Don’t Ask Alice

Alice was the Mayor of Lac Sagesse a small town in Quebec. 812 people live there. It is a town where no one is poor.  When the town’s mill shut down, nearly everyone was affected. Alice convinced the town Council to help out. Alice being a mother understood the fundamentals of life. Everyone agreed to provide all families with free diapers and milk for as long as it took to revive the town’s economy.

For this and similar reasons, the economy is thriving in Lac Sagesse. Everyone has something to do. No one is ignored.

Word spread of Alice’s wisdom.

Poverty activists from across Canada invited her to speak at their big conference. The room was full of living wage advocates, minimum wage organizers, guaranteed annual income proponents, homeless prevention workers, welfare reformers, human rights strategists, politicians, business owners, researchers, food bank operators, philanthropists and social workers. Each had their preferred solution. Each anticipated Alice’s remarks would lend credibility to their approach.

Alice walked to the podium and without fanfare asked this question, “Do you know how to end poverty?”

“No,” said the audience. They did not want to appear presumptuous – false modesty being a silly Canadian trait. Even though each of them was certain their solution was best, they wanted to hear Alice speak.

What she did next stunned everyone.

“Why are you wasting my time?” she demanded. “If you don’t know how to end poverty, I can’t help you.” Then she left the stage.

This caused great consternation. No one had ever not finished a key-note speech. They were confused, disappointed and most of all, angry. How dare she waste their time?

They thought about it throughout the next year. Poverty was getting worse in the rest of Canada but not in Lac Sagesse so the conference planning committee invited Alice back. She was clearly doing something right so they were willing to give her another try.

Once again she approached the podium and asked, “Do you know how to end poverty?”

This time they were ready

“Yes,” they all shouted.

“Good. Then you don’t need me. Why are you wasting my time?” said Alice as she left the stage to shouts and a few boos.

But stories of the good lives enjoyed in Alice’s town continued to circulate. She couldn’t be ignored. What was her secret? Everyone wanted to know.

The conference organizers decided to try one more time. They promised her they wouldn’t waste her time.

The room was packed – attendance was the highest ever, as word spread about Alice’s strange behaviour. People were curious. Would she walk off the stage again? Or would she finally reveal all?

As expected Alice asked the same question. “Do you know how to end poverty?”

This time they were ready.

“Yes,” shouted one side of the room.

“No,” shouted the other.

Smiling Alice cleared her throat and said, “Good, would the people on this side of the room please talk to the people on the other side.”

At first people were stunned. Alice had done it again. In the uproar that followed, she left the stage, never to return.

Then a young woman went to the podium.

“We don’t need Alice,” she said. “We have each other.”

“What matters is not who is right or wrong. But that we align our efforts.”

You could hear a pin drop.

The people in the room looked at each other as if for the first time.