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What makes a change agent?

“I can’t believe we paid money for this.” They were two American tourists, and we were standing in the Nobel Peace Museum in Oslo. We were surrounded by stories of awe-inspiring individuals who had changed the course of history through their commitment to justice at whatever cost (and many paid a very high price for their convictions and activism), and apparently (for some) the experience wasn’t worth the $20 entry fee.

Compare this to the people we’ve met in the hostel for volunteers in Tanzania, where people have travelled from all corners of the globe specifically to make a contribution to some of the poorest communities in the world.

There is the group of students from Julliard in New York, visiting a series of local schools to perform for the kids and teach them to sing and dance. Next week they will put on a performance for the community to raise funds for the projects they’ve visited.

There is the Australian who has just finished university who has spent the last year saving everything she can for the opportunity to volunteer in Africa. She spent the last week preparing a vegetable garden and a new chicken coop at a local pre-primary school for kids that can’t afford to pay for education. For many of these kids the two simple meals they receive at the school will be the only thing they eat all day.

There is the nurse from the UK who first visited Africa years ago, and when she saw the level of poverty and need, decided to work with one of the local schools long term. She has since assisted the school to move into new buildings, install running water, increase the number of students the school caters for and who funds the project herself.

Clearly there are many people across the world committed to justice who are willing to put their time and money where their mouth is. But why is it that so many others either choose to close their eyes and ears to the suffering of others, or simply aren’t interested in doing anything about it? How do you engage the minds of the middle class in Western society to understand that there is more to travel (and more to life) than taking happy snaps and eating ice-cream while walking down a boulevard surrounded by other tourists?

The photography exhibition at the Nobel Peace Museum included some work from a young woman from Berlin, who had used photography to capture the idea that our identity is concealed somewhere between a blue screen and the Hollywood hills, and unravels somewhere between advertising and theme parks. If Western identities are created in this way, always in reference to Hollywood, the media and advertising that is all designed to support a capitalist system that’s anti critical thought, it’s no wonder that so many people look but don’t see, and listen but don’t hear.

We were reading an article in the global edition of the Herald Tribune a few weeks ago about the difficulties that Barak Obama (who as an aside was the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize) is currently having in getting the Republicans to cooperate to introduce much needed reforms, such as background checks for the purchase of guns. Obama made the comment that it wasn’t his job to get the Republicans to behave – they were elected members of Congress and should act accordingly. The author suggests that actually, it’s exactly Obama’s job to get them to behave – it’s called leadership.

Perhaps it is up to the people who are passionate about justice to educate and inspire others to act in the interests of a common humanity. And there are many inspiring leaders doing just that. But when two American tourists are face to face with the opportunity to learn about some truly remarkable change-agents, and then dismiss it as of less value than dinner at a Western restaurant that they could find back home, where does that leave us?

We came across the term ‘verdensborgeren’ in Olso, that means ‘citizen of the world’. Let’s dream big for a minute. Imagine if every person in the world considered themselves to be a verdensborgeren, and within that framework was genuinely committed to the ‘common good’ where the whole is only as strong as the weakest link. What impact would that have on some of the major challenges the world is still facing in the 21st century, like poverty for example?

Effectively shifting unspoken (and unconscious?) values and norms that are constantly reinforced by the lumbering capitalist machine in Western culture (and increasingly across the rest of the world) is incredibly difficult. But the more of us that speak up, the greater the impact we can have. When you’re face to face with poverty in Africa, it only reinforces just how far we have to go as a collective of world citizens to achieve justice and equity for everyone.

But as Winston Churchill said – never, never, never give up. We don’t plan to.

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