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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How are the people over there? My “Blog Action Day” Power of We post

In honor of this year’s Blog Action Day topic, the Power of We, I will share a story about a group of farmers in the village of Bani Goungu, a couple of kilometers south of my village, Tonkossare.  Back in 2008, Peace Corps Niger’s agricultural and natural resource management volunteers collaborated with the Nigerien government to promote plantations of the Acacia Senegal tree as an income generating activity.  Gum Arabic, which is produced by the tree, is a food additive found in many products, and the tree only grows in parts of the Sahel.

One morning I ventured down on foot to the village of Bani Goungu to meet the mayor and a few farmers interested in learning more about opportunities for producing and distributing Gum Arabic.  We hopped on a donkey cart, as the plantation sat up in the highlands, not walking distance from the village.  Several hours later, after pruning the trees and harvesting the sap, we returned to the village to discuss next steps.  It turned out that these farmers produced more Gum Arabic in their own plantation than they could possibly sell in the local market, and what they did sell, went for pennies.

These Bani Goungu farmers needed access to a larger market, and a plan for transporting their product.  This is the essence of the Power of We.  No individual or community is an island; we all need each other.  It is only by leveraging the We that resources can be combined into successes that are larger than the parts.

There is an important greeting in Zarma, the language that I spoke in Niger.  “Mate nodin boray?”  (pronounced Mah-tay No-din Bor-ay).  How are the people over there?  The people “over there” and the people “over here” care for one another because they know that each community exists in a web.

Alone, we are a bunch of I’s lacking the resources to accomplish anything.  But as we’s…the possibilities are endless.
What is your favorite Power of We story?

Bani Goungu farmers discussing the best way to prune an Acacia Senegal tree.

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Putting it to practice: Learning Lights launches as a Fledgling

Hello readers,

My travels around West Africa, community and affordable housing development work in the Pacific Northwest, and my studies in sustainable business have brought me to a new chapter.  Yesterday I started as a “Fledgling” in the conscious company incubator, Fledge.

The concept is Learning Lights: empowering people in developing countries to create their own renewable energy solutions by equipping them with the tools and knowledge to innovate exciting, new and appropriate products, such as a Solar Learning Light.  In my three and a half years living in Niger, I encountered the problem of a lack of access to renewable energy curriculum and the tools of implementation first hand.  Instead, villagers either stayed in the dark when the sun went down, had the light and smoke of a cooking fire as their only source of light, used highly toxic kerosene lanterns, or purchased cheap, battery-powered lights whose batteries died quickly and littered the landscape.  What could they do equipped with the knowledge and tools to create their own renewable energy reading light, and what other innovations could a Learning Light ignite?

Please visit Learning Lights or learn more about Fledge.  Like Learning Lights on facebook, or follow us on twitter.

More to come soon about my latest bridge building venture.

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