Thursday, May 19, 2011

A tip on how to start helping

One of the great things that is happening in America today is that more young people want to help out and make change than ever before. But the biggest thing that is standing in their way is being unsure on how to begin.

In a guest essay at Nicholas Kristof's blog On The Ground, we learn of one skill that help young people get started. Writer Rye Barcott talks about the charity he started after spending time in the Kibera slum of Kenya.

I’ve seen the effects of this first hand on the faces of college students across the country. After one presentation, a student eagerly exclaimed, “I’m a doer and I just want to do something.”

Her statement implies the question: How? How do you make an impact in an environment that is equally empowering and overwhelming?

The answer, I believe, starts with an old-fashioned skill: Listening. Listening enables trust, and trust is the foundation of positive change. We need to slow down and listen more before doing. This was a lesson I learned as the co-founder of a non-governmental organization (ngo) in one of the largest slums in Africa – Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya – and carried with me to Iraq as a Marine.

Fourteen years ago the Marines gave me an ROTC scholarship to attend college. Assuming I would be involved in peacekeeping missions, I took classes to gain a better understanding of why ethnic violence happened. I studied basic anthropology and Swahili, then travelled one summer to Kibera to conduct research. There I rented a small shack in the community and started listening to young men my age as they spoke about their lives and ambitions. It wasn’t long before that I recognized a fundamental truth about the world: talent is universal; opportunity is not.

Two Kenyans and I later co-founded Carolina For Kibera to combine more opportunity with talent by investing in local leaders. We referred to our approach as “participatory development.” It’s a concept from anthropology that acknowledges that sustainable change must be driven from within communities. It can’t be imposed from the outside. I found this to be true in Kibera, where our organization now engages more than 50,000 people a year, and also in the Marines, where we continue to wrestle with how to build local capacity during counter-insurgencies.

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