Not just another thirteen orbits

I have to admit with a bit of embarrassment that it wasn’t until I fired up my “digital oracle” this morning that I realized today was another 9/11 anniversary. Lucky 13th. I remember clearly where I was and what I was doing. In college in Maine, gathering my books with NPR on, I heard that a small plane hit one of the towers. Didn’t think much of it, so I went to class. The love poetry of John Donne. Of course, news started bubbling up, and eventually class was let out a bit early. By the time I returned to my dorm room, all my friends were crowded around our TV. I tried to call home to New York, but it took a long time to get through. Luckily, everyone was safe, but the view from the train station looking south was devastating. That afternoon, I had another class: Religions of India — we were to focus on Islam. While no one would be penalized for skipping that day, the Professor didn’t cancel. Our curriculum was far too relevant.

Fast forward several years, there’s another moment I remember where I was and what I was doing. In a small village in Niger, listening to the BBC World Service describe the collapse of the world financial markets, the end of Lehman Brothers. It was time to get my rice and sauce from the local market. This market hadn’t collapsed yet. Fueled by the activities of people, community, and daily life, subsistence farming doesn’t play with credit default swaps.  But even remote villages eventually face turmoil when the world doesn’t sit well.

We remember events because they remind us how everything leads to the next occurrence, and the next and the next. While not everything happens for a reason (sometimes life does just throw you a stink bomb), I don’t believe there is true randomness in the long view. We plant the seeds of tomorrow with the triumphs or mistakes of today.

It’s been a while since I’ve cultivated a bridge on this forum.  Hopefully the next wait won’t be so long.

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On Truth and Reconciliation – Thank you, Madiba

Nelson Mandela Quote

Image by symphony of love, Creative Commons 2.0.

I lived in Cape Town, South Africa for six months nearly 10 years after the end of Apartheid as part of a study abroad program focused on the cultural and political transformation of the city.  Cape Town and South Africa as a whole is one of the most fascinating places in the world, both for its demonstration that hope can spring out of oppression, and also for its ongoing challenges.

While the end of Apartheid has not brought a smooth transition and South Africa still faces tremendous political, social, and economic challenges, two leaders stand at the forefront of this journey towards a more harmonious global society: Bishop Desmond Tutu and former President, Nelson Mandela. These two leaders are not simply figures for South Africa; they are figures for the entire world, articulating the best part of what makes us human – the ability to forgive but not forget.  As we remember Mandela’s life, let us not forget that we are part of his journey – which is the world’s journey, too.

Visiting Cape Town so soon after the fall of Apartheid, nearly everyone I met except for the very young children remembered the way things used to be.  My study abroad program had us live with host families – a few different families over the course of the six months, representative of the diversity within the nation.  Everyone’s memory had a unique perspective; while some experienced immediate improvement as a result of the end of Apartheid, many experienced a mixed bag.  Long-term change rarely brings short-term peace.

One major distinction from our experience in the US – a country that is still slowly overcoming a history of deep oppression by race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation – is the level of openness the public uses to speak about the past.  Perhaps my role as a visitor and scholar gave South Africans a greater level of comfort in telling me their stories, but I feel it was more than that.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission sent a loud and clear message to the country and to the world: the only way to move forward in prosperity together is to face the skeletons and demons of the past head on, develop a clear understanding of what happened, deliver justice when needed, and say that we can forgive but not forget.   This is easier said than done and the Commission’s ultimate legacy is yet to be determined, but Mandela’s unwavering optimism that humans are capable of reconciliation serves as a beacon of hope in an otherwise messy modern history.  Ask yourself, if you had experienced decades of oppression followed by a seemingly endless period behind bars, gazing at the staggering beauty that is Cape Town and Table Mountain, could you smile once again and forgive?

South Africa faces huge challenges, for forgiveness is not a one-time action.  Nor is movement beyond oppression a singular event in the United States.  Our vows for a more equitable society must continuously be renewed, along with an assessment of where we are, who we are, and where we are going.  As long as income inequality exists, we have not arrived as a people.  As we pay tribute to the incredible change agent who has left our human tribe, let us remember his lessons, for they are lessons to the world.

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Our Moral Obligation: Rebuild the Safety Ladder

With all the dialogue these past few weeks, I’ve been looking for a way to contextualize current events and frame our national discussion.  Clearly, talking about race in America is not easy, nor is discussing profiling, fear, hate, guns, reproductive rights, gender and sexuality, or our justice system.  But there is one more issue that needs healthy dialogue: income mobility.  In a recent study many are calling the most complete and detailed portrait of income mobility in the U.S., we see loud and clear perhaps the greatest American truth: Location Matters.  Where you are born correlates to a large degree with your earning potential and ability to move up the social ladder and build a foundation for your children and their children.

Whether or not you believe America has a race problem, a profiling problem, a violence problem, a fear problem, a hate problem, or others, I hope there is one thing we all can agree on as a society:

In the wealthiest nation on the planet, when one can very accurately predict the lifelong earning potential of someone as a child or teenager simply by their zip code, we have a moral obligation to work together to change that.

This is why I work to create housing and living opportunities for people cut out of the traditional market.  I believe everyone deserves a chance to follow their dreams and contribute to a healthier and more vibrant society.  Under the current system, too many dreams are shattered simply by geographic and economic circumstance.
Please like and share if you support the rebuilding of our safety ladder.

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Our communities need more music…always!

M-Bibe is a Seattle-based social enterprise connecting the community to local businesses, non-profit organizations, and musicians.  They are on Indiegogo right now to raise the resources necessary to expand their mission and vision.  The music is truly great, and if you don’t believe me, watch this video.  Please contribute before their campaign ends on July 16th.

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What is home to you?

One type of home, Discovery Park, Seattle, WA

One type of home, Discovery Park, Seattle, WA

Housing and health care may be the right and left Achilles Heels of the US economy.  But there is a C word that could serve as the antidote to both of them: community.  It takes an engaged community to pool together human, environmental, and capital resources to provide the care for each other across generations, and it takes community involvement to collaborate on a solution for housing in the 21st century.  The American Dream is changing, and home ownership is not an option for many, especially young people saddled with student loan debt.  Yet, there is also a lack of quality, affordable rentals.  Problems are opportunities on the flip side, and we need a game changer and renewed interest on how much home does matter in America and beyond.

Enterprise Community Partners and Edward Norton teamed up to offer this message on home as a new beginning, a second chance, or where it all starts.

A place to call home comes in many shapes and sizes.  Home is the foundation of community, but a secure future for home requires the rebuilding of a national paradigm on the security that comes only through establishing a roof over one’s head and, more important, comfort in knowing that one’s home will not be taken away.

Home Matters is a movement uniting America around Home as the pace where lives and families thrive, and as the bedrock for a stronger nation.  However, a movement is nothing without voices from across the country, speaking about their story of home.

whatishometoyouCommunity Frameworks is sponsoring a video contest for cash prizes of $500, $300, and $200 this spring.  The theme of the video: What is home to you?  Tell us in 3 minutes or less, and share your story with your community.  We know that home is not a singular term, but how often are its many forms expressed in a community dialogue?

Home can be many shapes and sizes.  It can be stationary, or it can be mobile.  Home is the cornerstone of our lives, where we love our families, where we begin and end each day.  Home can be a physical place, or a state of mind.

​What do you call home?  What does it look like, who is a part of your home, and how does it make you feel?

Share your home in words, images, and video.  Enter Community Frameworks’ NeighborWorks Week video contest this spring for your chance to win cash prizes.  Become part of a national dialogue around the power of home to revitalize our neighborhoods and build a secure future for our children and their children.

Working together, we can renew the power of home.

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Why I support TayaSola

Change starts with a vision, but a vision cannot come to life in a vacuum.  As a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, I spent most of my time doing one essential activity: developing relationships.

Tonkassare Villagers selling batteries, flashlights, matches, soap, and other items

Tonkassare Villagers selling batteries, flashlights, matches, soap, and other items

I woke, greeted my villagers, learned about the weddings, births, naming ceremonies, deaths, and any other happenings each and every day.  The children viewed me as an oddity, a white man living in a hot town, not speaking the language particularly well, unmarried despite having a beard.  One of my host mothers even said “a man your age needs a wife.  How will you survive otherwise?”  Through the children, I learned many of the local customs, but more particularly, I learned how I could make a difference.

Niger is one of many developing countries near the equator, and while many of us living in places with an abundance of electricity – summoned to our use by just plugging something in or flipping a switch – might think that life in the desert offers plenty of daylight hours, that is only half the story.

Villagers during the festival of Ramadan, getting ready for the sun to set so they can break fast.

Villagers during the festival of Ramadan, getting ready for the sun to set so they can break fast.

12 hours of the daily story, to be exact.  For a child in the developing world, daylight hours are a time for chores:  helping plow a field, sweeping one’s home, doing laundry, and cooking.  For children fortunate enough to go to school, the end of the day often means the end of studying, the end of learning.

Technology has provided several answers to the darkness: kerosene lamps that pollute the air and create a fire hazard; battery-powered lights, using cheap, disposable batteries that often leak acid as they are discarded in the sand.  An image that will never leave my mind is one of two infants kicking around one of these batteries.  The oozing acid shone disturbingly visible in the sunlight.

Solar lanterns offer a better solution, but technology sent to the developing world in the hopes of improving peoples’ lives can be unfortunately short-sighted.  Can industrial countries manufacture enough lanterns to satisfy the needs of the 1.2 Billion of the world’s population without easy access to light?  Perhaps.  But can these countries also satisfy the longer-term maintenance needs of this equipment?

Tonkossare school garden: parents, teachers, and children working together to grow nutritious vegetables for the community.

Tonkossare school garden: parents, teachers, and children working together to grow nutritious vegetables for the community.

I went to Niger armed with several items of American camping gear, including a solar charger.   I returned home with none of these items three years later, as they all bit the dust under the wear and tear of sand, wind, rain, and heat.  Furthermore, what lesson are we teaching by giving manufactured lanterns to the world’s poor?  Dependency is the cancer of development.

I support TayaSola because this social purpose corporation and its founder, Alma Lorraine Bone Constable, understand that innovation in the developing world must change from a model of dependency into one of interdependency and collaboration.  Through TayaSola’s lantern kits, children and families in Africa learn the principles of harnessing power from our most visible, renewable resource: the Sun.  Children build their own solar lanterns, and in doing so, they gain the greatest tool of all: the knowledge and the skills to create their own self-sufficient power and light systems.  Now they can purchase parts to construct larger systems for their home, school, community, or even to start their own business.  These tools do not come through a pre-assembled lantern; they are only cultivated when the children and their families learn and build what they need.

I support TayaSola for another reason as well.  As a social purpose corporation, TayaSola is a for-profit entity that balances its responsibility to generate a profit with its commitment to a social mission.  Unlike fast growth-high profit industries, Social Purpose Corporations and other “conscious companies” are unlikely to attract the kind of seed investment necessary for their vision to take root.  As such, TayaSola seeks support from the community through its campaign that is now live on Indiegogo.  Every dollar towards its $20,000 goal brings TaySola’s vision closer to life through perfecting a prototype, getting 500 solar lantern kits produced, and forging lasting relationships on the ground in Africa.  This work began years ago, as Alma traveled to Kenya in the early 2000s and saw the need for light in the rural communities and schools, similar to the need I saw in Niger.  She collaborated with women’s groups in Kenya to do something about it. Village leaders told her that they were looking for ways to build smaller, lower cost solutions that everyone could use.  This is the heart of TayaSola’s lantern kit and its larger vision of energy independence.  By contributing to this campaign, you become part of the TayaSola family, and as this SPC flourishes, you can say “Yes, I helped build that.”

Please contribute to collaborative power and light solutions in Africa today.  Even just a small amount, US$10 or $25, when leveraged through the contributions of others will help spark innovation and skills development for children around the world.

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Development at the Crossroads

Type in the words “Peace Corps Guilt” into a search engine, and you’ll find a post written by a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay.  Below that, you’ll see search results from people riffing on what she had to say, along with other pieces bearing the same themes: guilt, development, atrocities happening in the places and to the people in most need of a stable ground from which to rebuild.

We live in an age of abundance and opportunity, but access exists only for a few percentage points of the world’s population.  While I served in the Peace Corps in Niger, during a period when the program celebrated its 45th anniversary of being in-country, a series of questions kept rising to the surface.

How many years, labor hours, and millions or even billions of dollars have gone into global development?  Similarly, how many resources have we mobilized for development in the US?  And yet, where do we see the fruits of this work?

True, the last 50 years are marked with huge steps forward, yet at each phase along the way, the possibility of slipping back loomed large — now more than ever.  No amount of capital resources spent domestically or internationally can replace the essential mindset of a global will to be one community of respect and reciprocity. My greatest accomplishment in the Peace Corps came through relationships, not projects.   Getting to truly know another person of a different background, understanding their world view and what gets them up every morning should be a prerequisite for being human.

I have no doubt that government, business, and the social sector will continue to shape our communities in the name of development, but the world born out of this work is still unknown.  Whether we progress towards a more interconnected, interdependent, and collaborative society or one with greater barriers, animosity, dependencies, and competition depends on how we envision each other as stakeholders.

TayaSola, a company whose mission is to promote energy independence by selling the components initially for solar lantern kits and ultimately so people around the world can make the systems to generate the power they need, understands that the people served by businesses – both for profit and non-profit – must be considered as peers, not clients.

A development mindset focused on being service providers is an aging paradigm.  It must be replaced with something that acknowledges the role we each play as contributors and collaborators on the local level and radiating outward.  This starts by inspiring each other this holiday season.

Have a happy final two weeks of 2012, and embrace the possibilities that come in 2013.

Candles going out on 2012

Candles going out on 2012

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