Babies in the River

I mentioned a while back that I would start sharing some stories and words of wisdom periodically on the blog.  These stories are probably familiar to many of you already, but they are classics worthy of revisiting periodically. 

“Babies in the River” is a wonderful parable for the nonprofit sector.  It is meant to illustrate the tension between charity and social change.  Here is a short version:

One summer in the village, the people gathered for a picnic. As they shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown!

Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts to save the babies, two of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river.

“Where are you going?” shouted one of the rescuers. “We need you here to help us save these babies!”

“We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

One version of the story that I heard had another person jump into the water alongside a baby.  When the townspeople asked, this person shouted that he was teaching the babies to swim.  All three approaches are familiar to those of us who have worked in human services. 

Though the social change approach (find the root cause of the problem) is most appealing, it is not always obvious how to get there, nor easy to turn one’s back on those currently in need.

3 Responses to Babies in the River

  1. You write: “Though the social change approach (find the root cause of the problem) is most appealing, it is not always obvious how to get there, nor easy to turn one’s back on those currently in need.”

    And this is why we need each other so much– while some of us hit the river to save the babies, we need others to go upstream to stop the tragedy.

    We can’t do all the work ourselves. We need each other. We all have different skills & interests — let’s support all the work we do — for there are lots of ‘babies to be saved’.

  2. How about we destroy the river called white supremacy-tinged capitalism? It makes no sense to save the babies or stop the person from the throwing the babies in if we don’t intend to stop the whole situation from being profitable (worth doing) for some in the first place. I’m sure that some will say I’m a reverse racist. Show me how. Droves of Indigenous (non-white) babies are drowning in that river daily. Who’s putting them in? “The man”- the same man destroyed countless indigenous cultures and claimed the philosophies and riches for his own, the same man that has murdered entire peoples in cold blood, the same man that has engaged in the destruction of life since his beginning (6,000 years ago). I contend that this man is not a man at all. I’ll let you all decide what to call yourselves but stop pretending like you care.

  3. One aspect the parable doesn’t address is the issue of the babies that have been pulled out of the river and are now piling up on the shore needing to be cared for. I came across this parable when I started doing animal rescue, and the idea of spay neuter is the part of the person running upriver to stop the babies from being thrown in. It is difficult to run away from the drowning babies floating past you to remain focused on your mission. But without a multi pronged approach the problem will never be fixed. Because even if you could pull every baby out of the river, you now have a new problem. Hence the overcrowded shelters. But you can’t run upriver without knowing there is someone saving as many as they can. But it is the ONLY way to solve the problem.