When I visit my childhood home in California, I often postulate to my schoolteacher mother while standing in the bathroom doorway as she brushes her teeth. (I talk a lot; it's one of the only times I can corner her into listening.)
About five years back, my big idea was a Carnival Game Claw of Justice. I grew up among vegetable and cattle farms that had all been converted into wineries since I was born, and moneyed vineyard owners were suddenly running the show in Santa Barbara County. The sorts of things a few of these newcomers took issue with bewildered me, and I wished for a Big Claw like the one that picks up stuffed animals at an arcade. I wanted a huge one to come down from the sky to lift up people and put them down elsewhere. "The Carnival Game Claw of Justice could lift affluent and myopic people driving Humvees," I suggested to Mom, "and drop them in Malawi or Detroit. Just for a while, until they don't make a stink about who wears what in the school parking lot."
In the five years since I joked about that with my mother (who smiled and rolled her eyes), my own myopia, this idea about a big claw that could pick snooty people up and put them down in challenging predicaments, has become something I imagine taking innocents out of violent situations. Like the Congolese girls I worked with in a Nairobi slum who are refugees and survivors of sexual violence. I'd like them to be dropped in my California hometown and go to my mom's safe and happy elementary school, the one the children of the vineyard barons (and I) got to attend. I'd like to pick up the Syrians whose government is murdering them and put them down somewhere green and peaceful (or maybe pick up Assad and his fellow murderers, and drop them unceremoniously into the Hague to be tried by the International Criminal Court).
I'd also like to drop a dream team into developing nations. Last summer I postulated again to my Mom about the Carnival Game Claw, but this time it was to employ me and my bright, educated, and currently jobless friends in the dismally underutilized 18-30 age bracket: to employ -- or rather deploy -- us in my ideal setup for development work. "Mary studied ecology and surveys migratory animals," I told Mom. "She could do a project with kids there, or work with the local environmental teams, whatever was needed. Lillian is a midwife. She could definitely help out there and maybe do some workshop with women and girls. Tom is getting his MBA. He could advise us if we come up with an idea for a project based on what we hear from the community. We could be a Development Dream Team -- just be dropped by the Big Claw in a community overseas, spend some time there, get to know people, and then start coming up with helpful things to do based on what we hear from them."
Not only would my fellows have employment for a while (and if things went well, perhaps a long while) and a great line on their CV, they might experience the confidence and develop the worldliness concomitant with impactful work for needy populations that could lift them out of the unemployment-induced depression that afflicts so many young, jobless Americans. The developing communities would benefit from the knowledge and training of young professionals who took the time to connect with them and listen to them. America would regain some of the leadership it lost, since foreign aid depends as much on trust of development workers as Americans need to trust their own government again. And in this election-season environment, "trust"is a rare word in the conversation around America's foreign aid, and a rare commodity in the political discourse at home.
So, who's going to fund my Dream Team Initiative, which would start with no spreadsheet and proceed with no map? Beats me. But I do know what my friend Kyle said to me a few weeks ago on his porch here in Indiana. We're both west coast transplants, here for grad school, and we like to make fun of unimpressed "hipster" twenty-somethings who wear leggings a lot and argue about theory and would only wear a fanny-pack ironically. Ennui and irony existed before 9/11, Kyle and I know, but certainly have owned our age group since then. Kyle said with great sorrow, as we stared out at the sleeping houses, that our generation is one of young people in whose formative years "we watched our own government invade a sovereign nation...and destroy an ancient city." Thus some of our age-mates receded into ironic detachment, which is always easier than the bare business of a tremendously broken heart: a heart broken by our government, which did things that betrayed a great many of us -- that went against our hopes and dreams for what America could do and stand for in this new century -- before we were even old enough to do anything of note about it. And when we were, we watched many of our number try to represent an America they believed in and come back more than broken-hearted; we watched them take out their war-broken minds on their spouses, their children, themselves.
Who would trust me and a few heartbroken but well-intentioned other young professionals enough to support our we'll-see-what-happens journey in Ecuador, in Kenya, in Indonesia? Who would trust us enough to turn around and let us build trust with a community in need in a developing nation, thereby spreading the best thing about America -- the notion that every person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- to people who sometimes haven't ever been treated as though that's what they deserve?
There's a reason Sir Ken Robinson is the speaker whose image TED's Twitter account drew from for its photo handle. Robinson's argument that contemporary education all too often stigmatizes the mistakes necessary to creative genius and intellectual growth apparently resonated enough to attract over nine million views. He points out that we're meant to be educating children for the future, but that we have little to no idea what the future is going to look like in five years, let alone fifty, so the traits we need to encourage are those of adaptability and innovation. I've argued before that these traits are what we need at the center of our foreign aid policy, but I'd like to add to that: I believe foreign aid that encourages innovation can help to heal America, from the outside in, by using trust as a building block to restore our international leadership and reinvigorate young American professionals. When I postulated the Dream Team to my mother, she didn't roll her eyes this time. She knew we'd come back wiser and better for having shared and worked this way: that we'd bring that feeling back, ready to infuse it into an ailing culture -- the one in our own heartbroken homeland.