"Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely, and the unwanted according to the graces we have received, and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work" -Mother Teresa
What is poverty? In the most basic sense, many Americans would say that poverty is lack of money or resources. In Western society, that is often what poverty looks like. However, it’s more than that. The UN defines it saying, “poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society”. Why is this problematic? It was created by Westerners that are looking from the outside in, defining from their cushy desk, with their seven color-coded pens (because one is never enough), and with their Starbucks coffee easily within reach. This is not the definition that people living in chronic poverty would use.
Describing the symptoms of poverty is helpful, but does not define it. Those that live in poverty daily, with little or no hope of escape, would define it as shame. Poverty is when you can’t make eye contact with your neighbor because you know they saw your children go to bed hungry last night and heard your husband beating you. Poverty is knowing your children can’t go to school because you can’t afford the uniform. Poverty is knowing the only job you are qualified for is one paying less than 10 cents/hour. Poverty is knowing people are disgusted with you, can’t imagine how you “allow” this lifestyle, and believing you have no worth. Poverty is shameful, disruptive, and overwhelmingly inescapable. Until…that one day when that one person looks you in the eye and tells you you are worthy. You are capable. You are designed with purpose. Poverty does not shift along with monetary wealth, but with empowerment, dignity, and a softening of the heart.
Although it is seems easiest and most efficient to generalize the poverty problem by reacting on a large scale rather than on individual levels, these generalizations mean large numbers of people are being left in the dust, forgotten, and unseen. To alleviate this issue, it means we must value relationship with each person, first and foremost. At Yobel, this means we either A) have to move to each of the communities we have friends in, permanently or B) invest in deep relationships with local leadership in these communities - understanding it is their interactions with their neighbors holding any influence. We know we cannot personally have deep, meaningful relationships with each entrepreneur we train, each artisan whose creations we sell, and each acquaintance that becomes a friend. But we realize there are people on the ground that will—it isn’t all on us. It’s a collaborative effort. There are no wins in the fight against poverty without partnership, collaboration, and teamwork.
So, why business training? If poverty is not defined by monetary wealth, then why would we teach people how to make more money? If they are ashamed of who they are, will business training really change that? Well, in some cases no. If we are being honest, our training won’t change the lives of every person we graduate. However, we have seen it positively affect the lives of hundreds of new entrepreneurs. And here’s why:
To begin, many organizations working in the developing world are just now realizing they have been treating their friends in these communities as though they need relief or rehabilitation. The problem with this theory is relief and rehabilitation are what people need after crisis—a flood, earthquake, war, etc. It is not what people need if life has been looking the same since the beginning of time. Those communities need development (Chalmers Center). Development happens when a community is ready for growth—not when they need basic necessities handed to them or when they need to rebuild what they have lost. These communities are ready and waiting for things to change. They are looking for a different future. Therefore, they do not need people handing them money and goods, but need to participate in the systematic alteration of life as they have known it. To do this, they need new knowledge. They need to know things differently than what they’ve known before. And not only do they need knowledge - they need empowerment and belief of their capabilities. And this knowledge must infiltrate the heart, not merely the mind.
Yobel’s business training course does not begin with the assumption our training room will be filled with people who have nothing to offer nor have had much education. We instead begin where all people should who desire to see change: with creation, innovation, and dreams. Throughout our travels around the globe, we have found the most difficult concept to teach is how to dream. In many developing nations, the educational system is very black and white, instructing wrote lessons of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ rather than critical thinking skills. In these communities, gray area and innovation are impossibilities whereas in Western culture we are taught from the youngest ages to think outside the boxes and 'think for yourself'. When working in communities that have struggled with oppression, we have to start with the most basic exercises of learning to hope for a better future. In addition, these black and white systems are rarely open to conversations, opinions, and questions, so when we ask for full participation and engagement, we are typically first met with blank stares yet always end with laughter, new ideas, and excitement for a brighter tomorrow.
Once you open the floodgates blocking the minds' ability to create, think, and reason, they are nearly impossible to board back up. It is in these moments where we begin to enter into business principles, ethical behavior, and capacity building. Yobel’s training covers basic marketing, accounting, and customer service. During these sessions, facilitators have the great privilege of watching light bulbs illuminate as entrepreneurs understand for the first time how they can take part in society. They begin to see how capable they are to create change for themselves, their families, and their broader communities. The shame that drowned them before no longer can hold them in bondage because they have the knowledge and know-how to propel them forward.
Sure, many of these developing nations exist in corrupt and oppressive governmental systems prohibiting small business and movement between classes, but creativity allows for ideas to work around this. As a matter of fact, the harsh societal bounds may encourage more entrepreneurship than they realize. If people don’t have access to social services, good education, and basic human rights, they have to get creative to survive. They have to develop systems for themselves that their government refuses. They are entrepreneurial from the start. Yes, their innovation runs up against wall after wall because of their shame, but as soon as that barrier is removed they often can’t be stopped.
Our training gives these innate-innovators something more to work with. It gives legs to the desires already existing inside but haven’t been told and encouraged to come out and give life a try. Our course doesn’t exist to create dependence on another foreign group, but to encourage independence and new identity. Because our friends are living in these communities full time, their friends can have access to mentorship, sounding boards, and collaboration we can not provide from here. Their ability to self-sustain is imminent, because we won’t be there forever. To develop, they must be willing to participate. They must buy-in. And we, quite simply, can share the little we know on the off chance it is exactly the boost they need.
Change is possible. An end to poverty can come. The ‘least of these’ are worthy. And we’ve found the best way to participate in this story is through business. Don’t believe me? Come and see—I dare you.