Alyssa Wright explains why philanthropy should focus on the people closest to challenges—and their solutions.
I prepared for my first trip to Africa in 2014. I was going to volunteer at an organization that supported refugee women and girls in Nairobi, Kenya. I was nervous as I had never traveled that far from my home in Massachusetts. And although I was scared, I was also excited. I wanted to learn from communities different from the one I knew growing up as a white, working-class kid on the East Coast of the United States. I was ready to immerse myself in new experiences and ideas. Plus, I felt the impulse to discover ways to help others in developing countries.
Before my trip, I read article after article about the injustices against and struggles of people in African countries. With a certain expectation of what I would see, I anxiously packed my bags, called family and friends to say goodbye, and boarded a bus to the airport. Little did I know that the coming weeks would offer lessons that transformed my worldview for the rest of my life.
Expectations vs. reality
Arriving in Kenya was a chaotic and profound experience. The airport was crowded, and I knew little of the local language, Swahili. Yet, most people spoke English, and I remember feeling overwhelming gratitude for that as I stepped off the plane.
I was quickly ushered to the refugee safe house, where I would volunteer for a few weeks. The organization’s taxi driver picked me up outside the terminal and drove me to a tall, brown building with barred windows. As I got out of the car, I looked behind the building. Dozens of young women, some with small children in their arms, others with schoolbooks strapped to their backs, were dancing in the bright green grass.
I stood stunned for a moment. I thought back to the images I had seen in the media before my trip. People from Africa were often portrayed looking lost and helpless. These laughing, smiling faces were a stark contrast to those photos. I knew I fundamentally misunderstood something about the world up until that moment.
I got to know those young women personally. I heard about their dreams and goals, beliefs, and values. I listened so hard my ears hurt! I remember refraining from talking because I was so afraid of missing a single story shared with me. And that choice to listen led me to an understanding: people know how to better live their lives, even if they haven’t been given the opportunity to make their dreams a reality.
As I left Kenya, I felt a deep commitment to and trust with those young women. I felt called to apply my new wisdom about gifting people access and opportunity—not solutions—to my work in the U.S.
The day I left, all of the young women were having a party at the facility they lived in. As the same dancing and joy from my arrival day surrounded me once again, one young woman, a refugee from Uganda, sat with me and offered me a banana. As I ate it, we talked. When I announced I was leaving for the U.S. the next day and wasn’t sure how to bring this experience back to my life and work, she imparted a last bit of wisdom to me. “Tell our stories,” she said. “Do all you can to tell our stories, our dreams.”
Eight years later, I have translated those words to my work in philanthropy.
I invest in stories. I invest in dreams.
And I work to ensure that philanthropy sees the value in listening, learning, and investing in people who may have long felt unheard and unseen by the noisiness of our own sector.
The rise of community-led philanthropy supports that. It means the rise of investing in transformation—and in stories. It means trusting and investing in people like my Ugandan friend. At first glance, she does not seem like the academic, innovator, or so-called expert we often follow for solutions to global problems. This is a narrative community-led philanthropy must seek to flip as we fund and partner with communities around the world.
The truth is, only those closest to the problem, those who have experienced it, know the lasting solution.
Perhaps your next chapter in giving back is joining this circle. Maybe it’s finding joy in resourcing the dreams of others and believing that you are enough to make the world a better place—together.
My dear friend Karen Ansara, a champion for community-led philanthropy, once told me, “In this work, the gift you receive is enormous when you choose to help a mission’s heart beat strong. You inherit an amazing, loving network. And how lucky will you be to create a life filled with brilliant social entrepreneurs, leaders, activists? So lucky.”
We can help the heartbeat of community-led philanthropy continue by committing to support someone’s vision of a better world. Start your journey by finding that mission or leader and investing in their unwritten story.
Invest in a story that will change the world by donating to a vetted, community-led nonprofit. Monthly donations are matched at 100%.*
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Featured Photo: Life Skills Education to End Teenage Pregnancy by Hope Foundation for African Women (HFAW)