It may have been because he was seated above me on a small bamboo platform while I sat in the dusty, orange, plastic chair several feet below. Or maybe it was his command of the audience: scanning back and forth, locking eyes with everyone while he made perfectly timed gestures to emphasize different parts of his response. Or perhaps it was his practiced style of speaking in which he emphasized a phrase, paused, and then continued quietly before he finished each response in a powerful crescendo. Whatever the reason, it was easy to mistake our spot in the front yard between his house and his garden—a beautiful, meticulously groomed garden with deep purple eggplant and tall sunflowers topping the fence—for the site of an important speech. When his oratory paused, I was not surprised at all when our translator turned to us, smiling, and said “wow, it is like he prepared that response.”
We had asked Vin about the importance of the training and loans he had received for the income generation project we were evaluating; his answer highlighted the importance of communities working together. Our simple questions to assess the sustainability of our project yielded responses that went much deeper than reflections of self sufficiency:
“It is not just about providing training and money,” he told us. “It is about helping each other. It is about building relationships. It is about learning from each other.”
With his answers, he reminded us of the true value in grassroots change. While others—in their attempt to address issues from the top down—look for power in power, grassroots change looks to empower. Others look to politics for leadership. Grassroots change knows that leadership comes from the community. Where others treat people as statistics, grassroots change sees people as people, with unlimited and untapped potential. And most importantly, grassroots work brings these people together and gives them the opportunity to lead their communities toward sustainable change.
At its best, this is what GlobeMed can do. When implemented correctly, our small project can address more than income generation. It can become much more than providing microloans for families to raise and sell chickens. When done right, this small income generation project can transform into a vector of empowerment for the community. Such a transformation, however, is not simply a function of how well we plan the project. Rather, it occurs because of the incredible people who take the project and run with it: the leaders in the community working together. And one of these leaders was sitting in front of me—slightly above me—eloquently relaying the dreams he had for his community.
As I listened, it became clear that true hope for change rests on the shoulders of people like him. Like Vin, there are people willing to give extra vaccines and supplies to their neighbors, people with dreams like creating community funds to put towards dignified funeral services, and people willing to dedicate their time to projects such as the savings group that provides other members of the community financial support when they get sick, cannot work, and have to go to the hospital.
There are people, like Vin, who truly believe in the power of their community to help each other. And it is because of these people, that I dare hope for a better future.
Of course, as he reminded us, this better future is not going to be actualized over night. It will start small, but this is the only way to start. It will start in the local community, but where else? As Vin stated,
“We need to come together to better our communities. Our villages. Our districts. And all of Cambodia!”
This order was not arbitrary. Rather than trickling down, true change will expand concentrically outwards. Grassroots change recognizes and embraces this truth: it must start with the roots.
At the conclusion of the interview, or better said, speech, Vin stepped off the platform and turned to lead us out. Walking through the gate, he reached up over the wall of his garden and plucked off two of his brightest, yellow sunflowers. His austere expression softened when he handed the gifts over, and he smiled and thanked us for coming. For the hope he had inspired in me, he deserved much more, but in Khmer, my reply was limited to “thank you very much,” and “goodbye.” Lamenting my inability to express meaning that transcends language barriers—something Vin had done so effortlessly just minutes earlier—I put my hands together, smiled, thanked him, bade farewell, turned around, and hopped into the back of the white pick up truck.
As the truck rolled down the dusty dirt road, I, wishing I had more to say, looked back at one of the true leaders of the project, who stood outside of his garden and waved goodbye.