Wow. What a title.
If you spent much time on Twitter or “the blogs” this week, you likely came across mention of Gene Marks’ provocative Forbes column, “If I Was a Poor Black Kid.” Plenty of people have weighed in on Marks’ page-hit driving piece, in which he imagines that if he were poor and black he would study hard and use technology to get ahead, and, frankly, this blog is not the place to add to the criticism of Marks’ Münchausen thought experiment.
The eye-roll inducing, here-we-go-again title of the Forbes piece at least got people talking about poverty and education. Lots of people. Still, after reading the column, I thought, “what does Marks think kids in Liberia should do?” Ok, that was probably the fifth or sixth thought I had after reading it, but still. How does the way we think about poverty affect the way we think about development?
It does not seem constructive to compare opportunities in the U.S. to opportunities for girls in Liberia. The context, even for the poorest of the poor, in both places is so different. The problems girls in Liberia face, and the problems facing Liberia, are different. However, the main criticism against Marks (as I see it) is that he misses the bigger picture. Education is just one of many pieces that have to fall into place for children to reach their full potential.
The girls we work with in Liberia would not be in school without a scholarship from More than Me. But schooling is just one of the many things they need. If they don’t receive positive reinforcement, have some stability in their lives, and at least one decent meal each day, knowing how to read and write will only help them so much. For these reasons, More than Me organizes weekly sports activities on the beach in West Point; we make sure our field staff make regular visits to all 100 homes; and it is why we created a school lunch program.
Liberia is the world’s fourth poorest country. West Point, where the girls in our program live, is one of the poorest slums in Liberia. Some of the students are at the top of their class. All of them are learning. None of them would be in a classroom without your support. I would never write off any of the children in our program, but I also know that it is doubtful that we are going to produce 100 doctors or engineers. This doesn’t mean I’m not hopeful. All the cynicism in the world could not stand-up to the smiles, intelligence, and energy of the girls we have in school.
In light of huge, complicated issues, success can mean making things simpler. We hope that the girls in our program will be able to take hold of their lives, gain skills so that they will not be taken advantage of, and, yes, learn how to read and write. We hope they will master the skills they learn, open businesses, have children later in life, lead healthy lives, and do well for themselves and their community. You don’t have to put yourself in anyone else’s shoes to know that going from being on the street to being in the classroom is a good thing for a child. What More than Me has learned though, is that is just one part of the process.