Jessica Jackley, Poverty, Money – and Love

The stories we tell about each other matter very much. The stories we tell ourselves about our own lives matter. And most of all, I think the way that we participate in each other’s stories is of deep importance. I was six years old when I first heard stories about the poor. Now I didn’t hear those stories from the poor themselves, I heard them from my Sunday school teacher and Jesus, kind of via my Sunday school teacher. I remember learning that people who were poor needed something material – food, clothing, shelter – that they didn’t have. And I also was taught, coupled with that, that it was my job – this classroom full of five and six year-old children – it was our job, apparently, to help. This is what Jesus asked of us. And then he said, “What you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Now I was pretty psyched. I was very eager to be useful in the world – I think we all have that feeling. And also, it was kind of interesting that God needed help. That was news to me, and it felt like it was a very important thing to get to participate in.

But I also learned very soon thereafter that Jesus also said, and I’m paraphrasing, the poor would always be with us. This frustrated and confused me; I felt like I had been just given a homework assignment that I had to do, and I was excited to do, but no matter what I would do, I would fail. So I felt confused, a little bit frustrated and angry, like maybe I’d misunderstood something here. And I felt overwhelmed. And for the first time, I began to fear this group of people and to feel negative emotion towards a whole group of people. I imagined in my head, a kind of long line of individuals that were never going away, that would always be with us. They were always going to ask me to help them and give them things, which I was excited to do, but I didn’t know how it was going to work. And I didn’t know what would happen when I ran out of things to give, especially if the problem was never going away. In the years following, the other stories I heard about the poor growing up were no more positive. For example, I saw pictures and images frequently of sadness and suffering. I heard about things that were going wrong in the lives of the poor. I heard about disease, I heard about war – they always seemed to be kind of related. And in general, I got this sort of idea that the poor in the world lived lives that were wrought with suffering and sadness, devastation, hopelessness.

And after a while, I developed what I think many of us do, is this predictable response, where I started to feel bad every time I heard about them. I started to feel guilty for my own relative wealth, because I wasn’t doing more, apparently, to make things better. And I even felt a sense of shame because of that. And so naturally, I started to distance myself. I stopped listening to their stories quite as closely as I had before. And I stopped expecting things to really change. Now I still gave – on the outside it looked like I was still quite involved. I gave of my time and my money, I gave when solutions were on sale. The cost of a cup of coffee can save a child’s life, right. I mean who can argue with that? I gave when I was cornered, when it was difficult to avoid and I gave, in general, when the negative emotions built up enough that I gave to relieve my own suffering, not someone else’s. The truth be told, I was giving out of that place, not out of a genuine place of hope and excitement to help and of generosity. It became a transaction for me, became sort of a trade. I was purchasing something – I was buying my right to go on with my day and not necessarily be bothered by this bad news. And I think the way that we go through that sometimes can, first of all, disembody a group of people, individuals out there in the world. And it can also turn into a commodity, which is a very scary thing. So as I did this, and as I think many of us do this, we kind of buy our distance, we kind of buy our right to go on with our day. I think that exchange can actually get in the way of the very thing that we want most. It can get in the way of our desire to really be meaningful and useful in another person’s life and, in short to love.

Thankfully, a few years ago, things shifted for me because I heard this gentleman speak, Dr. Muhammad Yunus. I know many in the room probably know exactly who he is, but to give the shorthand version for any who have not heard him speak, Dr. Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago for his work pioneering modern microfinance. When I heard him speak, it was three years before that. But basically, microfinance – if this is new to you as well – think of that as financial services for the poor. Think of all the things you get at your bank and imagine those products and services tailored to the needs of someone living on a few dollars a day. Dr. Yunus shared his story, explaining what that was, and what he had done with his Grameen Bank. He also talked about, in particular, microlending, which is a tiny loan that could help someone start or grow a business. Now, when I heard him speak, it was exciting for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I learned about this new method of change in the world that, for once, showed me, maybe, a way to interact with someone and to give, to share of a resource in a way that wasn’t weird and didn’t make me feel bad – that was exciting. But more importantly, he told stories about the poor that were different than any stories I had heard before. In fact, those individuals he talked about who were poor was sort of a side note. He was talking about strong, smart, hardworking entrepreneurs who woke up every day and were doing things to make their lives and their family’s lives better. All they needed to do that more quickly and to do it better was a little bit of capital. It was an amazing sort of insight for me.

And I, in fact, was so deeply moved by this… that I actually quit my job a few weeks later, and I moved to East Africa to try to see for myself what this was about. For the first time, actually, in a long time I wanted to meet those individuals, I wanted to meet these entrepreneurs, and see for myself what their lives were actually about. So I spent three months in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania interviewing entrepreneurs that had received 100 dollars to start or grow a business. And in fact, through those interactions, for the first time, I was starting to get to be friends with some of those people in that big amorphous group out there that was supposed to be far away. I was starting to be friends and get to know their personal stories It was really humbling to see for the first time, to really understand that even if I could have taken a magic wand and fixed everything, I probably would have gotten a lot wrong. Because the best way for people to change their lives is for them to have control and to do that in a way that they believe is best for them. So I saw that and it was very humbling.

Anyway, another interesting thing happened while I was there. I never once was asked for a donation,which had kind of been my mode, right. There’s poverty, you give money to help – no one asked me for a donation. In fact, no one wanted me to feel bad for them at all. If anything, they just wanted to be able to do more of what they were doing already and to build on their own capabilities. So what I did hear, once in a while, was that people wanted a loan – I thought that sounded very reasonable and really exciting. And by the way, I was a philosophy and poetry major in school, so I didn’t know the difference between profit and revenue when I went to East Africa. I just got this impression that the money would work. And my introduction to business was in these $100 little infuses of capital. And I learned about profit and revenue, about leverage, all sorts of things, from farmers, from seamstresses, from goat herders. So this idea that these new stories of business and hope might be shared with my friends and family, and through that, maybe we could get some of the money that they needed to be able to continue their businesses as loans, that’s this little idea that turned into Kiva.

A few months later, I went back to Uganda with a digital camera and a basic website that my partner, Matthew, and I had kind of built, and took pictures of seven of my new friends, posted their stories, these stories of entrepreneurship, up on the website, spammed friends and family… The money came in basically overnight. We sent it over to Uganda. And over the next six months, a beautiful thing happened; the entrepreneurs received the money, they were paid, and their businesses, in fact, grew, and they were able to support themselves and change the trajectory of their lives. …[T]oday, less than five years in, Kiva’s facilitated more than 150 million dollars, in little 25-dollar bits, from lenders and entrepreneurs – more than a million of those, collectively in 200 countries.

So that’s where Kiva is today, just to bring you right up to the present. And while those numbers and those statistics are really fun to talk about and they’re interesting, to me, Kiva’s really about stories. It’s about retelling the story of the poor, and it’s about giving ourselves an opportunity to engage that validates their dignity, validates a partnership relationship, not a relationship that’s based on the traditional sort of donor beneficiary weirdness that can happen. But instead a relationship that can promote respect and hope and this optimism that together we can move forward. So what I hope is that, not only can the money keep flowing forth through Kiva – that’s a very positive and meaningful thing – but I hope Kiva can blur those lines, like I said, between the traditional rich and poor categories that we’re taught to see in the world, this false dichotomy of us and them, have and have not. I hope that Kiva can blur those lines. Because as that happens, I think we can feel free to interact in a way that’s more open, more just and more creative, to engage with each other and to help each other.

Imagine how you feel when you see somebody on street who is begging and you’re about to approach them. Imagine how you feel; and then imagine the difference when you might see somebody who has a story of entrepreneurship and hard work who wants to tell you about their business. Maybe they’re smiling, and they want to talk to you about what they’ve done. Imagine if you’re speaking with somebody who’s growing things and making them flourish, somebody who’s using their talents to do something productive, somebody who’s built their own business from scratch, someone who is surrounded by abundance, not scarcity, who’s in fact creating abundance, somebody with full hands with something to offer, not empty hands asking for you to give them something. Imagine if you could hear a story you didn’t expect of somebody who wakes up every day and works very, very hard to make their life better. These stories can really change the way that we think about each other. And if we can catalyze a supportive community to come around these individuals and to participate in their story by lending a little bit of money, I think that can change the way we believe in each other and each other’s potential.

…I just want to say, these are tools… What we need are for people to care, to actually go use it, just like they’ve cared enough to use Kiva to make those connections. But the good news is I don’t think I need to stand here and convince you to care – I’m not even going to try. I don’t think, even though we often hear, you know, hear the ethical and moral reasons, the religious reasons, “Here’s why caring and giving will make you happier.” I don’t think we need to be convinced of that. I think we know; in fact, I think we know so much, and it’s such a reality that we care so deeply, that in fact, what usually stops us is that we’re afraid to try and to mess up, because we care so very much about helping each other and being meaningful in each other’s lives.

…For me, the best way to be inspired to try is to stop and to listen to someone else’s story… I’m grateful that whenever I do that, guaranteed, I am inspired… by the person I am listening to. And I believe more and more every time I listen in that that person’s potential to do great things in the world and in my own potential to maybe help. And that – forget the tools, forget the moving around of resources – that stuff’s easy. Believing in each other, really being sure when push comes to shove that each one of us can do amazing things in the world, that is what can make our stories into love stories and our collective story into one that continually perpetuates hope and good things for all of us. So that, this belief in each other, knowing that without a doubt and practicing that every day in whatever you do, that’s what I believe will change the world and make tomorrow better than today.

TED Speech:


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