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Joel John Roberts Headshot

We Can End Poverty With Egyptian Manpower Not American Click-Activism

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It is so easy. Click, click. Point. Tag. Retweet. Just a few motions with my index finger and I am changing the world. Press that "like" button. Join that Facebook group. In a fraction of a second, I am saving the environment from the industrial complex. I'm providing clean water to a thirsty world. I am housing a hurting homeless person.

It is so simple. I can do it with a $3 cup of Starbucks in one hand, and an iPad in the other. This is my kind of social activism. I don't have to break a sweat.

It used to be, a generation ago, middle-class Americans would write a ten dollar monthly check to Sally Struthers, the spokesperson for Christian Children's Fund. With no social media in existence, they would swipe a pen across a piece of paper and fund life changing activism for hungry Third World children.

Now, we don't even need pen and paper any more. We just need to click, click, click.

A day before the leader of Egypt stepped down, President Obama spoke at Northern Michigan University. His words described an Egyptian activism that propelled a new generation into more than simply click-activism: "It's young people who've been at the forefront -- a new generation, your generation, who want their voices to be heard."

An Egyptian generation, with the same access to social media as their counterparts in America, acted on their deep convictions and longing for justice through the old fashion way. Their feet.

Yes, they used their fingers to click, tag, like, poll, retweet, and email. But then they took to the streets to demand change. Egyptians were ready to die for their cause, not simply risk carpal tunnel syndrome.

The voices of a new generation are heard when their feet touch the streets, not just fingers clicking the web. I wonder if a new generation of Americans will take to the streets to demand justice for Americans struggling with poverty and homelessness?

Decades ago, I was 20 years old when I traveled to Cairo, Egypt. Like many young American activists today, I wanted to change the world. I was with a group of leaders learning about social justice and world hunger.

I remember sitting in a small bus in the snarled traffic of Cairo completely overwhelmed by the day's activities -- the conversations with suffering mothers, the encounters with hungry children, the stench of poverty. The sights and smells of injustice filled me with emotions that I had not experienced since I was in grade school.

I remember peering out of the window and seeing an elderly Egyptian man begging on the street corner. He was grasping a beat-up, old tin can in one hand, his other arm was partially cut off. The middle-class Egyptian driver shouted to us in the vehicle, "Some poor people in our country cut off their arms so they can beg for money."

He was trying to mask his embarrassment over his country's poverty, and prevent his wealthy American visitors from feeling pity.

But it did not work. I did possess pity for this impoverished, disabled beggar. I could not get his image out of my mind. I kept telling myself, "I live in a world where people are so desperately smothered by poverty, that they have to cut off their arms to survive."

On our way back to the hotel, I remember sitting in the back seat covering my face with my sweaty arms pretending I was exhausted. Instead, I was quietly weeping like I had just lost a loved one. At 20 years old, I could not understand why my world would allow such hurt, such injustice.

On that day, I committed myself to a life striving to change the world. I redirected a career path toward building housing for people with no homes, advocating government to reprioritize its social resources, helping people find employment.

I understand that social media is certainly a strategic approach toward addressing poverty and ending homelessness. Just like direct mail newsletters and telephone solicitations were, a generation ago.

But genuine activism is found when we are using our voice, hearts, minds, and feet, to create actual transformation in our world. Yes, this Egyptian generation created radical change through social media. But the real change came through their feet on the ground, voices in the air, and their willingness to die for their cause.

The power of social media is not just in the click. It is in our feet.

I wonder if the feet and voices of a new American generation that is addicted to the touch of a click, will drown out today's institutional injustice that causes such severe poverty and homelessness in our country?