Transformations, Social and Otherwise

7 May

A few days ago in France, I did something I haven’t done in about 37 years: I walked through the hilly streets of a Paris suburb famous for its large 17th century park called St. Cloud. It took a while but I also found the modern apartment complex where I had lived for almost a year in 1975/6, climbing the steps through its multi-level gardens past dozens of identical glass balconies with the wood-slat blinds I suddenly remembered very well. I ended up at the square shallow pool which sat in front of the building where I had lived and worked as a ‘jeune fille au pair’ when I was 18.
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I don’t have happy memories, I realized, of that period. I didn’t much like the family I had worked for, and never felt at home in their sumptuous apartment. I was then a weird combination of things, a poorly paid servant, a naive rural Canadian and an exploration-minded teenager actually living in Europe – in a European capital city – for the first time ever, chafing at the constraints of no money and bratty children and not enough freedom.

St. Cloud, which is rather small, overwhelmingly white middle-class and probably mostly Figaro-reading conservative, didn’t bring back any of the heart-pumping nostalgia I always feel when I am in Paris itself. Instead, it made me uncomfortable again,and inevitably got me thinking about time, change, my personal history and the human condition itself, I guess, the way we change with time yet are essentially the same, hard as that can be to recognize. Like the French philosopher Francois Julian suggests, you can’t not be the 18-year-old at the same time you are the middle aged, or even elderly, man or woman. You may see radical changes when you look in the mirror, but it’s the same brain, the same you, only looking different and carrying way more of the baggage of experience we accumulate throughout our lives.

That sense of connectedness and disconnection, or maybe the question itself of which one am I really? got me thinking about change, in general. Particularly as it pertains to what I am studying right now, the enterprise of ‘helping the poor.’ The whole point of it really, when you come down to it, is the assumption that our external mediation can bring about changes in people’s lives as drastic as the one I have gone through from being a young person of 18 or 19 to being 56, or even from a time when I wrote continual letters home on thin blue aerograms to being able to communicate face to face with a small electronic device I can carry around in my hand bag.

Yet that other transformation, that of the poor individual with all his or her burdens, lacking rights and resources and open horizons– how often does that happen thanks to the aid process?

I know it can happen, and this comparison struck me the next day when I went to talk to Benedicte Roget at an organization called Freres des Hommes at their offices on a tiny street in the Latin Quarter.

The goals of FDH all have to do with social transformation, she told me, of the communities with which they engage.”We don’t want to do things in the place of, but really to give the means to, people,” she said. “We consider that the real actors, the disenfranchised, have the ability to change things themselves.”

Harvesting the Fruits of Solidairty

Harvesting the Fruits of Solidairty

I have in fact seen some of the results of their support in Senegal, where a network of peasant farmers I blogged about in the early months of The Global Kiosk essentially go to organizations like Freres des Hommes and tell them how they can be helpful — rather than vice versa.

Transforming lives has to be more than a cliche or an NGO advertising ploy. It is not easy or quick or the result of the few dollars you send.

Like our own, it is more mysterious than we think.

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