At reunions panel, alumni discuss service in light of Princeton's unofficial motto
Anthropology professor João Biehl noted the importance of recognizing recipients of aid as dynamic individuals while moderating the Friday panel “Princeton Alumni in the Service of All Nations.”
“If we work with people on an everyday basis, we understand them as much more complex beings,” he said. “They want beauty too. They don't just want the antibiotics. There's more to people's lives. There's a potential.”
Christine Brady ’79, president of The Americas Foundation, emphasized the importance of consulting citizens of developing countries before trying to help them. She noted that, although she and her colleagues had planned to build a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, they instead built a kindergarten at the request of local residents.
“That’s a good lesson to learn in community development: Ask the people what they want, because that’s what’s going to succeed and they will participate in,” she said.
To counteract the suspicion that poor people often feel toward outside organizations, Brady recommended studying their language.
“Finally learning to speak Spanish, I realized that these people were extremely polite, which was interesting and opened up a whole new cultural world for us,” she said, describing spring festivals that showcased Mexican traditions and humanized the performers.
The panelists provided a variety of perspectives on how to help people in developing nations. Jaime Ayala ’84, CEO and founder of Hybrid Social Solutions, pointed to energy as necessary for the education and health care that allow individuals to flourish.
“Our goal is to empower these villages and enable them to achieve their potential by helping them with their household needs,” he said, citing electricity through solar technology as a key example. Ayala added that giving handouts can make recipients dependent, whereas his approach gets people to start moving on their own feet.
Philip Zabriskie ’94, managing editor at Doctors Without Borders, approached service from a background in journalism.
“It’s trying to tell these stories of what the organization does, why it's important both on a front line level in the field, responding to disasters ... but also some of the more underlying issues about policies, access to medicines, trade policies and how these things affect the ability of people in a lot of these countries to get the medication they desperately need,” he explained.
On the other hand, Brady said the best way to empower people is to unleash their creativity. She added that nonprofit organizations can create progress by taking advantage of people’s competitive nature, such as by inspiring vendors to start multiple fruit stands in an effort to outdo one another.
The panelists offered descriptions of the ideal public servant. Ayala said his company looks for people who can suffer together with the people they help, while operating in difficult conditions.
“We need people who have the compassion of Mother Teresa but who can perform like marines,” he said to laughter from the audience.
Zabriskie encouraged people who serve others to act like role models by avoiding wastefulness, engaging in self-reflection and staying accountable to donors and stakeholders. He called service the most interesting, fulfilling and adventuresome activity he could do at any given time, saying it never felt like work to him.
“It’s just a way to grow and see more, and meet more people, and hopefully come out of it with a little better understanding, a few more stories and a broader view of the world,” he explained.
The panel, “Princeton Alumni in the Service of All Nations,” took place in McCosh 10 at 9 a.m. and was sponsored by the Alumni Association of Princeton University.