Pre-venn2020: A Provocative and Reflective Visit to Omelas with Jacqueline Novogratz

Pre-venn2020: A Provocative and Reflective Visit to Omelas with Jacqueline Novogratz

by Bradley Wo

When APC first planned for venn2020 in beautiful Pangkor Laut, we could not imagine how the year would unfold. The focus was to be on introspection, a time for APC members to look inwards and reflect on their own philanthropic goals amidst the tranquil island setting. Instead, we soon realised that an in-person gathering would be impossible with the reality of COVID-19. With venn2020 postponed until March 2021, APC held pre-venn2020 virtual sessions on 2 and 3 November hosted by Acumen CEO and Founder, Jacqueline Novogratz, who was invited by APC member Kathleen Chew.

Jacqueline led two intimate, thought-provoking discussions on “Good Society Readings,” an activity that challenges participants to explore the moral and ethical tensions inherent in building a good society. The discussion explored The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a short story by Ursula Le Guin. In the reading, we are introduced to the town of Omelas, a seemingly perfect place where everyone is happy and celebrating at a festival. But it is then revealed that this happiness is only possible because there is a child trapped and hidden away in a basement, suffering at the expense of everyone else.

Members openly shared their reactions to this troubling situation. Some saw a reflection of their own society and the numerous ignored and neglected issues that people willingly choose to overlook. Some looked inward and realised that there is a “child in the basement” within themselves, as they make their own moral and ethical sacrifices throughout their lives.

While the discussion was lively, we were also left with some unanswerable questions:

  • When do you choose to leave a situation that you disagree with, and when do you choose to stay and try to make a difference?
  • How do we know if trade-offs are necessary or if we are just conditioned to believe and accept them?
  • How do we better understand our own moral compass and the way it shapes how we work to create change?

Jacqueline posed to one of the groups this question: “How do we work on building systems recognising the world that is, but not letting go of the world that could be?” We find this especially relevant during these difficult times and in our roles as philanthropists. On one hand, philanthropy must respond to the current suffering and problems around us. On the other hand, philanthropy must go beyond the symptoms and build new solutions to long-standing problems. It is up to us to pave the path forward in a way that is accountable to both of these demands.

The sharing by Jacqueline and members was deeply inspiring. As we enter a new year, we look forward to continuing this conversation of how philanthropy can create a more just and fair society with each of you.

If you are interested in the reading, you can download The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas here. As this was a private member discussion, there are no recordings or notes of the session.