Imagine a neighborhood that has just been hit by an earthquake. Villagers take to rebuilding the neighborhood, but then a tsunami hits. Waterlogged, but determined, they surge ahead; but the land has been so destroyed that a new foundation must be established. So there you are, standing there, a speck amongst the wreckage, nothing but a hammer and a few nails in your hand, and you say: “What can I do to help?”
Scale this to a macroscopic level—the world is awash with injustice, with disease epidemics, with corrupt political bodies. Even in the alcoves of “the land of the free” there is homelessness, inequality, racism— the list goes on. With nothing but our own two hands, how can we as individuals make a dent in the giant overarching problems affecting millions?
As a global health major at USC, I spend a lot of my time thinking about ways to chip at some of the injustices and health issues facing society. As a newbie to the field, my perspective is greatly limited (which, admittedly, is short for saying ‘I don’t know’). So I ventured to find someone who does. Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and columnist for The New York Times, attempts to answer this question in his new book (and documentary film) A Path Appears, which he co-wrote with Sheryl WuDunn. Their book served as the inspiration for the Skirball Cultural Center’s “A Path Appears: Actions for a Better World” exhibit, which emphasizes the individual-impact based approach of Kristof and WuDunn’s book (the exhibit is on display now through Feb. 21). Kristof visited the Skirball Cultural Center on Jan. 25 to talk about the book and how it works in tandem with the Skirball’s exhibit. Hoping I’d gain some direction, (also being a shameless fan-girl), I attended.
I was right in knowing that Kristof would be able to give some sort of answer to the question—he opened with how he is so often asked by his readers and activists everywhere, “So, what can we do?” He spoke about some peoples’ creative responses to this question, which has manifested in a wave of innovation that is currently sweeping through the philanthropy sphere. He motioned towards Dr. Laura Stachel, sitting towards the front of the audience. She and her husband developed the We Care Solar Suitcase—a portable yellow box with a built-in solar panel that generates light, which can be used during surgeries in remote locations without reliable access to electricity. Throughout the “A Path Appears” exhibit there are many of examples of innovative solutions that tackle common, fixable material deficiencies within the realms of nutrition, health and literacy.
Innovation is one way to impact the world, or, as he noted, to anecdotally make a “drop in the bucket.” Another way is to dissect the issue and remedy the causal variable—as Kristof said, “We are dealing with symptoms rather than underlying causes.” He gave the example of Flint, Michigan’s toxic lead-saturated water, which will cause developmental issues in the future (so why don’t we just fix it now?). He applied that to wide-scale misogyny—noting the importance of educating and empowering women because—to misogynists—“the biggest threat is a woman with a schoolbook.” He used education activist Malala Yousafzai as an example—the Taliban feared a 15-year-old girl. Why? Because she was getting an education, a trailblazer breaking the bounds of deeply rooted sexism. They were right to fear her because now she’s an inspiration to women everywhere, providing empowerment globally.
Something I’ve been involved in for the past four years is the Komera Project—an organization that seeks out driven young women in Rwanda and funds their secondary education, empowering them through learning. When I went to Rwanda to meet the girls, we discussed their futures; they told me their dreams to become teachers, entrepreneurs and government officials in Parliament (more than half of Rwanda’s Parliament is women!). I already knew that women in many places are denied these opportunities, but when I actually saw this disparity in person, it felt surreal. There I was, a college student at a university where the majority of students are women—and, whether on campus, in classes, or even in my apartment, I was constantly surrounded by so many women who inspired me daily…something I had never really acknowledged before.
Kristof noted that talent can be found everywhere, but opportunity cannot. So for the millionth time—what can we do? Kristof, armed with only a keyboard, has garnered support for various causes world-wide. As students, or as inspired adults, we can use our knowledge and determination to create change, too. For starters, volunteer, go to educational events and reach out. But if I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that if we lead the way with innovation and passion, “a path appears.”