“The clarity provided by my brief proximity to a world so different from my own will drive my commitment to ‘do good better’…”
“Gracias para invitarnos en tu casa.”
I stumbled over the words in appreciation to the matriarch of yet another unfathomably hospitable Dominican home in the midst of an impromptu tour of one of the most economically disadvantaged barrios in Puerto Plata. My friends and I were participating in an immersive learning experience made possible by Social Venture Partners Dallas. The trip was a capstone opportunity for the participants of the 9-month inaugural Dana Juett Social Venture Leadership Residency that began in August of 2016. After spending the year together learning about philanthropic servant leadership in Dallas, five residents including me spent the week of July 4th in Puerto Plata adding an international perspective to our education.
We had been in the Dominican for five days at this point, which was more than long enough to adjust to the sticky heat and constant aural stimulation of Latin music and other ambient sounds in the crowded low-income neighborhood. Still, I was having a moment in this tiny house. The home, made of cinderblocks with a corrugated tin roof, housed its inhabitants in three small rooms – all of which could fit inside the bedroom of my apartment in Dallas. My group was there to visit a young woman we had met earlier in the week named Anamilka who was a shining success story for her family, having attained an internship (likely to be followed by a good job) at the upscale resort in which my SVP compatriots and I were staying for the week.
Anamilka’s mother, Griselda, was happy to show us in because these newly-renovated walls and reliable roof marked a significant upgrade from her family’s previous home, which had been constructed from far less stable materials that could not withstand heavy rains that have pelted Puerto Plata and caused massive floods and damage this year. Though I’ve been fortunate to visit many types of communities across the world, I’ve never been in such close proximity to this extreme degree of economic poverty. As my group and I sat in Anamilka’s house, trying to absorb as much of the moment as possible, I became overwhelmed by the disparity of my privilege versus the everyday lived reality of so many equally-deserving human beings like this family.
The residents and I spent much of the trip discussing this dichotomy. We would reflect on our experiences from each day awash in the luxury of our all-inclusive resort. We asked: how can we possibly enjoy these pleasures when we know that many of the staff serving us live in under-resourced homes like Anamilka? Is our visit to this country perpetuating inequity by reinforcing the tourism-based economy? What are we supposed to do about this scale of poverty, and what right do we possibly have to complain about discomfort afforded to us by our own privilege.
The months of learning we shared during our residency helped us provide some answers to our questions, but honestly I did not leave the Dominican with any convincing justification of why I should have so much when loving, hard-working families like Anamilka’s have so few material necessities. Ultimately, I think the absence of that explanation is the point of seeking proximity to such uncomfortable dichotomies.
Realistically, though the emotions that washed over me during that moment in Griselda and Anamilka’s house were powerful, they are also fleeting and will eventually fade. However, my awareness of our unjustifiable inequity persists. I know that I continue to live in a reality where I sleep in an air-conditioned bedroom with reliable support for my basic needs while Anamilka’s family does not. The power of transformative philanthropy, the work to which the Social Venture Partners network is devoted, lies in recognizing that reality and building organizations and systems that can eliminate the untenable gap. The one week in which I toured Puerto Plata, met some amazing people, and enjoyed an unceasingly joyful culture made very little impact on its own. However, the clarity provided by my brief proximity to a world so different from my own will drive my commitment to “do good better” in order to respond to the unanswerable questions raised by this experience. For that reason, I am grateful to have more poignantly felt the discomfort of my privilege and to have the opportunity to apply lessons from the Dominican to my life and my work for years to come.