children running up hill

by Zoe Weil

If you conduct a web search for “kid heroes” you’ll discover wonderful children doing great things.

It is inspiring to read their stories, learn about their generosity, and know that kindness and compassion flourish. Yet you’ll likely discover that many of these children are involved in efforts that do not seek to change the systems that are causing suffering, injustice, and destruction in the first place. And sometimes these efforts cause harm to one group while trying to help another.

I just searched for “kids saving the world” and “kid heroes,” and below are some of the hundreds of stories I found about what children have contributed. As you read this list, consider which are truly solutionary: that is, they solve a root, systemic problem in a way that does not cause harm to people, animals, or the environment.  (An ideal solutionary solution is good for people, animals, and the environment; however, because solutions do not always address all three groups, to be solutionary a solution must not harm others.

  • Donated groceries to a food bank.
  • Raised money for schools to open in developing countries.
  • Designed a dialysis machine at a small fraction of the cost of typical machines.
  • Donated blankets to a homeless shelter.
  • Raised money to send livestock to developing countries.
  • Developed an early detection test for pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancers.
  • Organized protests against whale captivity at SeaWorld.
  • Raised money to help people recover after a natural disaster.
  • Held a rodeo to raise money for a health charity.
  • Successfully campaigned to have their school adopt Meatless Mondays.

I could list pages of good works that young people are doing around the world. I want to be clear that these efforts stem from generous hearts and need to be encouraged.

Yet, as I hope you noticed, not all of these efforts addressed a system in need of change. And some may have inadvertently caused harm to others, especially animals (e.g., the rodeo and providing livestock). Charitable donations won’t, by themselves, solve causal problems unless they are directly addressing and contributing to a change in an underlying problematic system.

If, for example, we ignore the root systems that are causing climate change, then we will perpetually be putting out the fires of what have become frequent, less-than-natural disasters. If we don’t develop systems for people to move out of poverty, we will always be faced with the need for aid.

Distinguishing between a solution and a solutionary solution can be challenging. As you read the account below, ask yourself whether it represents a solutionary solution:

In May 2015, a news report highlighted the good work of a young man who wanted to solve the problem of food waste and hunger simultaneously. His idea was to create a non-profit to utilize the efforts of volunteers to bring food from restaurants that would otherwise be thrown out to hungry people living in poverty. Soon he had built a thriving program with many volunteers transporting food disposed of by restaurants to soup kitchens.

Is this idea solutionary? If so, how would you rank it on a solutionary scale: low level, medium level, or high level? While it certainly remedies some local problems and helps many individuals, does it address or seek to solve the systems that perpetuate poverty and hunger and the systems that perpetuate food waste?

Were we, each and every day, to transport the excess food produced (and wasted) around the world into the hands of the approximately one billion people living in perpetual hunger, we still would not have solved the problems of poverty, massive income inequality, unsustainable agricultural practices, and the polluting energy and fertilizer systems involved in food production and transportation. So while I personally consider this non-profit program as somewhat solutionary, and while I applaud the founder’s work and am glad that he and his volunteers are doing it, thinking only at this level of solutions is not enough.

Developing high level solutionary solutions needs to be one of society’s primary goals and preparing young people to devise such solutionary solutions needs to be a primary goal of schooling.

Find out more in my forthcoming book (from which the above is excerpted), coming out March 2016, from Lantern Books.

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