Every Organization Needs A Superhero!

Third World, My World?


Jan 7, 2018 Advocacy, Career Mamma, feminism, Grant Writing, Internship Wisdom, Leadership , , , , 10 Comments

In a recent meeting with a board member of an international non-profit, I was asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. “Grace, have you ever lived in a third world country?” My initial response was defensive, and mumbly, and I was immediately ashamed as I blundered through an explanation that was part apology and part frail justification. Sure, I’d visited a bunch of third world countries, but my comeback was weak… “I have recently returned from a 10-day trip to South Africa, but no, I have never LIVED in a third world country.” I took a breath, and a long sip of my chilled bottled water, and realized with remorse, that I have never even considered that as an idea.

In my cushy seat on the train back home from my meeting, my thoughts kept receding to that same question and I was now considering for the first time if I was the right fit for work with any organization that advocates for, assists and provides life-saving services to folks living in third world countries. Had my passion to help those that are marginalized gone too far? Should I just stick to domestic issues in my home country? Was helping people in other cultures too much of a stretch?

It would not be my job to actually provide the program services, instead, I would need to raise money through various means such as building up donor relations, crafting grant proposals and speaking publicly about the work that the talented teams were achieving in communities far, far away. I am living a privileged existence, but would that privilege taint my ability to be effective?

The conversation moved on and we traveled into deeper, more philosophical territory. We arrived in a mind melding space where we both agreed that our western hemisphere influences converged with eastern hemisphere tenets creating a kinder, gentler view on humanity and the power of compassion and altruism. I walked away from the meeting with a smile, but that illusive question would haunt me for days.

Roadside home located outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. c. 2017 Grace Alfiero

So, I did what I predict many privileged people do when they are embattled with inner conflict, I opened up my laptop and googled “privilege in a third world country” not really knowing what would pop up. Could I research my way to harmony in my drive to grow through new cultural experiences? I remembered the infamous author Richard Bach had a character in one of his stories who would open up a book, any book, and put his finger on a place on a page, and the sentences surrounding would provide an existential message. Was googling illusive subjects a modern way of implementing this practice? I wasn’t sure, but how could it hurt? I read on.

I found a resource that really spoke to me and so I am sharing some of Courtney Martin’s brilliant words with excerpts from her article entitled The “Third World” Is Not Your Classroom. The link to the entire article is: https://brightthemag.com/the-third-world-is-not-your-classroom-9eee1546f565

There is a sort of autopilot story of privilege that so many of us tell about our time abroadwhether we are part of a study abroad group, living with a host family while interning at a nonprofit organization, or volunteering with a religious organization. We go to help and learn, and we tell ourselves and others that those we met were similarly appreciative of the exchange.

 Setting aside the question of whether our help is actually effective…let’s look more deeply at this question of how privileged people learn. It is not uncommon for us to see our learning as something that we, alone, manifest; this one-sided point of view is strengthened by the language of our most elite institutions, where college students have a “shopping period” during which they decide which classes they want to take. Learning, rather than being an exchange, becomes an act of consumption.

 Even though Ms. Martin’s article focuses on the in’s and out’s of college study abroad, I was happy to find this resource. Another section of the article spoke to me in light of the current news and twitter communications that surfaced this week.

And perhaps even more essential, but far less straightforward, is humility on the part of visiting Americans. Humility, put simply, is our capacity to know that there is much we don’t know, and act accordingly. It’s a sign of wisdom. As physicist Robert A. Millikan put it: “Fullness of knowledge always and necessarily means some understanding of the depths of our ignorance, and that is always conducive to both humility and reverence.”

I guess in the end, what fuels my drive is also seeded in not knowing what I don’t know. Am I searching for answers when I don’t even know all the questions yet? I guess I’d rather strive for those doses of humility whenever I can, utilizing my privilege for whatever good I can conjure, instead of accepting the bleak alternative. Compassion wins, even if experience trails behind.


  • Joy Taylor
    Jan 7, 2018 at 4:26 pm Reply

    Excellent posting with some outstanding insight. I am personally delighted the question caused you pause, but I also do not believe it should have caused you shame to say you have never LIVED in a 3rd world country. I believe the gift you bring is that you have not. I mean if I met a cave man who had not yet figured out how to make fire, I would be delighted to show him the advances made over time to enable immediate growth and development.

    Your role would be to bring knowledge, experience, care, humility, honesty, compassion, advanced thinking and an endless amount of drive. Your job will be to get knocked down each day, and wake up the next morning refreshed and ready to stand up and run tomorrow.

    1. Grace Alfiero
      Jan 7, 2018 at 4:32 pm Reply

      BOOM! And that Joy Taylor, is why I count you in the handful of my wisest friends! I love your reaction to this post! And I am so grateful for our friendship and your mentorship! XO

  • Erin Dalton
    Jan 7, 2018 at 5:25 pm Reply

    First let me say that when I read the quote, “Humility, put simply, is our capacity to know that there is much we don’t know, and act accordingly.” I actually teared up. Maybe it’s hormones (lol!), but with everything that’s going on in America these days, I feel like that quote needs to be shouted from the rooftops!

    Secondly, I feel like that quote embodies your personality. You are an asset to any cause, whether or not you have direct experience with the issues, precisely because of your empathy and humility.

    The idea of pausing and reflecting on our great privilege and our relative inexperience is essential, but even more important is forging on to bring compassion wherever we can. That way, love wins.

    1. Grace Alfiero
      Jan 7, 2018 at 5:44 pm Reply

      YES ERIN! LOVE WINS!!!!!! That is my new mantra for the week! XO

  • Debbie Neuscheler
    Jan 7, 2018 at 10:00 pm Reply

    Being totally pragmatic, the reality is that people donate money to people who they understand, can relate to and who can move them emotionally around a cause they feel connected to. Your ability to raise the profile of the organization, creatively inspire others to donate both time and money, and leverage your wide network are all a function of living where and how you live. Would Oprah’s leadership academy exist today and be as well funded if Oprah had never left her humble Mississippi roots?

    You should not at all feel embarrassed by the wealth of the country and area you live in. You and your family have worked hard to earn what you have. The work you have done over your lifetime cannot be measured by your address or by the contributions you show on your tax return. You are a GIVER – not a TAKER.

    1. Grace Alfiero
      Jan 7, 2018 at 10:19 pm Reply

      Debbie, you raise a very important point. Not to mention how my thirty’s would have sucked without Oprah!! Thank you for your response! XO

  • Sondra Leibner
    Jan 8, 2018 at 5:29 pm Reply

    I probably would have reacted to the question you were asked in the same way. However, in my opinion, caring (passion) and education are the ingredients that have driven many individuals and organizations to create inspired projects and extraordinary results that have led to improving the lives of people who live in third world countries. I don’t think you need to live in a third would country to know that if you can improve the quality or ability to get water, food, medicines and/or education … you are making a difference. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

    1. Grace Alfiero
      Jan 8, 2018 at 6:34 pm Reply

      Thank you Sondra, I agree and I love this quote- “I don’t think you need to live in a third would country to know that if you can improve the quality or ability to get water, food, medicines and/or education.” XO

  • Dave Parker
    Jan 8, 2018 at 7:05 pm Reply

    Your insight is needed in the world, never mind where it’s coming from. Wasn’t it Proust who observed having new eyes was essential for discovery, as opposed to new landscapes? And, weren’t many classics written by authors who never ventured far from their homes?….I could go on, you get the point…

  • Grace Alfiero
    Jan 8, 2018 at 7:06 pm Reply

    Love that you brought up the classics! XO TY Dave!

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