The Power of a Single Story

I was seven and on vacation in France with my mother. The air was filled with the scent of lavender. On a trip to the local village a dishevelled man pushing a shopping trolley full of plastic bags approached my mom begging.
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By: Silja Nyboe Andersen


I was seven and on vacation in France with my mother. The air was filled with the scent of lavender. The sun was shining. I was allowed ice cream; life was beautiful and simple. On a trip to the local village a dishevelled man pushing a shopping trolley full of plastic bags approached my mom begging. His smell made me step a few steps back and my mom rejected his request for money. He looked me in the eyes with a piercing, sad look, a look that has stayed with me ever since. Coming back to our vacation home the rain started pouring down and I couldn't stop thinking about the man. Worst of all I couldn't do anything about it. I cried. And I couldn't stop.

Twenty years later I, having spent the majority of my life in safe, loving, rural Denmark, found myself in London. Here I spent years jumping from job to job in an attempt to find a meaningful career, but something was always missing. One obstacle to my own perceived success and courage to pursue new paths, was my belief that changing things that truly mattered to me was an insurmountable task.

Four years ago, a combination of a heart ready for change and a chance meeting, led me to get involved with The Big Issue Foundation. The ethos of The Big Issue is "a hand up -- not a hand out" -- it is a value set which underpins every single corner of the organisation and the power of it reveals itself to me every day. The Big Issue offers the opportunity to make a legitimate income by running their own micro enterprise buying and selling The Big Issue magazine to some of the most excluded people in the UK. This process empowers and fosters self worth through working.

In this job I have found true alignment of my skills and values and it has opened my eyes to the realisation that professional success and a purposeful life aren't mutually exclusive. More importantly it has given me a platform that has allowed me to leverage real change for people in real need. Opening doors and reaching out to my network no longer feels like a violation of my relationships, rather it has made them stronger.

A significant part of my job is storytelling, bringing to life the humanity so ever present amongst a group of people whose hardship is always in focus. I hear these stories by spending a lot of my time on the streets with people who are homeless. It is on the streets that I have learnt one of the most important lessons of my life; vulnerability isn't a weakness, but rather one of the most powerful tools to foster true connection. We all grow through connection and once established we are far better equipped to take the next step forward, especially if there is a hand to help you up. This is a step that for the most excluded in our society can be life changing despite seemingly so small.

I recently organised a fundraiser in support of The Big Issue Foundation with a rather different theme for the auction; art from artists with experience of the extreme hardship of living on the streets. I have found that a profound catalyst for change for many with experience being disconnected from society is the opportunity to express themselves through art. In addition, the external impact of using art to tell a story is powerful because it touches people's emotions as it further invigorates the underlying raw and intense but often inspirational story.

At the event I was approached by the son of one of the artists who had spent decades on the street. After years apart, mainly due to the fathers life on the streets, they where now connected and together on this evening. I could tell the son had been mustering the courage to approach me. He said he wanted to thank me for everything I had done for his father and that on this evening he for the first time in his life felt truly proud to say that "This man is my Dad".

Father and son left, said goodbye and thank you. As they walked away, the 34-year-old me whispered another thank you into the darkness of the London night. I had a deep realisation that the little girl inside of me had finally stopped crying -- a single story can create profound change.

These themes will be addressed in more detail through the Pioneers for Change Fellowship kicking off on March 23 and 24, 2015 in London. Pioneers for Change is an initiative of Adessy Associates.

About Silja Nyboe Andersen
Silja Nyboe Andersen currently works as a Director for The Big Issue Foundation. In her role she liaises closely with Big Issue vendors and is continuously looking for innovative ways to connect them to the broader society. She is passionate about the ethos of helping people help themselves and applies this philosophy across her other philanthropic and impact investing engagements in Zambia and Denmark.

In addition, Silja is a Director of a sustainable forestry company and a board member of The Trampoline House, a charity working to secure more dignity for asylum seekers.

She is an accomplished speaker on the dynamics of next generation family business members and their connection to the world of philanthropy and social Investments.

Silja is a Danish national living in London. She holds a Master of Science degree in Economics from Copenhagen University.

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