A couple of years ago, I crossed the great divide, traveling through rural areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia for my first look at extreme poverty in America. To be poor anywhere is always hard, but poverty in America, in a land of such plenty, seems harder, shocking in its incongruity.
Wealth can make people insensitive. I've always promised myself I would never let that happen to me. Journeys like this provide me with an antidote to comfort and complacency. They help illuminate the current state of human affairs for me. But I needed the right guide, someone who could take me straight to the heart of this forgotten stratum of society.
I found him in Jacob Holdt, a vagabond photographer I heard about through someone at The Body Shop. Born in Denmark 40-odd years ago, Jacob has spent the last 25 years roaming America, photographing the rural black communities in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia where he made his first friends. In the early '80s he began to show these photographs to American university students, revealing their country's other face to them. In addition to his slide presentations and the three-hour workshops on racism he has conducted on more than 270 American campuses, he lectures all over the world.
I had never met Jacob before this trip and when I first saw him, I wanted to hand him a bottle of Brazil Nut Hair Conditioner. His hair was as rough as straw and he had a long, plaited beard, which he rolled up when he went into the cities. I quickly learned that Jacob's personality was aggressively passive. If ever he found himself in adversarial situations, he would just talk his way out. Once, when every inch of our truck was filled with wayfarers, itinerants and the type of hitchhiker who would normally strike fear in any of us (Jacob never passed anyone by on the highway), I studied how softly Jacob spoke and how intently he listened. In our society, gentleness is often viewed as ridiculous or insincere. Jacob showed me that nothing is as powerful as gentleness or as persuasive as treating a person with respect and kindness. This is how he has survived the hazards of the life he has spent gathering the stories of the marginalized and the poor.
What I saw with Jacob appalled me. Black Americans in the communities we visited have been excluded from society for so long that it would be practically impossible to introduce them to the mainstream. They are sinking deeper and deeper into a morass of institutionalized poverty and racism. The longer I traveled with Jacob, the more I started to feel that there was no more hope. The optimism that I felt during the '60s when we campaigned for racial equality has withered.
In 1996, I visited a civil rights exhibit at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. It was heart-stopping. A giant wall was painted with the names of hundreds of hate groups and their countries -- not from 30 years ago, but from today. I saw gut-wrenching photos of lynchings. This show of hate brought me back to the roots of my activism. We need to listen to a wake-up call that is screaming RACISM ISN'T DEAD. It snakes throughout our safe world of government policies. Museums can educate and inform people, but what has changed for me is that instead of going out and protesting, marching and facing issues head-on, like we did in the '60s, now we go to museums to learn about the issues that face us today.
That's wrong. In a museum you look without touching, you hear without feeling. In the poor communities Jacob took me to, it was impossible not to be heart-stricken. I heard how the role of mother has changed here. The grandmother is now the linchpin of the household -- telling stories, raising kids, and basically keeping the family unit together.
I saw the effects of the incredible numbing power of television. The pale silver cathode glow pierced the darkness of these small broken-down shacks 24 hours a day. Even these people had been sucked in by a media culture that, in their case, perpetuated the utterly perverse myth that material wealth defines self-worth.
One purpose of this trip was to see if The Body Shop could set up any small-scale economic initiatives within the communities that we visited. Although this time we weren't successful, I believe more strongly than ever that we must continue the campaign for community-based businesses. The West's economic system is flawed because it doesn't help or care for small communities or marginalized people. If more companies invested in communities in need, families could work together and skills could be protected.
Viewed in isolation, small-scale community initiatives are modest - 10 women planting a tree by the roadside, a dozen youths digging a well, an old man teaching neighborhood kids to read -- but from a global perspective, their scale and impact are monumental. It is these micro-enterprises, these informal networks out there which continue to form a rag-tag front line in the worldwide struggle to end poverty. It is a moral imperative that we join in and help them every way we can.