As a 14-year-old traveling abroad, Hugh Evans spent a night with a family living on a trash heap in the Philippines. How Evans, now the 28-year-old CEO of the Global Poverty Project, described that night during a panel discussion at the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere Conference, or CARE Conference, in Washington, D.C., particularly moved students including Paul Horton, a junior at Western Carolina University.
“He described vividly how there was no escape from the smell and the cockroaches – and how there are people who don’t just go there for a day but live there year-round,” said Horton, who attended the conference with WCU students, staff and faculty as part of a WCU course titled “Religion, Suffering and the Moral Imagination.”
Although Horton did not get a chance to talk with Evans after the panel discussion, John F. Whitmire Jr., associate professor of philosophy and religion, did, and their discussion seeded the idea for the two presentations Evans will make at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 7, in the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.
Whitmire shared with Evans WCU’s commitment to service and its designation as a community-engaged university by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Evans expressed interest and said that the GPP’s focus this year was on taking the presentation “1.4 Billion Reasons” to college campuses. Named for the number of people living in extreme poverty, the interactive presentation details how people in their everyday actions – what a person learns, says, buys, gives and does – can contribute to the tipping point of the end of extreme poverty. Whitmire said he thought WCU would be interested in hosting “1.4 Billion Reasons.” “He said, ‘Fantastic, let’s make it happen,’ and we started working from there,” said Whitmire.
In honor of GPP’s mission to increase the number and effectiveness of people taking action to end extreme poverty, Evans agreed to speak without requesting an honorarium in exchange for event publicity and guaranteed attendance of at least 400 people. The only cost to the event organizers was airfare and transportation, which was just more than $300; meals, which were $38.75; and the cost of using Bardo Arts Center. The event was set for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 7, but when expected attendance appeared to exceed seating at BAC, Evans agreed to give the presentation back-to-back.
Inspired by the reflections of WCU students’ experience in Whitmire’s class at the CARE Conference and the opportunity to have Evans present on campus, WCU leaders selected poverty as the theme for this year’s interdisciplinary learning and service initiative, with Evans’ presentations as a kickoff. As part of the WCU Poverty Project, faculty, students and staff from across campus will take part in engaged teaching, learning, service, and creative and scholarly opportunities focused on poverty, locally and globally. Events in the works include a film and discussion series; a service-oriented, alternative Spring Break trip to home communities of WCU’s partners institutions in Jamaica; an Oct. 1 Stop Hunger Now food-packaging event in collaboration with the Wesley Foundation; an art show; ties to Constitution Day events; a public policy forum; and community-sharing experience in which students share their experiences with poverty.
“What we’re hoping is that our students will not only develop a better understanding of the root causes and consequences of poverty, but what they can actually do about it,” said Whitmire. “It’s a chance for all of us – students, faculty, staff and community partners – to think together about an enormously complex problem in an interdisciplinary way, and also to place it in the more specific context of our own individual lives and vocations or majors. We like to say that Western Carolina is a place for students who want to make a difference in their world, and this is an opportunity to do just that – to clarify what our values actually are with respect to poverty and associated issues, and to practice the kind of responsible civic engagement that is consistent with those values.”
MEET HUGH EVANS
Evans says extreme poverty means living on less than U.S. $1.25 per day. “This is a challenge currently felt by 1.4 billion people in our world,” said Evans in a video about the presentation. “This gives us 1.4 billion reasons to respond immediately. Let’s make a legacy of ending extreme poverty.”
Evans traces his interest in combating extreme poverty to age 14, when he went on a trip to the Philippines sponsored by World Vision, living with a host family in a tent in a slum built on a garbage dump. When he was 15, he spent a year in India. He later served as World Vision’s inaugural youth ambassador to South Africa in 2002.
As a result, Evans was inspired to set up the Oaktree Foundation, Australia’s first youth-run aid organization with a mission of young people working together to end global poverty. The organization has funded development projects in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, India, Ghana and East Timor that have provided educational opportunities to more than 40,000 young people.
Evans also was a leader in the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, which contributed to Australia increasing its foreign aid budget by $4.3 billion a year to help the world’s poorest.
He was named the Young Australian of the Year in 2004 and Junior Chamber International Young Person of the World in 2005.
Evans’ latest endeavor, the Global Poverty Project, was started in 2008 with a $60,000 grant from the United Nations and a $350,000 AusAid grant.
In the GPP presentation at WCU, Evans will discuss simple changes community members can make to be part of the solution. He will explore five questions: What is extreme poverty? Can we do anything about it? What are the barriers to ending extreme poverty? Why should we care? What can I do?
“We’re looking forward to a dynamic presentation on a compelling topic,” said Jennifer Cooper, interim director of the WCU Center for Service Learning and co-chair of the WCU Poverty Project steering committee with Whitmire. “Poverty is an important issue in the developing world, but it also affects many in our region. It’s something that we’re all exposed to, particularly in the current economic climate. We hope that the people who attend this presentation will gain a better understanding of poverty-related issues, globally and locally, and that they will feel empowered to take action.”
Students in Whitmire’s “Religion, Suffering, and the Moral Imagination” course said the CARE Conference and hearing speakers such as Evans helped them feel less powerless in the face of big global problems.
Whitmire said the group of even students from the spring course was the second WCU has sent to the annual CARE Conference, and he hoped that the students’ participation would help them integrate their academic work with “real life” situations. CARE, which grew out of the original CARE packages sent to Europe after World War II to prevent survivors from starving, now tackles underlying causes of poverty so people can become self-sufficient. At the two-and-a-half day event held annually in Washington, D.C., participants become aware of humanitarian crises and issues, learn what they can do to address them, and have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with legislators.
“This year, participants were encouraging their legislators not to make draconian cuts to the miniscule part (roughly 1 percent) of the U.S. budget that goes to foreign aid, even in these difficult times; to support streamlining legislation that targets micro-financing programs on the poorest of the poor in the developing world; and to support the Education for All Act when it is reintroduced,” said Whitmire in a written summary and assessment of the program.
Later in the piece, Whitmire said, “It is a great thing to read a paper or hear a discussion in class based on the interplay of texts students have read and their service experiences, but to me, seeing the empowerment of students who were actively engaging with their elected officials on issues that they were both knowledgeable and passionate about was more than that: it was genuinely inspiring.”
Horton, a student in the Honors College majoring in social science education and history and minoring in philosophy, said he had been mentally wrestling for some time with the problem of what, aware of global issues such as extreme hunger, he should be doing about it.
“What possible ethical way can I rationalize not completely dedicating every second of my life to humanitarian aid?” said Horton, who is from Charlotte. “What I’ve kind of come away with from the conference and a class on suffering is that you should find what you are good at doing that also benefits the world. You don’t have to do everything. I don’t have to go to another country and spend my life feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. There are people who are good at that who can do that. What I am good at is teaching, and education is the first step to solving a lot of societal problems. I view that as kind of my humanitarian calling.”
Meanwhile for student Emily Elders, the attendance at the conference specifically helped her see that, at a minimum, there were more than 1,000 other people also interested in learning about practical applications of life-saving solutions to the world’s hunger, poverty and suffering.
“I am especially interested in how we can – not to be too cliché – make the world a better place through reasonable discourse and consensus among groups of people,” said Elders, a senior pursuing a special studies degree in social philosophy and policy.
She said the course and the conference, particularly hearing about the kinds of actions that Melinda Gates and Barbara Bush, both speakers at the CARE Conference in 2011, are taking with programs that range from striving to eliminate polio to raising the literacy rate of children.
“It’s easy to get complacent, especially in busy lives, and this was a good wake-up call, reminding me that I do have a global responsibility, and that my talents and skills can be useful where I choose to put them to work,” said Elders, who is serving on the WCU Poverty Project steering committee. “The other change I’ve noticed is that I’m much more likely to contact my representatives and senators at both the state and federal levels about issues that I feel are important. The opportunity for a guided entry to the Congressional halls was invaluable for showing us the way government operates and reminding us that those senators and representatives were elected to represent our interests. It was a good reminder that we are all responsible for our own involvement in government at every level, no matter how little of a difference we feel one voice can make.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Whitmire and Cooper are co-chairing the WCU Poverty Project Steering Committee, which is made up of faculty and staff from all six of WCU’s teaching colleges and schools, as well as the Honors College, Graduate School, Hunter Library, Undergraduate Studies, Educational Outreach and other campus constituencies including the Division of Student Affairs, International Programs and Services, Center for Service Learning, Career Services, student leaders and representatives of WCU’s community partners.
By Teresa Killian Tate