In my effort to learn something new every day, I started watching a TED Talk each day while I ate breakfast. I stumbled upon a talk by Ernesto Sirolli. It was perfect timing because a few months later, I created two new courses at the University of Florida revolving around community engagement, leadership and social change. Since this talk really resonated with me, I use it in class when we start talking about effective social change, and my students love it just as much as I do.
His story, while being very entertaining, is a great example of how people’s intentions might be in the right place, but to effectively serve the community, it is important to understand THEIR needs. Sirolli touches on the naivety of the countries around the world thinking they can “fix” whatever problem they assume African countries have. They felt so proud of all the work they were about to accomplish and for being there to “save the Africans”, that they could not see why their projects were failing. He goes on to discuss the importance of conversation and tapping into the peoples own entrepreneurial spirit to make real change. The advice and examples at hand are valuable to any entrepreneur, but also to anyone hoping to make a difference in the world. Everything they touched, he said, they killed, and it was all because they did not ask, they told. I guarantee that this is something nonprofits and social entrepreneurs experience every day.
“No one in the world can succeed alone. The same goes for social change.” – Ernest Sirolli
Another great example that I like to reference is Aaron Ausland’s, Staying for Tea. I have my students read this article specifically because the personal story and examples he uses helps them grasp the concept much better. Ausland has years of experience in global development and from his own stories and those he has worked with, he recognized that he too may have been approaching community-service volunteer work ineffectively. In sitting and talking with community members he says, “My title and position were being eroded; I was becoming real to them. At the same time, my simplistic stereotypes of them were melting away; they were becoming real to me.”. This is key in connecting how the service work you may do, and learning from the community will be what ultimately steers you towards making any effective change.
Ausland references an experience a friend of his had while in Central America regarding youth groups throwing money and American footballs out bus windows to children passing by. The pastor did not see how this could possibly be a bad thing, they were sharing their blessing with others, it was well intentioned. The experience he shares is one similar to mine in Guatemala. I was riding a bus to go for a hike up a volcano near where I was staying, and as we pulled up to the stop little children surrounded the van. Tourists were throwing money and snacks out the window. I remember seeing Cheetos fly out and kids trying to catch them. This was a perfect example of how tourists, volunteers, etc. can without knowing, dehumanize people. There was no conversation, no attempt to treat them as an equal, just food/candy being thrown at them, as if they were animals being given a treat. This happens too often regardless of the intent of the individual.
Listen. Engage. and Stay Humble.