When you look at the picture below, what do you see? It seems like a silly question, but actually take a minute and think through what you see.
I remember the first time I went to this trash dump community, almost four years ago. I remember getting out of the car and being overwhelmed by the heat, the flies, and the smell of trash. As I looked around, all I could see was shacks, trash, kids playing in heaps of garbage, and a sewage canal. I saw people having to slave away in the heat of the day with such a demeaning job as picking through trash. Poor community, I thought. I felt sorry for them. I thought I felt compassion, but really it was pity.
Over time, though, my perception of this community has shifted. I had not realized how much it has shifted until a couple weeks ago when I took a team from America to visit this community. After we got back to Jakarta, as I heard them make the exact same reflections I had made after my first visit, I realized that I no longer shared their observations about the community—I no longer saw what they saw and felt what they felt. As I thought about why that is, I realized it’s because over time I have gotten to know the people in the community. I have started to learn their stories. It’s not about the physical environment they live in; it’s about the people who live in that environment.
Now, as I look at this same picture, I see something completely different. I see hard work and determination. I see positive attitudes in the midst of difficult situations. I see a group of resilient people who keep pushing on, even when outside forces seem to be against them. I see a close-knit community that is constantly connected and in each other’s homes. I see fathers providing the best they can for the needs of their families. I see a clear community organizational structure that takes care of the most marginalized within their community. This community is not to be pitied—it is to be admired. Their resilience, their ingenuity, their strong community bonds are inspiring.
You see, often there is a lot more going on in a community beneath the surface. But do we take the time to ask people their stories? Do we take time to ask people what their dreams for the future are? Do we even care if they told us? When we look beyond the surface, when we truly talk to people on a deeper level, it is amazing what we will find.
That’s not to say that health and education programs are not necessary in the community—I really believe they are. But the community is a strong community and they should have a voice and an opinion as to what they want. What is their idea of a healthy community? What do they think are the next steps to a healthier place for their children? What programs do they want to see in their community? What structures are already present that can be built upon rather than reinvented? It is important to discover what the women in the community believe an ideal community looks like and help them figure out how to get to that dream.
As I’ve gotten to spend time with and get to know the mothers in this community, I have realized that true development is about this idea my grad program calls “co-powerment.” I don’t just empower them, they don’t just empower me—we empower each other. Through working together to make the community a better place we both grow and develop in the process. It is in this co-powerment that we both get closer to wellbeing.