Let’s Start Telling A Different Story

In her Ted talk, Poverty, money –and love, Jessica Jackley states,”The stories we tell about each other matter very much. The stories we tell ourselves about our own lives matter. And, most of all, I think the way that we participate in each other’s stories is of deep importance.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately and the narratives that we use to understand the world, ourselves, and each other. After listening to Stephen Lewis’ bleak forecast for the realization of the MDGs by 2015 and upon realizing how difficult it is to shop ethically, it’s been tough to believe that I can really make a difference or even a small dent in ending extreme poverty, especially on my own. However, there are clear indicators that things really are getting better. In his article “Freeing the entire human race from want”, David Steven reviews the Global Monitoring Report 2011 and suggests that great progress has been made and that, as long as certain conditions hold out, cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015 is a legitimate reality. In one of many encouraging evaluations Steven’s suggests, “In 1990, there were 1.8 billion poor people (in a world of 5.3bn people). If the IMF/Bank projections pan out, by 2015, there’ll be 882.7m poor people left (in a world of 7.3bn). That represents real progress in both relative and absolute terms.” (via The Global Poverty Project)

A recent story in The Guardian reveals that an increasing number of girls are attending school in Bihar, a state in India, thanks to a government initiative to provide girls with bicycles, which enables them to get to school easier and maintain higher energy levels throughout the day. I find this story particularly exciting as it deals with two of the MDGs at once, universal education and gender equity.

I have recently come across another story that has moved me deeply, although differently than the previous stories. As I’ve researched the various ways in which changing my purchasing habits can impact extreme poverty, I’ve noticed my focus slowly shifting towards my actions, what I can do, how it will impact my life. Particularly on a knotty subject such as ethical fashion, it is easy to become so wrapped up in my own efforts to end extreme poverty, that I forget why I first cared about it in the first place. I was reminded about why I want to see extreme poverty come to an end this past weekend.

Some friends of ours from Canada have spent the last month and a half in South Africa, volunteering with an organization called The Seed of Hope in Bhekulwandle. The entire family of five is there and they have been diligently blogging the experience. In two separate posts, Alanna, the oldest of the three children, and Jody, her mom, shared the story of Sezwe, a 9 year old boy who is often left on his own for days at a time. Both blog posts are deeply moving, but it was Jody’s post that moved me to tears. She writes, “I thought about what it would be like to go find him in the dark…to pick him up and put him in our van…to bring him back into our warm apartment…to give him a bath and soothe his skin…to dress him in clean underwear and cozy jammies…to wrap him in a blanket and let him go to sleep on a bed…with a pillow…under a duvet…where he’s safe.” What really got me was that image of taking someone out of a situation where they feel unsafe and placing them in one where they know they are safe and, even more, loved. I just have this image of Sezwe, snuggled in that warm bed, with shoulders relaxed for the first time in days. Alanna’s post and Jody’s words have reignited my desire to see extreme poverty and stories like Sezwe’s come to an end.

Surrounding ourselves with the positive progress made in eliminating extreme poverty is important if we are to keep believing that change is possible. But stories about individuals, stories that move us and speak to our hearts are equally important. These stories are like a litmus test for my motives as I seek to find ways to end extreme poverty. Am I doing it because I feel I have to or should, or because I know it makes me a better citizen or engaged individual? After reading Sezwe’s story and longing so badly for him to experience safety, security, and love; I am certain that, what has led me to action more than anything else, is compassion. And I think it’s easy to extinguish compassion when we focus too much on the immensity of any issue and how small our actions seem in the grand scheme. But, I also think that, by surrounding ourselves with stories like Sezwe’s, compassion will bubble up and brim over, influencing our actions and adding a certain weight to them from which real change is inevitable.