Once, not long ago, there was a fisherman who lived in a village next to a great river. One day, as he returned from fishing, he noticed a basket floating down the river. When he investigated, he was amazed to find a live human baby inside.
Thinking it was quite strange, he did the responsible thing and took the baby back to his village, for if he didn’t, the baby would float to certain death over the waterfalls farther down the river. The villagers were surprised to see the baby and set about finding a home for it in the village.
The next day, when the fisherman returned to the river to fish, he noticed two baskets floating down the river. Now he had to find homes for two new babies. The resources of his village were becoming strained. On the third day, as the fisherman returned to his village, there were three baskets floating down the river. What was the fisherman to do?
He could let the baskets go over the waterfall. He could pretend that he did not see the baskets. He could choose to save one or two. Or he could save all the babies, but that would put a serious strain on the resources of his village — and soon it would become more than the village could manage.
The next day, the fisherman decided not to go fishing. Instead, he equipped his boat for a journey upstream where he had never been before. He wanted to find and address the source of this growing problem…
I was just in Martha’s Vineyard at a meeting called the Up the Rivers Endeavors Consortium. It was an eclectic gathering of 501(c)3 executive directors, academics, politicians, and… me. The meeting occurs because a family funds the consortium members every year, and they talk about their work, goals, and what they term “hot potato projects”.
The philosophy of the hot potato projects deeply intrigued me. The consortium members all receive organizational grants, of which a certain amount is reserved for the hot potato project. Each member pays this amount forward to the project, but the project has to be a synergistic project and one that is decided upon by a consensus. Furthermore, it must be an “outside-the-box” project, one that addresses root causes, yet it is characterized by its temporality of a lifespan of one year. If it succeeds, the project might live longer.
This meeting deeply challenged me to invest more of my time and energy into addressing the root causes of social ills. Personally, (and this particular group of individuals agreed) an enormous root cause of poverty, war, and environmental degradation is the oppression of women and girls. Their lack of decision-making power and control in society leads to huge imbalances in the way that humans interact with each other. They are not able to offer their unique insight nor cooperative strategies to the world. And thus women and girls are disproportionately disadvantaged in the world – 70% of the world’s poor are women, women own 10% of the land, etc.
My role as a student and as an activist is to ask difficult questions to other people my age about root causes. We will not change the world if we only try to create band-aids for solutions. How can we make the link between the empowerment of women and the extremely large and positive chain effect that would create? How can we get young people to talk more about root causes? How can we go up the river?
I left feeling extremely supported and inspired and I immediately set up a meeting in Boston with the Millennium Campus Network team. They are a network of student activists around the world working to accomplish the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. They host an annual conference every year that showcases student organizations’ accomplishments and creates discussion about the intricacies of development work. I have attended the Millennium Campus Conference since 2009, when it was held at Columbia, and while I was thrilled to plug into a network of optimistic and like-minded young activists, I was disappointed by the lack of attention on women’s and girl’s issues. It seems that everybody was focused on ending extreme global poverty by joining environmental, water, security, or health organizations, but nobody wanted to discuss the fact that 50% of the world’s population is socially oppressed and thus unable to come forward to contribute to all of these sectors. I kept these thoughts to myself until yesterday, when I walked into the MCN office in Boston and frankly stated that I would like to “put the missing issue on the table” and that there was a possibility of funding. The MCN team was lovely and its executive director was earnest about drawing more attention to the plight of women and girls around the world and their necessary involvement in public sectors. I will be working closely with the team to help develop a panel and invite speakers for the 2012 MCC at Northeastern University.
Looking up the river is challenging and frustrating. I sometimes felt that there aren’t many people looking that way with me. And going up it is certainly rough. But I am so supported by Up the Rivers Endeavors, and I now finally feel supported by young activists of my generation as well. I’m looking for ideas and feedback, and most of all, creative thoughts for how to create a new paradigm of living and relating to one another. It’s not enough to address the everyday crises. We need to think about what will work in the long run and how to create cultural shifts. Will you go up the river with me?