501(c)3 Non-Profit | Empowering Haitian Families

What would you do with all of your power?

As I work and drive and wander and sweat around Haiti, I often find myself with the same song stuck in my head.  Every time this happens, I have the same response;  I know exactly why the song has come to mind and I immediately think, “I really need to write a blog about this…”  Well, the song is the “Yeah Yeah Yeah song” by the Flaming lips, and this is that blog.  You can listen to the song in the embedded YouTube clip at the end of this blog… but wait until you get there.  For now, just read the lyrics:

 If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch
Would you do it?
If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich
Would you do it?
If you could watch everybody work while you just lay on your back
Would you do it?
If you could take all the love without giving any back
Would you do it?
And so we cannot know ourselves or what we’d really do…

With all your power
With all your power
With all your power
What would you do?

If you could make your own money and then give it to everybody
Would you do it?
If you knew all the answers and could give it to the masses
Would you do it?
No No No No No No Are you crazy?
It’s a very dangerous thing to do exactly what you want…
Because you cannot know yourself or what you’d really do…

With all your power
With all your power
With all your power
What would you do?

This song comes to mind so often because Haiti has shown me more about the varieties of power that I already have, powers that I never noticed before living here.  I’ve also seen power relationships as the primary cultural difference between the U.S. and Haiti, and opportunities to feel this difference come daily.  Haiti has also taught me to stop seeing the world’s poor as powerless, voiceless people, fated to misery unless heroic Americans come to their rescue.  They do not have the same ease of opportunity that we Americans have created, but they have not been abandoned by God, nor are they less capable of greatness than anybody else.  To use a tired and nonsensical metaphor, It may be difficult to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if people keep lighting those bootstraps on fire, and if those fires have left very little bootstrap remaining on which one might pull, but when boots become hopeless, there are always sandals.  And Haitians can do some amazing running on rocky terrain without any shoes at all that might make us Americans realize how dependent we have become upon our boots…. At any rate, the poor are only made more poor by announcing to them the poverties we see from an outside perspective.  By telling them what we would expect them to have, we increase their own perception of need and create dehumanized recipient-minded people dependent upon outside charity.  If we would affirm the powers that we see they do have, they would also begin to recognize the responsibilities that they carry, and that, I think, would be a place to start.  The same is true about you and I.  The truth is that, albeit limited, Haitian people have power.  Maybe for some that power is little more than the ability to wash clothes.  For others, that power is control over a factory, or political sway through a relationship with a cousin.  Whatever it is, all Haitians have at least a little bit of power.  That power can be used to change this place for the better.

The ‘Lips song reminds me of something Abraham Lincoln once said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  Now, by nature of its author, this quote makes us think about levels of power that most of us have not attained.  It’s tempting to think of the tests of power on ones character in terms of unreachable heights of authority.   The popular quote from Lord Acton, that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  tends to buttress our skepticism toward those who have excessive power rather than cause us to evaluate our own positions of power.  I’ve thought of this while watching the “Occupy” movement from afar.  While scads of Americans bemoan the “1%” I’m left wondering from Haiti whether the “99%” recognize that they are actually %5 of the world’s population and that they are consuming more than a quarter of its’ purchasable resources.  I wonder if they see themselves as exploited or exploiter in this arrangement, or if they view it differently, as I do.  You see, I don’t really think this talk of the “haves and have-nots” really helps the poor.  There are very few “have-nots” in this world… there are billions of “have-not-much’s”  and to confuse them is to further impoverish the poor.

Most American school children will at some point write an essay entitled “if I were President” or “if I won the lottery” or, maybe “If I were God”.   They write these fledgling treatises of youthful idealism from the perspective of the powerless 5th grader, or the young and uninfluential junior-higher.    They don’t write as if they are the distant employers of toy manufacturers in China, potatoe farmers in Idaho, or textile factory workers in Haiti,  because they don’t realize that that is who they in fact are.  They don’t write these essays with the knowledge that more than $17 billion dollars are spent each year on advertising to them because they (through their parents) will spend more than 10 times that amount each year.  They certainly don’t write with the recognition that their very education is a tremendous privilege, affordable to them only by the chance nature of their geographical moorings, a rare moment in global history, and the values of their culture.   American kids are powerful.  More powerful than most nations.  What will they do with all their power?  Especially if they don’t know they have it?

I recently interviewed a Haitian orphanage director who pointed out something that is true about the Apparent Project but I’d never really thought about.  He said that without work and opportunity many Haitian parents feel that they do not have the responsibility to care for their children.  He said there is a phrase common in Creole, something roughly equivalent to, “Put the pedal to the metal and don’t look back”, that comes into play when a mom or dad finds no recourse other than to leave their child in the care of an orphanage.  Something so painful must be done with a perspective of inevitability and with a resolve to not be guilted by the loss in the future because it was simply what had to be done.  But, he said, when somebody has a job, they know that their means and income obligate them to take care of their own children’s needs. This, he said, is why the birth rate drops for employed Haitians.  In other words, when they are aware of their power, people are also aware of their responsibility. Sometimes this power is as simple as a day of training in how to roll a paper bead.

It is easy from here to see that consumers’ desire to get a good deal can not happen without somebody getting less pay for their work (unless the item’s quality is changed).  Your 6 dollar Walmart shirt may have meant that somebody in the developing world was paid 28 cents for their labor, and that the net result of them never getting quite enough on their paycheck has been that they have given their child up to an orphanage.  Your good deal has a high price.  So is the answer to boycott Walmart?  If the factory gets shut down, will less kids go to orphanages? Raising an item’s cost doesn’t necessitate that the ultimate employer will pay a livable wage to the factory worker, either.  These are things that are healed only by bedrock philosophical changes, conversion experiences, or heart shifts in those with power from the factory worker on up to the CEO.  Education can accomplish this too.  Sometimes a CEO just needs to get to know their factory workers instead of believing a politician who wants to see national revenue increase and says “yes our country’s minimum wage is sufficient for your factory workers to live comfortable lives.”  Something has to change, but it is no less weighty for any of us.  We all have power and choices to make.  The knowledge that your low price has a high cost is a form of power, and that power ought to make you feel responsible to do your best to figure out how to influence change about these kinds of things.  It does for me.  Unfortunately, Americans tend to think of their power only in terms of their dollars, so where their dollar has been powerful in creating a deal for them, it has caused problems that are again addressed by dollars… like paying some company to erase your energy footprint by planting trees, or by rescuing the orphaned child by purchasing them.

What will you do with all of your power?

On an Apparent Project paper bead bracelet, the cost difference between Haiti’s minimum wage (which is barely livable) and double that (which is livable) is only 20 cents per bracelet if an artisan produces at the average speed.  So the cost to the consumer is relatively low in order for a Haitian to double their income.   Is 20 cents more on a bracelet too much to ask to know that you are not separating a family from their child?  We choose to pay more, knowing that theoretically this may make us less competitive, which, hypothetically, might reduce our sales, and possibly make us unable to employ as many people.  That’s if the only factors in business are economic.  We believe that if the truth is communicated, people care more about other people than they do about 20 cents.  The world’s worths can not be reduced to a price tag.  Consumers value their relationships, their globe, their bodies, their faith, their safety, their environment, their hobbies, their communities, their memories… so many more things than just their money.  There is so much more to life than the bottom line…. there is what we will do with all of our power.

3 Comments
  1. I have been waiting to read this post, wondering about my power, and the responsibility it carries. Thank you for writing this and helping me crystallize some thoughts. I am not working in a place like Haiti, but I am intentionally fostering relationships that cross socio-economic lines (read: with people who are considered "poor" by American standards). I want to see their power and affirm it, rather than seeing only their need.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Check out http://www.povertycure.org. They offer a lot of insight into this paradigm shift from addressing the poor from a paternalisic kind of top-down vantage point to beginning with affirmation and capacity building.

  3. I know almost nothing about power, except that that I read once in a book about the most powerful man in the world started washing his students' feet. That's the sort of way to use power.

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