. This is a campaign to build awareness of the simple fact that we are more similar than different. It’s time for us to change the way we see people across the world and start to see other communities for the people they are instead of the stereotypes we’ve been trained to expect. It is time to stop the pity and unlock the potential!

Moving from pity to emphasizing untapped potential is a big paradigm shift for many of us, but it’s so important. To give you a bit more to chew on, I thought I’d share a recent article from Christianity Today by Kent Annan, who  works with Haiti Partners and has written a couple of books, including one I reviewed last year. In this new piece, Annan reflects on KONY 2012 and the Golden Rule, and offers six principles to keep in mind before telling someone else’s story. Here are some of the questions raised:

If you’ve ever talked about your experience on a short-term missions trip in front of your church, tried to start a new project for disadvantaged people in your neighborhood, or raised money to help others, at some point you might have felt an uncomfortable twinge: Did I make the case strongly enough to motivate people to step up and help? Did I selfishly make myself the hero? Did I paint people as one-dimensional victims instead of as the people I know them to be? Did I overstate how much good we’ve done? I know I’ve made these mistakes many times during my 15 years in nonprofit work.

What can we as Westerners do to stop perpetuating stereotypes? What would it look like if we approached our storytelling through the lens of the Golden Rule? What would change? What would stay the same?

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Marketing, ethics, and the self-sufficiency of God

Last night I tweeted this from The Onion: “Let’s admit it, NGO marketing/comms folks… we kinda had this one coming:

As someone working in the field of relief and development, I wrestle with the ways NGOs represent their work and the ways we go about getting funding to keep that work going. Do the very noble ends (serving the poor, saving lives) really justify the often less noble means? Do vivid photos of starving children really serve anyone? Do mass mailings that most people just throw in the trash justify the cost of production, both as a percentage of donor money and in terms of environmental degradation, something that has a devastating effect on the very poor these organizations purport to serve? Those are just a couple of the questions I wrestle with.

In regard to the first question, about the ethics of using emotionally compelling but ethically troubling images, I’m grateful for the work of the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers, a group of photographers and videographers “devoted to peacemaking and breaking down stereotypes by displaying the beauty and dignity of various cultures around the world.” For those producing visual content, they offer an ethical code. And for those of us who consume visual content (all of us), they invite us to sign a charter for visual peace. The creative, talented, compassionate folks at IGVP are doing important work that I hope will continue to shape how NGOs, businesses, and independent communicators reflect the dignity of their subjects.

Within the faith-based sector, which is more narrowly where I happen to work, we’re not immune to these ethical concerns. If anything, we need to be extra vigilant, given the way spiritual guilt can so easily be used to manipulate. I’ve been reflecting on these things for a while now, but just this morning while eating breakfast and reading The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer, I came across this passage that brings the matter home for us in theological terms. His language is a bit old-fashioned, and he refers specifically to “missionary appeals”, but what he says is true of faith-based humanitarian and social justice pleas as well:

Probably the hardest thought of all for our natural egotism to entertain is that God does not need our help. We commonly represent Him as a busy, eager, somewhat frustrated Father hurrying about seeking help to carry out His benevolent plan to bring peace and salvation to the world, but, as said the Lady Julian, “I saw truly that God doeth all-thing, be it never so little.” The God who worketh all things surely needs no help and no helpers.

Too many missionary appeals are based upon this fancied frustration of Almighty God. An effective speaker can easily excite pity in his hearers, not only for the heathen but for the God who has tried so hard and so long to save them and has failed for want of support. I fear that thousands of younger persons enter Christian service from no higher motive than to help deliver God from the embarrassing situation His love has gotten Him into and His limited abilities seem unable to get Him out of. Add to this a certain degree of commendable idealism and a fair amount of compassion for the underprivileged and you have the true drive behind much Christian activity today.

The key word in that passage, I think, is need. God does not need our help. He invites us to join him in his work, and we do so in response to the love and grace we have received. When we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we may find him moving us to act accordingly. But guilt won’t do it. It won’t last. Rather, we can serve the poor with a quiet trust in a loving God, a God who will do his thing whether we’re part of it or not.

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Ps 46:10)

What would our marketing look like if we believed that?

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Repaso: Haiti 18 months later, poverty/dignity, humanitarian journalists, Latin America’s game, and more

1. Paul Farmer on post-quake Haiti
NPR’s Fresh Air had a half-hour interview this week with Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, in which he talks about Haiti a year and a half after the devastating quake in January 2010. It’s tied in with his new book, which is one I’ll definitely plan to read and possibly review for the blog or a magazine. Farmer has been working in Haiti for a very long time, and his perspective is sobering but worth listening to. In the interview he says:

Some people talk about Haiti as being the graveyard of development projects. Our own experience has been very positive working in Haiti — building health facilities and working with the public sector and creating jobs — but [we are now thinking about] how we can now make these other, more ambitious projects also effective on the implementation front.

2. Haiti: 18 months later
Roseann Dennery, a good friend of Katie’s, has a new piece in Relevant Magazine on Haiti as well, focusing on the country’s tragic orphan crisis. She has been living there for the past year, working with Samaritan’s Purse along with Justin, her husband. Her first-hand experience of the crisis has led her to a unique perspective:

It is one thing to read statistics about Haiti’s expanding orphan crisis, but it is quite another to witness it; to walk down a squalid dirt road and visit several overrun orphanages within a few minutes of one another, each with greater need than the last. Wide eyed, hungry, soiled. Each humble face tells a different variation of the same story. It is unsettling and overwhelming. And it feels harshly unjust. What does it mean, then, to be a Christian in the midst of a swelling sea of abandoned children, a trend that shows no sign of slowing?

3. Snapshots of Suffering
My friend Chris Horst, who works for HOPE International, has a great personal reflection on dignity and suffering, based on experiences in the Dominican Republic. He concludes:

I’m thrilled to serve a God who truly knows me. A God who does not define me by my weaknesses. A Creator who made me in his image. A Father who “exults” over me, his child. These truths convince me that If God and I sojourned across the Dominican together, his pictures would look strikingly different than mine.

4. Are humanitarian groups doing the media’s job overseas?
This was an interesting one for me, since I’m a communications specialist for a large NGO not unlike the one featured in this post. It is an interesting observation Tom Paulson makes about this trend of NGO communicators doing something very similar to journalism and what this means for mainstream media.

5. Is baseball becoming Latin America’s game?
NBC Sports has an interesting piece on the rise of Latino players in the MLB:

Much like the recent influx of immigrants from Latin America into the general U.S. population, MLB has seen a remarkable shift in it’s demographic over the last 20 years. Ozzie Guillen, the outspoken manager of the Chicago White Sox, said last year that within 10 years “American people are going to need a visa to play this game because we’re going to take over.” And while Guillen’s comments can be taken as a humorous exaggeration, there is an element of truth to what he says. Baseball might be America’s pastime, but the sport is becoming increasingly Latino at heart.

6. Trailer for :58 film
I highlighted the new :58 campaign here on the blog a month ago today. Now here is the trailer for the campaign’s feature length film, due for release this fall.

58: THE FILM Trailer July, 11 2011 from LIVE58NOW on Vimeo.

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Beyond Charity: An environment of hope (part 4/5)

So far in this series we’ve taken a look at what Christian community development is, emphasizing the so-called “three Rs”: relocation, reconciliation and redistribution. We have also considered the marks of an authentic church, the kind of church that would make Christian community development possible.

Now we turn to the important role of the urban environment that many find themselves in. Perkins says that over the years he has learned that “it is difficult to be salt and light if we ignore the concrete realities of people’s environment.” So what are some of the important factors at play in underdeveloped urban contexts? And what can be done to enrich communities in each of these ways, so that development is possible? Before we take a look at eight factors, Perkins advises us to remember that “local leadership is the most important sign that long-term community development is taking place.”

1. Dignity. Theologically, it is true to say that all of us have equal dignity because all of us are made in the image of God. But generational patterns of dehumanization (whether from the outside or within) can convince the rich and poor alike that some are more dignified than others. By encouraging a healthy sense of pride in one’s cultural and even ethnic background — all in the context of who we are in the eyes of God —  and by emphasizing the importance of the place in which one lives, dignity can slowly be restored.

2. Power. The urban poor experience powerlessness in many ways, often unrecognizable to the wealthy and middle classes, and certainly beyond much of our understanding. It’s not surprising that many poor people are suspicious of those with power, because it has so often served them so negatively. Perkins does not suggest a combative response to those with power, but rather collaboration for the sake of the powerless. Power can be life-giving when it’s in the right hands.

3. Education. The crisis is two-sided: the quality of education available in inner cities is generally terrible, and people in inner cities are increasingly not seeing the value in education.  Which causes which is hard to say, but it’s a real crisis with real ramifications. Perkins promotes the incalculable value of after-school tutoring as well as encouraging teachers and parents to hear from each other. This would be a start in circumstances far from ideal.

4. Employment. Unemployment rates are often highest among the urban poor, and while some people find themselves in poverty after losing a job, the chronically poor are unemployed primarily because they are unprepared. Small businesses and social enterprises in poor urban areas are crucial in creating employment for those ready and eager to work but unable to find it, and fostering an entrepreneurial environment where more will be inclined to do what it takes to land steady, fulfilling work.

5. Health. You and I inherently understand the sky-high costs of health care, which is why the benefits package that comes with a potential job is a significant consideration. For the reasons above and more, health problems that would be inconveniences for us in fact constitute crises for the urban poor. Many Christian community development organizations start health clinics to fill this gap, often depending on volunteers from the medical profession as well as donations, offset a bit by modest fees charged to patients.

6. Security. Poor urban areas are notoriously dangerous, and many residents would argue that the police have done more to hinder security in some cases than to protect them. Racial profiling is real, and even for the city police departments and officers with the best intentions, budgets are often so tight they are prohibited from timely responses in the worst areas. Neighborhood crime watches and other community coalitions can go a long way, Perkins says, but ultimately what matters is developing the next generation and exposing them to non-destructive alternatives.

7. Recreation. There’s far more to life than work, and many of us underestimate the importance of rest, exercise and fun. Whereas busyness may keep us from these things, urban environments are often loud, chaotic and tense. Whether it’s basketball or Girl Scouts, giving kids and teenagers healthy ways to spend their time could pay enormous dividends.

8. Beauty. If what we want for ourselves and for the urban poor isn’t just more money or more stuff but abundant life, we need to consider the importance of aesthetics. Many poor neighborhoods don’t have a lot of green space, and the arts are often neglected. Community gardens that relieve neighborhoods of the eyesores of empty lots and invite neighborhood participation are one idea. Programs giving kids the opportunity to explore the arts like painting, music, and acting can help kids and adults alike recognize the beauty that already exists and the capacity they have to be creators.

This list certainly isn’t intended to be exhaustive. What else would you add?