Juxtaposing Naomi Natale’s and Sonja Sohn’s speeches at TEDx MidAtlantic

Notes from the first session of TEDx Midatlantic Notes from Sonja Sohns talk at TEDx Midatlantic

When I went to TEDx MidAtlantic last Thursday, I knew that I would have to keep an open mind to views that are different from my own. In the days that followed the conference, I have been vocal about my experience on Twitter as well as here. I have always said that I liked “almost all of them,” even the ones that I disagree with. Here and now, I share the speech that made me the most uncomfortable, and I set at alongside one of my favorites.

Naomi Natale was introduced as an installation artist and TED fellow. Since I tend to stick to the Classics, I have never heard of her before. As she walked unto the stage, without skipping a beat she started introduced her Cradle Project, which calls attention to the lost potential of millions of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. It was at this point that I started rolling my eyes at the presentation.

No, seriously, I don’t hate Africa; or, On the matter of foreign charity.

I consider charity towards foreign nations a very sensitive topic. I may not know what it’s like to grow up in a country like Kenya, but there are regions of the Philippines where the experience for the children comes close. Plenty of foreign aid arrives to the country and very little actually changes, because of the institutions that remain in place no matter how much money you throw at the problem.

I have this nagging thesis: those charitable to the poorer nations and not to those among us in this country have lost the energy or the desire to be helpful here at home. Because we are proximate to the ills of around us, we become jaded and desensitized. We become frustrated because the return on investment (there is no such thing as altruistic charity, but that is a subject for another day) on local charity is very low. As frustration mounts and as the status quo appears to remain the same (it doesn’t), we throw our money at something else. Something farther away, somewhere where “people might appreciate it better,” or somewhere where “it will make a bigger difference.” Does this sound familiar to y’all?

The best thing to do is to help foster prosperity here.

I had a very hokey, left-libertarian school chaplain in high school, and while he was concerned with social justice, he was also a little bit of a capitalist. He took the old saw of teaching a man how to fish and turned it around: “hire a man to fish for you and you both eat for a lifetime.” Nothing, in this priest’s mind, was more dignifying an act of kindness as it is to hire a man to do an honest day’s work.

Among those who believe that economics is not zero-sum—we’re called Capitalists, in case you’ve been watching Michael Moore-on—charity is a direct result of prosperity. True wealth leads about a desire to share it, not at the point of the government’s gun, but because the need for self-actualization comes after material needs are met. As more people become prosperous at home, the more they become charitable.

Sonja Sohn brings the horror and the hope home.

As Natale ended her speech, just about the whole auditorioum clapped. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I stepped out to our lunch break at TEDx and tweeted about why no one has any installation art for those who die on the streets of Baltimore and DC each night, or for the millions of aborted children. I took a savage turn when I suggested that I put together a million plastic fetuses for this purpose. Yes, I went there.

When Sonja Sohn took the stage later in the day to talk about her mentoring project, Re-Wired For Change, for the street children of Baltimore, I was truly pleased and amazed. She reminded us that there are people who need our help here and now. She reminded us that our proximate neighbors are in dire straits and that a large portion of our generation is facing a bleak future. She reminded us that there was a third world country about a mile away from where we were. I may never know whether she meant it to rebuke Natale’s speech, but intent and effects can be exclusive. Her speech reminded us that every now and then we need to be reminded about our priorities. She ended by giving a cautionary note on the dehumanizing nature of our technological advancement, echoing Huxley’s Brave New World.

I do not say that Natale’s efforts are not good, but given my beliefs and an anthropological perspective of the situation, I can’t help but hold the opinion that our efforts must be directed closer to home.

UPDATE: Link fixed on Sonja’s charity, Rewired for Change, not Life.

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