When people make a difference

The powerful and beautiful attract our attention -- and that can be good to focus concern on disasters and other problems. But the world is also full of unsung individuals trying to make a difference.

Jason Tanner/Reuters
Actress Angelina Jolie meets internally displaced people at the Kandaro II flood victim relief camp during a visit to flood affected areas and relief camps supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in Nowshera, Pakistan's northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, September 7, 2010. Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the UN refugee agency, called for constant and long-term assistance for Pakistan to help it cope with floods that wreaked havoc on the impoverished country.

While no great man or woman is officially recorded as having said “It’s good to be king” (extensive Google research sources the line to producer/comedian Mel Brooks), there’s no escaping the differencemaking power that the rich, powerful, and beautiful wield. Their words and whims make aides scurry. At their command, armies march. Where they travel, cameras follow.

As with any news magazine, we often feature the powerful and important on our cover – President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rising political stars around the world. Important people often lead remarkable lives. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton remade herself into America’s top diplomat after having lost a bid for the 2008 presidential nomination. Mother, lawyer, US senator, she was also, of course, the other half of the famous “two for the price of one” White House power couple of the 1990s, with all the privilege and pain that entailed.

Shakespeare wrote 18 plays about the high and mighty. He penned only a handful about merchants and lovers. He wrote next to nothing about people quietly working to make their corner of the world a better place.

When the actress Angelina Jolie visits flood victims in Pakistan, she attracts attention. That’s the job of a United Nations goodwill ambassador. Good for her for helping refocus the world on this disaster long after media coverage has moved on. Bad for us for needing notables and celebrities to renew our interest.
Important people do important things, and we like to watch what they do. But what about the thousands of unfamous names who are pitching in, trying to make a difference in the world?

If you know the Monitor, you know that on page 47 you can meet one such person each week. Since our weekly magazine launched in the spring of 2009, we’ve done 74 profiles of people making a difference, each a character study of an individual who decided to venture outside the narrow range of personal interest and do something for others.

This feature (which around the office is known by the shorthand “PMAD”) is managed by veteran Monitor journalist Greg Lamb. Every week, Greg receives e-mails with suggested people to profile. We recently featured Ora Garway, Liberia’s only (and very brave) female editor. Before that, we visited Jimmy Pham, who helps Vietnam’s street kids. If you go to the archive at CSMonitor.com/pmad, you can get to know a rescuer of street dogs (Aug. 17, 2009), a minister trying to free the wrongly convicted (Nov. 30, 2009), a disabled man who helps disabled travelers (Feb. 19, 2009, back when we were a daily), and dozens of other remarkable men and women. As Greg puts it, the “PMADs are at the center of Monitor journalism – putting a light on people who are solving problems, who care about more than themselves.”

I recently came across a letter that Richard Bergenheim, my predecessor and the originator of the PMAD, wrote in response to a reader who was doing charitable work in New York City. In it, Richard mentioned how if you take one sheet of paper and lay it atop another – and do that again and again – eventually the stack is so strong that it can’t be torn. Page 47 is just one sheet of paper. It records a few lives bettered, a few smiles salvaged. Slowly, the pages have added up to a modest but undeniable registry of human dignity.

When we shifted the PMAD feature from the front of the magazine to the back a few months ago, a hidden logic seemed to reveal itself. Each week, our magazine’s pages unfold from global to local, from kings and conflicts to that one remarkable individual.

Being rich, powerful, or beautiful can be good. It certainly sounds fun. But whether you are at home in the halls of power, used to the media spotlight, or more comfortable packing lunches for the homeless in Kansas City (March 8, 2010), it’s better when you try to make a difference.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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