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Four years ago, I was working on a youth participatory video project in Togo. Charlie, a videographer from the US, was with us, supporting with the training. We would split into small groups each day and film in the community, according to topics and priorities that the youth had identified. The kids were secondary school students from rural communities, living with relatives in the district capital. They were between 12 and 18 years old, and most spoke their native Kabye, French, and a bit of formal English.

One night at dinner, Charlie confessed that he’d made a small blunder and was trying to delicately remedy it. There were about 4-5 kids in the group that he was accompanying. He’d noticed a bit of friction between them and was mulling it over. He suddenly realized that after each bit of video work, he had been gathering the group together and saying ‘good job!’ or ‘great job!’ or ‘you did a really nice job,’ and giving them a thumbs up.

It dawned on him that one of the kids in the group’s name was ‘Job’ and that the whole group, including Job himself, thought that after each shoot, Charlie was singling out Job to praise him, and him alone for the good work. The mentoring relationship between Charlie and Job was incredible, perhaps due to this misunderstanding, and Job eventually went on to pursue journalism. Charlie began using other congratulatory language with the group to try to make up for his unintentional error. I wonder what other kinds of blunders happen every day in our work that create this kind of unanticipated response and impact?

One day, about a year after the Togo video training, a colleague working in our donor relations department forwarded me an email.  It was from Job and he was answering a direct email appeal he had received from our marketing department, asking him to please give a monthly donation to support a needy child. Somehow Job had gotten onto our email list for potential donors.

Job responded, in very good English, directly to our Executive Director (whose signature was on the email) that he would really like to be able to help children to improve their lives, but that he was still a youth himself, and he didn’t have any spare money to help others at the moment. He went on to say how he himself had benefited from our organization’s support. He had been able to complete secondary school, had learned to become a journalist and was writing articles, and had access to internet via a multimedia center that our organization had started for youth. He attached some samples of his writing, and said he hoped more children would be supported as he had been.

I was a bit mortified by this situation, thinking about what a direct appeal and the kind of language normally used in this kind of mailing might sound like to Job. I wondered how he’d gotten onto our email list. And what would communities in general think if they saw the kinds of marketing appeals that go out in their names. As the mother of 2 ‘brown’ children who were born and raised in a ‘developing’ country, I’m bothered by these kinds of appeals, imagining a photo of my own children plastered on a ‘needy children’ billboard or direct mail piece somewhere, thinking about what that might do to their self-image or my image of myself as a capable parent. As internet usage continues to grow, organizations are really going to have to think hard about how they portray the people they work with.

I am pretty sure that Job didn’t realize that email wasn’t supposed to be for him, it was supposed to be about kids like him. But he didn’t identify as a poor needy child, and I love that. The more I think about it, the more I second Charlie: Good Job!

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