'I was fuming' Why the head of a nonprofit thinks school supply and backpack giveaways send children the wrong message

Ed Walsh

Ismael Hernandez,. Founder & Executive Director, Freedom & Virtue InstitutePhoto byFreedom and Virtue Institute

‘Tis the season here in the San Francisco Bay Area for school supply and backpack giveaways. The events are celebrated by corporate sponsors and the media alike but not everyone thinks they are a good idea.

The founder of the Florida-based Freedom & Virtue Institute, Ismael Hernandez, blasted the giveaways during Acton Institute's Poverty Chttps://www.acton.org/pcs/homeure Summit in November. He said that the giveaways teach children that the reward comes from dependency and not from work and self-reliance.

“Nine years ago, I went to a free distribution of school supplies. The sea of black and brown kids getting the free, cheap school supplies from a small group of white people,” Hernandez told the poverty summit. “When I saw that, everyone was celebrating, I was fuming. I said, number one, why is it always us in the receiving end? Why? It's better in the giving end. It feels better when you are in the giving end. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

What are these kids learning? They were learning that there is a benefit at the end of the long lines of dependency,

“And number two, I ask myself, what are these kids learning? They were learning that there is a benefit at the end of the long lines of dependency, that I stand in line and those strangers who I'm being told that because they are white, they are the enemy, they have the good stuff. So I smile at them and get my stuff and they give me more and more and more. So we perpetuate this idea that this is the normal way of meeting human needs.

Why don't we give them the gift of work?

"But the kids need school supplies, don't they? The need is real. So we thought, Why don't we make them work for it? Why don’t we give them the gift of work? So we started one club in one all-black school. The kids would join the club at the beginning of the year. So we have a relationship with them. It's not like here's the stuff at the ra ra ra event during the summer and I don't see that child again. But I give them stuff. I feel good about it and I think that everything is okay.

"No, we have a relationship with them and they become entrepreneurs at the school site. We don't even invent new activities. We transform existing activities in the school that have entrepreneurial potential. The arts class are many of our clubs. The kids are creating wealth in the arts class every day and they don't realize it. Some of them are garden clubs that we call them farming clubs because that conveys the idea of wealth creation. Gardening is a hobby. The kids create products. We put together young entrepreneurs' fairs. The kids sell their products. And at the end of the school year, we had this beautiful field trip to a bank where we hand them their earnings for the year. They opened their own bank account and now they buy their own school supplies.

Let the poor themselves be the protagonists of their own stories.

"So the need was met with them as the protagonist of their story, not us as scenery in the drama of their lives while lived. And now the need was met by themselves, not by us. So this white saviorism can be avoided when we surrender the temptation of protagonism and let the poor themselves become the protagonist of their own stories.”

Hernandez’s talk about school supply and backpack giveaways can be heard here starting around the 29:00 mark in this podcast.

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