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What Do Preparing for College and Escaping Poverty Have in Common?

Last week, my 7th grade daughter came to me with a declarative statement so unexpected, I had to take a deep breath before I responded.

She said, “I know where I want to go to college.”

Sure, her college career had crossed my mind, but not in such a tangible way. My wife and I hope that she’ll pursue higher education, but right now we’re so busy with piano recitals and soccer practice that we hadn’t thought to start making tour appointments.

Collected, I finally offered her a reply. “I’m happy you’re thinking about that, but things will likely change along the way,” I said. “Let’s be flexible, let’s keep praying.”

As much as her question surprised me, I’m thankful she asked it. It was an incredible segue into conversations I’d been trying to have anyways. It was an opportunity to start talking about preparation and personal accountability. She’s super smart, but her challenge is more pragmatic. She struggles to turn homework in when it’s due and maintain ownership of her own projects.

My wife and I have maintained that we were willing to help out a ton while she was in elementary school and now that she’s in middle school, we’re willing to help a little. But all that changes once she gets to high school. At that point, it’s all on her.

Together, we worked out a road map for where she wanted to go. She committed to the things she could intentionally do today that would help her reach her goal. Her list included things like, practicing piano regularly, making good homework habits, scheduling, and even making her bed.

After we finished up, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities with my daughter’s unbridled enthusiasm for the college of her choice and the way entire communities escape poverty.

While that kind of seems like a leap, the connecting factor is ownership.

There are too many humanitarian organizations that go in and offer handouts as a way to solve poverty. We’ve seen time and time again how that solution fails to be sustainable. While emergency food, water, and supplies are crucial in a disaster or crisis situation, handouts shouldn’t be a part of a long term development solution.

The most effective way to do this work well is to be invited into a partnership. Similarly to the plan I created with my daughter, communities create a plan for what they want to achieve.

Is it healthcare, clean water, or education for their children?

Community leaders identify what they’re going to bring to the table through their collective skills and passions. The organization shares what they can bring and ideas of how the two parties can work together. Everyone signs an agreement and outlines their contributions and expectations.

Once the work starts, the community has to own the process. It’s not successful if everything is hinged on the organization’s presence. There is an end date in mind and the community buy in is vital.

At Food for the Hungry (FH), this process is called ‘Graduation.’

The Bogra Horijon community in Bangladesh celebrated graduation from FH's programs in 2018

The Bogra Horijon community in Bangladesh celebrated graduation from FH’s programs in 2018.

I was at the table when leaders at FH were trying to define this process. The word ‘graduation’ had the strongest parallels, which is why my daughter’s academic aspirations had straight lines to the work we do.

We noted questions like, “Whose job is it to graduate from college, you or the professor?”

As a community or as a student, it’s your job to decide if you will put in the time. Will you show up to class, study, take notes, and do the work?

The same is true for graduation in a community.

FH could be the equivalent of another student who takes notes, completes tests, and attends class for you, but your degree won’t serve you in the workplace if you didn’t absorb any of the knowledge.

We’ve sent our staff back into communities 10 years after they graduated to see how they’re doing and our process holds up. The communities that took ownership, bought into the process, and committed to its success independent of our involvement were the ones who maintained water systems, expended educational infrastructure, and continued to build a better life for the people who lived there.

No matter if you’re a 12-year-old dreaming of an Ivy league or a community in poverty, taking ownership of the process is mandatory for success.


More articles you may be interested in:

This Is the Tool That Totally Changed My Life in Community

Meet Mike B. Meyers: Q&A with Food for the Hungry’s New CEO

What Do Community Graduation and a Train Board Have in Common?