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Jennifer Lentfer | Washington, D.C | Because ‘How’ Matters

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

Tell us about your journey! inspire someone.

What were the biggest initial hurdles and how did you overcome them?

If my work has made any small contribution, I hope it’s been pointing the global development sector towards Indigenous or locally-led movements and groups in the Global South. That is why I started my blog ten years ago, trying to elevate leadership rooted in community and move more resources towards those grassroots efforts.

Internally for me, has been an exploration of my voice, and how to use it. In the beginning, when there were just a few bloggers focused on international aid and philanthropy, it could be brutal sometimes. In speaking up and attempting to disrupt oppressive systems rooted in colonialism, I had to learn how to take criticism and pushback in the so-called “marketplace of ideas”, an idea falsely created by capitalism. I had to learn what it means to stand up for something that doesn’t really fit with “the norm” and get serious about what it takes to shift narratives from charity to solidarity. In recent years, now that I have this platform, the question is: how am I going to use it? As a cis white woman, how am I going to give the mic over?

Now I’m completely unapologetic about bringing more of our hearts into this work. Most importantly, amidst the uncertainty of the intersecting global crises of climate change, pandemic, and rising inequality, my work is helping to move more unrestricted money in more disbursed ways than ever before to effective local leaders around the world. There will always be hurdles, but that is the innately human, messy work of changing the world together.

What books are you currently reading?

Among the books of poetry that are always flowing around me, I’m loving Dub: Finding Ceremony by Alexis Pauline Gumbs.

Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your pursuits? How did you handle it?

I did not deal with contention, per se, but I do think people had a hard time understanding my choice to become an aid worker in Zimbabwe, a place to which many of my family had no means of orienting to other than it was an “underdeveloped” country “over there.” (As did I at first.) Their reactions often revealed nationalism and white saviorism imbued in stereotypes about whom Africans are, what they need, and how they should be ‘helped.’” It always put me in a role of searching for common ground with my friends and family so that they could evolve their awareness too.

As my life continued, I was able to articulate my own experiences of trauma and how getting myself to another part of the world distanced me from my family of origin, and how much the idea of “serving the poor” - no matter where you are in the world - is an endeavor of the privileged. The thought of “I can get on a plane and be as far away from my abusive, alcoholic father as possible” - that was real. The older I get, the more important I feel it is to tell that part of the story, because our deepest motivations about why we’re helping people are often not even known to ourselves. The “AIDS orphan” I was helping in southern Africa was also me. I could identify with that fear and loneliness and stigma.

What would you do differently in hindsight?

No regrets. Life is learning.

Now I know and am very clear that the people closest to the problems are the people with the solutions, and that our job as outsiders, ultimately, is to listen and learn from them. Of course we have personal and organizational barriers that will trip us up along the way. Courage and community (for when our courage fails us) are key. The challenges facing our world require our passion, pragmatism, and purpose.

I also now know that anyone can identify what’s “wrong” in the world. It takes much more skill and strength to wake up everyday and help identify what’s right, what’s possible, and where incremental changes can occur.

What would you say was the single most influential factor in your success?

One of my late mother’s greatest gifts to her children was to share with us her love of learning. All of life’s experiences - with its people, places, history, geography, politics - can be fascinating if you’re curious. So I’ve chosen the steps and turns in my life based on what I wanted to learn. This approach hasn’t failed me yet. (Touch wood.)

What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started?

In the realm of making a change, our little piece of influence is actually quite small. We’re given the hero paradigm, that we are going to “save” the world. And we gotta keep dialing that call to ego back down.

Over the years, I have learned to focus on my [little] contribution as part of a greater ecosystem of change, a groundswell of people, a history of leader-full movements fighting for social transformation.

That’s what I get to do to “make a difference” - find my right role and get to work together with other beloved souls in my midst. This quote always keeps me grounded:

“If you believe if you’re going to…change the world, you’re going to end up either a pessimist or a cynic. But if you understand your limited power and define yourself by your ability to resist injustice, rather than by what you accomplish, then I think reality is much easier to bear.” ~Chris Hedges

What advice would you give to an upcoming youth or talents locally and internationally?

People who want to do good…are my people. These are people who have a heart for other people, who really do want to manifest something beautiful in the world, heal things, imagine new ways of being. Those dreamers are definitely my people. Find yours.

I also think that a lot of people who identify as “helper” or a “solver” or “fixer” - that could be as a doctor, or a social entrepreneur or a social worker - it comes from sometimes a wounded place in ourselves. That is not to say that that’s an invalid reason to do so. But it is important for us to be aware of that because there is potential for harm in “helping” relationships because of the deep power inequities between the helper and the ones being helped. And if we’re not aware of those, we end up perpetuating those power differentials and some of the more damaging aspects of that in our society, writ large.

We actually have to fight against “charitable” urges towards impoverished and marginalized people that can ultimately debase their dignity. To be a do-gooder means we actually have to wrestle with our own sense of our own goodness. This is to say that there are so many ways we have been taught to be charitable, right? From a Western point of view, the paradigm is: if you have more, you owe people who have less. And that immediately puts us in a hierarchical dynamic, in which I’m better, or I’m luckier, or I’m smarter...superior. Now we’re getting closer to white supremacy and to economic disparities built on a global history of imperialism, colonialism, and extractive and exploitative capitalism.

When just starting out, there's a naïveté that we need to take seriously, that we need to be really mindful of with each other. This helping thing is fraught and it’s actually not that easy to help people. How to care for each other in new ways requires the best of our thinking, the best of our imagination, and the best of what we can imagine for each other. The instinct or inclination to help, that generosity, is so beautiful. Now our world requires us to create a whole other world view of how that could look.


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