There is a scene in Nicholas Kristof’s documentary Half the Sky where the camera closes in on a Cambodian girl’s face. She is young, and the youth plays in her burnished cheeks and wispy hair. The girl is a former sex slave. Narration accompanies the image, explaining how empowerment and education will allow her to change the world around her.
Watching the scene, I mentally tripped over that phrase: Change the world around her. It’s sounds simple, even overused. But inside the statement hides a small modifier that makes a huge difference. The grandiose encouragement we often hear to “change the world” has morphed into a platitude. It’s worn out and oversized. By adding two words, “Half the Sky” acknowledges that sustainable change has to start from a place of nearness.
Close to the heart of every explorer is the desire to enact significant and positive change. If need exists next-door then it also exists across the globe, and we are moved to affect change nationally and internationally based on unique opportunities, strengths, and callings. Yet a good desire to change the world becomes self-serving if change is measured in miles traveled, resources handed out, or personal satisfaction. Hopping from place to place to apply band-aid solutions can’t produce true transformation. Lasting, sustainable change in any community requires a deeper understanding of the place itself.
How do we reach this deeper understanding? In short, by sticking around. Knowing a community—both its points of beauty and its flaws—requires a commitment to stability. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of “The Wisdom of Stability,” describes the process of putting down roots as “learning to love both a place and its people.” And while falling in love with new places happens to every wanderer, moving beyond an immediate emotional connection takes time. We can practice stability in our hometown or across the world; all it requires is a willingness to root ourselves in one way or another. From this rootedness, lasting change is born into the world around us.
What I’m beginning to believe is this: the call to change the world around us is twofold. First, travel often. Any opportunity to see more of this green earth is a privilege, so let’s grab these chances and say thank you. And whenever possible, travel in a way that allows for stability in a place—stay a while and get to know the area and its people. Second, look next door. We know our own communities best of all, and are uniquely positioned to understand where lasting change can and should be made locally.
There is change you can only enact from a stance of nearness. Wherever you are, start by changing the world around you. The beautiful thing about small steps on a local level is that they ripple outward in ways we’ll never see with these eyes. In short, they really do change the world.
Image via Wendes Gray