Empowerment for Sustainability

If you are not already following “Humans of New York,” my recommendation is to start today. The blog was started by a guy named Brandon in the summer of 2010. Brandon left his job in finance in New York City and started creating a unique and comprehensive “catalogue”of the inhabitants of New York City. His original mission was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and document their stories on a map. Along the way he began to ask his subjects questions about their lives along with documenting their stories through photography. He would include short quotes from them with their pictures. The result is an incredible social media site that gives glimpses into the trials and triumphs of everyday people like you and me. It is incredible the result that comes from asking your neighbor a few questions about themselves. The blog now has over nine million followers and in the words of Brandon, gives “worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers on the streets of New York City.” Check out Humans of New York on the blog website and Facebook.

The blog has now teamed up with the United Nations to launch the Humans of New York World Tour. From August-September 2014 the website will be documenting experiences of people around the world. Check out the Website to learn about unique stories from places like Kampala, Uganda.

I recently came across one HONY entry that struck me, and I think hits home for the development world.


“We don’t like pictures like this. It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this. This gives us no dignity. We don’t want to be shown as a country of people waiting for someone to bring us food. Congo has an incredible amount of farmland. An incredible amount of resources. Yes, we have a lot of problems. But food is not what we are reaching for. We need investment. We need the means to develop ourselves.”

(Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo) View original post here.

There are different and often conflicting models in the development world, but the majority of successful models seem to cross at the all-important idea of empowerment. I was deconstructing this notion to bring it to the most bare-boned structure possible, and here is what I have come up with.

A service-oriented life is fulfilling, that is saying that one who donate their time to others receives a “feel good” sensation. Volunteerism, and particularly international volunteerism is often criticized for this fact– that is gives the volunteer (often a person from a Western society) a good feeling for a few days/weeks/months, then they can return to their 50-gallons-of-fresh-water-a-day lifestyle. At its core, I do not think this piece of volunteerism deserves criticism. In my opinion (and the opinion of numerous psychological studies), the Western mind has some room for happiness and inner peace. As Simon Anholt speaks about in his TED talk, “Which Country Does the Most Good for the World?” many industrialized nations are very internally-focused and thus lack (as he calls it), the “good factor.” The countries that have the highest rank of “good” on the “The Good Country Index” are those that think externally before they think internally, meaning they put the well-being of other countries on par with that of their own. Countries such as Ireland, Sweden, and Kenya, are among the top ranked, if you are interested. Simon discusses that the countries who have higher “good” also have higher psychological well-being.

So if thinking externally, and volunteering, or living a service-oriented life is not bad, then where does the criticism of this lifestyle or philanthropic/ non-profit organizations come from? This is what I love about this HONY entry. Service goes awry when the recipient of the service does not have the opportunity to receive the same level of self-fulfillment as the volunteer/ non-profit employee/ donator/ giver receives. This man from the Democratic Republic of Congo is expressing that the people of his country need to feel empowered, they need to feel dignified, and respected.

In the development world we often talk about programmatic sustainability and empowerment– two things that coincide closely. Particularly in programs that focus on the well-being of humans, the program must have a model that will make the partners feel empowered, thus the program will be sustainable. As the person who is featured in this photo says, “Yes, [Congo has] a lot of problems. But food is not what we are reaching for. We need investment. We need the means to develop ourselves.”


I walk without shoes so children don’t have to

Today is TOMS One Day Without Shoes. According to the official Facebook page for the event, 57,271 people are walking around the world without shoes today. I have been a fan of TOMS Shoes since the day I heard of them back in 2008. This company was started by a man named Blake Mycoskie after he traveled to Argentina. While he was there, he met a woman who was running a program that provided shoes to the children of her country who could not afford their own shoes. Blake discovered that the woman was frustrated by the lack of resources for her program, because a lot of the time she would not have enough shoes for all the children or she would not have the correct sizes (Do Something That Matters, Blake Mycoskie). I have encountered this problem in my work in the Dominican Republic, and you can read about this in my post, Smuggling Guanabana and Complete Imperfection. From my most recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I found that I can completely relate to what this woman described; it is infinitely frustrating not being able to help the people who are in severe need of assistance.

Blake created TOMS, a for-profit company, to provide shoes for the children that he worked with. Within one year of the development of the idea, Blake returned to Argentina with 10,000 pairs of shoes. With every pair of shoes that is purchased through TOMS, the company provides one pair for a child in need. One for One. I love this philosophy and the model for their company, because they are meeting the needs of the children without encountering limitations. They are able to measure the feet of each child and fit them with their perfect shoe. There are no color or style issues with the shoes (a problem I have encountered with Coloring Countries) because each pair of shoes that are donated are black,  canvas shoes, which are the standard requirement for schools.

April 10th, One Day Without Shoes, is a day to create awareness for the TOMS movement- and a glorious job it does! I was stopped 17 times today by people who are curious about my bare feet.  When I got stopped, I was able to describe this wonderful company and the work they do. My fellow bare-footers all smile at me as I pass, and some even give me a high five. We bond over our passion for helping others. This is part of the reason why TOMS is so successful, they make it very easy for Average Janes and Joes to change the world. I have found that the majority of the world (particularly youth) are frustrated with our global situation, and want to help others; hence, the success story of TOMS.

Even though I have glass in my heels and my toes are worn through, my heart is warm and fuzzy. I think that the challenge of today made the reward all the more fulfilling, especially being thrown out of the grocery store. =)

So your Two Hands Tuesday mission this week is to go purchase a pair of these life-changing shoes.Your purchase will allow a child to attend school, when their lack of shoes was previously holding them back. It will also prevent the child from contracting a disease through the cuts that they receive from walking barefoot everyday. Here is the link to the website, check out their selection and pick out a wonderful pair for yourself! TOMS Website.

My Two Barefeet

Annie's Bare Feet, April 10, 2012