By Rebecca C.
Poverty: what exactly defines it? We seem to use dollar terms such as, a person makes less than 1 or 2 dollars a day, when really we must look at income as only one variable. This is what Jacqueline Novogratz believes in and is speaking about in her TED talk on escaping poverty. She says, “Poverty is a condition about choice, and the lack of freedom” (Jacqueline Novogratz | Video on TED.com). So can people choose to better themselves and escape poverty?
Jacqueline has been involved in poverty issues for 20 years now, and to make a personal reference to herself, she chooses to tell us a story of an experience she had. She was working in Kenya, in the Mathare Valley Slums where people lived in crammed little shacks that they rented with 8-10 people per room. These slums were known for prostitution, violence, and drugs, as are most villages in poverty. When walking through these slums, Jacqueline said, “It was literally impossible not to step in the raw sewage and garbage alongside the little homes. But at the same time, it was also impossible not to see the human vitality, the aspiration and the ambition of the people who lived there” (Jacqueline Novogratz). It was there, in the Mathare Valley, that she met Jane.
Jane was gentle and kind and automatically attracted Jacqueline. Jacqueline, after meeting Jane, first asked her of her dreams, and she said she had two. One was to be a doctor, and the second was to find a good man that would stay with her and her family. Jane was a single mom, who couldn’t pay for school fees, so she had to give up the first dream and focus on the second. She ended up getting married at 18 and got pregnant right away. When she turned 20, she had another child on the way, her mother had died and her husband had left her for another woman. With no income and no skill set, Jane turned to prostitution. Jane told Jacqueline, “You know, the poverty wasn’t so bad. It was the humiliation and the embarrassment of it all” (Jacqueline Novogratz quoting Jane). In 2001, Jane heard about an organization called Jamii Bora, which would lend people money, no matter how poor, as long as they provided a commensurate amount in savings. Jane tried so hard, and saved for a year, making a savings of about $50 and started borrowing money from this organization. Over time, she was able to buy a sewing machine. Jane began tailoring. She would go into secondhand stores, buy old gowns and dresses donated by the wealthier public and make them new again with frills, ribbons and bows. She would do this for girls’ sweet sixteens or first communions, occasions that are celebrated all along the economic spectrum. She made very good business in this. Jacqueline even once saw her go into the town with her gowns and within minutes, many women were all around her admiring her gowns and paying for the magnificent pieces Jane made.
Jane, after all her hard work in developing a good business, was making more than 4 dollars per day. According to a lot of statistics, she would be considered not poor. This is where the dollar factor comes in. She might not be technically considered poor by the income factor but she still lives in the Mathare Valley Slums. She has an insecure environment and can’t move out of the Valley. She was even chased from her home during an ethnic raid and was forced to rent another room. Wouldn’t you say this was living in poverty? But, all hope was not lost. A little while later, Jamii Bora, working with Patient Capital and other organizations, built a low-cost housing development about an hour away from the Mathare Valley Slums. If you are living in this housing development, they insist on responsibility and accountability, so Jane has to pay 10% of the mortgage or about $400 in savings and then they match her mortgage to whatever she paid in rent. She is one of the first 200 people moving in to this housing development. Jacqueline asked Jane if she feared anything, or if she was going to miss anything from Mathare Valley. When asked this, Jane responded, “What would I fear that I haven’t confronted already? I’m HIV positive. I’ve dealt with it all. What would I miss? Do you think I will miss the violence or drugs?” (Jacqueline Novogratz quoting Jane). Jacqueline asked her about her dreams. She said her dreams don’t look exactly like she planned. She thought she wanted a husband, but what she really wanted was a family that was loving. She loves her children and they love her back. And about her dream to be a doctor she says, "I thought that I wanted to be a doctor, but what I really wanted to be was somebody who served and healed and cured. And so I feel so blessed with everything that I have, that two days a week I go and I counsel HIV patients. And I say, 'Look at me. You are not dead. You are still alive. If you are still alive you have to serve.'" And she said, "I'm not a doctor who gives out pills. But maybe me, I give out something better because I give them hope." (Jacqueline Novogratz quoting Jane).
Jane inspired Jacqueline and made her think about how hard she worked to get out of poverty, to get out of those Mathare Valley Slums. She talks about how in an economic crisis, most people pull in with fear, but we should take a cue from Jane and reach out. We need to realize that being poor doesn’t mean being ordinary. We owe this to the Janes, the hard workers of the world, and we owe it to ourselves to reach out and help, to get out of whatever rut we are in. Jane was in the low of the low, but she reached out, she escaped poverty! Jacqueline says, “When systems are broken, like the ones we are seeing around the world, it’s an opportunity for innovation and invention. It’s an opportunity to truly build a world where we can extend services and products to all human beings, so that they can make decisions and choices for themselves” (Jacqueline Novogratz).
Jacqueline uses an intriguing, inspiring story of a young woman that she actually met. Using the descriptive information of where she lived and how her life had taken a horrible turn helped the audience feel for Jane and become interested in how Jane’s story would end. The fact that Jacqueline, the woman standing before the audience, was actually there and heard this story and saw Jane’s life makes it real and effective. Jacqueline talks with a gentle voice, and talks with a tone that relates to what she is saying, like when she is talking about the unfortunate turn in Jane’s life, she talks with a saddened tone. She also relates the audience to her story, like when she was mentioning how Jane tailored, and went to the secondhand store to buy gowns, she says, “probably some gowns that you have donated yourselves” (Jacqueline Novogratz). Most of us have grown out of old clothes and donated them to the less fortunate, and hearing that our actions are what helped Jane out, connects us to the story and lets us know that what we do, even in a small way, actually benefits others.
Jacqueline’s speech is inspiring, moving, and leaves you with a feel good feeling in your heart. It makes you glad to see that Jane could pick up her life in a way that most others don’t. It also makes you wonder what you could do to help those who don’t exactly know how to make the right choices, to move up in the economic spectrum. What can you do to help people in poverty get out of their rut? Maybe you could become part of an organization, or just donate some secondhand clothing to Goodwill. Anyway you do it is helping someone escape poverty and a life of misery. And in her TED talk Jacqueline is trying to make us realize that dollar terms don’t mean anything when it comes to poverty. We must look at the bigger picture, the bigger definition of poverty, the decisions, the choices, and the wealthier societies that can help.