When Beyoncé traveled to Haiti earlier this summer on a humanitarian trip, she attracted a lot of attention -- not all of it the kind she was going for - critics turned out in force, calling her visit 'just another celebrity photo op."
On the one hand, these conversations make me nervous; I know and respect a lot of smart people who are highly critical of celebs who they feel exploit the poor to "tell a story that's not theirs to tell." And on the other hand, (the more dominant, outstretched hand) I would give anything to have a celebrity shed light on our school in Kenya.
Around the same time, a video of actor Jack Black's trip to Uganda on behalf of Red Nose Day Campaign -- a UK-based organization that has raised over $ 1 billion for charity -- was released.
I braced myself for impending controversy but was surprised to see the video go happily-viral; even my most cynical colleagues shared this piece widely. Despite a few cringe-worthy moments when Jack asks Felix, a young homeless boy, "where his parents are," it's hard not to be inspired by the footage. Maybe it's that Jack Black is just universally likable or perhaps Felix is the real rockstar. Whatever the reason, Jack Black seems to have gotten away with his act of service, while the majority of high-profile celebrities irritate the public by "seeking attention" when they travel abroad to share the spotlight with the poor -- despite being invited to endorse charities because they garner attention.
As a charity, it seems that picking a celebrity godmother (or godfather) is a tricky business. Beyonce: Too glamorous. Jack Black: Just the right amount of approachable and scruffy.
But if we want the rich and famous to be life-like, I've noticed that we want the poor to be just the opposite - we typecast them in the same role film after film.
Toward the end of the video, Jack Black looks into the camera, his eyes filled with tears, and describes spending the night on the street with Felix, who says he wants nothing more than to go to school.
"I can't imagine my kids going through something like that," Black says. "And Felix is every bit as brilliant and sharp as any kid I've met."
But what if Felix had a very low IQ? Or said something bratty, like, "School sounds boring, I'd rather go to a Chris Brown concert."
Would we give less? Probably.
Do Jack Black's kids value education above all else? Probably not.
Felix isn't "just like our kids" because our kids can be shallow and unappreciative. Felix can't afford to be those things.
It's human nature to want to highlight gifted kids and it seems true that children who have suffered the effects of poverty make serious and exceptional students. But when we romanticize vulnerable and marginalized children as beacons of righteousness, making them into one-dimensional characters, we might be doing them a disservice.
In my experience working with homeless kids, I've found them to be a lot like kids who have homes -- you give them food and water and shelter and love and education, and they want to know if you can send them a red or white Manchester United hat. They are worthy of our support and sacrifice, even when they don't fit into the narrative we like to hear about poor kids being grateful and hardworking and earnest.
The founder of Pencils of Promise started his (remarkable) organization after a poor child told him that the thing he wanted most in the world was a single pencil. I love that story. I was once leaving a grocery store in Nairobi, when a very young homeless child followed me to my car begging for money. As I was loading my Greek yogurt into the trunk, he stood in front of me, rubbing his swollen empty belly. When I explained to him that I wasn't going give him cash, he looked me right in the eyes and said, "Jesus is going to kill you."
That kid probably isn't going to inspire any foundations or be included in any fundraising videos, but my god, I want to hang out with him and I bet Jack Black would too. So, can we make room for the naughty kids, the uninspired kids, the ungrateful kids, the C- kids and the younger versions of ourselves? I think that might bring the 'world's poorest children' even closer to our hearts and homes, with or without the perfect celebrity chaperone.