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Why we're working overseas
Posted by Kevin Salwen on 01.22.2010Share

If there is a question we get more than any other it's "Why did you do this project in Africa?" Often it's asked in an inquisitive manner -- people are curious. Other times, the question is the start of a vitriolic stream often coupled with finger-wagging or accusations that we are stupid or callous or worse. For instance, I got an email this week that read in part:

It seems to me that people like you are all alike. I'm now grouping you with people like athletes and movie stars, you all help someone else and forget about your own backyard (by backyard I mean us Americans, the people that are homeless and hungry right here in the GOOD OLD UNTIED STATES OF AMERICA) !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


The email (including the typo of Untied) ended with this:


Just like our government, our athletes, our movie stars, the mega rich and now you, TAKE ON THE WORLD BUT FORGET ABOUT YOUR OWN PEOPLE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Well, hurray for you guys, but it sucks to be an American.
We American's would be better off and probably living better if we moved to an impoverished country. Then we could get aid from THE GOOD OLD UNITED STATES OF AMERICA !!
Your new USA slogan should probably be:
U S A - UNIVERSALLY SCREWING all AMERICANS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I don't reply to those kinds of emails. Then after the Parade piece ran, a number of people posted comments telling us how stupid we are to listen to our kids' ideas about solving poverty problems overseas and how unAmerican we are in general. I almost never respond to any postings either; we feel our work speaks for itself and we're usually far more overwhelmed with the kindness of others than the flamethrowers.

But I decided to post a comment on the Parade site just offering up our family's thought process. I've copied my comment here. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Right approach? Should we reply more often, less often?

Hello Parade readers,

I wanted to quickly circle back because several people on this site have taken our family to task for deciding to create this family project in Africa. I probably should have done a better job writing the piece because to clarify:

For more than a decade, our family has worked here in Atlanta -- with Habitat for Humanity (I've been on the board for 6 years); with the Central Night Shelter; with the Atlanta Community Food Bank; with Cafe 458 (a restaurant for homeless men and women). Hannah works every Tuesday morning as a nurse's aide to indigent Atlanta children. In short, we continue to contribute both our money and time to these local organizations.

In creating this project, we felt that our family had the capacity to work both close to home AND in the world community more broadly. Thank you all for caring so deeply about the people in our country; we do too.

Respectfully, Kevin

There's plenty I could have added in. I could have said that we see the world and not just Atlanta or America as "our community." I could have said that isolationism isn't exactly a winning long-term strategy. I could have been more defensive and told people it was none of their business where we used our money. I'd welcome your thoughts.

"WHY WE'RE WORKING OVERSEAS" [and not in your own backyard] has been debated for a long time, apparently you are just new to the world of doing good? There's even a slogan/bumper sticker in the non-profit, humanitarian world: "Act Locally, Think Globally". Clearly there have been many people over the years, probably starting with the Crusades and continuing through the Peace Corp, who wanted to change the world, spread their religion, culture, commerce, military control or to just seek adventure ...and justify it all with "doing good". Your money will go further and change more in other countries. In other countries the same laws do not apply. In other countries the absolute starving can be brought back to life, and you can't always make such a big change in the US. Many people are also disgusted by the amount of money that is spent by organizations like United Way to just run the "non-profit" company. While there are other organizations that give more directly without so much waste. [ http://philanthropy.com/blogs/leading-edge/nonprofit-ceos-who-want-for-profit-salaries-should-work-at-for-profit-companies/21792 ] So don't be so offended and surprised that anyone would question your motives. All you need to do is have a simple answer that you repeat to anyone to educate them, not ignore them. People don't learn much by being ignored. How about: "We don't just give in other countries. We give our time and money to help in Atlanta, GA, USA also. We encourage you to give what you can locally and globally also." (just 3 sentences for you to cut and paste) If you wanted to give money anonymously, then you could have done that, but clearly you want to encourage others to follow your lead or you wouldn't have written a book and gone on lecture tours, so then you need to learn to speak to everyone, and not as they say "preach to the converted". If you want to have a interesting philosophical debate sometime, ask yourself (and your family) if there is any true unselfish altruism? Or if everyone is motivated by something...guilt, fear of god, wanting to impress others, voyeurism of others joy, etc. Then when you are done, and you only have the clothes on your back and you are walking in the footsteps of Ghandi, please write another book.
Posted by D at 5:22pm on 08.22.2011

I just read the article in USA Weekend and I am appalled that you would send so much money overseas when you could have fed so many hungry people her in the United States of Freedom, I mean America. I do believe if you can give or do for charity, you should, but not like this. Keep it here in the USA.
Posted by Karin at 7:12pm on 07.24.2011

having traveled to different parts of the world, we have learned many things....one, i think, that many people don't realize. the poorest of our poor have more than the poor in many other countries. there are resources available....food, shelter, etc. here in the u.s. the problem, in my mind, is that many people don't know how to find help (or in some instances, choose not to do so). food banks, shelters, clothing (while not always what one might choose) is out there. helping our poor make use of these resources is a challenge, but so many of the poor worldwide don't have such resources available. let's all have some compassion for the people needing help, whatever language they speak, what ever their nationality. we are all human beings who have needed some help of some type over the course of our lives...spiritual, emotional, etc. bless the salwen family for giving of themselves where ever they see the need.
Posted by Sandy and Kirk at 5:01pm on 10.28.2010

Kevin... I am so glad to know about the Power of Half. I will read it on my way to Kenya. I have decided to take a sabbatical from my job in the corporate furniture industry, sell my car, spend some savings and head off to Flying Kites Leadership Academy and volunteer at this orphanage/school. I leave May 1 for ten weeks and can't wait to get to a place that has no electricity or hot water or meat. We have so much to be grateful for. bethany parks http://bhp-lol.blogspot.com www.firstgiving.com/bethanyparks
Posted by bethany at 07:16am on 04.11.2010

Hi Kevin, Please take the time,and go to our travel site,so you can read our mission statement. My wife and I need help with our village in Ghana. Please go to www.kheperatours.com, and click Angel Touch Loving Care Inc. Thanks, Mike & Lydia
Posted by Lydia at 9:51pm on 03.03.2010

No matter what you do, there will always be critics. Many criticize because they genuinely feel that your giving is misplaced. I would suggest, however, that most criticisms stem from the fact that people reading about what you are doing know that they are so consumed with their own lifestyle that they would never consider doing what you have done. In an effort to appease themselves of some guilt, they have to find fault with you. However, poverty and need will always be around. This is not due to lack of provision in the world. It's just a simple fact that there will always be people that would rather consume their wealth rather than live a life of simplicity and give to those that have not. In the end, we need to remember that we live not to please man, but God. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is, "To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself" There are so many needs around the world that it can be overwhelming to know what to do. One person or family cannot meet the needs of the entire world, but we can make a difference in a small way somewhere. If enough of us choose to follow the example you have set, we can all make a "small" difference on the scale of worldwide magnitude, but in the lives of individuals, the scale is far more significant. I say ignore the criticism, keep your eyes focused on what you are doing, and pray that many more that hear what you have done will follow and do likewise. Can you imagine the difference?
Posted by carol at 10:38am on 02.02.2010

Lynda, Michael, Ash, et al, your comments are fascinating and echo a lot of what our family decided. "Why should one life be worth more than another simply because of geography?" Lynda, that's SUCH a powerful question! You are a gift to the world.
Posted by Kevin at 1:06pm on 01.27.2010

I am always interested in this line of thought...I work with preschool children in West Philadelphia and see children who are in rough circumstances daily. I have kids in my class who are squatting in unoccupied homes, living in families with too many kids and not enough parents, depending on aid just to make sure they get something to eat every day. But the fact is, they all do get something to eat every day. And although they may not have everything they need, they manage. Their circumstances overwhelm me at times. Yet, American poverty, for the most part, is a relative sort of poverty...they are very poor compared to their communities - and must forego many things that the rest of us consider absolute necessities. Things that are indeed needed to thrive and develop to one's full potential. I think this is an absolute tragedy and worthy of action. However, I also know that these circumstances are nowhere near the destitute conditions of the poor in many other parts of the world. In many countries there is nowhere to go for help, no medical care or soup kitchen, no shelter. No access, no power, no hope for better times. I found this map illustrative of the distinction I am making between being "poor" and being destitute. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Percentage_population_living_on_less_than_1_dollar_day_2007-2008.png I think every person should have food, shelter, and medical care. Every person in the world. I think all efforts to alleviate suffering are commendable, whether it be in the US or anywhere in the world.
Posted by Ash at 10:28pm on 01.25.2010

Thank you for not only undertaking, but sharing, this wonderful story. I understand that in these cynical and individualistic times people can be threatened by an act of generosity. It's fascinating that people are so rattled they need to reply. Do you respond? It's your call of course. But I like the Buddhist philosophy of making the world with our thoughts. Our energy is so precious and time so fleeting - where do you want to put your energy? Personally, I'd rather build a movement through acting and connecting with like-minded others, than spend all my time justifying and defending it. I absolutely get why you've picked Ghana - in the sense that it doesn't matter where you put your energies - the point is that you have! Why should one life be worth more than another simply because of geography? I work in the disability sector and alongside the cruelty and heartache I also see so many acts of extraordinary compassion and generosity. So the other piece of wisdom that has inspired me is the idea that we don't try to save the world - we pick one person or one village, and stand alongside them. Travel with them. Be present. Have consciousness. $2 dropped into a donation tin does little. But a thoughtful and loyal contribution across a lifetime can make a profound difference. Thank you for your heart and stay heartened. Lynda (Australia)
Posted by Lynda at 4:09pm on 01.25.2010

Your comments are great. Thanks for the support. I just noticed that an Amazon reviewer gave our book one star, writing: I admire the concept of living on half of one's previous lifestyle. However, I would have been far more impressed if the proceeds of the venture were spent in America. If it was a homeless man in Atlanta who inspired this gesture, why did the Salwens feel the need to send the money to Ghana? That makes no sense. Perhaps, if others follow in this family's footsteps, perhaps they would consider spending the money in this country. Our family will continue to support American charities with our American dollars. ------ That's all explained in the book, of course -- and honestly, I think explaining why we chose to work in one arena or another, geographically and otherwise, is important. I have a feeling we'll be answering this one for a long time.
Posted by Kevin at 11:28am on 01.25.2010

We are all one. Thank you for the inspiration.
Posted by MICHAEL at 10:13am on 01.25.2010

Kevin, I so appreciated your tactful and respectful response to the negative feedback. Last year I went to South Africa to volunteer for three weeks.I ended up staying for three months and will be returning in a few months. I, too, was often criticized for volunteering in Africa and not helping in the US. Yes, I do feel a kinship with my fellow Americans, but in Africa I learned that we are all part of a greater community. I was struck by how despite the ravages of disease, poverty and violence nearly every person I met felt grateful for what they did have in life- family, health, shelter. I applaud you and your family. Thank you for taking a risk and making a difference.
Posted by Stacey at 7:46pm on 01.24.2010

Kevin, I signed on to the comments for the Haiti Telethon and found the same sort of negative comments on that site. In fact there was reference to one person who seemed to surf multiple sites and put out the same sort of negative hooplah. I say ignore them. Until they do the same sort of giving, they don't know what it feels to give as was expressed in the Nicholas Kristof article by you. I for one am thankful that there are people like you and your family who take giving so seriously. When one travels alot, they see how much we have and what opportunities we have and how in other countries there are no opportunities based on race, color, religion, etc. To those who are concerned about how much is given to Haiti, perhaps you should consider all that Haiti has had to endure in recent history and this recent event is only the latest of what horrible has happened ot them. I think that is why so many are giving. Again many thanks to you and your family. You should all be proud of how you are living your life and should not at all justify what you are doing which is only good!!!
Posted by edith at 4:09pm on 01.24.2010

Hello from Fort Collins, CO! You should be very, very proud of your daughter and son (my guess is you are...). We have two active teenage sons whom, I'm very proud to say, talk with us about the key issue you folks raise in the site: How much does a human being, truly, need to live their life fully and graciously (subplot 'What's up with the amazing and troubling never-ending rise of Power/Greed/corruption in some human beings, whether it be a personal, business, religion, government context?'). Though I've not yet read the blog (and will peek at it, when I can), I just wanted to give you a voice of confidence from the West. Rock on...
Posted by Jean at 1:06pm on 01.24.2010

First off, I want to say on a personal level that I appreciate all you and your family are doing. Also, I think the vitriol and judgement that people are directing your way is simply heartbreaking. All that said and having read through your responses to readers' concerns on your aid disbursement, I am still somewhat surprised that you are directing so much of your personal resources to international programs. Of course, it's your money and how you choose to disperse it is your prerogative. But I do believe that it takes a village to raise a child and we should be taking care of our village before we venture out. For example, when I look at the overwhelming US and international response to the Haiti earthquake and contrast that to the situation in New Orleans, many parts of which are still completely untouched 4 years after Katrina, I am troubled. It does make me question the asymmetry to the response and why we would give our resources immediately to fix Haiti and Africa and Asia when we have so many legitimate needs in the US. Anyway, I guess I am just trying to present a better, non-hysterical view of some of the folks who have written. Best wishes in your endeavors, Ken
Posted by Ken at 10:36am on 01.24.2010

Kevin, You and your family should be commended for your compassion and courage in following through with your altruistic ideal that so many of us can only dream oif embracing. We have 2 teenagers who are involved with a Canadian charity that builds schools in developing countries. As much as we would like to say that we do this to help, it is not lost upon us that our kids also benefit from being exposed to poverty and inequity which helps their maturing process. As for your detractors who accuse you of not helping those at home, I think it's entirely your prerogative to direct your aid to where you think the need is the greatest, and those who attack you should think about how they could help the needy instead of mouthing off at you and your project. All the best.
Posted by Bob at 10:33am on 01.24.2010

Sadly, I am not the slightest bit surprised by these responses. I like what you wrote in reply, but I would certainly leave it at that as any more will be a waste of your time, energy and spirit and will not make one jot of a difference in your attacker. There is, and will likely always be, an "us v. them" mentality in human beings. Perhaps it is human nature (think sports teams, "cockroaches" in Rwanda, slaves... there is always the "other" that one can feel superior to.) You know that a child is a child no matter where that child happens to have been born. In my mind, a person should help where their heart leads them to help, because that is where they will do the best work that benefits the most. Africa, Atlanta, Asia...it's just geography. I've wasted too much of my life being angry at, and trying to change the thinking of, people like the ones who wrote you. They are full of hate and the kind of thinking that leads to war. They break my heart, but waste my time. Don't give them any more space. Move on, hug your kids, and keep YOUR heart in the right place.
Posted by Cynthia at 01:06am on 01.23.2010

What really bugs me about comments like this is the inherent jingoism in assuming that America's poor are more deserving than other poor. People are people, no matter where they live. Africa gets so much attention because there is so much more poverty there than there is here. Yes, there are homeless and starving people in every city across America. But the need simply isn't as great here when compared to Africa. I think your response was right on. Highlight the work you do in your community, in your own backyard. Then, maybe, you can ask the commentor what they do to help America's poor, since they feel so strongly that more needs to be done for them.
Posted by Grant at 2:44pm on 01.22.2010

I like the response Kevin. Normally I feel negativity doesn't deserve a response but occasionally I can't help myself. I'm curious what the reaction will be from those who found it necessary to condemn your efforts.
Posted by Jodi at 11:09am on 01.22.2010