Turning impotence and injustice around

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(This article originally posted elsewhere in December 2012. I still believe it is true, so here it is again.)

When I was 15 and finishing high school, I applied for a number of scholarships to cover the many years of tuition which lay ahead. One of those scholarships was a full-ride ticket offered by Anglo-American, arguably the most prestigious scholarship available at the time to school-leavers in South Africa.

For the interview, I had to travel to their shiny skyscraper HQ in Johannesberg, and I well remember feeling intimidated and exhilarated as I stared up at the giant glass building. The interviewers asked me about myself, my background, why I wanted to study law. “I want to help women and children,” I said, “I’m interested in justice for women and children who would otherwise not have a voice.”

The chief interviewer smirked as I answered a few more questions, and finally said goodbye. I remember her words as I left: “It was good to meet you and we wish you all the best at university, even if your ideas are a little naive.” Coming from a shiny-successful person in a shiny-successful building, her words stung, and I remember feeling a little ashamed of my gung-ho “I’m going to save the world” declarations.

I did not get the scholarship, but I did go to law school, and on more than one occasion I remembered her words. It was true that the ivory-tower ideals of law school often met with the much more gritty reality of what actually happened in court. I realized I was studying about the LEGAL system, not the JUSTICE system. What I learned seemed to confirm my cynical interviewers words: the desire to really do good and oppose injustice is fanciful, naive, immature.

Well, life took me – or should I say God took me – in different directions. First vocational ministry, which I would NEVER have guessed I would land up in. And now, full-time suburban motherhood, which remains a very unexpected outcome in my opinion. I definitely saw myself in the shiny-successful role in the shiny-successful building, rather than behind a sink and using my Mommy voice to explain (again) why my preschooler should not bash his fork into the dining table. But here I am, in full time Mommy zone – a million miles away from law school and career ambitions and the person I thought I would become.

Until recently.

A friend sent me Kristof and WuDunn’s book halftheskyHalf the Sky” and asked my opinion on it. I read it in stolen moments over several weeks, and as the pages turned, so too the wheels in my heart and mind turned. There is still much for me to process in the aftermath of the book, but here’s the beginning of it.

Millions and millions of women in our world are subjected daily to cruel treatment, medical failure, abuse and exploitation. Little girls are sold into sex slavery, girls have their genitals slashed, women die needlessly in childbirth. Women and girls starve to death, because they are considered less important to feed than boys and men. The suffering is deep and widespread. And the impact of undernourished, undervalued, impoverished and uneducated women is borne by community after community, generation after generation.

Reading such things is gut-wrenching and eye-opening. My first impulse is to weep. My second impulse is to shake my head, feeling helpless and unable to do anything. After all, haven’t I carried a thought in my head for some twenty years which scolds me “it is naive and foolish to think you can do anything for women and children. The shiny-successful lady told you so.”

But the message of this book is not just to alert readers like me (and you!) to what is going on in the world. It is primarily a book to galvanize action: small and purposeful changes CAN and DO make a difference. One extra year of education for a girl dramatically changes the statistical trajectory for her life. One extra year of school for one girl means she is far more likely to marry later, to bear less children, to suffer less physical harm from youthful childbearing. It increases the wage she is likely to earn, and thus her access to health care. One extra year makes it more likely that, as a more numerate and literate person, she can contribute to her family, her community, her country in the years to come.

And friends, I can help with one year of education for a girl.
I can help with deworming kids.
I can help support legislative efforts to police sex trafficking effectively.
I can help, by prayer, aware-ness raising, and purposeful contribution.

I am not impotent in the face of injustice. I am willing – I have always been. But now, after twenty years of believing a lie, I am also willing to say I am able.

Here are three ways our little suburban family tried to make a difference:

1) We prayed about injustice, with hope and specificity. I have lacked faith to pray about matters so big. But I can pray.

2) We decided to give some Christmas gifts which would “keep on giving”. To my sisters, I gave a donation to Food for the Hungry to educate a girl for a year. To my vegetable-growing mother in law, we gave a donation of vegetable seeds to a poor community in South America. etc.

3) We have decided to switch to buying fair-trade only coffee. For a long time I have put all the buzz words of our day (organic, free range, fair trade, nitrate free, sustainably developed etc) in the same category. Organic was the only category I had given a little thought to – and I figured that the risk was ours: we could choose to brave the pesticides and wash our fruit and veggies, or not. No harm to anyone else – our risk alone.

But now I realize that they are not the same. The risk is OURS if we buy non-organic products. But to but non-fair trade products means the risk was someone else’s. Learning about our slavery footprint was eye-opening.  A package of coffee which is not marked as being fair trade could perhaps have a stamp on it which says “hand-picked for your enjoyment by oppressed people worldwide.” So I will buy fair trade coffee.

There’s more to be done, even in our own home. I read an article just before Christmas which has given me much more to think and ponder. But for now – this is where we start.

Shiny-successful lady, you were wrong.

It is not naive to want to help women and children. It’s human. It’s necessary. It’s what we must do. I serve the God who cares about the poor, the fatherless, the widow. He came to set the captives free. I dare not think that, as one of His children and one of His disciples, doing nothing is an option.

This is an exciting year. I can feel it already. I’m taking my 15-year-old self out for a treat to see how little-me can make a big-difference to little-you out there.

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12 thoughts on “Turning impotence and injustice around”

  1. Shiny successful people in shiny successful buildings sure can be spectacularly wrong sometimes, and sometimes it is about the most important things in the world. Glad you didn’t listen to her, Bronwyn.


    P.S. I think you are quite successful and you do a good job shining too.

    1. Thank you, Tim. I’m sure I was full of naïveté at 15 and had much maturing to do. she was right about that. also, i doubt she had any idea how crushing her words would be to such a young idealist.
      But I’m thankful for hope resurrected. Truly, I am.

  2. Yes!! It’s interesting how God can take us full-circle, bringing back up the “old” passions that our young hearts used to beat for. Similar things going on for me.

  3. What an encouraging and hopeful message, Bronwyn! I stand with you in confidence that every one of us, whether we stand at a kitchen sink or before a courtroom, have the potential for great influence and good. The most common obstacle is our acceptance of the phony value system that tells us we can’t shine. Judy

  4. Love this, Bronwyn, and I couldn’t agree more! (Also, side note: looks like we’re both lawyers. Didn’t know that until I read this). It is so much the everyday stuff we do that adds up to ONE BIG THING that really does something good in the world. In certain seasons of life, we do bigger things. In other seasons, smaller things. But we should always do *something,* even if it’s “just” to pray. Thanks for sharing your experiences and words of encouragement. 🙂

  5. This is what learned from the mission’s trip to Sacramento. I was in this neglected neighborhood where even the policemen and firefighters don’t show up. A person is destined to be a drug dealer, pimp, or prostitute because he/she is born in Oak Park as an African American. Poverty, prostitution, gang may not disappear but I can make a difference in the community by praying, sharing God’s love, and showing that there are people who care about them.

  6. Pingback: Hope engaged | bronwyn's corner

  7. This is so awesome! I’m glad I decided to flick through your archives because this post is about everything my husband and I are passionate about.

    As someone who fights for the end of sex trafficking, this is what I tell people everyday: You CAN Make a Difference. It is so easy and yet so many people are trapped in the naivete of thinking that saving the world is naive. They have listened to the voices of people who gave up. We need to start listening to the voices of people who kept fighting! Like William Wilberforce. Talk about someone who never gave up.

    I have a bone to pick with the whole “fair trade” movement. I too use SlaveryFootprint.org to calculate how much slave labor we’re paying for. But the sad thing is, going “fair trade” isn’t necessarily going to lessen your impact (though it may, you just won’t know for sure). As a label, “fair trade” is currently 100% unregulated, meaning anyone can put it on anything no matter how “fair” the trade actually is. Companies still typically try to have evidence of fair to back up their claims so they’re not caught out on it, but as a result, “fair trade” often means things like: we only buy from growers and agrobusinesses who are paying “decent wages” to their workers, and therefore we don’t buy from the small-farm farmers in the mountains of Ecuador who are barely scraping a living and who can’t pay decent wages because their children are starving (and since we don’t buy their crops, their children continue to starve). “Fair trade” is often really just supporting large agro-businesses and letting the smalltown entrepreneurs fail. Starbucks is especially bad about this.

    My suggestion: going fair trade is an okay plan, but when you can, go LOCAL instead. Labor slavery is almost nonexistent in the US, so buying food, coffee, and products that were grown/mined (and put together) in the US is a safe enterprise.

    “Organic” is equally confusing. Buying something with the “organic” label at the supermarket means they didn’t use anything from the federally-regulated nonorganic pesticides and fertilizers list, but it doesn’t mean they just put cow manure in the field and let it grow. They continue to use fertilizers and pesticides, just ones that are from natural sources; however, these can be far worse for the earth (and for humans, although I wouldn’t care about that: growers have to abide by strict rules on when to use pesticides and fertilizers so that the residue on the consumable plant parts wear off to a better-than-harmless amount). A lot of organic farmers use sulfur as a particularly lethal pesticide against bugs, and it comes from natural sources and is considered organic. However, it leaches down into the water table, impacts water quality, leaches nutrients from the soil, and aids soil erosion.

    Once again, I suggest going local and utilizing the farmer’s market, if you have one. Small farmers are far less likely to use harmful pesticides and fertilizers (whether organic or nonorganic) because they just can’t afford them, and you can always just ask the farmer when you purchase the produce what they use on their crops.

    Hope this is more helpful than mind-boggling. When I minored in international ag, we were faced with all sorts of problems we hadn’t previously known about with the mythically-perfect solutions to soil, water, and poverty issues today. But we also learned ways to avoid the common pitfalls of the environmentally- and socially-conscious. It’s fully possible to honor God’s love for his creation in what you buy and eat!

    1. This is really good (and comprehensive) information! Thanks for that.
      I still find the local (farmers market especially) a very expensive route to go, trying to feed a family of 5 LOTS of fruit and vegetables though… but that’s a subject for another blog post 🙂

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