Jessica Helfand | DesignIndaba

Making Change 01: Why Character Matters

Straight up the coast from Cape Town—past Namibia and Nigeria, beyond Angola and Cameroon—sits the Republic of Ghana. It is a small country, about the size of the state of Oregon, with a constitutional democracy and a population of just under 30 million. Over the course of the last thirty years, poverty in Ghana has declined, but a fundamental lack of infrastucture—access to economic opportunity, to agricultural production and food security, among other things—has slowed progress on multiple fronts. Only a small percentage of Ghana’s roads are paved, making transport (indeed, making everything) more onerous for its inhabitants, many of whom are refugees from other African countries.

Just yesterday in New York City, I met a taxi driver who emigrated from Ghana fourteen years ago and has not returned since. A college graduate, he is the eldest of seven and has, single-handedly, financed all of their educations—all have gone to university. One brother is a physician, another is in graduate school. A sister studies in the United Kingdom. The impact this man has had on his siblings’ lives is a result of great sacrifice, yes—but more importantly, it's because of his character. 

It is this small, but powerful truth that illuminates the degree to which change, even—or perhaps especially—in an era marked by its exaggerated preoccupation with technology, remains so extraordinarily, irrevocably human.

Weather conditions prevented me from being in Cape Town this week, where the question of designers making change is being thoughtfully examined. Who are we to make changes and what kinds of changes might we consider making, if indeed we can make them at all? My chance encounter with this remarkable man on a snowy afternoon in New York is a reminder that at its core, change happens when you reset the coordinates for someone else. Maybe that's not a design story. But it should be.

Homepage image: Kwame Nkrumah Park, Accra, Ghana 

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