What I Deserve

I live in a wealthy community in a wealthy country. I had, and have, a stable, supportive family and access to world-class education. I am male and I am white.

Last week, as part of my time with the Acumen India Fellows, I spent some time 135km outside of Hyderabad, in the villages surrounding the town of Kosge.  We were there to understand the issue of marginalization of rural women, and to do so we spent time in villages, with women’s self-help groups, visiting schools and talking with NGOs and the police force and with doctors in public hospitals.

We split up into four groups, and as luck would have it I ended up in the village that seemed completely stuck, where little progress was being made, and where it felt like there was little hope for improvement.

A village where every single woman said that she is beaten by her husband.

A village whose women, when asked what a woman should do if she is regularly being beaten by her husband, responded, “be patient.”

A village where payment of dowrys is on the rise, and where dowry deaths still occur.

A village where girls often get married when they are 12 or 13 years old, and where it is hard to figure out if that is as terrible as it seems or if, in fact, betrothal protects a young girl from sexual predators.

A village whose public hospital, 4km away, has exactly one young doctor, in her 20s, who is on call 24/7, and no additional nursing or medical staff we could identify, working in a hospital whose annual budget, according to the doctor, was less than $2,000 a year.

Returning home from this trip, on the way back from JFK airport, I was talking to my driver who was originally from Guyana. He described life in his country simply, “If you are born rich, you will die richer. If you are born poor, no matter how smart you are and how hard you work, there’s no chance for you, you will always be poor.”

Yes, it’s true, I have the choice, each and every day, of how to live my life, of how hard to work, of what opportunities to pursue, what risks to take, and what my attitude is going to be. I have agency and to some extent I reap what I sow.

But the fundamental point is that I live in a place and a time, and I was born in a place and a time, where my actions yield results. And for far too many people, including the women we spent hours sharing stories with, talking about hardships and often laughing through the discomfort of it all, every force in the world is undermining their ability to realize even some small fraction of their human potential.

It’s so easy to hide from the realities of the world, how cruel and unfair it still is for so many people. And while it is natural to insulate ourselves from these harsh, cruel, ugly realities, it strikes me that we cross a line – the line between self-preservation and delusion – when we start telling ourselves that we deserve the lives we have.

We don’t.

We have the lives that we have, we played some small part in creating them, and it is our choice, every day, to do what seems right to us with the gifts we have been given, however big or small.


Extremist for Love

Monday was Martin Luther King Day in the United States, an opportunity to celebrate the life and leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  One of the many great pieces he wrote was the Letter from a Birmingham JailKing wrote this piece in the margins of a newspaper and on scraps of paper while imprisoned for nonviolent protests on April 10th, 1963 in Montgomery, Alabama.

The letter is a response to a statement made by eight Alabama clergymen condemning the Montgomery protests, describing those leading the protests as outsiders and rabble-rousers, and positioning themselves as reasonable men wanting “honest and open negotiations of racial issues in our area.”  Most of all, these clergy argued that they “do not believe…that extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”

King’s letter is a clear, measured, but also deeply powerful response to these clergy.   His language, his eloquence, his clarity of thought and his refusal to compromise on issues of morality, rights and dignity inform the conversations we are having today about inequality and social justice.  King writes:

The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations.  He has to get them out.  So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides.  If his repressed emotions do not come out in these non-violent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence.  This is not a threat; it is a fact of history.  So I have not said to my people “get rid of your discontent.”  But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelized through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.  Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist.  I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually grained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.  Was not Jesus an extremist in love – “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”  Was not Amos an extremist for justice – “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ – “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”  Was not Martin Luther an extremist – “Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist – “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”  Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist – “this nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question Is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be.  Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?

We discuss this passage at length with the Acumen Fellows, pushing one another on what it means to be an “extremist for love” and asking one another if, where and when we are willing to be extremists for causes we believe in.

Are you an “extremist for love?”  Do you aspire to be one?

An “intangible” dividend?

So here’s a curious narrative: in the early 1990s, 4,600 poor families in LA, New York, Chicago and Boston were moved from very poor neighborhoods (more than half the residents living in poverty) to wealthier (less than a third of the residents living in poverty).  The hope was this would result in better jobs, higher incomes, and better educational outcomes.

After rigorous, scientific testing, the initiative failed to deliver the desired results.

And yet, in what was described as an “intangible dividend” by the NY times, the recipients ended up significantly, quantifiably happier.  “The improvement [in happiness] was equal to the level of life satisfaction of someone whose annual income was $13,000 more a year.”

This is the dividend that’s called intangible.  Happiness.

Of course it’s hard to measure, of course it is squishy and self-reported, but if we’re ever going to get anywhere we have to have the comfort and confidence to say out loud that things like human dignity, pride, and yes happiness are the whole point, the only point really, and that everything we’re doing is aimed at loose proxies to those results – what could be more real or concrete than that?

Just think how much we’ve punted on this issue, if we’re really honest with ourselves.  We’ve come to a point where we’re saying with a straight face that if we put a lot of money into the impact investing sector and that money realizes a healthy level of financial return then we’ve had success.  That puts us about seven degrees removed from actually understanding if anyone is better off, happier, freer, more proud or connected or more able to realize their potential, if someone is more likely to realize justice if they’re wronged or less likely to fall back into poverty if they get sick.

As a sector we have to have the courage to say out loud that happiness is not an “intangible” dividend, it’s not a silver lining in a program that otherwise failed to raise people’s incomes.

Would that we lived in a world in which the NY Times headline could have been: “large-scale government program a huge success, making 4,600 families happier, healthier, even without increasing incomes.”

It feels like looking at the sun, saying out loud that the whole point is happiness or pride or dignity.  It’s so much easier and safer to look away.

What I wish

I wish the world could look at images of beauty and resilience and feel compelled to act.

I wish people would see photographs by Nuru photographers, photos that capture the spirit and challenges of the life of the poor in the developing world, and share these photos, these stories, more than 70 million times. Not out of pity, but out of joy.

I wish that, at my local Starbucks at 6:30 on Saturday morning, instead of seeing Kony2012 posters in the window I’d see one of these beautiful photographs from Lagos, Nigeria; from Nairobi, Kenya; from Chennai or from Bhopal in India.

The Nuru project curates breathtaking images from around the world, shares them with the public and uses the proceeds to help nonprofits.  Their first partnership was with Acumen Fund, and together with +acumen chapters, they have helped us raise more than $150,000.

The pictures tell a different story – one of connectedness, one of shared possibility, one of dignity.

I know this blog post and the Nuru site won’t get seen hundreds of millions of times.  But if you love photography, maybe you will check out the site and buy a print for a dear friend.  Maybe you will email the one photography buff you know and let them know about it.  Maybe you’ll spread the word on Facebook and on Twitter about this “this gr8 stuff u hve 2 see NOW!!!”

Let’s start spreading a different story.

Act now, only 40 tickets left!

Lots of people talk about wanting to help.  Taking the time and the energy to create something of beauty that makes a difference…rare indeed.

I’m beside myself in thanks to the amazing volunteers who have put together a benefit photo auction for Acumen Fund, this Thursday (tomorrow!). The Nuru Project is putting on the show (and what a show it will be) with photos by Steve McCurry, Susan Meiselas, James Whitlow Delano, and many more.  Come early to the VIP preview to hear more about the photos from JB Reed.

The details: Thursday, 7:30pm, Tribeca Cinemas Gallery, 54 Varick Street. You can still buy tickets.

(open bar, great DJ, food from the likes of Jimmy’s No 43 and Smoke Joint, awesome raffle prizes, and I’ll also be saying a few words together with my colleague Yasmina Zaidman).

And if you can’t join us, you can spread the word.  Why not lift these 88 characters and throw them up on Facebook or Twitter?

Photo Auction+ Acumen + Cool People = “Dignity” a July 30th NYC Benefit http://bit.ly/2E5Ff

Varanasi. The City of Light

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Ask 3 questions to practice listening

There are gobs of advice out there about how to communicate better – whether in meetings or in presenting to big groups or even just in email.  This is important stuff, some of which I’ve blogged about before (most popular seem to be Start with the Punchline, Please and 10 Obvious Tips for Email (that Most People Don’t Follow).

What about listening?  Does anyone out there teach how to listen better?  Does anyone even ask it of you?  It’s amazing when I reflect on my MBA curriculum that – outside of a dim nod to focus groups and the CEOs who “got out to spend time with customers – listening skills weren’t even recognized as something worth cultivating.  Maybe we needed to invite some more cultural anthropologists into the classroom, or it could be that the whole value proposition of business school is to churn out people who can talk their way into that first investment banking job, but listening is getting short shrift as a skill needed for personal and professional success.

Listening starts with the recognition that you don’t have all the answers, and that you have something to learn from the person who is talking.  It requires you to be present, to be active, and to care what other people think.  And, perhaps most obvious, it requires you to keep your mouth shut unless you have something really valuable to say.

If you think that you might not be a good listener, try this: in your next conversation, or the next time you meet someone new, ask three questions in a row of that person (instead of, when they tell you something, saying, “It’s funny, the same thing happened to me the other day….”).  This is a little heavy handed, but doing it will both force you to practice and recognize if your impulse is to turn the conversation back to you.  People love to be heard – so give them that chance.

I had barely thought about this until two years ago when I started working at Acumen Fund, where listening is one of our core values.  We start with the premise that the only way to really break the back of poverty is by listening to poor people to understand who they are, their needs and preferences.  This serves two purposes: on a practical level, it forces the enterprises we invest in to create products and services poor people both want and need.  More fundamentally, it forces us, and the enterprises we support¸ to respect poor people, to afford them dignity, and to recognize them as fully capable human beings with real aspirations for their own lives.

You don’t have to be in the business of serving unmet needs of an underserved population to have this be important or possible.  Start small.  Listen to your co-workers, your boss, someone who works for you or the customer or student or parent or donor you’re meeting for the first.  Really hear what they have to say (and really listen for what they really mean but are not saying).

If you’re the kind of person who says something in any meeting you attend, practice going to meetings and saying nothing.  (And if you tend to keep your mouth shut, listen harder and practice saying something.)

We all play different roles in different settings – are you in a 1-on-1 meeting with your boss; presenting to a big group as an “expert” on a topic; or in a brainstorming session with peers?  It’s so easy to focus on the different things we’re supposed to say in each of these situations.  Don’t forget that you have to practice listening too.