She and I
She sidles up quietly.
She takes my hand.
She laces her wrinkled fingers into mine.
I raise my shades.
She looks at me.
I look at her.
I smile back.
We stand in silence.
We watch my students and her community mingle. They are having coffee, eating donuts, sharing stories, and laughing.
She rocks my arm ever so slightly.
We do not share a language. We do not share a culture. We do not share a country.
We have vastly different backgrounds, histories, and upbringings.
We have overcome significantly different struggles.
We carry with us distinct sorrows and bits of suffering.
We carry with us distinct joys and pearls of happiness.
And, we enter into this moment, with vastly different degrees of power, privilege and material wealth.
I am a white American heterosexual male in his forties with a PhD.
She is a Honduran woman in her late sixties who recently bought her first mattress.
We are two unique bundles of the human experience.
But, in this moment, the human constructs that divide us dissolve.
We are just a man and woman with our doubts, fears, ambitions, and anxieties.
We are just two people.
And, if only for a whisper of time, we are standing on common ground.
We have met before. But, we have never met here before.
The first time we met she was carrying a bundle of wood on her head. I took a picture. She was not happy. And, she let our Honduran driver know it. He brushed her off. I acted oblivious. But, I knew I was wrong. I wanted the picture. So, I took it. Memories of that moment of still fill me with shame.
We met again a year later. She was walking the dirt road that circumscribes her community. Our paths crossed. She paused, put a finger in my face, and spoke sternly. I turned to my student Megan with question marks in my eyes. Megan replied “She said that you need to learn some Spanish.” I tried.
We met again on my fourth trip to Honduras. We were giving out loans in the Learning Center. It was chaotic. Kids were running around. Babies were crying. Dogs were barking. And, soccer balls were ricocheting off the walls. I was navigating a sea of plastic chairs when I felt a tug on my arm. It was her. She was sitting with two of my students. I placed my hands on her shoulders. She raised her head to let her eyes meet mine. I bent down. And, I gave her a little kiss on the forehead. It was an instinctive response.
We met many times thereafter. But, I had to travel a significant distance to meet her where we are now. I had to reassess my assumptions about her material poverty. I had to critically evaluate our chosen method (microfinance) of engaging her. But, the more importantly, I had to come to terms with my initial motivations for visiting her community.
At the time, I was flailing as a human being. I was looking for a purpose. I was looking for meaning. And, I was questioning who I was. But, instead of turning inward to find answers, I thought I could find them with the poor. I felt powerless. But, instead of doing the difficult work of activating my own agency, I decided to visit one of their communities and eradicate their poverty. I did not arrive at this conclusions on my own. No. Our culture has a narrative about the end of global poverty. And, in that narrative, we are the protagonists. We are the saviors. We are the heroes. Our media bombards us with endless images of our fellows traveling the world and transforming lives. And, many non-profits perpetuate this toxic narrative with their communications. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that many non-profits and their marketing departments know that many of us feel a sense of powerlessness in our everyday lives. And, in turn, they design their marketing campaigns in an effort to speak to our need to feel significant.
A need to feel significant. That was why I showed up in her community.
Over the years, I have had to undue my understanding about the end of global poverty. I have to deconstruct and destroy my savior complex. And, I have had to stay vigilant. It has a tendency to re-emerge.
She pats my hand, unlaces her fingers, and walks away to join the others.
Her name is Norma.
I had to travel a long way to meet her.
You can learn about the work my students and I do in Honduras by visiting La Ceiba Microfinance.
Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (www.shawnhumphrey.com)
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