A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
Almost every person I know has a cause they care about, but few know how to act on it.
In a world where you can express your grief or disappointment on social media, many of my friends seem inclined to think a status update is the same as making a difference. And while sharing knowledge or a cause or legitimate empathy on social media is worthwhile, it shouldn’t be the peak of our commitment. It should be the baseline.
After the election, many of the people I knew who were vehemently opposed to Donald Trump seemed invigorated to get involved. I heard friends swear up and down that they’d canvass voters for the 2018 congressional elections, express disappointment in themselves for not doing more to advocate for Hillary Clinton and even promise to spend their own hard-earned money subscribing to a newspaper in a culture that prefers not to pay for its journalism.
But even when people get off their computer and out into the real world, their efforts can backfire.
Aid organizations have criticized the “voluntourism” industry, describing it as a giant (if well-intentioned) failure: predominantly white and well-off foreigners going to developing countries with the intention of volunteering, but instead providing short-term economic help to their hosts, then quickly leaving. In many cases, this economic spark has a long-term negative effect, creating dependence and even expectations that foreigners can be a new source of income.
Still, it doesn’t have to be this way.
A couple months ago, I got to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity building sustainable homes in a rural Indonesian village.
It was my first time volunteering overseas in any capacity, though I took a different path than many of the people working beside me. Because I was working as part of the media covering Habitat for Humanity’s work in sustainable housing, my trip was sponsored by the bucket list-based platform BUCKiTDREAM — a partner of Habitat for Humanity on the build.
Unlike me, the other volunteers all raised thousands of dollars in order to go, and then they paid their own way and took time off work to help construct the houses. The money they raised went to building materials and local laborers, who in turn trained us to mix cement, lay brick and plaster walls.
It was an amazing show of generosity from a group of Australians who took it upon themselves to give a hand up — not a handout — to their international neighbors. There were strict rules about interacting with locals, avoiding long-term relationships and being careful not to build dependency. It seemed the Habitat for Humanity staff was well-versed in the risks of voluntourism.
But seeing close to 150 people make such a sacrifice — giving their time, money and effort— made me realize how simple it is to address the issues you care about.
The key? You need to be willing to sacrifice.
Whether it’s donating to a charity, volunteering at a soup kitchen, building homes in a faraway country, writing your senator a letter, phone banking for a political candidate you support, or simply giving food or clothing to a homeless shelter, making a difference requires a sacrifice.
There is little or no sacrifice in the actions that usually make the least amount of difference: posting on social media, complaining about something to a friend, signing an online petition. All these things are better than nothing, but not by much.
I’m not telling you to stay quiet on issues you care about or keep your name off petitions. Those things are important; sometimes social media posts amplify a certain message. Sometimes petitions force change. But those actions should be the things you do for any issue you care about. It’s taking the next step up that has the potential to effect real change.
Since going to Indonesia, I have realized that I have opportunities every day to address some of the issues I care most about.
Poverty is a great example: posting on Facebook about the need for empathy towards the poor can have value. It’s a great way to remind the more privileged that they are fortunate. But volunteering at a local shelter, or donating winter clothes to Goodwill, or pressing a government official to advocate for a law that may benefit families in need? Those things will directly affect people's lives.
Climate change is another issue I care about. For years, I’ve been posting dire warnings on Facebook and Twitter about the need to address climate change. But what have all those posts done? They may have turned people off to environmentalism because I was annoying or sounded like an alarmist.
Instead of posting passively, I could take my activism to an active level. I could be vigilant about not wasting water, about recycling, about using renewable energy, about decreasing my carbon footprint. I can change my diet to reflect my concern about farming practices that use or destroy natural resources. I can find a local climate activist group and ask them how I can help support their cause.
Every day, you probably encounter something that you feel is wrong. It can be a moral wrong, like the gross economic inequality in our country. Or it could be a functional wrong, like the way our energy structure pollutes the environment. It doesn’t matter how big or small these wrongs are. What matters is that we as people — as a society — decide to take the time to understand these wrongs and have the courage to address them. It matters that we go beyond just pointing them out.
Instead, we should use the means we have to fix them, and we should be ready to sacrifice as we go.
You can follow @Ike_Saul on Twitter.