Story of progress, not poverty

By Elly

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As an organization seeking to create positive changes in our community, we rely heavily on one simple action: listening. By listening to the people who surround us, we better understand their goals and find respectful, ethical ways of collaborating. There is one thing that, over the years, has become very apparent when listening to the stories of our community members: theirs are stories of progress, not poverty.

The story that we are often told about poverty is that poor communities lack resources and need our help. The problem with this way of thinking is that it perpetuates stereotypes of helplessness, taking away from the talent of local people and ignoring the lessons they have to teach. We get many well meaning students and visitors wanting to lend a hand by volunteering or giving money and gifts, using words like “help” or “save” when referring to low-income communities.

We often remind visitors that these people may not actually consider themselves as “poor”. It might be easy to make assumptions about the quality of someone’s life based on the lack of resources you see. But what is important to note is that many people living in low-income communities, particularly here in Mexico, have many other valuable resources that we at home may not have, such as time, strong family relationships or a specific creative skill.

This is the first thing we teach our interns and student groups, and explain to tour groups upon arrival. We ask them not to judge based on the humble homes they enter, but rather take note of the person standing in front of them and the stories they have to offer. Through translation, we allow for friendships, connection and understanding; an exchange of resources between visitors and locals in a mutually beneficial and dignified way.

While we certainly believe in providing support in a monetary way, as we pay our artisans fairly for their time and help them to increase sales through our programs, our purpose is not to simply help them financially.

Our tours and exchanges are centered on the notion that understanding the human story is crucial for empowering local communities. Listening to people’s stories tells them they are important. It shows their communities they have something remarkable to offer, helps set an example for their children, and helps visitors recognize the value of locally-made crafts.

We strive to foster cross-cultural relationships founded on dignity. We highlight how we are similar, not how we are different. In the end, despite the resources we each have available to us, or the goals we might have, we are human and want the same fundamental things.

Our purpose is to celebrate individual stories of progress and perseverance and to highlight our shared humanity. This is the building block for a movement of empathy, understanding and cultural sensitivity that is so needed in our increasingly globalized world.