Oh, the ordinary stories we could tell

This is a guest blog post written by Mark S. Cogan, originally published here

Turkey

I am faced with a dichotomy. While proud of the work I’ve done, I’m equally haunted by ideas failed never materialize. MY World is a global survey for citizens led by the United Nations and partners. It aims to capture people’s voices, priorities and views, so that global leaders can be informed as they begin the process of defining a new development agenda after the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015.

I had the honor of being the architect of Thailand’s national MY World campaign, and I found it one of the most rewarding advocacy campaigns of my professional life.  When the UN General Assembly arrived last September, Thailand had counted just under 70,000 votes, and ranked third worldwide.

As the campaign in Thailand was reaching its zenith, I made a visit to the Rajvithi Home for Girls in Bangkok with Procter and Gamble. There, we had the opportunity to talk privately with a group of orphaned young girls. Their stories were powerful and heart wrenching. The girls bear the unfortunate consequences of abject rural poverty, bitter divorces, and willful parental indifference.  Many were removed from their homes by the Government because of instances of domestic violence or abuse, and becoming permanent wards of the state. The Rajvithi Home for Girls provides not only a new home, but a new family as well.

In a small private room, four girls braved their tears to tell me their stories.

“My parents divorced when I was young and I didn’t get along with my new mom,” said one of the girls.  She had been at the home for a year.

Tears welled up around her eyes and she told me she really wanted to be with her mother, but her father refused.

But right by her side was a loyal friend she’d made, who took her hand and calmed her tears.  That moment got to me. After the interview, I had to take a few moments to gather myself.  Who would not be moved?

That’s what the campaign was really about.  In hindsight, the 70,000 votes did not matter as much that human connection.

At Dhurakit Pundit University, I met a brilliant young student leader at the university’s International College.  He was the kind of person who worked hard, labored in his studies, and desperately tried to make time between his many extracurricular activities to spend time with friends.  He was always on the run, shuffling between classes, a part-time job and—when I met him—volunteering to help with DPUIC’s MY World campaign.

Aside from campaign generics, I knew little about him. What compelled him to work twice as hard as everyone else?  I’ll never know. I didn’t even think about writing his story. In a campaign engineered for ‘wholesale’ vote collection, individual stories can take a back seat to large gatherings photos and stories of day-to-day campaign activities.

Large institutions often have a difficult time being nimble enough to reach out to a single person. International organizations can be extremely effective at bringing attention to critical issues, such as the plight of the world’s 50 million refugees, combating extreme poverty or climate change, fighting HIV/AIDS, and empowering women. There are many observances that run across the calendar. Just recently, the United Nations recognized both the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking and the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

The development community needs to be more effective at reaching people that don’t fit a particular thematic area—in this case, the average person. This is where the MY World Global Survey can make an even greater difference. The post-2015 conversations mark a historic period for human development.

It’s important to capture individual priorities, but also capture individual stories.  The United Nations Millennium Campaign is getting closer to this aim. They’ve launched the Humans of MY World Facebook site, where a group of young storytellers journey through 15 countries talking to people about their personal priorities.

A poignant example is of a young Turkish man, who wants better job opportunities.

“The biggest thing that would effect me right now is better job opportunities. Do you think I want to keep slinging around vegetables my whole life?”

That’s the glimpse we get into his life—and almost as quickly as it starts, it ends.  How long has he been slinging vegetables? Did he get the chance to go to college? What of his brothers or sisters?

The act of voting is not akin to having voice. An anonymous vote becomes a statistic. Having a voice means being given agency to express oneself openly, outside the confines of 16 predetermined choices.  Newspapers often are the most nimble at affording people this opportunity, with feature stories and long-form journalism providing insights into the minutiae of personality. Community newspapers do this even more frequently.

It’s a beautiful feeling as a journalist to uncover the humanity behind someone you first find ordinary.  When I ran an Oregon community newspaper in 2007-2008, I would often hear about local big breakfast burritos that even lumberjacks could hardly finish. I showed up one morning and struck up a friendship with the man who made the famed-local burrito.

He was a man’s man. He smelled like bacon and diesel—and greeted you with hands caked in motor oil.  He probably cooked my burrito with those very same hands.

Awesome. I wrote couldn’t wait to write about him.

A young couple walk in, dressed in clichéd Carhartt overalls, trucker’s caps, and steel-toed boots. They look around awhile, browse Larry’s shelves, and casually walk out the door. Larry doesn’t flinch. He gives them both a quick nod. Seconds later, a bearded man walks in and asks if he can put his boat in the water and “run the motors.” Larry says he doesn’t care.

His family worked 16-18 hour days for almost three years to turn his property into what it is now. They added a marina, then a launch ramp.  He lost his mother not too long after.

I didn’t find just a man. I found a man struggling to keep his business open. I found a man who gives generously and repeatedly and a man still grieving the loss of his mother.

Why Larry? Why not? We can find the extraordinary in the ordinary, just as we can from people facing persistent development challenges. MY World is Larry’s world, too.  We need stories like his. Much more of them.

Mark S. Cogan is a development communications professional, journalist and photographer specializing in public advocacy campaigns, content and editorial management. He is currently a member of the World We Want Policy and Strategy Group with the UN Millennium Campaign.

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