Our Humanity Is In Our Stories

Kiva founder Jessica Jackley shares an Eyes Wide Open vision of poverty and the power of stories in her moving TED Talk, “Poverty, money — and love.”

What thoughts and feelings come to mind when you think about the impoverished? Do you think that the poor are missing something, are deficient, are “needy?” Will they always live among us, always wanting to take something from us? Do they make you frustrated, guilty, confused, scared, angry, shameful, resentful?

Jackley recounts that she thought and felt all of these things. As a result, when she encountered the poor, she guarded herself, distanced herself. She sought neither to connect nor to listen. When the despair or guilt or shame they engendered grew too great, she gave them charity. She gave to relieve her own needs, to buy the right to go on with her day unbothered, to advance the right image, not the right intentions. (Sound familiar?)

Then Jackley heard a speech by Muhammad Yunus, the social entrepreneur, banker, economist, and civil society leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance. Jackley was intrigued by his new method for aiding the poor: small loans—not donations—to fund entrepreneurial ventures.

The stories he shared about the recipients of those loans had a far greater impact on her, however. As Jackley recounts, in these stories, being poor was a mere “side note.” They were stories of strong, motivated, proud people trying to better their families. Jackley was so taken by these stories that she wanted to collect more of them, so three weeks later she quit her job and traveled to Africa, where she spent three months interviewing entrepreneurs who had received $100 loans to fund their ventures.

She heard stories of new business and new hope. Stories about meaning and betterment and dignity. Stories of people with full hands taking control of their lives with something to offer, not people with empty hands in search of something to take.

Back home, Jackley founded Kiva.org to share these stories. It quickly became the leading online platform for crowd-funded microfinance, growing explosively, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in microloans. Jackley explains, however, that Kiva is about the stories and the community, not the money.

It is about retelling the story of the poor. In Jackley’s story, the impoverished are not a disembodied mass, not the object of commodification in transactions of extorted charity. In Jackley’s story, they are individuals who seek the opportunity to engage, to validate their dignity and improve their condition through partnership, to share stories of their own.

As Jackley explains, stories change the way we think about each other. When you listen to another’s story, you can believe in that person,  believe in his potential. You can believe in your ability to help, too.

Jackley believes that the human story is one of caring. She believes that at our core we care deeply for one another. Our fears, however, intercede—fear we do not understand, fear we will fail to help, fear we have not enough to give. Jackley teaches that we can overcome these fears and find faith in one another by simply listening—listening to each other’s stories.

When we do, Jackley concludes, when we listen and believe, when we know we can accomplish wonderful things together, we create shared stories. They’re love stories, she says. Hers certainly is.

What do you think? What’s your favorite TED Talk? Join the discussion and let me know. I want to hear from you!

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