The Stories We Tell
A few weeks ago, I pulled up to find a boxy news van in front of my house. I was expecting it. For a few days I had been excited to share about my work partnering with at-risk communities in Northern Uganda with millions in Southern California. The interviewer from the station set up his camera in my living room. I sat down in front of the lens, the white light blinding my vision, and he began the interview with, “Tell me about your work feeding starving children in Africa.”
This question took me totally by surprise. As I fumbled around with my words clarifying that I don’t focus on feeding starving children, he made it abundantly clear that he had not looked up the work we had been doing and knew nothing about our programs but had come with the intention of telling the story of a local boy doing charity to save starving African children. Again, I tried to explain to him that isn’t what we do. “Well, it is a charity, isn’t it?”, he replied. I told him that I didn’t believe in charity, and that the word itself had become synonymous for many in the global health world with an ignorant mentality of white saviorism. Too much? Let’s just say that the rest of the interview didn’t improve and within a few minutes the gentleman quickly packed up his stuff and we never heard from the station again (and no story aired).
I’m still disappointed that I didn’t get airtime on the local news (or haven’t yet). But immediately after the interview I was terribly worried that a story was going to air that reinforced everything I have learned to avoid over the past 6 years. Telling stories and sharing images of starving children are extremely effective in garnering pity for those living in poverty, but not empathy. And while such stories may result in donations, such funding comes at the cost of reducing real, talented, and driven people into helpless aid recipients. If there is anything I have learned, it is that low-income communities don’t need a savior or a handout but instead they need opportunities to achieve their worth. For these opportunities to arise we need to stop telling stories that celebrate charity as a kind act of generosity, and instead tell empowering stories illustrating how partnership, investment, and respect for human rights in low-income communities can result in sustainable change. Unfortunately, it seems I am not yet skilled enough at telling our story in such a way – or at least not well enough to get my local news station on board.
(** if you are interested in learning more about how ‘charities’ feeding poor children in Africa can go wrong, look no farther than the recent horrific story of Renee Bach – who was likely once celebrated for her ‘generosity’ in helping poor African kids)