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Posted by daniel.venn on June 18, 2017 at 10:40 AM



Freshman year I gave a speech for a public speaking class on the perils of international aid. I was young and dumb enough to know everything. Had you told me then about me now, I would have been appalled. I had worked so hard to get into a good college so I could get a good job and make good money and then die, just like I had been told to and just like everyone else. Had I known I’d be traipsing around the world with no discernible plan or income, freshman me might have broken down and cried.

I held the class of other idealistic eighteen year olds who also knew everything rapt while I paced, I can never stay still when I talk, back and forth and preached about destroyed economies and the cycle of oppression. What a frightful name, the cycle of oppression.

Did you know that the money you donate, the meals you pack, the supplies you send don’t help the people you’re intending to reach? It oppresses them. I repeated the word for impact. Oppresses!

That tractor you sent to Africa? It’s probably sitting unused in a field somewhere. Didn’t you think that it would need maintenance and those rural farmers wouldn’t know how or have the resources to fix it? Good thing too, all it did was put those same farmers out of work.

All that food you packed in little, nutritious meal-sized baggies and sealed in boxes with tape and the satisfaction that you just saved a child from starving somewhere? Well, because of that same meal, the kid’s parents won’t be able to sell the scant produce they grow to bring to market. Why would anyone pay them for food when they can get your donated food for free? Mom and Dad will never have the money to buy their own food now, so you better keep packing meals if they’re not going to starve tomorrow.

I went on with example after example of dependency-creating, poverty-reinforcing, havoc-wreaking international aid. Trying to make a difference just makes it worse, I said, implying that you just shouldn’t try. It’s probably true in some respects, but of course, I had never been out of my hometown at the time, let alone seen any of the world.

Aid might have negative consequences here and there, but I like to think now, that I’ve met the people, seen with my own eyes where and with who the aid ends up, I like to think now that it’s better than the alternative. A dependent tomorrow is better than no tomorrow.

It’s easy to sit at home and make excuses for not doing anything for the world, but this might be my favorite. To not only do nothing, but proclaim that I’m doing the world a favor through my nothingness is beautiful self-righteousness.

Now I don’t mean to sound too condescending here (just the right amount), but I firmly believe that anyone who says they wish they could be out changing the world is lying. If you really wanted to be, you would be. It’s as simple as that in my mind.

And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Changing the world isn’t for everyone. I’m not even sure if it’s for me, but here I am, on the road to find out. Just like anything else in life, making a difference is a conscious choice and you can’t wish it into fruition.

It’s easy to make excuses, especially for such a grand, abstract cause like the world. You’ve got a job, a wife, a house, a mortgage, some kids, loans. You can’t just leave it behind and hop on an airplane.

Yes, you can reach the world by going through an airport. But what’s outside your front door is the world too and I’m sure there’s a way to make that better. You don’t necessarily have to go very far.

There is no method to the madness either. How I change the world should not be how you change the world. We all have our own who, what, where, when, why, and how and there’s no wrong way to go about it as long as you do go about it.

If you’re willing to wish it but not willing to do it, get better wishes.

For me, the change doesn’t always have to be some grandiose, earth-shattering revelation either. During my brief stint in the Peace Corps, one of the most profound pieces of advice I received about changing the world was “Lower your expectations”. It was one of the most disheartening yet inspiring sentences I had ever heard. To hear that I probably wasn’t going to make a dramatic difference shook me up, but at the same time knowing that I didn’t have to gave me resolve. Small changes are changes too.

When I first got down to Central America, I was appalled by how people treated dogs and I decided that was a simple change I could make for the people around me. I didn’t have to lecture or preach, I could just be pleasant to the dogs roaming around where I teach and maybe someone would notice.

I picked one dog in particular both for the way it was yelled at, shooed, and kicked on a daily basis and because it was the most pathetic, runt-of-the-litter mangy mutt I’d come across in a country filled with pathetic, runt-of-the-litter mangy mutts. There’s more street dogs than there are streets here.

The little guy would wander into our classroom (I still haven’t decided what to call it given that it's just a whiteboard dangling from the ceiling with rope and a few chairs set up in front of it), tail wagging and puppy dog eyes in full effect, and immediately be met with shouts and someone’s shoe if it didn’t flee fast enough. Occasionally they’d grab a broom and take a homerun swing at him if he was persistent or slow.

He’d yelp and run off until tomorrow and I’d feel bad and keep on teaching and remind myself that cultural differences exist and I only think that it’s wrong because I grew up in America and this isn’t there. I got fed up after a week or two, my pity for the literal underdog and guilt having never lived a day in my life back home without a dog in the house became too much to ignore.

I didn’t do anything extraordinary. I simply gave the pup a pat on the head when I walked in for the morning, tossed him scraps when I had food, and generally let him within five feet of me without freaking out.

He started greeting me at the gate when I arrived, tail flapping back and forth at previously unknown speeds behind him. As soon as I’d give him his daily head pat, he’d lose his mind, sprinting in all directions, running circles around me, too overjoyed by simply having his existence acknowledged to stop long enough to actually let me pet him. He’d calm down eventually and settle himself under my chair for the duration of my lesson each day. When I left, he’d jog by my side through the neighborhood, growling at other dogs and people and trees that got too close to me.

I doubled down on my love for him, naming him (Dobby, after the pathetic but fiercely loyal Potter house elf) and wrapping my bandana around his neck so the world would know he wasn’t another street dog but a cherished family member. I’d hug him when I arrived, holding on until his tail stopped causing his body to seizure so I could pet him for real. When he got too comfortable, sticking his head into my students’ laps during our class, I gently led him away.

Denis, the owner and coach of the softball academy I teach at whose childhood must have been stolen by a pack of roaming, ravenous street dogs because he spends the majority of his days sitting outside in a plastic chair yelling at, throwing things at, and generally not tolerating any dog that gets close enough to his academy to be hit with a shoe, started yelling at Dobby as I led the dog to the gate. His sandal came flying through the air. Dobby yelped and bolted back to the safety of my chair.

“Denis!” the girls shouted. “He was following the teacher! Dogs listen to you if you’re nice to them!”

I sat down and patted Dobby on the head, proud that we had accomplished social change on some level.

I’ve got this friendly (I hope) rivalry going with the local gang. They show up a few days a week after my class and tell me I’m going to play basketball with them. It’s not a question and I don’t argue.

The first time we played, it had been for the court. I was shooting around with a few students and they wanted us out of their way. Winner stays, loser goes home.

Despite being physically imposing in their baggy shorts, wife beaters (if they were wearing a shirt), chains and jewelry, backwards flatbills, and unusually placed tattoos (is anything ever important enough to ink permanently on your face?), it was clear that the gang owned one And1 Mixtape video and had learned everything they knew about basketball from watching it repeatedly. Every possession featured one of them dribbling between their legs and behind their back for fifteen to twenty seconds on the perimeter and then driving and throwing up a no-look circus layup.

We fundamentaled them into the ground with ball movement and boxing out and everything I had learned as a mediocre white guy on a high school basketball team. For an afternoon, we were the San Antonio Spurs of Nicaraguan street basketball.

I ended the game by banking in a mid-range jumper, turning to the nearest gang member, and saying “Don’t fuck with me” in Spanish. In hindsight, it may not have been the best word choice.

It’s probably a given that if you tell a gang not to fuck with you, they will, indeed, fuck with you. A few days later, they were standing outside the academy demanding to see me when I finished class.

“We’re playing basketball now.” Well, alright.

Waiting at the court was one of the biggest, beefiest, baldest rhinoceroses of a man I had ever seen. He wore a single thick gold chain and a Horace Grant jersey and spent the next three hours pounding me into the ground, simply saying “Another” after each game to ten ended and checking me the ball.

It was Dobby that came to my rescue in the most unconventional way. Posting me up in the paint for the hundredth time that day, the giant caught the ball with his back to me. Instead of turning and scoring over me, he dropped the ball and began itching his arms furiously, first his left and then his right. He looked at me intently before unleashing a string of what only could have been expletives at me.

“You have…”I didn’t understand the third word in the sentence and gave him a confused look. He kept repeating the same sentence over and over, louder each time. After the seventh or eighth shouted proclamation, I took off next door to the academy to get an English-Spanish dictionary, partly because I wanted to know what I had and partly because I was scared he might hurt me.

I returned with the dictionary and handed it to him. He rifled through it and then handed it back, a meaty finger pointing out one of the words.

Fleas.

“Why do you think we try to keep the dog way?” my students asked when I told them the story, shrugging their shoulders.

I tried to change the world and now I have fleas.

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