While my friends hawked video rentals and pulled espresso shots, I spent college working at my county’s rape crisis center. For $7.25 an hour, graciously provided by federal work-study funds, I trained volunteers and answered crisis-line calls. I wrote newsletters and set up card tables at local events.But mostly, I talked to 11-year-olds.Armed with laminated poster boards and nametags, a colleague and I would walk into a new sixth-grade classroom each week. For an hour at a time, three days in a row, we’d talk about staying safe, about saying no, and about being assertive. About the way boys and girls are often expected to be, and how that sometimes sets everyone up for trouble. About how abusers will sometimes tell you it’s your fault, but it’s not, no matter what. At the end of each day, we’d collect “anonymous questions”: little paper scraps on which students could write down anything they were afraid to ask out loud. If they wanted, we always said, they could also ask for help and include their names.In nearly every class in nearly every school, someone would write about abuse he’d experienced, or that of a friend who’d confided in him. They were often aching to tell someone. We were just the first ones to ask.Sometimes it took two hours in a cramped back room behind the principal’s office, sometimes ten rushed minutes in a quiet hallway. But each abuse disclosure unfolded in largely the same way: slowly at first, and then all at once. Stories and feelings and sometimes tears gushing forth, engulfing them. Engulfing me. And then that was it. We’d pack up our role-playing props and poster boards, never to see those kids again. We couldn’t return to their classrooms or contact them at home, much less find out whether they had gotten help or their abusers had been stopped. We simply filled out the requisite forms and handed them off to the school’s administrators, hopeful—yet far from certain—that things would work out.But I didn’t want a form. I wanted to make things right for those kids. I wanted to take them in my arms and tell them, unequivocally, that they were safe now, and that it would never happen again.Instead, I left those sessions angry, sad, and drained. I was angry because they deserved better, and even angrier because I knew how hard it would be for them to escape not just the abuse, but feeling that they’d done something wrong, that it was their own damn fault, that they should be ashamed. I wanted to wash the guilt away for them.But life doesn’t work that way. Whether you’re a crisis worker or a web worker, it’s all the same. You can’t fix things for the people you’re there to help. You can only get them started.In hallways and counselors’ offices, I may have loosened the seal of fear and shame that was bottling up a child’s voice. Yet she was the one who had to speak, and keep speaking, until her life changed. She had to regain her own sense of power, not be saved by mine. My head knew this, but my heart wasn’t convinced. I’d still spend every drive back to the office the same way: shaking with frustration and wishing I could swoop in to make it all OK. It wasn’t until much later, years into a consulting career, that I understood how foolish this longing really was. Promising solutions to people in need, even people in crisis, may be immediately comforting, but it’s ultimately dishonest.At my best, I can ask the questions they’ve been aching to answer. I can light a path between the experience they know and the experience that could be. I can give them the space to find their way, and the confidence that their way is worth finding. But their problems will never be mine to fix.Soothing CEOs with bon mots and buzzwords or tossing technology around like confetti won’t help. Real change comes from within. There’s no outsourcing it, no papering it over, no substituting someone else’s efforts for internal ones. The world doesn’t need more solutioneers. It needs more advocates.
10 Jun 2013