the water we swim in

the water we swim in

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the second in a series inspired by the book. Read the first post.

Josué:

After reading A Path Appears, this was the quote that really sunk its teeth into me and wouldn’t let go:

“To be harnessed effectively, idealism needs to be grounded in a practical sense of how to get results and a grassroots understanding of the lay of the land.”

Idealism is something we see in nearly every social entrepreneurial effort and in the work of so many of our clients. They—and we—believe the work they’re doing will make a difference.

Idealism is tricky, though, and I’m glad Kristof and WuDunn mention it. At my worst, I can get swept away by or grow cynical towards grandiose idealism. The need for harnessing idealism in an effective way cannot be overstated—practicality and cultural understanding are vital to seeing idealism succeed.

Ashlie:

It’s interesting that you mention being cynical towards grandiose idealism, because I think I’m also guilty of that. Too many people, especially young social entrepreneurs, think they have found the next big idea that would solve one or more of the world’s major issues. But helping people is harder than it looks. When I was younger, I thought I understood the word idealism and I used it often. After taking some time to look at it again, I’m not so sure anymore.

Oxford Dictionary defines idealism as “the unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection.” It almost sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does this also mean an idealist is someone who is unrealistic and impractical? I thought we referred to our global thought leaders as visionaries. There should be more hope and fight in us, rather than playing a feeble role that sets us up for failure.

Idealism is usually a term applied to an idea, objective, or plan considered to be unrealistic. Does this then mean the global elimination of poverty and injustice is idealistic and, therefore, not worth fighting for? These perceptions of idealism, as they relate to international relations, may be ambiguous, but they probably trace their roots back to some discouraging interpretations of human nature and/or diverse cultures that coincide with a historic judgment on the difficulty of peaceably achieving radical change in world affairs.

Josué:

I agree we tend to think in idealistic terms when we imagine a global solution to a nasty problem. But I think idealism has its place, especially if it’s rooted within a community. Kristof and WuDunn portray so many heart-wrenching failures by social entrepreneurs who lacked the cultural aptitude for their solutions. Understanding the needs of the people is one thing, but developing a solution that’s birthed from the community is another.

The culture piece reminds me of this parable by the saintly David Foster Wallace: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

Culture is the water we swim in—it surrounds us so wholly that we are usually unaware it’s there. This is, I think, the larger issue—even bigger than idealistic altruism. Often, people move so quickly to solutions that we forget to pause and take in the people with whom we are working. People can be blind to the culture of others, and may automatically assume they live under the same cultural rules that we do.

With your travel and aid work around the globe, I imagine you have tons of experience in this very thing.

Ashlie:

I have been lucky enough to visit many places, meet incredible people, work on a variety of projects, and experience many things in my life, but progress never came without communication and connection. It was important to enrich my time by immersing myself in the local culture. I was respected more by the community if I wore the local fabric, swallowed a plateful of fufu, joined the dancing circle, learned phrases in the local language, and made an effort to visit with people in the community.

I first travelled to Africa when I was 18 years old and, I have to admit, I was both naive and idealistic. I truly thought I could change the world. I spent the summer volunteering at the Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp just outside Accra, Ghana, which easily became one of the most transformational experiences of my life.

I remember one incident very vividly: One morning, I was walking from the volunteer house to the organization’s main office. Rugged, red dirt paths radiated through the camp, connecting humans with homes, barbershops with bars, and schools with sewer streams. I had my head down, paying close attention to the bumps and dips in the street so I wouldn’t trip. I must have been walking fast and dodging people along the way, much like I normally did on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston where I went to college, when a hand grabbed my arm. I looked at the person holding me and she said, “Polé, polé.” The phrase meant to “slow down,” but more in the sense that I needed to lift up my head, ease my pace, smile at the people I was passing, and take in the colorful culture around me.

We may be aid workers, social entrepreneurs, researchers or travelers—all with a purpose or plan—but we’ll never get where we want to go by moving fast on a course toward a pre-determined destination. We must learn to observe, listen and engage with the culture before we try to inject ourselves and change it. From pilfered Toms shoes to abandoned flush toilets and poorly designed farming techniques to unsustainable microfinance programs, I am well aware that big ideas come and go. The ideas that last and influence are those that are woven in the fabric of the culture.

Josué:

Ideas woven in the fabric of the culture is a beautiful way of describing the work of the social entrepreneur. The greater we are able to root ourselves into the culture, the greater we can respond with ideas that find traction within the community.

I love how we often joke at Aggregate that “Anthropologist” should be added to our job description. So much of what we do is developing that grassroots understanding of a culture or community. We study communities—pockets of people struggling with a common problem and striving toward a common goal. Through our study, we are able to discover solutions that respond to the real needs of a community rather than just meeting the desires of our clients.

I find that it’s by using an anthropological lens to view our work that we’re able to turn idealism into reality. It roots our idealism within the community we’re working for.

Ashlie:

At Aggregate, we seek deeper explanations that help influence our ideas, recommendations, and proposals. We enrich our work—and, therefore, our clients’ work—with our intimate understanding of a certain group, organization, community, or issue area. Ultimately, this helps inform our strategic approaches to communicate value propositions that make philanthropic efforts effective.

Each day, I’m blown away by the caliber of this team. Professionally, we are able to match our altruism with practicality, and build upon a company culture and tradition of strong realistic idealism.

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