Have fun when you can. Think all the time.

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May 28, 2010

“a woman is like a tea bag, you cannot tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

In the Beginning…

Once upon a time there was a little girl living in a Kingdom far far away. This little girl loved to be outside, play with her friends, read books, and hear her mother father and aunt tell her stories of people and places very different from her own. One day, when she was about five, her father took her to a meeting where people in the village were talking about how come there were so many children in the kingdom who were living in poverty and what they could do to change it. As the little girl sat at the table with all the adults (who weren’t as scary as one might think) she drew, and she listened. Then one of the adults at the table looked at her and said, “Little girl, what do you think?” Her answer is irrelevant, but this little girl knew that this was something big. That an adult had taken the time to ask her what she thought about kids her age living in a type of poverty that she couldn’t even understand and that this table full of adults genuinely wanted to hear what she had to say.

As this little girl grew she thought she had super powers. She could tell when her mother or father were upset before anyone else could. She could feel when children at school were feeling left out. And she knew that sometimes all it took to make her friends, her parents, or her teachers feel better was to smile at them. She loved playing in the field behind her house with the other children living on her street. They would run through the bushes with swords fighting off fire breathing dragons, build forts for protection as they became the first settlers in a new land, caught tadpoles and watched them develop into frogs, climbed trees to watch for pirates who were trying to attack their ships, and she was always coming up with new games for them to play.

On Sunday mornings she would sit in her basement and cry. What she saw on t.v. made her feel sad and she didn’t understand. Children who were the same age as her didn’t have families to tell them stories. They didn’t get to school. They didn’t have food to eat or water to drink. She would watch World Vision and cry because now that she knew what was happening she couldn’t look away. Her mother found her one Sunday and asked her what was wrong. The littler girl said, “Mommy I don’t understand. How come these children don’t have food, and don’t have water? Why can’t they go to school? Where are their parents? And how come I have all of these things.” The little girls mother then said “Well what do you think we should do about it?” The little girl and her mother phoned the people and World Vision and got two children that they would sponsor and the little girl wrote them stories and letters every week. The little girl also started saving her money that she put in a separate piggy bank. When Christmas time came around her mother and her father took her to BJ-Supertoy Sales with all of her money (which they had gladly matched) and she picked out toys to give to children in Winnipeg who might not be getting toys under the tree. She remembers walking into Winnipeg Harvest with two garbage bags full of toys and how happy the man who took them was to see her. It felt better than all the candy she could have bought with that money would have tasted, and she knew it was something she needed to do for a long long time.

One day she was outside playing by herself (she was about 6 now) and a group of boys who were a bit older than her were playing soccer in the field behind her house. She was excited. She had never really played soccer before. In fact just last week she got her first nose bleed when she walked onto the soccer field at school and became an innocent victim of an undirected ball She went up to the boys and asked whose team she could be on. The boys looked at her then they looked at each other and then they laughed. “You know girls can’t play soccer they said.” And then they went back to playing. She ran home crying. Boys can be mean you know. When she got home her dad asked her what was wrong. She told him that the boys said, “Girls don’t play soccer, but I really wanted to play Daddy. I really wanted to play soccer.” The next day she was signed up for soccer and had her first practice the next week.

Her dad believed in her. Her parents listened to her even though she was small and knew ‘nothing’. She was told by adults that she could and more importantly should do anything that she wanted to. All of these things started her on an adventure that she didn’t fully understand at the time, and likely still doesn’t understand now.

I am lucky to have parents who support everything I do. Without showing me but letting me find my own way and being there for me to answer questions, and most often ask more; making me think about why I am thinking about what I am thinking about. My mom tells me a story of when I was younger and I refused to sleep in my bed or eat anything but rice and water because that’s what other kids had to do in Africa (once again thanks to too much Sunday morning World Vision). I get embarrassed when my mom or dad tell me stories like those because now I have a better understanding (along with an increased skepticism) of organizations such as World Vision. BUT it was because of my exposure to those images, those stories, those voices (that I'm sure you are all aware of) at such a young age (coupled with some curiosity and empathy and the other combination of characteristics that together make me who I am) that has brought me to this place in time, and in my life. I didn’t really include any of the stories or events occurring between then and now but the first 7 years of my life laid the foundation….to where I am now, and to where I’ll go in the future.

Blowing our Globalized Load all over the Third World

We come with suitcases of clothes, presents, soccer balls and candies. School supplies, work gloves, guitars, ect. and we throw them at members of the local community and snap a happy photo of how we, as Northerners, are making a difference in worlds far away. We throw the pictures up on facebook to show all of the “good” we’re doing in these poor and helpless foreign lands. But we don’t tell the locals what price our ‘gifts’ come with…we don’t tell them what will happen if they accept our gifts…and we wont see it either…unless we want to and unless we go back and are willing to be critical of ourselves—which as North Americans we like to shy away from, blame other people, and give ourselves a preemptive pat on the back when we really haven’t done anything. The soccer jerseys don’t come with a note that says by taking this gift you will become dependent on our presence. It doesn’t say we will mess with your culture. It doesn’t say we will enforce (consciously or not) our ideals on you—expecting you to lean our language while not learning yours. It doesn’t say that for us this is a vacation and after a couple weeks of doing good and getting dirty we will return to our cubicles and venti dark roast coffees that cost six dollars. It doesn’t say that we will sleep better tonight…and for the next year because we are “changing the world”. And it doesn’t say that we’re likely to give up if it takes more than seven years. When we cut a check so we can build a school, or a hospital, or a barn so we can play in the dirt and swing a hammer and listen to our friends and family tell us how noble we are and how much good we are doing and we can respond with how great the 45 cent beer tastes after a hard days work of saving lives the memo doesn’t read…we are using you (intentionally or not).

What you also don’t see from sitting at home and criticizing these programs is the depth of the individual experiences and the effects that transpire as a result. To the individual who participated the picture isn’t of a foreigner and a local but rather of two new friends. The soccer jerseys don’t show the relationship that has developed between the giver and the receiver. The school supplies don’t show the attempt of two people from two very different places accepting each other for who they are with empathy and compassion. It doesn’t properly illustrate the reciprocal nature of the relationship and the knowledge sharing that goes on. One of the most important things that go unnoticed to those sitting at home being their textbooks and theories is the inspiration generated as a result. The foreigner will return to their community sharing their pictures and stories with friends and family exposing them to a reality they might be unaware of and in turn inspiring them to get involved (in some capacity or another). It doesn’t show how a two week trip with good intentions can lead to a lifetime of engagement and participation—because with a personal connection it its more likely to be sustained. It also doesn’t show the local may be inspired by the experience of someone coming to their community and listening to their story. From being shown that cares (in some way or another) about them, and their issues. The inspiration that could begin (both sides) to a lifetime commitment on developmental issues, pursuing equality and all that good stuff.

So what do you do? I don’t have a clue. I think experiences that engage and inspire while creating awareness are crucial if we want to put the idea of Global Citizenship into everybody’s head. I think it’s a fundamental way to create and spread awareness and I think it’s a hell of a good place to start. BUT I also don’t think you can stop there. I think when people are inspired they do great things and it’s important to remain ambitious. To continue to change how far you want to go and how much you’re willing to push the envelope and to always challenge the status quo—as cliché as that is, and to demand more from yourself and from those around you. I think we need to be very conscious of our impact and be aware of what we are leaving behind and what we are taking and at what cost. I think we need to realize that we cant look at these situations as black and white—they aren’t.

Trendy Activism VS Sustainable Activism

There seems to be a tendency for people to get involved in causes for short periods of time because of what they just saw on t.v, a good book they just read, or a great speaker they had the pleasure of speaking with. Whatever cause is in front of them they take on, jumping from band wagon to band wagon buying ‘Green is the New Black’ water bottles and ‘I heart the Planet’ t-shirts after listening to Gwyn Dyer. Immediately giving up anything that isn’t Fair Trade after watching Black Gold, becoming a vegan after watching PETA videos and making radical changes immediately following said enlightenment. I would be interested in talking to those people in 3-weeks (in 6-weeks, in 3-months, 6-months, a year) when they aren’t basking in their inspirational hangover. Would they still be an aggressively opposed to these behaviours? Have they refrained from eating meat all this time? Are they still ‘green’?

I think this form of social activism is trendy. It follows the media’s influence and doesn’t lead to sustainable lifestyle changes. In my experience this kind of trend driven activism is alright…but it’s not great. Issues that need attention get a little bit of light, but it’s not enough to make any significant changes. Its all good that you are now aware that your coffee’s journey starts long before you walk up to the counter to order it, but then what? Its great that you’re now aware of the impact you are having on the environment and are but its more of the…well what now that makes me a bit frustrated. Now you realize there is an issue at hand….but how do you sustain that and do something about it? Thinking about Haiti for example makes me a bit mad. Not to mock the seriousness of the disaster…but I want to know where these people, who are inviting me to hundreds of socials and willing to donate their funds were two years ago?!? And where will they be in six months when the media is no longer paying so much attention. Just because the camera is off doesn’t mean we can care any less.

Have Fun When You Can. Think All the Time.

A good friend told me "Have fun when you can, think all the time." Makes sense to me. Thinking, questioning everything, acquiring knowledge, insights, and gaining perspective all help us contextualize the world around us and are some of [if not] the most useful tools we have at our disposal to change the things we dont like around us, into something that might not be perfect, but something that we can live with.

"Have fun when you can, think all the time"