Landfillharmonic in Paraguay

A new take on measuring empowerment. This is the kind of story that just tears at you, as an amazing example of creative, inspired people making something out of, literally, trash. Bad puns aside, this is a standout example of the type of thing we mean when we talk about empowerment. And it is hard to measure how empowered these kids or their parents feel, or how they might use this confidence in other areas of life.

But it still doesn’t sit quite right with me. The circumstances that made this possible – these communities making their living off trash – are not at all unusual. The extraordinary ingenuity of the man behind these instruments & this orchestra, of course, is unusual. And that’s precisely the point – it takes unusual, extraordinary people.

The ingredients of this orchestra are not just some skilled craftsmen and a bunch of scrap metal, though those were necessary. It also needed somebody who: knows how to make and play these instruments; has the time and the motivation to start an orchestra from quite literally scratch and teach all these kids to play; has the means (both finance and physical) to access to music, stands, strings, bows, trumpets, etc; and is decently good with kids. Not to mention a quiet(ish) space to practice (though perhaps they practice with dump trucks in the background); a safe space to store the instruments.

I don’t mean to rain on this parade. I do mean to say this: development types should recognize that it’s not just about “empowering recycling workers to make instruments”. There’s sooooo much more to it than that. That guy leading the Landfillharmonic, he exists in more places than we think. He’s the one empowering those kids. Let’s think about how we can empower him, and all the men and women with similar qualities for music, art, film, sports, books, science, math, health, farmer field schools, sanitation, nutrition, etc etc etc.

I think about my childhood. Every opportunity I had that gave me some sort of empowerment or confidence was because someone else was motivated and empowered to offer it to me. My music teachers in school come to mind: Mr. Wiele, Mr. Covelli, Mr. Wells, Mr. Firchow. My elementary science teacher Mrs. Roberts, the drama teacher Ms. Patretti. The dads who coached my baseball and soccer teams. My dad who organized a weekly pick-up games in the summers. Some were privately funded, others publicly. But none of them assumed I could empower myself with just a little kick out the door. All provided a balance of freedom and guidance – so they needed to be empowered too.

Empower the empowerers. Maybe it’s like “train the trainers,” destined for buzzword purgatory. But if we’re not just going to train people to do different things with the same old trash, we need to give motivated people the power to provide that balance of freedom and guidance out of there.


About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

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