By Cody W.
This class focuses a lot on “unintended consequences”, it’s a main theme that we’ve linked to almost every topic. But why do unintended consequences matter? After all, if they’re by definition unintended, then there shouldn’t really be anything we can do about them, so why would they be a point of focus. Actually, while we indeed by nature of unintended consequences we can’t really do anything about them until it is too late, it’s more about learning from previous experiences in order to make better decisions in the future or enacting the correct social change that mitigates these consequences.
The more you help people, the more you learn about what people really need. It’s not as easy as handing a homeless person money on the street and moving on, that isn’t affecting social change. But to sit down and talk to that homeless person perhaps, ask them their name, offer to buy them a sandwich; that can potentially make a real impact. Now, on the other hand maybe money is actually what they needed that day, not a sandwich. But the idea is that you won’t ever know exactly how to enact the appropriate social change without engaging those who need help and asking them what it is they need, as well as of course using your own judgment to interpret those needs into effective ways of helping. Sometimes the most glorious or costly ways of helping a person aren’t what they really need, and maybe the really impactful things don’t cost anything at all.
Let’s look back at the example of the homeless person, in their world they probably get passed by plenty of people who won’t even look at them much less say anything to them or offer any sort of help. Now maybe you could hand them 100$ and that could make a big impact on their life. Or maybe that buys them enough food for a month and then their life is back to normal. But let’s assume instead that you sit down and talk to them, you find out that they are pursuing an IT certificate, you learn their name, and you offer them a few extra dollars you have in your wallet out of good faith. Then you see them later at the McDonalds, you realize they already have a meal so buying them a meal wouldn’t really do them any good, but instead you offer to sit with them and eat together. This may not be the financial aid they need to get back on their feet, but it could be the emotional compassion that they need to keep trying, the encouragement they need to apply for a job or finish their certificate. This example is one that I have actually encountered and these were all things I did. Sometimes I think about if I really help him by only giving him a few dollars in change every time I pass him and giving him a little conversation. But he seems very grateful in his responses, and it encourages me to continue to interact with people in need in a similar way. I like to think that at some point we would get on a level of interaction that he wouldn’t feel nervous to ask me for any sort of help that he may really need. In the end I live off of student loans, I’m effectively in debt so money isn’t really something I can readily offer him, but instead I’m giving what I can.
The man in my story is named Byron, and as it started to get colder this fall I considered offering to buy him a jacket. I remember finding a 270$ jacket last year on sale for 50$, and it is a big jacket, like all you’d need for the winter. I thought that if I got him this jacket he’d be warm, he could sleep in it (I mean it was big enough to practically be a sleeping bag), and it would only be one thing that he’d have to carry around instead of several layers of sweatshirts. But as I thought more about it, I realized that maybe it would be too much for him, maybe he didn’t actually get that cold, or maybe it would’ve been too heavy for him to carry around in the summer months, or maybe people wouldn’t offer him the same amount of help if they saw him in such a nice jacket. Unfortunately I haven’t ran into him since I started thinking about this, but I think that the next time I run into him I’ll ask him if there is anything he needs besides money, and offer to help him in any way I could.
The point of this story that I’ve been rattling on about is that it was a small act of kindness, but it has broken my preconditioned notions of homeless people and people who ask for money, and I think that in a few small ways I contributed to making his life a little bit better. One thing I learned throughout this class is that you could spend 5,000$ to build a well for a village in Africa, but if that well breaks and they don’t know how to fix it then it was all for naught. So in many cases support is much more important than money. In some cases that support comes in the form of money, but for many people in need they aren’t looking for some sort of gift, but rather help. So to make real social change it is about being present in the aid you’re giving, help people to better their own situation. Don’t attempt to force your own opinions of what they need upon them, instead listen to them.
Ultimately, I’ve left this class with the opinion that if everyone adopts the same view of people in need that I have through my experiences in this class and will Byron, that we will create all the social change we need to make the world a better place. I don’t mean that I am perfect in any way or some sort of savior, but rather that if everyone does something, even very small acts of help, that they can amount to much larger social change than can large donations made by a wealthy person.