Monday, November 27, 2006

Church vs. State vs. Alley

"Hey, Dennis - can you fix my bike?"

It was K, the seven-year-old kid from down the block, shouting up to my balcony from the alley below. By my count, this was going to be the eighth flat tire I had fixed for K in the last year.

I don't recall getting eight flat tires in my entire childhood - how could he get so many so often?

But I love fixing K's tires. He often brings his friends along, and I raise and lower seats, tighten wheels, and calibrate brakes for them, too. They watch me work, ask to help, tell me about school, and tease each other about girlfriends and boyfriends.

K and his friends are basically good kids. You can tell that their mothers or grandmothers have been a big influence on them. They don't need a lot of prodding to say please and thank you.

K's father is currently serving a little jail time for small-time drug dealing. I broke up a fight he was in on the street one day after another kid started taunting K: "Where's your daddy? Huh? Where's your daddy?" K is constantly in trouble at school, and has to go to special behavior classes.

But in fact, many of these kids these lack fathers at home.

A former professor of mine writes books about the arguments among religious figures in the middle ages over whether they could do the most good through the church as an institution or through personal acts and compassion. A modern version of this dilemma is often played out among graduate students I meet today: "Should I join the government or an official agency where I can influence policy that will affect millions of people? Or should I join a non-profit where I can roll up my sleeves and get something concrete done even if it is on a smaller scale?"

Over the past twenty years, I have worked this question from all angles, it seems. I did lots of policy work while at the World Bank, and I know some of it has improved lives. I have also made some hundred-million dollar infrastructure loans that should help increase economic growth rates and lift people out of povery. Now, at GlobalGiving, I am trying to provide a platform that enables a large number of small donors and small non-profits to come together to make a big difference in the world.

But I have to admit that, when K and his friends call up from the alley and ask me to come fix their bikes, I want to drop everything and go down there to help them out and talk about how things are going. Mari recently made up shirts for them with their own names and favorite numbers on the back. I told them that we would go play some ball in the park as soon as I had time. I need to make that time soon.