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VCU’s ‘changemaker in residence’ launches campaign urging people working to alleviate poverty to promise to be ‘sidekicks’

Shawn Humphrey, Ph.D., who is teaching at VCU’s da Vinci Center this semester, created the “Sidekick Manifesto” and is encouraging people to take the pledge and share it via social media.

Master of Product Innovation students in VCU's da Vinci Center take part in the Sidekick Manifest...
Master of Product Innovation students in VCU's da Vinci Center take part in the Sidekick Manifesto social media campaign.
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

While visiting Honduras a few years ago as part of his work running a global development nonprofit, Shawn Humphrey, Ph.D., snapped a photo of a woman carrying water on her head, thinking the image would be perfect for his organization’s website.

The woman got angry. And, Humphrey realized, she had every right to be.

“It's kind of a development trope. You see images like this on almost every nonprofit’s website. But I had taken her picture without permission, and she was understandably upset,” he said. “It made me ashamed that I did that. I didn’t use the photo, but essentially I stole her image. And, if she hadn’t said anything, I would have used it as part of [our organization’s] narrative or posted it on our website to try to raise awareness and funds for our work in Honduras.”

In the story of poverty’s end, we cannot be heroes. We can only be sidekicks.

The humbling process of realizing he acted unethically prompted Humphrey to write what he calls the Sidekick Manifesto, a promise to support — and not attempt to lead — the efforts to alleviate poverty in communities around the world.

“One in 10 people live on less than $1.90 a day. This statistic has spurred many of us to take steps to end global poverty,” said Humphrey, who received a master's degree in economics from VCU in 1996. “These steps have included mission trips, orphanage tours, buying a pair of TOMS shoes, and many more. At their best, they do not work. At their worst, they create dependency, erode dignity, squander resources and crowd out local leaders who are in a better position to end their own poverty. In the story of poverty’s end, we cannot be heroes. We can only be sidekicks.”

Humphry, an associate professor of economics at the University of Mary Washington, is teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University this semester and is serving as the first “changemaker in residence” at the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts, Business, Engineering and College of Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship.

“[The changemaker in residence position] is designed to challenge and inspire faculty, students and the larger community to examine the role of innovation in advancing social good,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., director of the da Vinci Center. “Dr. Humphrey is an incredible catalyst for innovation and social change, making him an ideal inaugural changemaker in residence.”

Westlake was first introduced to Humphrey after Humphrey’s Two Dollar Challenge, in which people try to live off $2 a day to better understand the challenges of poverty, gained national prominence and was embraced by students at Arizona State University, where Westlake previously worked before joining VCU.  

“Being able to work in collaboration with Dr. Humphrey in Richmond, instead of from across the country, is a testament to the talent and thought leadership in and around Richmond,” Westlake said.

Much like the Two Dollar Challenge, Humphrey is aiming to bring his Sidekick Manifesto to a wide audience, primarily targeting the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Russia and Europe — countries that are materially wealthy and often send young people abroad on mission trips to try to help developing countries.

Starting today, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Humphrey is encouraging people to take the Sidekick Manifesto pledge at http://sidekickmanifesto.org/, and then share on social media a link to the pledge and a photo of them holding up a sign saying “I took the pledge” with the hashtag #SidekickManifesto.

Shawn Humphrey, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Mary Washington, is the inaugural "changemaker in residence" at VCU's da Vinci Center this year.
Shawn Humphrey, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Mary Washington, is the inaugural "changemaker in residence" at VCU's da Vinci Center this year.

“The manifesto has been moving along throughout the global development space among professionals who work on global development,” he said. “What we're trying to do now is push it out into a more general audience, such as students who are thinking about volunteer trips or mission trips.”

The Sidekick Manifesto fits squarely within VCU’s approach to service learning, both locally and internationally.

At VCU, all students who participate in service-learning programs abroad are led by faculty members who have developed their courses through the Division of Community Engagement’s service learning office, which provides guidance and best practices in how to lead ethical service programs in foreign countries.

Additionally, VCU’s UNIV 291: Maximizing Your Study Abroad course engages students with discussion of ethical service practices, such as not objectifying locals, and addressing community-identified needs as opposed to volunteer-identified needs.

Prior to departing for service-learning programs abroad, VCU’s Global Education Office trains students how to best learn from and assimilate into the local culture and how to not be an “ugly American.” Also as part of orientation, students receive training related to confidentiality, professionalism, respect, and ensuring that they understand regulations and rules of community partners.

This semester, Humphrey is teaching a course in the da Vinci Center’s Master of Product Innovation program, and several of his students have already embraced the Sidekick Manifesto.

“My family is from Mexico and we’ve gone down there quite a bit, and obviously poverty is very prevalent, especially in Northern Mexico,” said first-year da Vinci graduate student Christopher Brady. “The idea that’s laid out in the manifesto, that we can’t be heroes and that we should try to facilitate communication and build empathy and relationships, that’s something I've experienced personally.”

“For me,” he added, “it’s about spreading the word and being as cognizant as possible about poverty. And it’s about recognizing that I can do small things, but really it’s enabling and giving other people more power and tools to effect change.”

The Sidekick Manifesto arrives at a time when young people are increasingly interested in helping others, particularly in materially poor communities. The pledge, Humphrey said, is a pushback against the belief that Westerners can solve global poverty.

“In our culture, we’re not asked to question ourselves when we’re abroad or when we’re working with people less powerful than ourselves,” he said. “This manifesto is really saying, ‘Hey, we’ve really got to check ourselves. These are some promises that we need to make.’”

“It says we’re visitors, we don’t share their history, we don’t share their culture, we don’t pay their taxes,” he said. “And we’ve never been poor. We don't live in poverty. Why would we think that we know how to end theirs? There’s this belief we can go abroad and just solve poverty. But ultimately it’s really about trying to find a way to empower local leaders in local communities, solving local problems with local solutions.”

 

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