Recently, I met some short term missionaries who were handing out fashion sandals to rural villagers. After Sally, one of the women on the team, fastened the flimsy sandals onto the feet of a local woman, she took a selfie with her. “I hope she feels like Cinderella, with this new pair of shoes!” she squealed.

For Sally, helping people in poverty meant acting as a fairy godmother, handing out the metaphorical glass slipper.

And largely, that’s become the poverty narrative told by the West. Give your money or your sandals, donate your gently used clothing, volunteer for a week at an orphanage, and you will change someone’s life.

But the West is not the savior, and villagers in the developing world are not Cinderella. It's time to get the story right.

Consider the story’s characters. Research demonstrates that the words we use to describe people influence how we treat them. If we define them as Cinderellas, then we’ll characterize them as dependent, helpless, and in need. Accordingly, our response will be to pity and patronize, giving financial gifts and instruction. We'll place ourselves on a plane above them, as the fairy godmother was more powerful than Cinderella.

Or, if on our quest to serve the poor we encounter youth who seem harder to serve, we will label them as deviant, dysfunctional, and disobedient. And based on these labels, we will either punish or ignore them.

In Reclaiming Youth At Risk, authors Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Bockern encourage readers to consider another solution: the "Reclaiming Environment".

The foundation of the Reclaiming Environment is a relationship. It's not about handing out shoes to people you’ll never see again. Reclaiming Youth at Risk is retelling flawed narratives of poverty and "troubled" youth. It's a book that gets the story right.

The Reclaiming Environment begins when we give empathizing labels. Rather than characterize youth as disobedient and deviant, we place ourselves in their shoes and ask “How did they end up in this place?” This mindset will help us characterize at-risk youth as rejected or discouraged, and feel concern and sympathy for them. The corresponding reaction will be to befriend and encourage them. 

He drew a circle to shut me out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.
— "Outwitted" by Edwin Markham

The idea of a Reclaiming Environment stems from a Native American philosophy of child development. The authors draw from this rich legacy, integrating contemporary research in the field of psychology. The goal of the reclaiming environment is to welcome children into a circle of courage, with four main values:  belonging, generosity, independence, and mastery. Youth who are connected to others in strong, stable relationships learn to live selflessly, succeed at new skills, and develop a healthy sense of autonomy. These four items encourage youth at risk--hence creating a circle of courage. 

The Reclaiming Environment involves walking alongside at-risk youth and investing in their lives long-term. The time and love involved make it a far more costly gift than a pair of fashion sandals. But it's a gift that is far more likely to transform a life.

Because that's the real moral of Cinderella: that relationships can transform us. Flawed as the story is, we still cheer when Cinderella is with the prince that she loves.The true beauty of the story is the relationship, not the pretty dress or glass slippers from the fairy godmother. 

At Alongsiders, that's the ending we're looking for. We're committed to empathizing with and walking beside those who are alone. We can't be the savior, but we'll be agents of love.

It's time to get the story right. 

For further reading: Brendtro, Larry K., Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern. Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future. Bloomington, Ind.: National Educational Service, 2002. Print.