After reading Part II, you may have wondered what Dr. Ela Bhatt and Jason Sadler have to do with one another. After all, Dr. Bhatt is revered as a pioneering force for inclusive social change, whereas Sadler never even launched his social venture.
Though different, both of their stories illustrate the same concept, which is overly simplified in this equation:
Local solutions + outsider perspective – ego = transformation
Here’s how it breaks down.
When she speaks about SEWA, Dr. Ela Bhatt makes it clear that she is not the driving force behind the organization; migrant women working the informal sector are. They have the most at stake, and they know what they want in a way that nobody else can.
The most lasting and robust solutions to a community’s problems will come from the community itself. Nobody understands a community’s dynamics as intimately as its members do. A homegrown, organic solution is imbued with local wisdom, needs, and aspirations.
Unfortunately, overuse of the phrase “local solutions” has all but blanched it of meaning throughout much of the development and social sectors. For many, it’s easier to pay lip service to the concept than it is to step back and let the locals take the lead.
Therefore, local solutions are all too often swept aside by outsiders who think they know better. But a solution that is imposed by an outsider will not stick. Worse, even if it was born from good intentions, it will do lasting damage.
Can a community transform itself through local solutions alone? Absolutely. But if that’s the case, why isn’t every community in the world healthy and prosperous?
Sometimes an outsider’s perspective can serve as a spark to bring local solutions to life. An outsider can be a mouthpiece for the community, amplifying its voice and providing visibility and leverage in places where it had none before. An outsider can make a community relevant to other outsiders.
Ela Bhatt is an Indian woman working with Indian women. Jason Sadler is a white American who had never been to Africa. Though the gap between Sadler and Africa is wider than the one between Dr. Bhatt and SEWA’s constituency, neither was born an insider.
Dr. Bhatt is an outsider, but she’s a deep listener who shows genuine faith in local solutions and the people who create them. Dr. Bhatt is effective because she fortifies local solutions with her own unique insight, experience and knowledge.
Jason Sadler also has valuable knowledge and experience. He knows how to start a business and how to inspire widespread action through social media. But as a social entrepreneur, he was ineffective because he imposed a solution on a problem that wasn’t there, with zero regard for the consequences.
You can never remove your own ego from the equation, but when an outsider’s ego isn’t grounded in the perspective of the community, everything is thrown off. An inflated ego disrupts your ability to listen. When you don’t listen, you impose.
An outsider who sees himself as the savior of a marginalized community is not a social entrepreneur; he is a missionary. That delusion is the spine of what’s derisively known in international aid as the White Man’s Burden, a label thrown at Jason Sadler more than once.
Whiteness and ego are inextricably linked, at least in a Western context. I grew up being taught that I was a citizen of the greatest, most powerful nation on earth. It was up to America to solve the world’s problems, because nobody else was capable. Talk about a superiority complex. Had I been born black, maybe I would have seen through it a little more quickly.
It bears stating that this type of tribal egotism is not restricted to white America. In Bombay, a young businesswoman told me that she was starting a non-profit. Her plan was to drive around in a taxi and seek out the poorest-looking street kids she could find. She’d pull them into her cab, then have them spend the day with her. During this time, she’d explain to them why it was bad to live on the street instead of in a house. Also, she’d teach them how to wash their hands.
The businesswoman went on and on about her plans to fix the broken lives of others (and then asked if I could help her find start-up funding). As she spoke, I remembered a conversation I’d overheard between a music teacher and his student. The teacher was chastising the student for a mediocre performance. The teacher said, “you hit the wrong notes because you think performing is all about you. When you play with ego, the music can’t flow through you.”
When social entrepreneurs play with ego, local solutions can’t flow through them. The ego seeks quick fixes, but those don’t exist. Community transformation doesn’t just require humility and patience; it requires trust, optimism in the face of disappointment, and detachment. That’s not a balance that comes easily to many people.
Sadler’s 1 Million T-Shirts was born from good intentions, which are junk food for the ego. Good intentions can be a starting block, but without humility – the mindframe of a student, the ability to listen deeply and without judgment – they are blinding.
I started my career in the world of social entrepreneurship as junior staff at the global headquarters of Ashoka. The air crackled with new, world-changing ideas. Social entrepreneurs were the new heroes, and I was surrounded by them.
Within my first week on the job, I was convinced that I needed to start a social enterprise of my own. It didn’t matter what I did; the important thing was that I joined the ranks of the heroes.
A fellow intern took it a step further. Convinced that he had an idea that could disrupt the cycle of global poverty, he set about launching an NGO. He selected a location for his pilot project – a country in Africa in which he had never set foot.
Remember the Tolstoy quote from Part I?
“Everybody thinks of changing humanity, but nobody thinks of changing himself.”
At the time, this description fit me and my fellow intern better than a pre-donated t-shirt. We were obsessed with changing humanity, but completely unaware of ourselves. And in our self-obsession, the change in humanity which we sought had become irrelevant. (For better
or for worse, the other intern never made it to Africa and I never started my own social enterprise.)
Years after my internship with Ashoka in DC, I was sitting at the feet of Jayesh Patel, a man more comfortable with the label “Gandhian” than “social entrepreneur.” In 1990, Jayesh founded Manav Sadhna, an organization that now provides healthcare and education for more than 4,500 women and children living in slums in Ahmedabad.
Jayesh told us that when asked what the greatest threat to India would be after independence, Gandhi had replied, “heartless intellectuals.” To be a heartless intellectual is to make the world fit the narrow filter of your own ego.
The ego breeds pity. Pity, Jayesh said, is heartless. Pity is a barrier to human connection. It strips people of their humanity and turns them into objects. Pity fuels misery. Logical solutions that are born from pity solve nothing at all.
“If you want to achieve impact in the world, don’t start from the perspective of logic or intellect,” Jayesh told us. “Start with relationships. Connect with people, no matter who they are, without pity, without judgment. Drop your ego and embrace everyone as your equal.
To do this, you must know yourself. When you know yourself, you can start to change yourself. When you change yourself, you create ripples; everyone you touch will become an agent of change.”
These words struck me dumb the minute I heard them. I’ve had more than a year to digest them, and I still don’t fully comprehend them. The words are counterintuitive; they fly in the face of my sense of personal urgency and moral obligation to do as much good in the world as I’m capable of. They’re also steeped in spirituality, which is a red flag for me. And yet somehow, the words make sense and I return to them again and again.
Gandhi, Jayesh, and Tolstoy all preached the same thing. Ego is a delusion. It blinds us from understanding our individual selves. Without self-knowledge, we can’t recognize our shared humanity. Only humility can overcome the ego. Therefore, only humility can transform humanity.
In researching this entry, I discovered that Gandhi considered Tolstoy a major influence in life and sought out his advice on issues political and spiritual.
In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to a Hindu, advising Indians under the yoke of the British that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement.” The Hindu in the title was Tarak Nath Das, who published the original letter in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan, which Gandhi read and republished in South Africa. This sparked a correspondence between Gandhi and Tolstoy that lasted until Tolstoy’s death in 1910.