The genius of the Filipino poor
Sometimes it takes a non-Filipino to discover something great about us that we often ignore, do not notice, or take for granted. Sometimes we need foreign eyes to make us believe that there is more to what we already see.
British journalist Thomas Graham came to the Philippines and visited Gawad Kalinga (GK) founder Antonio Meloto in 2012 to pick his brain about issues such as poverty in the Philippines, economic growth and many more. Graham could have been any parachuting foreign journalist, the kind that makes a quick descent, covers some ground, leaves in a rush and gives the world his or her expert views and analyses. Then calls this country “Gates of Hell” or something.
Graham stayed. He immersed himself among the people—that is, the materially poor and those who work and live with them. He struck gold.
What began as a journalistic assignment or curiosity—the Philippines being touted as one of the fastest growing economies in Asia—became a personal journey. Along the way, Graham also found some answers to a nagging question that challenges the title of his book. “If there is indeed genius in the poor, then why are they poor in the first place?” What is this genius all about?
Graham responded to Meloto’s challenge: “Come alongside the poor, befriend them, partner with them, and you will discover their potential. But don’t take my word for it, experience it for yourself.”
Graham writes about his experiences and shares his reflections in his book, “The Genius of the Poor: A Journey with Gawad Kalinga.”
GK is a community development foundation that began small in 1994 (officially in 2003). Its flagship program was poverty alleviation focused on housing for the poor. Its first humble target of 700,000 homes in seven years has become five million families crossing the poverty line by 2024.
Well, GK has since ventured into so much more. It has gone into social entrepreneurship and social innovation in GK communities, and has attracted thousands of Filipino and foreign volunteers, young people so fired up that many of them left their comfort zones and gave up their cozy jobs to get involved in nation-building with wealth-challenged communities as base.
I have written about GK projects a number of times and I can say that every time I go to a GK community (my recent visits were in The Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan, and in Payatas Trese in Quezon City), there is always something new growing out of the ground or breaking out of the box, so to speak.
Graham saw for himself what bayanihan is all about, what “walang iwanan” (no one gets left behind) and “the best to the least” really mean, what servant-leadership entails. I don’t want to get ahead of his story, so here’s a “trailer” on how it all began.
Graham confesses that after he met young people at a GK Center for Social Innovation (CSI) one night, he felt “envious of their commitment, compassion and courage, qualities that I felt were missing in my own life.” They were not merely complaining about inequality in the country, he writes, they were doing something about it.
“A few weeks later, I make the most drastic decision in my (so far) unremarkable career. Ditching my shirt and tie, I decide to extend my stay in the Philippines for a few extra months. My purpose: to travel up and down the country, to try to figure out whether Tito Tony’s love and admiration for the poor is a perspective that I can embrace as well.
“Very soon, the well-paid job and a thirty-fourth-floor condo in Makati are things of the past. Instead, I am living in Tony Meloto’s mosquito-infested lowly basement with half a dozen young sweaty Frenchmen for company.”
Graham’s book (now being translated into French) is not heavily laden with statistics and high-brow jargon about wealth and poverty, development and underdevelopment. One meets in the pages of his book real persons with names, addresses and life stories—stunning, sad, amazing, heartbreaking—to share. In their company he saw, as if for the first time, his own life in a different context.
One might ask if Graham is not perhaps romanticizing the poor, they who have lived lives mired in vice, violence, criminality and hate. Where is the “genius” he is talking about?
Graham quotes Emong of Bagong Silang: “Even if you’re a drug addict or criminal like I was, you can change in a minute if you realize that you can help others. We need to give people a chance to help others and do good. As soon as you realize that others care about you, you gradually begin to care about them, too. This is the basis for change.”
Graham reflects: “Genius, I have discovered, lies not just in individual brilliance in some area of human activity, but in a supremely positive, humane attitude to life, to its ups and downs, to its unfairness and opportunities, and above all, to other people—family, neighbor, stranger. In this respect I have glimpsed genius in the impoverished… And in the process I have been taught, not how to pass an exam or appear intelligent, but simply how to live a more authentic human life.”
The poor’s genius—their transforming genius—begins in the heart, not in some area of their grey matter. That is my understanding of Graham’s journey of discovery.
The book launch is at 4 p.m. on Nov. 29, Saturday, at Fully Booked in Bonifacio Global City. The book is sold at the main store of Human Nature in Quezon City. Call 224-2222 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Happening this weekend is “Uncovering Asia: The 1st Asian Investigative Journalism Conference” at the Crowne Plaza in Pasig City. This coincides with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism’s 25th anniversary. Close to 300 journalists are attending.
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