Don’t Drink The Water….

West Virginia National Guard

Do not drink use the water! (via West Virginia National Guard)

Three stories in the news this week, all significant: the decline of teen pregnancies in the US, the West Virginia Elk River chemical spill, and India’s three year polio-free milestone. All three underline something I consider crucial to fundraising – people have to be able to relate to a story, really viscerally instinctively relate without explanation, to be moved to action.

First the pregnancies. Apparently they are down in the US, noticeably so. And because of an … MTV show? Yep.Critics and parts of the viewing public “derided” the show. But they were not the target demographic – teens and young people saw past the TMI warts-and-allness of a reality show to see themselves in the parents documented on the show. They could see themselves instantly in the unprepared people becoming parents much too soon and watching their futures change irrevocably, sometimes for the worse. But for the grace of God, and the will to make informed choices, that was them on screen—being derided by a merciless public. Makes perfect sense that they watched and said, “That will NOT be me.”

Second, the Elk River spill. A much bigger story in a far shorter period of time and not happening under the radar. And yet, we didn’t hear about it for several days. Ana Marie Cox wrote an important piece on why the leak took as long as it did before the story hit front pages and the current collective conscious. In a nutshell, it’s in West Virginia – which I knew to be an “other” even before I arrived in the U.S. And when I got here, it didn’t take long to hear the words most associated with the Mountain State – Deliverance, stripped out mines, America’s own poor, the place an outsider like Jamie Oliver goes to find the unhealthiest town in the country and demonstrate a “government statistic, based on death,” much like well-off Westerners of every stripe go to far off places to “do good.” It was our third world. And we were not like them.

But more importantly, even if the spill poisoned the water and left over 300,000 people in a bind, this was America. The government does have money. And it seemed like more of an inconvenience in the beginning. After all, people had options if they could drive. If nothing else, the mail still worked and perhaps you could take a page out of network cameraman Jim Long’s playbook and pay to get a box of baby wipes delivered via Amazon or Walmart? It was a teachable moment, but highly modified. Until it became something that was clearly going to continue for several more days. Until this became the pull quote on NPR’s Facebook page:

You obviously can’t cook, you can’t clean, you can’t bathe in any of that running water that you typically use. … To have clean clothes, to be able to take a shower – some people are having to drive as much as 40 minutes to find another place to do these things where the water is still running and they’re still able to use it.

(from the two-way/NPR)

Now it’s a teachable moment. Now it’s what charity water’s many many emails and advocates have been talking about for years. It’s not “if it’s yellow let it mellow” or “you’ll get a ticket if you water the lawn.” No. It’s “you have to feed and clothe yourself without water – entirely your problem if you’re smelly at the office/pitch meeting from not showering or can’t keep from getting sick because you can’t rinse the lunchtime apple, since actual cooking would result in dishwashing that’s not possible.”

Now it makes sense. A lot more immediate visceral sense. To the people affected, that is.

The people who are living the chemical spill in West Virginia, and the people like Mr. Long who are covering it, they’ll never have to be convinced of the efficacy of something like charity water, or the urgency of expensive taxpayer-funded USAID water projects the world around. They’ll have lived it. And they’re the people who’ll appreciate, on a whole other level, why India’s polio-free story is a big deal in a country with a billion people, huge water shortages across the board (much less potable water when it is available), and the will to administer modern medicine nonetheless.

The rest of us? We’ll be sympathetic.

I’m not saying the public is heartless or clueless. Far from it. There will be appeals, and people will open up their pocket books. But there’s a reason many of us will have to be convinced a bit more, get that second or third or seventh email. Because it won’t be a trigger for us, the one that says, “No! That is wrong and it is NOT going to happen if I can help it.” No, for us, Chris Christie’s bridgegate was the trigger that got our attention and the headlines. Because far many more of us sit in teeth-grindingly slow traffic first thing in the morning in the US than those of us who will ever be without water.

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