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Stop the CSR Pity-Fest, Tell the Whole Story

I met Daniel last month in Mexico City.  He is an outpatient at a drug rehabilitation center where we sponsor a Cisco Networking Academy.  Daniel and I met at the center, and then went together to his home in one of the poorest parts of Mexico City.  As we stood on the porch overlooking his neighborhood, Daniel told me that his family doesn’t believe he can make his way out of this life, can ever do something more.  The odds are certainly low; making a different life for himself, a life he’s never seen modeled, would be a dream come true but also a miracle.

But Daniel thinks he can do it now; he said even his family is starting to believe he can.  Daniel’s therapist explained to me part of why this change is beginning to happen.  He told me that one of the most important things for a drug addict’s recovery is to be able to envision a different life for himself, and to believe he can achieve it.  Otherwise, why change?

The rehabilitation program that Daniel is part of combines therapeutic programs with technical job training through the Networking Academy.  So, as he learns how to let go of his addiction, Daniel is also gaining the skills needed to build and maintain networks; a job that is in demand, and would provide him a path to a different life.  This is the hope he holds on to now, this is that “different life” he needs to be able to see.  And he does; Daniel told me he can see this now.

I thought of Daniel when I read this article in Co.exist, saying that “a new era of media--one which shows the poor as fundamentally full of potential and opportunity--is being born.”  The article’s view is that “more and more, nonprofits are replacing misery with opportunity, making a bet on inspiring a sense of human connection rather than tapping into reserves of white or wealthy guilt.”

I love that.  I hope that it’s true, I really hope it is.

For too long, those of us (including me) who are involved with telling stories of people like Daniel have told stories that provoked pity for them, and pride for us because we helped him. But it would be a caricature, a half-story, if I told you only about Daniel’s challenges; and it would be arrogant.  Daniel staying clean, graduating college like he told me he plans to, and building a career – this will be a more difficult path than I have ever walked or could ever imagine.  It will be heroic. We did open a door for him, and I’m proud of that.  But Daniel takes several buses three days every week, fights pervasive peer pressure, and is conquering an addiction, so he can walk through that door.

So I hope the way we talk about Daniel – and the way we talk about all the people we work with around the world – honors the commitment, the sacrifice, the spirit and the talent they bring.  We open doors; but we open them to a flood of talents and dedication people already have.

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