by Jennifer Dees

It’s safe to say that Wells Bring Hope is charitable. But I don’t think charity is the best word to describe what’s being done. Charity is akin to pity, to feel sorry for someone. While pity can be benevolent, it can also stem from negative perceptions. When you take pity on someone, you’re regarding them as less than, as separate. You have something the other person lacks, and their existence must be less because of it. In this frame of mind, the other person is a victim. When someone is labeled a victim, they may feel defined by that label, stuck in whatever circumstance life put them in. So on one side is the victim, and on the other is the hero, an archetypal story playing out through countless charities.

Big change doesn’t happen through charity, but through solidarity—unity in feeling or action. Change happens when we recognize that everyone has wisdom and resources to make the world better, including those who receive “charity.” This mindset is more respectful because the recipients have a say in the solution. It’s not about giving handouts and expecting nothing. Wells aren’t handouts. Wells Bring Hope isn’t just giving rural villages water; it’s giving them a resource. With it, the villagers can work more productively to improve their own lives. With the microfinance program and drip-farming workshops, women have built their own businesses, which provide them with money they can use for food, healthcare, and education for their children. This kind of impact ripples through generations, changing the world.

Global solidarity is already apparent in Niger’s giraffe conservation and in efforts to harbor and support refugees. They have the ability and the desire to do great things; many only need resources, knowledge, or encouragement. By drilling wells, Wells Bring Hope is sharing a resource that will help others to do their part.

Of course, compassion is also key to solidarity. Empathy is not enough. I can search for a point of commonality between my air-conditioned life and the life of a Nigerien woman who has to walk miles for water. But I’ve never been in her shoes, so I can’t claim to really understand her experience. Rather than wallowing in guilt, I can channel my emotions into compassion. When you feel compassion towards someone, their type of suffering doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are suffering. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” What makes compassion different from pity is shifting from a victim-hero relationship to one of mutuality. I at least recognize what it’s like to be sad and to want help. Even a thousand miles apart, the woman drawing water from a dirty pond and I can nod and hope better for each other. That is where I find my point of commonality.

By shifting the mindset from charity to solidarity, it’s easier to see how everyone is important in making a change. To get to where we need to be, we must raise each other up every step of the way.

Read Shayna Watson’s post on “doing well by doing good” for an example of this kind of solidarity in action.