And another thing, CEOs…

July 29, 2016 § 5 Comments

A bit of a postscript to my previous blog…

Again, the event raises an extraordinary amount of money for charity – I’m not disputing that.

But I think what the CEO Sleepout really needs is for a gutsy CEO (or even a group of them) to stand up and say, “Actually, this is not okay.” This should be about the cause(s), not the event itself.

And then they could use their considerable influence to raise similar amounts of money for similar causes from their peers, in ways that don’t resort to caricaturing and diminishing the lives of the poor.

That’s something I could really get behind. That would be charity with integrity.

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Playing at poverty

July 28, 2016 § 36 Comments

Tonight, at the CEO Sleepout, a bunch of rich people are pretending to be poor to raise money for charity. And they will raise millions, which is commendable, obviously. 

I could almost stomach it if they arrived in a single layer of clothes, were given a blanket and they actually braved the biting cold. Make no mistake, it’s cold tonight. But that’s not what’s happening.

Instead they have fires, free WiFi, a pop-up shop, catered food, branded tin mugs, presumably as souvenirs of their experience, and so on and so forth. There’s even a ‘reflection’ bench. (No, I don’t know either.) A public road over a bridge will be closed for several days, the bridge was specially cleaned, and there are lights and cameras and action.

Over on social media, there’s a barrage of negativity towards the event, by people like me, who find the event crass, insensitive, and frankly narcissistic. There’s a blithe, arrogant kind of mockery in glamourising poverty with designer shacks and gourmet soup so you can pat yourself on the back in the boardroom or at golf.

On the other side of the fence are those focused on how much money the event raises for charity. People are angry that there’s criticism of something that does a lot of good. Accusations of slacktivism are levelled at those who criticise; you’re only allowed to have an opinion against the event, apparently, if you yourself have raised similar millions. Inevitably the awareness argument has been raised: how else does one raise awareness about this issue? (I’m just going to point out at this juncture that it’s impossible to be unaware of homelessness in South Africa, and leave it at that.)

And I stand amazed. In a country that demonstrates creativity around every corner, is this the best we can come up with? Of course raising millions for charity is a good thing, but in a country of such immense inequality, surely we can do so in a way that allows the poor some dignity instead of turning poverty into a three-ring circus?

Because under that bridge, and countless others, in doorways and alleys and fields, there are men and women and children who sleep rough every night, not just in adverse weather conditions, but in very real danger of being assaulted or raped or even killed. They have no food, no clothing, no work, no dignity. They will not be sleeping in a cosy bed tomorrow night. This event is not even remotely about them.

So in a spirit of constructive criticism, let me make some suggestions. I’m just one person, and I can think of a couple of alternatives, just off the top of my head:

  1. Want to engender some sort of empathy in the CEOs? How about taking them on a walking tour of the CBD, led by a homeless person, who can give them some insight into what their lives are like. I’ll even concede that some security might be required.
  2. Have a silent Sleepout – like a silent auction. You really care about those causes, companies? Then donate to the silent sleepover, anonymously. I’m willing to bet a lot less money will be raised when the publicity is removed.
  3. Set up a programme that sees homeless people being offered the opportunity to apply for work at the companies involved. I’m willing to bet there are a wide variety of skills out there. Give them a sustainable hand up. You can set rules and boundaries, but give them a real shot at a new beginning.
  4. Spend a day building a new shelter for the homeless somewhere. I’m thinking Habitat for Humanity could help. And there are building options other than brick and mortar that require a lot less time and a lot less money.
  5. Give a big donation to a worthy NGO and pledge to do so for 10 years: many of them are doing amazing work, but cash flow is a daily struggle. 
  6. Volunteer – not just on Mandela Day, and without trying to get coverage through your PR machine.

No doubt people will pick holes in those ideas. That’s okay. They’re just a beginning. I’m just one person. But it has to start somewhere. I’m only trying to demonstrate that there are other ways, if the event truly is about raising the money, and not about the companies’ brand visibility.

And finally, to accuse people of slacktivism for their opposition to the event negates the small unseen acts of charity that ordinary people do every day, and without which many would be even worse off. There are many good people in the world who don’t have the wherewithal to donate to something like the CEO Sleepout, but who do what they can, wherever they are. Their contribution is no less important for being of insignificant monetary value. 

South Africa is still a deeply divided country, and many of the divisions between rich and poor are not only huge, but still run along racial lines thanks to our history. Events like this serve only to broaden those divisions, and break down the social fabric of our country, and no amount of money raised will undo that.

Ordinary miracles

July 27, 2016 § 1 Comment

The first present I opened on my birthday this year was a pair of purple socks, now known as the Socks of Awesomeness. Soft, thick and super-fleecy on the inside, they have become treasured possessions. “You’re always complaining that your feet are cold,” smiled the giver. “So I thought these might help.”

Every night as I slip my feet into those wearable foot hugs, I smile, because I remember the person who gave them to me, and their thoughtfulness. And I feel lucky and grateful and rich in ways that have nothing to do with money.

We’ve been sold a dream, you see, and it’s a lie. There are teams of people out there intent on manipulating us into buying more stuff, more things, more bling. If we only own this house, drive that car, wear these clothes or look exactly like that, they tell us, we’ll be happy.

But the older I get, the more I realise: that’s not where happiness lives. Happiness lives in the ordinary, everyday things so many of us take for granted.

Happiness lives in puddle-splashing and rain on the roof, in spectacular thunderstorms that threaten to tear the night sky in two. Happiness lives in hot tea on a cold day, in the laughter of children and the soft skin on my dog’s belly. Happiness lives in the smell of cinnamon, and the sound of the ocean, in hugs and whispered endearments, in the perfect lyric of your favourite song. It lives in late night messages from someone who just happened to be thinking about you, in the perfect sun puddle on a winter’s day, in the sound of the birds in the early dawn. It’s in the comfort of your own bed, the feel of grass beneath your bare feet, in sand between your toes. It lives in a blinking dew drop on a perfect rose.

So you can chase after all of those things; the things they say you must have. You can toil with one eye on the future,  concentrating on how happy you’ll be when you finally get there. But to do so is to miss the here and now, the moment-by-moment instances of pure joy that are calling for your attention, and which don’t require you to earn any more or work any harder or be any better.

All they require is for you to be present and observant. To pause for just a moment and notice what’s going on around you. To see that there’s a beauty in the ordinary; there’s magic to be found. It may not be where you thought you’d find it, but it’s magic nevertheless.

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