Recently I spoke to an undergraduate class about my experience in international community development. As I was wrapping up, the professor asked if I would give three words that summed up my experience, or ideas that students could keep in mind if they wanted their path to look at all like mine. I said honesty, community, and kindness, though not so clearly or concisely. It wasn’t until some days later I realized these concepts had been floating around in my head because I had learned them as the three universal medicines in a self-healing course that I recently took. I’m quite sure I’ll revisit these “three universal medicines” in terms of human healing in the months to come, but for now I’d like to examine their applications to community development.
Often when I tell stories about ParticipAid’s origins and evolution, it sounds like a chronicle of my mistakes and lessons learned. I’ve written about failure here on the blog in the past because I think it’s such a valuable tool. In failure there are opportunities to advance your skills, knowledge, experience, and partnerships, but you’ll get none of that if you’re not honest with yourself and others about what you got wrong. I found this to be really difficult in the beginning, as I was attached to unrealistic expectations of myself and the impact of my work. I’ve learned, and am continuously learning, to set more accurate expectations. I hit the mark more often now, but when I inevitably miss it, I know to put my ego aside, search out the reasons, and discuss them with my colleagues. This helps projects flow with more ease and evolve more organically.
There is also considerable pressure in this field to sugarcoat or dramatize experiences and frame outcomes in a certain light to please current donors and attract new ones. I do my best to walk this line with as much integrity as I can muster, but it's tough. In all honesty if you one day see ParticipAid working as a straightforward for-profit business, this challenge will be one of the reasons why.
By community here I mean relationships. Community development is not a solo job. And if approached without respectful trusting relationships, it begins to look more like colonialism. Best steer clear of that path! Reliable, heartfelt, and hardworking partners are central to any success I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of in Nepal. More than actualizing my own dream, my goal at this point is more like weaving pieces of my dream into the work that others are already doing there.
One of the benefits of a few solid relationships is that you don’t need much money to make something cool and helpful to society happen. The old-fashioned method of blood, sweat, and tears still works reliably well. And these relationships can be protective of the precious resources that you are able to gather. Seems no matter what kind of government you’re working with, there is corruption at every turn. Money is squandered, and once-pure motives are clouded in desires for some degree of wealth or notoriety. It’s hard to know who to trust in that kind of environment, and I would have quit a long time ago if I didn’t have trustworthy allies.
When all else fails, try kindness. Not necessarily the giving-of-gifts kind of kindness, but the giving-of-yourself variety. You could try to speak the local language, help in the kitchen or the farm, play with the kids, belly laugh with someone, pass the time with a local granny. Acts of kindness show that not matter what else is on your agenda, you care about that single person you are being kind to. It’s a small gesture and its impact immeasurable, but you can sleep soundly knowing that you made someone’s day better.
After the earthquake, my local partners and I were distraught about how to respond to the situation. We had more resources than ever, but it wasn't enough to help everyone. My friend Jhabraj suggested we go to the houses of everyone we couldn’t help to laugh and cry with them. When materials goods can’t or won’t do the trick, a little kindness can go a long way.