Poverty Isn’t the Problem

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Seeing Something New for the First Time

As I reflect on my recent advanced coach training, one of the highlights was sitting in on our coach running a three-day intensive with one of his clients.

Like any ‘live’ experience you never know how it’s going to go and there’s an element of being ‘in it’ alongside the client, and an element of being ‘above it’, observing and absorbing what’s going on from a professional perspective.

Towards the end of the intensive Rob shared that he grew up as the kid with very little money. His mother, frugal and fair, counted the pennies and often said ‘no’ to his childlike requests for sweets or extras.

Rob’s doing great now, twenty-one years in the air force, retired disabled and building a new career as a fitness trainer and speaker. He has a lot of energy and an amazing outlook on life.

Those childhood memories run deep though, and he went on to tell our coach that, when he sees a kid in the supermarket whose mum can’t afford the extras, it touches him, and he pays, anonymously, for the shopping, with a few extras for the child.

A very human story of giving back in a way that feels right for Rob. Since they’d spent two days exploring the human experience, and what really moves the needle, our coach offered Rob an observation at the end of this story.

Maybe it isn’t the gift of the groceries that is where the change is happening between you and the mother and child in the grocery store; maybe it’s the connection that makes the difference, the way that we touch another human at a soul level, not the money in your pocket.

That connection can cause a shift in someone that can change the course of their life.

This impacted Rob, and something inside him unlocked as the truth of it sank in.

It’s what had happened to him—he’s connected with something deeper inside him that allowed him to take a different path than most of his peer group. 

The Shift Isn’t (just) About the Money

I’m not saying poverty isn’t a problem we want to solve—that looks like a no-brainer to me. We have enough resources on the planet that there’s no need for anyone to go hungry, no matter where they live. But something more, something so much bigger is available to us.

Shared Humanity

Changing the world, whether that’s in the projects of Birmingham, Alabama or the townships of the Cape Flats starts with creating an experience of our shared humanity.

It starts with showing someone that they have innate value as a human being. That they can be touched, and seen as a person, by another person, just as the mother in the supermarket can be touched and can be shown just a glimpse of what’s possible beyond her experience.

No matter how large or intractable those ‘big’ challenges may look, solutions come from lighting someone up, creating hope, creating choices, and showing them the possibilities beyond the limits we live inside—whether that’s in the form of gang violence, or the form of an ill-fitting corporate straight-jacket; whether it’s not enough food, or too much of the wrong kind of food.

Lasting Change is Personal

Until we understand that all change starts with the personal, the one-to-one connection, and we make this the foundation of any programme of change, then our efforts will not go as far as they might.

We can share food, we can build schools, we can put in water pipes. But we can also change the experience of the people we are reaching, and create a shared humanity that has the capacity to transform many, if not all, of our global, and local challenges.

It’s easy to look to a hierarchy of solutions, it’s understandable to see that food and shelter look like they come ahead of love and connection.

Like triage, however, and like the experience that Rob is having when he connects with a single mother in a supermarket, some solutions will be life-changing, and others merely cosmetic.

With love,