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Yes, It Is Cool

My friend Ariah quoted from this post in Geez Magazine. I don't normally read Geez, but I'll start.

The article is a bit humorous, but like most humor, it points out the truth. I, of course, like the second line, "It was cool to care." While the article seems to take to task those who throw money at popular social problems without addressing the root causes of these problems, I happen to think that trendy benevolence is okay.

Last week, American Idol had a big party and raised a lot of money for charity. I didn't see the episode, but they got some famous people to dance, Celine sang with Elvis, and over $60 million was raised to fight poverty in the US and Africa. Is this wrong?

No. But it's not exactly right, either.

For many, the idea of giving back is a start. For others, a start isn't enough. The tough part is to make sure that charitable rookies and veterans know that they're playing on the same team.

The Idol show was another event in a long series of specials and benefits that capitalize on people's infatuation with the famous. People are going to call in and vote for their favorite wannabe, so why not make their vote mean something more than a text message fee? And, people love to see Bono and Hugh Grant, so we'll get them on stage and people will call more. And who benefits? Poor kids around the world and record label executives.

I personally think it would be a better value for me to mail a five dollar bill to Nigeria than it would be to call in. But that's because I'm wired like that. I don't vote for anyone on American Idol. But many people do. And many people don't know what's happening to children in Africa. So, let's use the interest of one to help the plight of the the other.

The problem is when it stops there. If we let people think that ALL they have to do is vote for Blake or Doolittle to save the world, then we've missed it. And while Idol hardly went to great lengths to make caring an everyday part of their viewers' lives, a baby step is huge for many people.

Five minutes of caring is great. If that's all the time you have while you drive your kids to school go to work, grab a quick lunch, go for a jog, make dinner, pay bills and catch up with a friend, then that's great. Care for five minutes as often as you can. When you have more time (or money), give it, and watch your donation change the lives of others.

But if you really want to change the world, roll up your sleeves and address a root cause. We can all do our part to feed a hungry person, but we really need to end hunger. We can donate a book, but we really need to cure illiteracy. We can each carpool for a day, but we need inexpensive, renewable energy.

I was part of a panel of change agents last Thursday in Birmingham. One of the panel members, Scott Douglas, commented on issues surrounding desegregation. He was around for it, and remembered what it was like. It was great that Brown vs. Board happened, but the reality was that the people in charge of implementing it were the same people who fought against it. Simply making a law wasn't enough if the enforcers were still racist. In other words (and I think this is the important part of the Geez piece), we can make charity as cool as we want. But if it doesn't fix anything, then it's just another fad. And it may not fix anything until it costs us something.

I can buy a red shirt for $40, but the real difference may be in realizing that I don't need to own 50 shirts, or that if I pay for a shirt what the seamstress of that same shirt makes in a year, something may be systemically wrong. I can vote for the next American Idol and a dime can go towards a school building in Africa, but the bigger difference is in my realizing that the corrupt governments that are supported by my desire to drive everywhere are the reasons no schools exist already.

For some, giving will only be a start if it is cool. But hopefully, these people won't be philanthropic rookies for long. Their baby steps will become stronger and more steady with each gift they give. And soon enough, they'll be running the long race of change. Let's don't discount them simply because of a motivation.