“Humanism is the blueprint of our charity”—an interview with Hemley Gonzalez


In late 2008, the Cuban-born American humanist Hemley Gonzalez took a backpacking trip through India. In Kolkata, he witnessed the horrible treatment local people received under the auspices of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and what he saw as the gross mismanagement of the millions they received in donations. Disgusted and disappointed, he began working independently in the slums to change the lives of disadvantaged families.

He returned to Miami in early 2009 and reflected on his experience for a year. Finally, he says, “the realization formed that I couldn’t return to my life as it was. I returned to India and never looked back.”

He began to cultivate a network of friends and supporters, and in 2010 founded Responsible Charity (RC), an organization devoted to effecting real and positive change in the lives of the people of Kolkata, beginning with residents of the Park Circus slum.

“I began with a guerrilla-like approach, going to the slums with just a backpack and a translator every day. I learned to listen, to observe, to take notes, and most importantly to return and effectively adjust the help we were providing each time. Within the first two years I organized a group of local volunteers who eventually became coordinators. We divided the challenges and prioritized what was needed in a logical sequence.”

Even as RC worked to meet the immediate needs of the people, it quickly became apparent that education was a pressing need if long-term, sustainable progress was to be achieved. “Initially I thought that getting as many kids as possible from the slums into schools would solve the problem, but reality came knocking hard,” he recalls. “Having some cash at hand to pay for their education was not enough. Not all the private schools in the area accepted the children, and even when they did, there were behavior and learning issues, some of the parents had health problems, several of the children were expected to start working from an early age, teenage weddings and pregnancies—the list goes on. I fought tooth and nail for two and a half years fundraising online and in person to establish a school and center where we could attack the problems efficiently and head on. This June, our first school and center turns one year old.”

The center works to address those complicating factors that get in the way of education. “We now have monthly birth control, micro-loan workshops, organized distribution of supplies, and more! Needless to say, it’s a completely different ball game than when we started.”

The profound impact of Responsible Charity’s work is clear in the lives of the people they work with, and Hemley brims with their stories. “Ajmeri is a mother of three. The family lived in a slum when we first met her three and a half years ago. Today she lives in a small home in a village 40 minutes from the city. Her youngest two children are in school and she’s employed at our center as a caretaker. Words cannot begin to describe the positive transformation, not only physically but emotionally in Ajmeri and her family. This is exactly why we do what we do.”

Hemley puts humanism at the center of his work and motivation. “Humanism is the blueprint of our charity, the belief that we should care for one another without the promise of rewards in an afterlife or punishment or guilt,” he says. “Behaving decently and doing good for goodness’ sake, right here, right now. With logic, science, common sense, all tied into a collaborative effort while creating real solutions that can eradicate poverty. That’s our focus every day.”

Meet Hemley and learn more about the brilliant work of Responsible Charity at Foundation Beyond Belief’s Humanism at Work conference, July 18-20 in Chicago.