You Never Asked

Dr. Ernesto Sirolli presented a TEDx talk titled “Want to Help Someone? Shut up and Listen!” Dr. Sirolli is an engaging speaker; a lively Italian man (come for the topic, stay for the delightful accent and storytelling) with years of experience in economic development. I’d encourage you to watch the whole talk, but the excerpt below is the part that hit me where I live. I think it’s a great story to illustrate the concept of Asset-Based Community Development, which is an important part of our core values here at CCC. Dr. Sirolli was a 21-year-old in the early 1970’s, working for an Italian NGO (non-governmental organization), and went to Africa with big dreams of saving the world.

“Our first project…was a project where we Italians decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food. So we arrived there with Italian seeds in southern Zambia…and we taught the local people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini. And of course the local people had absolutely no interest in doing that, so we paid them to come and work, and sometimes they would show up. And we were amazed that the local people, in such a fertile valley, would not have any agriculture. But instead of asking them how come they were not growing anything, we said. ‘Thank God we’re here.  Just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.’ And of course, everything in Africa grew beautifully…And we were telling the Zambians, ‘Look how easy agriculture is.’

When the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came out from the river, and they ate everything.

 And we said to the Zambians, ‘My God! The hippos!’

And the Zambians said, ‘Yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here.’

‘Why didn’t you tell us?’

‘You never asked.’

That last sentence holds multitudes. We have assumed that all it takes to make the world a better place is a class, or a program; an attitude of “We’re here to give you what you need. And by the way, we know what you need better than you do.” Dr. Sirolli uses different terminology, but he’s talking about a philosophy very close to Asset- Based Community Development (ABCD).

ABCD reminds us that each person is the expert in his or her own life and has inherent gifts to contribute to their own solutions and to the benefit of others.  For far too long, people all over the world who want to help others-- social workers like me, philanthropists, ministers, politicians, and just plain good-hearted people-- have walked into places with an answer rather than a question. More money, more faith, more tough love, more education; surely that must be the cure for what ails you. But for far too long we’ve watched and wrung our hands as the same challenges continue to strangle those we love and for whom we want so many good things. “But what about all those things we did to help you?”

Certainly more money, faith, tough love, education, or myriad other interventions can sometimes be the solution. But what if the answers we’re offering don’t fit the question that’s being asked because we’re not even listening to the question?

What if the best thing we can do is get out of our own way and listen to the people who are the experts in their own lives? When did we decide that our neighbors who find themselves in challenging situations don’t know how to walk through those challenges and are just waiting for us to swoop in and save them? Or—and this is a revolutionary thought—maybe my neighbor doesn’t see challenges the same way I do and doesn’t want or need my help, but just my friendship?

So we listen. And we learn what’s important. And just like any friend, we celebrate the gifts, talents, and joys, we help shoulder the burdens that need and extra shoulder, and we help when we can and are invited to do so. Suddenly, rather than a plot full of tomatoes that only feeds a herd or rogue hippos, we’ve got a community with relationships that grow, last, and abundantly bless everyone involved.

And why does that happen? Because we asked.