Last month, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote an article, "The D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution," that detailed the recent phenomenon of well-educated, highly qualified young people deviating from the path to being vice presidents and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to become foreign-orphanage operators and international-aid volunteers.
All of the women highlighted in the article were white. In fact, all of the articles I have read on this topic have featured young white people. As I meditated on this fact, I revisited a conversation I had months earlier with a man at a barbershop. After I told him about the organization I had founded, Bookbags With the Basics — whose goal is to promote education as a natural human right and to raise awareness of the effect that poverty has on education — he mentioned that he didn't see many of "us" involved with things "like this."
I, too, wonder: Why are so few young African Americans leading global humanitarian efforts? Perhaps it is because we are focused on our own domestic issues. According to new census data, in 2009 the poverty rate for African Americans reached 25.8 percent, with the poverty rate for black children nearly 10 percentage points higher than that. Our mind-set so often is that we have our own problems — violence, education, health care and so on — to worry about. Maybe our focus is on uplifting blacks living in the U.S. because we feel that we don't have the capacity to "do it all."
Learning to Think — and Act — Globally
I will be the first to admit that I, too, felt this way until my freshman year at the University of Georgia. During the fall of that first year, I attended the screening of a movie called Invisible Children, about the war in Sudan. I cried for hours after watching a film that depicted the painful reality of young boys doing homework by candlelight with one piece of paper and one pencil — an environment that clearly was not conducive to learning.
I received more exposure to global poverty and education issues while studying abroad in Belize. As a one-day volunteer at an elementary school in a small Mayan village, I bandaged a small child's bleeding foot. His family could not afford shoes for him, let alone a one-subject spiral notebook that cost more than $2. He didn't have any school supplies of his own and would be able to take notes only if his school, which was supported by sporadic private donations, could afford to purchase supplies for him.
Most recently, a fellow volunteer told me that the average person in Uganda lives on $358 a year. She also pointed out that when the organization she works with takes food and toiletries to Uganda, the one thing families ask for is school supplies so that their child can learn. These people understand the power of an education and how it can greatly improve their situation.
There are countless debates about the ability, or lack thereof, of governments and the United Nations to help children in countries like these, and why aid isn't getting to those who need it. What is indisputable is that we can do something, albeit small and temporary, to make the lives of these children a little easier.
It's the Little Things That Count
When you ask impoverished children what they want in life, you won't hear anything about money, cars or clothes. They simply want food to eat. They want somewhere to sleep without fear of being abducted. They want an education. They want school supplies. Surely we can put our own issues aside long enough to donate a little of what we have to help someone else.
There are no millionaires in my family, and I am a student of modest means, but there are some people in the world who can live for a year off of what I can make in two weeks at a minimum-wage part-time job. I started Bookbags With the Basics with the idea that a little of what I have, coupled with the little of hundreds of others, could provide a lot.
BWB works with student organizations at universities and high schools to collect supplies for children both in the U.S. and abroad. Once the organization requests a specific number of empty backpacks, we send them the backpacks and then give them a few weeks to fill the backpacks with school supplies and get them back to us.
These supplies will be stored until we receive a request for supplies from teachers at low-income schools — like Anthony Britt, who teaches at Coleman Middle School in Greenville, Miss. — or volunteers like those working with Amigos for Christ in Nicaragua. When we collect supplies for specific international projects, we hold special school-supply drives similar to the one we are hosting with the University of Maryland women's basketball team on Dec. 5 at their game against Appalachian State University. We don't limit ourselves to "back to school" supply drives because we recognize that the need exists year-round.
We Can All Make a Difference
When I was putting my initial team together to start BWB, the first people I approached about helping me were other African-American classmates, who declined because they were either "busy" or didn't want to get involved. The first few folks to become and remain dedicated were white (despite their hectic schedules, they made time).
Even now, as I search for funding for youth-led projects through organizations like DoSomething, I see very few black faces, and even fewer faces of those who consider themselves African American (as opposed to African immigrants). When you take this into consideration, it is easily understood why young African Americans aren't profiled in articles like the one in the New York Times. The pool of young African Americans to choose from is small.
Bookbags With the Basics is currently collecting supplies, and raising money for supplies, to send to Uganda on Dec. 9 with Simone Plimpton from Simone's Kids, one of our partner organizations. We also hope to collect enough supplies to send with our own volunteers to Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa in January.
Why Africa? Because, as clichéd as it sounds, that's where I came from. Do I have family there? Well, I'm sure I do — somewhere. But after receiving an e-mail from fellow DIYer Plimpton, asking for our assistance for her trip to Uganda, I convinced my team that we should join her. I developed the idea of an annual project that she thought we should call "A Classroom for Christmas."
As a young African-American woman, I would love to see "us" represented more in the DIY foreign-aid revolution. I know that as young African Americans, we have our own problems — loans, school, working to help support our families — but oftentimes we can't see past our own struggles or hardships to recognize that even in the midst of trouble, we are drastically better off than others.
Through my work with BWB, I hope to inspire and encourage other young African Americans to give back, starting this holiday season. BWB is evidence that we can provide assistance for students at home and abroad. I challenge all young African Americans to get involved. If not with BWB, get involved somewhere. There are hundreds of organizations around the country running similar projects. Just an hour of your time, or even a dollar or two, goes a long way. Let's step to the forefront of this DIY foreign-aid revolution as proactive leaders and not just passive participants!
Dyci Manns is the founder and president of Bookbags With the Basics, Inc. She is a student at the University of Georgia.