Seven years ago, I sat in my 1970's kitchen in Iowa scrubbing red dirt off my favorite sandals. The dirt was a remnant of my recent journey in the sub-Saharan where I navigated varying types of terrain, across three different countries, on a quest to gather information from dozens of people about their greatest challenges and aspirations. This was information my friend Marti and I were gathering to inform the best ways to serve others through the nonprofit we would steward.
While attempting to scrub the red stains out of my shoes I could not let the conversation I had the week before, in Ethiopia, out of my mind. There, I had met Bisrat, a shoeless, weathered, and curious twenty-something who earned a few birr a day as a prostitute. It was barely enough to feed herself, and yet she also managed to care for three street kids, no relative of hers, who depended on her for some protection and support.
Like all those I had interviewed on this visit, I asked Bisrat what her greatest challenges and aspirations were. She paused, looked across the street at a large billboard, and replied:
“If only I could read that sign over there my life would be changed forever.”
Her body language changed in that split second as well. She smiled, maybe even giggled a little, and stood taller, imagining what it would be like to read the sign. Her profession was so simple and also something so profound that it stopped me from breathing as I reflected on the full weight of the privilege that I had been part of the last thirty-two years of my life, and how that privilege had never been possible for her.
Responses I heard from those living on streets, in grass thatched huts, sprawling urban high-rises, and government offices echoed her message to me. Bisrat had no formal education, but she knew that her escape from the cycle of despair that she was in, the kids that clung to her were in, that her own parents had been in, was tied to her ability to have an education that she could use to better herself.
She just needed someone to help her get started… to help her read the billboard.
As I watched the white reemerge from my sandals I remember thinking that Bisrat’s wisdom should ground the way we moved forward. Education is the bridge from helplessness to hopefulness for countless people in every country around the world. And, perhaps it’s not my job, or the job of the organizations that I’m a part of, to build those bridges. In many cases, they are already there.
Perhaps I just need to take the time to listen to people like Bisrat, help her find her bridge and then help her walk across it.
The organization I helped lead six years ago has now merged with AsOne and I hope that whatever approach we take to executing the mission of this ministry is grounded in Bisrat’s truth.
“See me. Listen to me. Try to understand me and my unique needs. Walk across a bridge of opportunity with me and watch me smile brighter and stand taller when I’ve reached the other side.”
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