Meet Emily. She’s an average teenage girl, slim adolescent build, mousy hair in a ponytail, donning a fluorescent orange safety vest. She’s planted in lock-kneed stance on a traffic island, in the midst of a boulevard. Thousands of evacuees from the fairground swarm Emily’s crosswalk, to reach their cars before the huge storm really cuts loose. A big guy shouts over the hubbub, “Just wave the flag when I tell you so the pedestrians stop and we can let some cars go by.” It’s a stopgap measure until the cops arrive. Emily flashes a smile and nods at the boss-man but there’s fear in her eyes.
I think, if anybody so much as taps a warning beep on a car horn, that girl is going to burst into tears.
I don’t really know Emily. My family members make up Emily’s name on the spot, and we start imagining the internal dialog in her head. And yes, we’re laughing, mostly because we’ve been in her shoes. She’s the perfect cheery poster girl for the tourist venue where we’re momentarily marooned by gridlock. We visualize the little energetic wave of her orange flag, with a wrist snap like a princess on a parade float, when someone in a Ford F-series behemoth tries to plow through the school of people swimming back to their cars.
The professional traffic cops did come, and I imagine Emily gladly surrendered her flag and perkily resumed wishing everyone a safe drive home.
This vignette is a little slice of community development in our backyard: Just hand her a flag and she’s good to go. Really? People like us visit communities in rough places like Kenya or Guatemala and think, all they need is water piped into the house. All they need is a machine to do this or that. Our solutions can be like handing sweet Emily the flag and a safety vest, and thinking she’s fully equipped to battle the angry hordes. Instead of bringing hope, we can bring despair by handing people inappropriate tools that they can’t afford to replace or fix, or that they don’t have the education to operate. So those of us in sustainable development help people find solutions they can operate and afford – as a start to something bigger. It’s amazing what a hoe, or a hand-powered pump, or a cement watering trough can do to give parents hope for their kids’ futures.