Saturday, November 21, 2009
As you may know, the stereotype of the adult Trust Baby who lives on the street by choice because he or she doesn’t want to obey society’s rules is, if not a downright myth, then at least a rare exception among those experiencing street-dwelling homelessness, particularly on a long-term basis. At a Homeless Advocacy Meeting I attended this week at The Stewpot, as I looked around the room, I asked myself, as I often do: “What is the profile of a person who is homeless?” My answer, after years of pondering the question, is that there is no profile. As with the ‘housed,’ each person’s story is unique. However, I have observed that a history of family poverty and an interruption in the process of formal education seem to be a common themes among many individuals experiencing so-called ‘chronic’ homelessness that I’ve come to know over the past six years.
So, when I hear someone offering solutions to problems of poverty, disease and a lack of education on a global scale, and offering them in a clear-headed and practical way, I tend to listen. That happened last week when I caught an interview with Melinda Gates on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS (KERA.)
It was later than I like to be awake, but I couldn’t quit watching and was riveted to the interchange within the first couple of minutes, because I saw in Melinda a passion and conviction which I’ve come to recognize in those who are committed to positive action on a deep level. A statement she made — “That mother in Africa whose child is dying of malaria cares just as much about her child as I care about mine” — shows me: she’s been ‘on the ground,’ engaged in frequent and genuine contact with people who are suffering. For her, it’s no longer ‘us and them.’
What struck me first of all was her manner. When asked a question, one could tell she had so much information to give in reply that she had to hold back some of it in order to respond to the question within the timeframe allotted. That kind of interest and accumulation — not to mention synthesis — of data, comes only from a deep and impassioned curiosity.
A few things stood out from the interview.
~~ She said that the money she and Bill have put into the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (many billions) was a drop in the bucket towards solving the problems they address. In particular, she mentioned the goal of the complete eradication of certain diseases from the planet — malaria, polio, smallpox, HIV-AIDS — and the improvement of public education. It was Warren Buffet’s donation of tens of billions more that allowed the Foundation to ‘go much deeper’, in her words, in addressing these problems.
~~ She could answer the hard questions, but never in a contentious and divisive way. When asked about the diversion of aid funds by corrupt governments in the developing world, she answered, with practicality but without blame, that she and Bill had learned that the work was best and most successfully carried out in certain countries where they could work well with accountable governments — in other words, tried and true solutions based on experience.
~~ The solutions to large, global problems lie, not in one segment of society alone, but rather only in partnerships between private philanthropy, government funding and cooperation, and faith-based organizations. That’s why, when I hear opinions put forth with monolithic solutions — and most often government participation as an evil is mentioned — I realize that these comments are based in ideology rather than in reality. The massive problems of hunger, homelessness, poverty, and global disease are indeed only amenable to large-scale partnering.
~~ The Gates Foundation sticks with it. They’ve been working on public education for a decade and are just now coming up with really workable answers to the question of what can make it succeed. At first they tried organizing smaller communities within the larger ones so that troubled kids could feel a sense of connection, but what they’ve learned over time is that the really important variable is — guess what? the particular adult individual teacher within the classroom. (How does that make you feel about the Dallas Independent School District laying off experienced, gifted teacher during its budget problems?) So now, they are trying to quantify exactly what are the characteristics of successful teachers, so that those can be taught and mentored to others. They are doing this through transparency in teaching methods and outcomes in pilot programs a couple of states — so that success can be shared, passed along, and hopefully instituted across the country.
~~ Something I observed in her manner was a presence of deep caring coupled with a lack of sentimentality. It may sound strange, but, as I’ve learned myself — sometimes the hard way — sentimentality about an issue can sometimes cloud its reality, and I believe its takes away from the dignity of those experiencing the problem. There is a fine line between these two, shall we call them ‘values?’ — compassion and sentimentality. But it’s probably an important line to learn to identify, in order to keep ourselves from enabling on the one hand and becoming cynical on the other.
Regardless of our situations, we are all human beings made of the same flesh and blood as well as emotional and spiritual components, and we are in this together. Not only is ‘right action’ a moral imperative, it is the correct practical option to try and solve these problems that plague our world.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: All Lives Have Equal Value
The Living Proof Project