Nicholas Kristof, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, uses a simple image to convey his vision for how the world can be changed through small gestures of generosity: “I’m a huge believer in drops in the bucket.”
Kristof shared this message on Oct. 1 to an overflow audience of more than 120 activists, academics, and philanthropists, where he spoke about his philosophy for social change and his new book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, co-authored with his wife, Cheryl WuDunn. Ambassador Swanee Hunt, founder and president of Hunt Alternatives and chair of Demand Abolition, hosted the event at her home in Cambridge, Mass.
Citing examples from A Path Appears, Kristof said that complex, global problems like education reform and sex trafficking often seem overwhelming – but one person can have a surprising impact. To drive the point home he shared the story of his own father’s emigration to America.
A young refugee in Romania, Kristof’s father was imprisoned while trying to flee Communist rule. He eventually escaped, traveling to Italy and then France, where he cleaned the hotel room of an American woman from Oregon. She took a liking to him and with the help of her parents and church congregation, sponsored his passage to the United States, where he earned a doctorate and started a family.
“Helping my father didn’t solve the world refugee problem. It didn’t even make a dent in it,” he says. “But for my dad it was transformative. And I wouldn’t be here today if those people weren’t willing to try something that was just a drop in the bucket.”
Individual acts, mass impact
During his hour-long talk, Kristof spoke admiringly of activists who are changing the world through individual efforts. His stories spanned many issues, people, and countries, but a recurring thread intertwined them all: solving global problems requires personal involvement. Kristof credited Ambassador Hunt and Demand Abolition with opening his eyes to the harmful role of sex buyers in fueling human trafficking, which Kristof details in a powerful section of his book. He challenges glaring myths about prostitution and sex trafficking, including misconceptions that the trade mainly affects foreign women, and that most women involved in “the life” sell their bodies voluntarily.
Combating the demand for illegal commercial sex is the heart of Demand Abolition’s work. And it can be daunting. Online prostitution ads on Backpage.com generated over $30 million in profits in 2012. Roughly 15 million American men report having bought sex, and, according to one study, 68% of prostituted women interviewed suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Take into account that many law enforcement agencies lack the staff or budget to fight the illegal sex trade, and the issue can seem almost insurmountable.
But, following Kristof’s philosophy, what if instead of harping on what can’t be done, we focus on what we can do? By supporting organizations actively combating demand and persuading men that it’s not acceptable to buy sex, a single person can have a tremendous impact on the lives of many.
See Nicholas Kristof’s full presentation on how personal involvement can end human suffering, and how it inspires his writing and life’s work.