A Call for Empathy

Two Dollar Challenge“Doing good” is difficult, especially for college students. Finding a motivating issue that encourages students to act is difficult when considering how messed up this world is. If we are lucky enough to whittle our confusion into a single-minded devotion to noble causes, there is still the task of navigating through bureaucratic inefficiencies and the conflicting interests that are inevitable aspects of implementing worthwhile projects. These are the rocks upon which the good intentions of charity are wrecked.

Nevertheless, La Ceiba, the organization that grew from the Two Dollar Challenge, has been very successful. We’ve issued over $10,000 in microloans to 40 Honduran women, providing them with the means to advance their entrepreneurial efforts. We’ve sat with them, listening to their happiness and frustration, and sharing in their jokes and ideas about the world at large. In every project, La Ceiba treats the community with the dignity they deserve.

So to Jordan Kroll, who critiqued the Two Dollar Challenge last Thursday in her article “False Poverty Offends Tastes,” I think you missed the boat. This year the Two Dollar Challenge raised over $2,500 for La Ceiba to “do something useful,” which should resolve much of your frustration. To the rest, I would be the first to concede that we are “playing poverty.” I have no idea how we could do anything but merely approximate the conditions faced by those we aim to help. In fact, I have no idea how I could ever claim to understand the perspective of a position in which I’ve never been.

However, at least those in the Two Dollar Challenge try to step beyond where they are. Though you might not think it, the Two Dollar Challenge is an exercise in self-deprivation. Admittedly, our choice to “play poverty” is mediated by the wealthy society that we live in, as by the demands of schoolwork that must be met.

To what extent each of us engage these factors is a personal choice. But it’s not particularly easy, so before critics of the challenge make claims against its authenticity I would suggest that they try it first.

Jordan Kroll’s strongest retort to our efforts was to point out there are “probably better ways to help poor people than pretending to be poor.” I’ll affirm her point with clarity rather than sarcasm and say: there are definitely better ways to help. I think that I’ve outlined some of those above, and shown how the funds raised by the Two Dollar Challenge support them, but Kroll didn’t bother to give that much credence.

Instead of presenting La Ceiba’s work, Jordan advocates donating time and money through building expeditions and care packages. These are established methods to alleviate certain forms of poverty, but what about those environments with problems left unsolved by new buildings and materials? What about social problems that require solutions through human interaction? Do we ignore them because we refuse to step out of our own shoes?

The Two Dollar Challenge asks its participants to recognize that a crucial reason that good intentions fail is a lack of self-critique. I ask anyone still skeptical of the experience to talk with participants. I think they will find that it forced some serious reflection from people who were already aware that poverty existed.

Jordan says we’ve offended her tastes. Good. Those who are familiar with Two Dollar Challenge know that false poverty offends. It leads to taunts and accusations of insincerity, and for those willing to listen, it leads to questions. For some, the answers lead to new-found empathy, and for others a cynical rejection. Whatever the individual case, at least there’s discussion about the problems of global poverty.

While I will never know the complete experience of poverty through Challenge Week, I do know that even poverty’s approximation has the potential to challenge assumptions. College is a luxury that affords us many things, including an environment where students get our feet wet without drowning.  I will not ask forgiveness for loving an event that pushes some in the University a little farther toward the deep end at a time when they want to retreat.

Ben Saunders (University of Mary Washington)

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