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Change Agent

Charitable works, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and ordinary people with great ideas on how to make a positive change in their communities and around the globe.

Author and TV journalist Fareed Zakaria hosts a discussion during the Clinton Global Initiative 2012 in New York. 'We have created a global economy' for which we have yet to 'fully recognize its power, depth, and strength,' he says. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File)

An 'explosion of human talent' will feed a growing world population

By Institute of Food Technologists / 07.27.13

A diverse, global scientific community, collectively worrying about how to feed a growing world population expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050, will provide the focus and collaboration needed to meet the challenge, CNN host, Washington Post columnist, editor-at-large of Time magazine, and bestselling author Fareed Zakaria, PhD, said July 14 at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) 2013 Annual Meeting & Food Expo® in Chicago.

Despite a pervasive “atmosphere of gloom” over the global economy and the inability to solve the world’s problems, a new global system has emerged that is producing “an explosion of human talent,” and an unprecedented opportunity for stability and innovation, Dr. Zakaria said.

“We always tend to worry about crisis and doom, and somehow we always recover,” Zakaria said. “What is new is that we have created a global economy and a new global system,” for which we have yet to “fully recognize its power, depth, and strength.”

“Countries that were once opposed to each other (economically and politically) are now joined in this global system, and they are participating in and playing by the same rules,” Zakaria said. They include Brazil, China, India, and other countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. In addition, the Internet provides information access to scientists throughout the world.

“That is the big event of our lifetime – the rise of the rest,” Zakaria said. “Dozens of countries that were locked out of the global economy have found a way to plug in and play in the new global system.” As a result, “we face enormous challenges, but they are not going to be challenges of decay, but of growth and abundance.”

So how will the world boost food production by 70 percent over the next 40 years, ensure enough usable water to produce and process this food, and solve the world’s other problems?

Problems have historically been solved by “harnessing the human response,” Zakaria said.

Zakaria referenced the 2009 H1N1 pandemic as an example of how well-publicized and well-coordinated global concerns over the spread of the disease resulted in its containment.

“You have to worry,” said Zakaria. “It is worrying in a productive, purposeful manner that you overcome the challenge that you are worrying about. If all of us worry about human collapse, decay, and decline, as long as we are worrying about it in a productive way, we will avert it.”

• For more than 70 years, IFT has existed to advance the science of food. Our nonprofit scientific society—more than 18,000 members from more than 100 countries—brings together food scientists, technologists, and related professions from academia, government, and industry. For more information, please visit ift.org.

Children participate in FOSAA’s school gardening initiative in Uganda. Pupils produce their own food to eat while at school, curbing the problem of hunger. Attendance, retention, and concentration are higher, says Dorcas Okello, and this is reflected in better grades. (Dorcas Okello/FOSAA)

In Uganda, better nutrition through school gardens

By Jonathan SpechtFood Tank / 07.26.13

[Editor's note: The United Nations declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) to highlight the importance of family and smallholder farmers. Food Tank is partnering with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to commemorate IYFF, and will feature weekly posts and other media highlighting the innovations that family farmers are using to alleviate hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation along with the campaigns and policies that support them.]

In working to achieve universal primary education for young people, Uganda has encountered one particularly difficult problem: school nutrition. When working on research for her master’s degree, Dorcas Okello, co-founder of the Forum for Sustainable Agriculture in Africa (FOSAA), found that as many as 59 percent of
Ugandan primary school students went without food during their entire day at school.

Through her work with FOSAA, Okello is implementing school gardens as a way to both improve student nutrition and prepare students for careers in agriculture. Today, Okello and FOSAA work with Ugandans of all ages to bring a more sustainable future to Africa’s farmers.

Food Tank: How did you get involved with the Forum for Sustainable Agriculture in Africa?

I became involved with FOSAA when I was doing research with school gardening among rural universal education primary schools. This work was funded by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) under its Field Attachment Program Award project. While running this project, FOSAA was on the ground ensuring that the activities are carried out as planned. As a member of FOSAA I ensured that activities were done effectively in a way that increased publicity and effectiveness, as well as sustainability, of the project activities.

FOSAA’s major role in this activity was in an advisory capacity. Considering FOSAA’s slogan which is ‘’Agriculture Powered by Innovation," our mandate is to cultivate an innovative spirit in both rural and urban farming communities in the journey to achieving sustainable agriculture. The purpose is to change the mentality of the young from thinking about agriculture as a punishment, but as a credible and feasible economic activity, thus; transform them into effective agricultural extension agents.

What is an example of a recent FOSAA project of which you are particularly proud?
I am glad to inform you that recently, FOSAA expanded the school gardening initiative from the one school, Nalango primary school to five schools: St. Jude Bulange Primary School, Mpakitoni Primary School, Makoka Primary School, Kiwolera Army Primary School, and Butaya Primary School in the Kamuli district.

Pupils are now in a position to produce their own food to eat while at school, and this is curbing the problem of short-term hunger. Attendance, retention, and concentration in school is now higher and this, in turn, is reflected in better grades at the end of the term.

How is FOSAA helping farmers to diversify their production?
One of FOSAA’s mandates is to ensure that farmers’ livelihoods are better than they were before they encountered FOSAA. This is being done by training farmers in better agronomic practices, and also introducing them to crops they have not been growing in their regions. The crops we introduce them to are those we are sure will thrive in their region, and also have ready market for income security.

We are also in partnership with Global Giving, raising funds via e-fundraising to introduce bee farming, especially in semi-arid zones of Uganda like Nakasongola.

How is FOSAA helping to improve value chains for agricultural products?
FOSAA is emphasizing the use of available innovations to maximize productivity. In addition, farmers are monitored until marketing time, when they are advised to bulk their produce to increase their bargaining power. There is a big emphasis on markets since markets are the single most important incentive to sustainable agriculture. A farmer linked to a good market has high potential to invest in agro-inputs, and storage and post-harvest technologies, as well as value addition.

It is also worth noting that achieving food security requires first ensuring income security. If farmers cannot find money to solve everyday financial obligations like medical or school fees, they cannot afford good meals. In extreme cases, financial pressure forces farmers to sell off what should be reserved as family food and end up going hungry or skipping some meals.

What are some ways that FOSAA is working to improve the participation of women in agriculture?
Since women are considered the custodians of food in Africa, FOSAA has taken a very keen interest in their activities. Families where the woman is in good health and in position to produce food are usually food secure. Women in Uganda and Africa at large are mainly involved in food production, while the men take part in produce marketing. But in most cases they are not involved in production.

FOSAA is improving the participation of women in agriculture by engaging the whole household. When trainings are done, the whole household in involved. Everyone, including the husbands, are invited for the training. Involvement of husbands sets a platform for supporting the women’s initiatives for improving agricultural production.

• Food Tank (www.foodtank.org) is a think tank focused on a feeding the world better. We research and highlight environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty and create networks of people, organizations, and content to push for food system change.

Indian tribal women collect sal leaves from the forest to make and sell plates in Angul, Odisha, India. The Foundation for Ecological Security works with villagers to make their common lands more productive and sustainable. (Manipadma Jena/Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Indian villagers reap the rewards of restoring common land

By Manipadma JenaThomson Reuters Foundation / 07.25.13

Heading to the farmers’ fair on the outskirts of Angul, an industrial town in India’s eastern state of Odisha, there’s not a cow to be seen along the roadside.

The 52-year-old headman of the local Juang tribe, Bhagban Pradhan, explains that it’s the season when communities feed their livestock in sheds to give their collectively managed grazing land and forest time to regenerate. 

Pooled resources – primarily land, forests, and water – provide a crucial coping mechanism for 8 out of 10 poor farming households in India, especially in semi-arid regions that are prone to drought. Fodder, fuel wood, and other forest products, including food, can be procured free from these “commons.”

“In rural livelihood systems, infrastructure must first be understood as soil, water, nutrients, biomass, and biodiversity, as they are fundamental for the viability of farming systems and thereby the rural economy,” said Jagdeesh Rao, founder and head of the Gujarat-based Foundation for Ecological Security (FES).

The FES works with 1.7 million rural people to manage the commons sustainably through democratic community institutions in some 4,000 villages across seven Indian states. Over 25 years, this work has improved 207,000 hectares (512,000 acres) of land, boosting incomes from farming, herding, and forest activities.

One major problem in India, however, is that common lands are often mistakenly categorized as "wastelands," Rao told Thomson Reuters Foundation. And they are shrinking due to a lack of proper tenure and appropriate village arrangements to manage them.

Around one third of India’s total geographical area, 120 million hectares (463,000 square miles), is degraded, according to a 2010 report from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. This includes much of the country’s 49 million hectares of common land, of which 2 percent is lost every five years to industry, special economic zones, and jatropha plantations that produce bio-diesel. 

Around the world, over 2.5 billion people live on and actively use physical commons, including forests and drylands, according to the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC).

“More than 90 percent of the Indian rural population depend in varying degrees on community lands for their survival, and up to a quarter of poorer household incomes year-round come from common property, compared to just 1 to 3 percent for non-poor [people],” Rao said.

India’s rural poor numbered 231 million in 2010, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

An early study from 1986 by commons expert NS Jodha showed that communal village land contributed $5 billion to the income of poor Indian households. Very little research has been undertaken since on the economics of common land, reflecting its relative lack of importance to India’s policymakers.

For eight months a year, Pradhan’s 45-household village and 25 surrounding tribal villages collect thick sal (shorea robusta) leaves from the forest to make them into plates they can sell. During the four months of the monsoon season, when the sal tree regenerates, they have little choice but to forage for edible tubers, fruits, and leaves.

“The forest that once gave like a mother had reached such degradation a decade back, we’d search all day but brought back hardly five edible things,” Pradhan said.

The FES taught them to start using traditional practices again, enabling forest resources to be harvested sustainably – for example, cutting half the tuber root to take home and leaving the rest to grow again, and protecting bio-diverse food areas from forest fires and fencing them off from cattle.

“Today my wife brings home the baghara auala (giant tuber) I last saw as a child … [and] 58 different edible items from these same forests,” Pradhan said triumphantly.

The village of Thoria and adjacent areas in the desert state of Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district experience big swings in the amount of annual rainfall they receive. In 1993, rainfall measured 292 millimeters (11 in.); in 2002, a fourth consecutive drought year, 51 mm (2 in.); and in 2006, 650 mm (26 in.), according to FES data.

In 1993, the FES helped the community in Thoria demarcate 500 hectares of common land as a watershed area. Native species like the fruit-bearing ber, babool, whose twigs are used for brushing teeth, and dhaman grass seedling were planted.

Check dams were built and water harvesting was introduced to recharge groundwater and arrest top soil erosion. The area was protected by the community, with five tree growers’ cooperative societies leading the battle against soil degradation.

Over a period of 13 years, assessment using satellite imagery and ground data showed an astonishing transformation in Thoria’s landscape and local people’s livelihoods.

The 160 hectares of local wasteland had been reduced to just one-tenth, with open forest land – which has narrow-leaf trees and sparse canopy – increasing from 2 hectares to 134 hectares.

Farmland cropped twice a year increased seven-fold, while eight times more grass was available, meeting Thoria’s considerable fodder needs. The adjoining 800 hectares of land also became greener as the water table was replenished.

On 25 hectares of common land in Gujarat State, a project supported by the FES from the late 1980s improved soil and biomass, with 55 tons of carbon sequestered and 33 tons of soil erosion prevented per hectare. It generated a nine-fold return on investment over the 17-year period to 2005.

In all of these efforts, women have played a leading role. “We worked on an equal footing with the men in both decisionmaking and responsibility, and for the first time in this locality, we got equal wages,” said 47-year-old Choti Devi, a woman community leader in Thoria.

Rao said the FES insists on universal membership for village ecology institutions, which is the strength of its grass-roots work. “Where a man sees an issue in market-related terms, a woman thinks long term and decides holistically – she thinks of food, fodder, and subsistence,” he said.

The organization has helped Rajasthan finalize a Common Land Policy – the first state government to do so – and is advocating for the commons to get their due place in national five-year plans.

This would enable village communities to access funds to restore their common land under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, India’s flagship rural income-generation scheme that pays wages to communities to develop local infrastructure.

The FES gained international recognition for its work in June, winning the Land for Life Award 2013. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) created the award in 2011 to recognize sustainable land management.

“Much of what [the winners] offer are simple solutions to climate change … but transformational,” said Luc Gnacadja, the UNCCD’s executive secretary.

The FES also won the Times of India-Social Impact Award and the Elinor Ostrom Award on Collective Governance of the Commons earlier this year.

“We will continue to dispel the notions that commons are ‘wastelands’ and that ‘everybody's property is nobody's property.’ " Rao said.

• Manipadma Jena is an environmental journalist based in India. She can be reached at manipadma.jena@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

'The average age of an African president is about 63 years old when the average age of the citizen is 19 years old,' says telecommunications entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim, who was born in Sudan. 'So you can really see the gap between [Africa's] leadership and our people.' (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

How (and why) Africa should solve its own problems

By Mo IbrahimSkoll World Forum / 07.24.13

Africa is the second largest continent on earth and has immense resources, yet African people are poor. The question is “why are we poor” if we have all this wonderful land, sea, shores? We are poor because of misrule, because we are badly governed. I don’t subscribe to the narrative that Africa is backward because of colonialism. Africa has been independent for 50 years now. Let’s forget the past, we need to get up and dust-off ourselves and get on with life.

What actually happened in the last 50 to 60 years is that we missed a lot of opportunities. At the moment of independence, many African countries like Ghana and Egypt had higher income per capita than China, India or Singapore. Where are we now? And where are those guys?

I think the blame should rest squarely on the way we have governed ourselves.

Not any amount of aid is going to move Africa forward. The only way for us to move forward is to ensure good governance – the way we manage our economy, our social life, our legal structures and institutions – that is the basis for development. We cannot rely on people to come and feed our poor or treat our sick. This is the responsibility of our governments.

Governance is not just about corruption or transparency or human rights or democracy or roads etc., it is about all of this. There is no compromise. All this is a basket of deliverables which governments must deliver to their citizens. If it is about deliverables then it is measureable. What we need to do is look at numbers and not wonderful leaders’ speeches. I want to know what leaders did in the last 12 months. We need to measure this every year and we need to produce a scorecard. This is how the Ibrahim Index of African Governance came about.

Leadership is also important. It became obvious to us that we need leaders that understand that they are running their country for the benefit of every single individual. Every child in this country is his responsibility; we need people who really believe in that, who cannot go to sleep because some people cannot eat or cannot find medicine. This is the kind of leadership that we need in Africa – an enlightened and dedicated sort of leadership. With this in mind, we came to the decision that we really need to go out searching for these heroes. We need role models that are important. This is why the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement is in African Leadership.

These were the two main issues we really cared about: the issue of leadership and the role of the leadership in transforming the society and how they started building the institutions. Societies are not sustainable without institutions.

Right now, the most important challenge, in my view, is African youth. We have a huge bulge of youngsters coming forward but where do the jobs come from, and what will happen to those people? The other day someone in our research team worked out that the average age of an African president is about 63 years old when the average age of the citizen is 19 years old. So you can really see the gap between our leadership and our people.

One major problem we have is the education system which, unfortunately, is not doing very well. If you are African, the more educated you are, the less chances you have of getting a job. This says something – education is too serious to be left to the few bureaucrats in ministries of education who have no connection to the real world. This is an area where you really need a national debate between business people, education specialists, and young people to know exactly what kind of work force we need to build in Africa.

China is already running out of labour, moving production houses out of China. We all know about the one child policy and that is one of the outcomes. Who is going to be the next factory of the world, is it going to be Africa? We have a lot of attractions – geographic locations, cheap labour, etc. but we are not ready because we need to build the infrastructure and we need to train our young people and give them the right skills. We need people who can really build and do things. This is a big challenge for us.

That challenge is immediately linked to the question of regional integration. People talk about Africa as if it is one country. Africa is not one country, Africa is 54 countries, which are not necessarily trading or communicating among themselves. It is more difficult to pass goods from East Africa to West Africa than taking it from China to West Africa and is more expensive.

If you are an African, and you decide to visit every other African country and you are unfortunate enough to have an African passport, you are going to spend a year trying to get visas for all those 53 countries. I have to travel to the country with my British passport, not my Sudanese passport because it takes me a month to get a visa with it.

We need to lay down the basis for the free trade area across Africa. We have been talking about regional integration for ages and its progress is proving very slow. Many African countries will not be viable without regional integration, full stop. We have to accept that, we need each other; we really need to open-up our borders to have free movement of goods, people and capital across our borders. Everywhere I go in Africa, I raise the question of why the Germans need the European Union and keep bailing people out? The answer is simple: they need it because they want to move their goods around.

We have almost 600 million mobile users in Africa, which is much more than European users. We have much more users than the United States but are we really proud of that? How many mobile phones were manufactured in Africa? None. If we don’t have the economies of scale, we are unable to force the trade required; we are unable to get a good deal for our manufacturers. Can Siemens sell a single mobile phone in China without building a factory there or transferring know-how? No way.

We are not able to force our demands on any of these companies or businesses because we are 54 failed voices; we need one big voice. And we cannot have that unless we force ahead with this integration.

Good governance in the public sector is a prerequisite for development but it is not enough. We cannot have it without also having good governance in the private sector; people need to understand that. If we have a go at corruption we really need to deal with it in the private sector, there is no question about that. Political leaders don’t corrupt themselves; they have partners in the private sector.

The illicit transfer of funds is another important issue. The illicit transfer of funds out of Africa is at least double the amount of aid that Africa receives every year. This speaks for itself. We need multinational companies to pay their taxes. Small African countries have very weak tax collection systems. We don’t have fantastic lawyers and forensic accountants who can really challenge these companies.

Britain has also discovered that it has the same problem; everybody has the same problem, even the United States. It is interesting that this issue – which we have been screaming out about for decades – suddenly, came to be in the forefront of the political debate in the UK and many European countries.

We hope that, at last, people in the developed countries are going to move forward now to stop all this nonsense. It is not acceptable anymore. Where is your leadership, where is good governance in your institutions? The light of transparency is shining over all of us now. It is impossible to keep secrets now because everything is leaked. We can find out everything about everybody. So if we are all naked, why don’t we behave and act in a decent way?

We are really seeking transparency everywhere. And we need to insist on transparency in the private sector because, believe me, we cannot have good governance in the public sector unless we also have good governance in the private sector. These two must really go hand-in-hand.

• Mo Ibrahim is the founder and chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

This article originally appeared at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, the premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues.

Blues musician Herman Bell works with the Alabama Blues Project to teach the music to children in Alabama. Here, he helps a child learn to play the harmonica. The organization connects children to the history of blues music, which developed in this area of the United States. (Courtesy of the Alabama Blues Project)

Bringing home the blues, connecting kids to a proud heritage

By Stell SimontonContributor / 07.23.13

Rick Asherson plays a riff on his guitar. Blues musician Debbie Bond sings a line. She tells the classroom full of kids: Big Mama Thornton made that song a hit, and then Elvis Presley picked it up.

The pair launch into song. "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog," they sing.

Ms. Bond and Mr. Asherson are part of the Alabama Blues Project, taking blues music to schoolchildren who may not know that it’s part of their own history.

“We expose the next generation to the blues as an African-American art form that was invented in the South," Bond says.

The pair go into schools in the Black Belt counties of Alabama, where they say the children are being underserved.

“They don’t have music and art in these schools," she says. "They’re in some of the poorest areas of Alabama.”

They talk about the history of the music – it's the root of so much popular American music – and they teach how to play it.

Recently in a school in Camden, Ala., they pulled out a photo of a small cabin in Florence, Ala. This was the birthplace of W.C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues,” they tell the children.

"Blues is the root of rock and roll," they say. It started in Mississippi, Alabama, and other parts of the Deep South.

The Alabama Blues Project was co-founded by Bond in 1995 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. It is now a nonprofit group directed by Paula Demonbruen. This year, it began providing instruction in five Tuscaloosa after-school programs, in addition to its blues club for children and programs in other schools in Alabama.

In July Ms. Demonbruen led the annual summer Blues Camp in Tuscaloosa. Former camper Jonathan Blakney, 20, came back to help teach.

"It comes out of African music," he says of the blues. "Some of the African beats and rhythms survive."

Field hollers, spirituals, work songs, simple ballads, and shout and chants were among the 19th-century forms that evolved into the blues.

Mr. Blakney and Blues Project program director Cara Lynn Teague describe how early blues players made homemade instruments. Wires were hung on a wall to create a stringed instrument, a plow handle attached to a washtub and strung with rope became a washtub bass, and tobacco tins were used to create a harmonica-like instrument.

At the summer camp, the children learn about specific blues musicians. Lowell Jeff, 13, gives a report. "This is about Microwave Dave," he says. "His first gig was in a local church in Texas."

Crystal Bolden, 12, reports on Cow Cow Davenport, who was born in Anniston, Ala., and began playing vaudeville in the 1920s.

Mikayla Davis, 9, says "Big Mama Thornton was mainly a singer but taught herself to play harmonica and drums.

"The kids have a discussion led by a teacher’s aide and agree that Elvis should have given Thornton credit when he recorded "Hound Dog" in 1956, just a few years after she did.

Maizie Childers Siders, 11, reports on Odetta: "She was born in Birmingham. She sang 'Oh Freedom' on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

"Keante White, 14, picked musician Adolphus Bell.

"He grew up in Luverne, Ala., and worked as a farm laborer.

"Then the teacher projects a YouTube video on the wall. It’s Adolphus Bell, in flamboyant red costume and headgear, performing live in Paris.

As the music starts, the magic starts. This is what the kids have come for. They hear the wailing chords and the lazy drawn-out sound of "The Thrill is Gone," and they rock and sway and beat their feet on the floor.

For a moment, the world is not divided into adults and children, or black and white, or any other divisions, but simply people feeling the passion of this soul-stirring music.

Later, in the harmonica room, gruff musician Bruce Andrews, wearing a T-shirt and vest, sits facing a semi-circle of six little girls and two boys."Let's hear it, Claire," he says, and Claire blows in to the harmonica.

"Pucker up like you're kissing your grandma," he says. "That's it, baby," he says encouragingly.

They try a trill.

"Now let's put it with some rhythm," he says, and he begins: “Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley have you heard / Mama gonna buy you a mockingbird.

”In another room, eight children, each with a guitar, face musician SharBaby. She encourages them to strum and change chords. They all play as she sings "Hound Dog."

In the drum room, Dave Crenshaw instructs the children.

"Kick it harder. It's not going to break," he says to a child sitting at a drum set. Mr. Crenshaw begins playing his electric guitar, and the child pounds out a big noise with an irresistible rhythm. It sends a pulse throughout the room.

Music also slips out from under the doors where the intermediate and advanced students are playing.

"Our hope is that this will make them feel a sense of pride," says the director, Ms. Demonbruen. "It belongs to them." Maybe they'll come to feel that "this is something my great-great-grandparents contributed to society," she says.

The camp is a diverse group, a mixture of black and white kids across different income levels. But it reaches out to children disadvantaged by economic or family situations or just by the lack of arts education in their schools.

"The arts in general are powerful for teaching kids self-esteem," Bond says. The arts also help children learn a kind of critical-thinking process that schools have moved away from, she says. Blues music taps into emotion and life experience and provides a channel for expressing it.

And, as Mr. Andrews, the harmonica instructor, says: "There's a creative fire within people, and if you stoke it a little bit, it might just save their lives."

Women listen to a speech by Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in Kabul in May 2013. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project is helping women express their thoughts and opinions through poetry. But the identity of women poets must be carefully guarded for their own safety. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters/File)

Afghan women write powerful poetry – even amid war

By Leigh CuenDowser / 07.22.13

Despite constant dangers, Afghan women’s poetry continues to flourish. One outlet for women’s poetry is Mirman Baheer, Afghanistan’s largest literary society for women. Mirman Baheer operates in Kabul with over 100 members. Its members are generally educated and employed; they are professors, parliamentarians, journalists, and scholars.

Approximately 300 of Miram Baheer’s members live in the outlying provinces — Khost, Paktia, Maidan Wardak, Kunduz, Kandahar, Herat, and Farah — where the group functions in secret. Many who cannot safely travel to meet together listen to radio programs broadcast by Mirman Baheer and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

“We recruit only through word-of-mouth and delete any content that might be used to identify our writers,” says Richelle McClain, director of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP) was founded in 2009. Today, 160 Afghan women across five provinces are enrolled in AWWP’s workshops, including a new workshop for teenagers and a Dari writing program. While security is an omnipresent concern, dwindling financial support is one of their greatest challenges. “We just lost 75 percent of our funding because of the US withdrawal,” says McClain.

In addition to radio broadcasts and writing programs, the AWWP collects oral stories from illiterate Afghan women, which are edited and published on the organization’s blog.

Before the 2014 elections in Afghanistan, the AWWP plans to partner with IFES Afghanistan (International Foundation for Electoral Systems) to promote political writings by local women through digital, print, and radio networks. They will also run special broadcasts featuring interviews with female candidates and programs about how election results will impact Afghan citizens.

For many rural women in Afghanistan, these secret networks and the poetry broadcasts are their only form of education. U.N. investigations revealed that only 12 percent of Afghan women are literate.

But thanks to volunteer translators and journalists contemporary Afghan women’s poetry can now reach global audiences. For example, the June 2013 issue of Poetry magazine was dedicated to landays – vitriolic, two-line verses traditionally recited by Afghan women at the river, the well, or private gatherings.

This collection came from years of investigative reporting by journalist Eliza Griswold. She journeyed to Afghanistan with photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy. On July 30, 2013, the Pulitzer Center will host “I Am the Beggar of the World,” a presentation of Griswald and Murphy’s work at the Culture Project in New York City.

A free exhibit at the Poetry Foundation Gallery in Chicago, "Shame Every Rose: Images of Afghanistan," features many of these landays and images. The exhibit is open to the public through August.

“Sharing this poetry could endanger the poets’ lives,” says Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine. “Still, they gave these poems willingly.”

The tradition of landays provides some level of anonymity for women because they are collective. They are recited and shared rather than attributed to a single poet.

Even so, in modern Afghanistan, poetry can be dangerous. Over the past year, several young Afghan poets were killed by their male relatives. A young Mirman Baheer member who called herself Rahila Muska burned herself to death in protest after her brothers found her writing poetry and brutally attacked her. Her real name was Zarmina. She often recited this landay over the phone to members of Miram Baheer:

“You sold me to an old man, Father.

"May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.”

Landays derive their power from shrewd layers of tension between the poet’s inner and outer world. They can explore rage, sarcasm, irony, loss, separation, and desire. Many of the poems are humorous, filled with bawdy sexual imagery.

Whatever the subject, a landay lilts from word to word in a short lullaby with scathing, layered meaning. These poems come from a long legacy of Afghan women’s literature.

“The Afghan woman poet predates the American or European female poet,” says Zohra Saed, an Afghan-American poet living in New York City. “Consider the poet queen Rabia Balkhi.” Legend has it this 11th-century Afghan used her last drop of blood to write poems.

“Afghan women’s poetry is unique because it must respond to create change,” says Saed. “Within our communities and also to change outside perceptions. It is the poetry of witness, of trauma, of memory, and of struggle to be seen as individuals.”

Saed recounted the time she edited a collection of literature by Afghan writers around the world. Before it was finished, an American radio station published a CD of the collection without her permission. They listed her as the editor and printed a photograph of an impoverished child on the cover.

“When people are interested in Afghan women’s poetry, it is presented as poetry by the same women the world has imagined rescuing over the past 20 years,” Saed says.

She took legal action to recall the copyrighted anthology, then focused it exclusively on Afghan-American writers. “There were also women poets who were not part of the war,” she says. “Writers raised abroad, their aesthetics and poetic voice is very different.”

Today, Afghan literature is fragmented by linguistic, cultural, and geographic divides. Some of the world’s most prominent Afghan writers live outside their fatherland and write in English. Many female writers in Afghanistan come from the urban elite, often educated in Western universities. Poems by women in rural Afghanistan are rarely published. Groups like the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and the Poetry Foundation are working to bridge this divide.

“Poetry is not only for the classroom and elite art circles,” says Mr. Share, editor of Poetry magazine. “Poetry is an essential part of life, the only way these women can share their experiences. These poems are electrifying and relevant.”

He hopes readers will realize that, even in the digital age, poetry can wield tangible power.

This article originally appeared at Dowser.org.

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett is gradually giving away all of his $58 billion. An online course this summer lets participants decide how to give away $100,000 of his sister's fortune. (Rick Wilking/Reuters/File)

Online course lets students give money away

By Josh FunkAssociated Press / 07.18.13

A free online course that started July 15 will offer students the chance to learn about giving from Warren Buffett and help decide how to spend more than $100,000 of his sister's money.

More than 4,000 people have already signed up for the course that will also feature philanthropic advice from baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. and the founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. Boston Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner and journalist Soledad O'Brien are other featured guests. The amount being given away could grow if more students sign up.

Mr. Buffett and his older sister, Doris Buffett, will be featured in the first class to talk about their motivation for philanthropy. Warren Buffett is gradually giving away all of his $58 billion Berkshire Hathaway stock while Doris Buffett has already given more than $150 million away en route to her goal of redistributing all her wealth before she dies.

"The trick is not to have her give it away faster than I make it," Warren Buffett joked because his family's wealth is tied to the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate he runs.

Each one of the big-name givers will be featured in videos at the end of each of the six class sessions discussing an aspect of philanthropy.

But everyone involved with the course agrees that the fact students get a chance to give away real money may be more important than the famous speakers because it makes the lessons more powerful.

"It's an experience that gives profound insight into deciding how we meet the needs of our society," said Rebecca Riccio, the Northeastern University professor who will teach the course.

The Giving With Purpose online course is modeled after a class that has been taught at more than 30 universities that allows students to give away $10,000 after evaluating several nonprofits and learning about effective giving. This online offering allowed Doris Buffett's Sunshine Lady foundation to expand the classes without adding staff to manage the program.

"Giving With Purpose allows us to extend the classroom walls to include any individual passionate about philanthropy," Doris Buffett said in a statement. "There are thousands of people with the energy and ideas to make a difference."

Ms. Riccio said the course will focus on individual decisionmaking in giving and will teach strategies students can use to make sure their donations are effective.

"I'm trying to teach people about giving with their heart and their head," Riccio said.

Charitable gifts should be relevant to whatever people are passionate about, Riccio said. But this class will teach people how to judge what kind of impact a nonprofit makes and how well-run the charity is based on how much it spends on administration.

Allyson Goldhagen said she hopes many more people sign up for the class because she found the university version of the course so valuable, and she's looking forward to helping teach the online course.

Taking Riccio's class at Northeastern shaped the way Goldhagen thinks about nonprofits and helped her land her current job at the Associated Grant Makers, where she helps charities in the Boston area become more efficient.

Goldhagen said the course can help people realize how important their gifts are to nonprofits, even if they are modest. That's why she talked both of her parents into taking the course.

"I really hope that they start to think differently about the world and their impact on it," Goldhagen said.

Doris Buffett's grandson, Alex Buffett Rozek, organized the online course, and he said he hopes this will be the first of many times it is offered.

In addition to what students learn in the course about effective giving, the nonprofits involved are also learning because usually the classes focus on smaller local charities. As students review organizations that might receive grant money, the charities learn about the process of winning grants.

"These grants are huge to the organizations that receive them," Rozek said. "And because they went through the process, they do understand how to fill out a grant application and get funding."

• For more visit Learning By Giving and The Sunshine Lady Foundation.

President Obama and former President George H. W. Bush applaud during an event to honor the winner of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award at the White House in Washington July 15, 2013. Mr. Obama Lauded Mr. Bush for spurring enthusiasm for volunteer service. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Obama, George H.W. Bush celebrate the 5,000th 'point of light'

By Doug DonovanThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 07.17.13

President Obama on Monday [July 15] established a task force to help federal agencies identify ways to expand the use of national-service programs to help tackle policy priorities, such as improving failing schools and aiding the environment.

At a White House ceremony honoring former President George H.W. Bush and the 5,000th recipient of the Daily Points of Light award he inspired two decades ago during his Republican administration, Mr. Obama said the new task force would determine how federal agencies and private companies could use members of AmeriCorps and similar programs “on some of our most important national priorities: improving schools, recovering from disasters, and mentoring our kids.”

The task force will be led by Wendy Spencer, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Representatives of 12 Cabinet agencies—from environment and energy to homeland security and labor—have 180 days to determine how they can use volunteers, how to evaluate the effectiveness and cost of such partnerships, and how those relationships can create a pipeline to employment for volunteers.

Mr. Obama did not say how he would finance the expanded use of AmeriCorps members, who receive stipends and educational assistance for their service. Budget constraints led his administration to eliminate Learn and Serve America, a national-service program that encouraged young people to volunteer and previously one of the three main national-service programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Learn and Serve America received $39.5 million in fiscal 2010 but was eliminated the following year.

The partnering efforts between the service corporation and federal agencies will build on existing programs such as FEMA Corps, which provides 1,600 AmeriCorps members to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief efforts; School Turnaround AmeriCorps, which works with the Department of Education to place 650 volunteers in low-performing schools; and STEM AmeriCorps, which places hundreds of AmeriCorps members with nonprofits to help science, technology, engineering, and math professionals steer students into those fields.

“In times of tight budgets and some very tough problems, we know that the greatest resource we have is the limitless energy and ingenuity of our citizens,” Mr. Obama said during the East Room ceremony at the White House. “And when we harness that energy and create more opportunities for Americans to serve, we pay tribute to the extraordinary example set by President Bush.”

Mr. Obama praised Mr. Bush for inspiring the Daily Points of Light Award, administered by the Points of Light Foundation since 1998. Mr. Obama stood on stage beside a wheelchair-bound Mr. Bush, who grinned widely and sported lively red- and white-striped socks that his son Neil later joked about.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush awarded the 5,000th Daily Points of Light award during the ceremony to Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, a retired couple from Union, Iowa, who founded a nonprofit called Outreach that has delivered 232 million free meals to children around the world.

President Obama then gave credit to Mr. Bush for spurring national enthusiasm for national service by signing the 1990 National and Community Service Act.

“Since 1989, the number of Americans who volunteer has grown by more than 25 million,” Mr. Obama said. “Today we can say that our country is a better and a stronger force for good in the world because, more and more, we are a people that serve. And for that, we have to thank President Bush, and his better half, Barbara, who is just as committed as her husband to service, and has dedicated her life to it as well.”

The Corporation for National and Community Service reported earlier this year that 64.3 million Americans “volunteered through a formal organization last year, an increase of 1.5 million from 2010,” according to its “Volunteering in America” report.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Rosember López Samayoa founded a nonprofit group in Chiapas, Mexico, that helps migrants who are also LBGT and face two kinds of discrimination. (Amy Lieberman)

In a Mexican border town, a friend in the fight against AIDS

By Amy LiebermanCorrespondent / 07.16.13

When Rosember López Samayoa was diagnosed with HIV in 1995, he traveled the costly distance to Mexico City to receive affordable treatment. He then returned to this lackluster border city that hugs Guatemala and shut himself inside his house, ashamed to reveal the death prophecy a doctor had delivered.

But after 11 months Mr. López emerged – still alive, and with a commitment to help people in his hometown who could be vulnerable to HIV, or who, like him, are unable to access good and inexpensive local medical care.

The former accountant founded a nonprofit organization, Una Mano Amigo en la Lucha Contra /SIDA, or A Hand Friend in the Fight Against AIDS, in 2000. He began to recruit participants for sexual health and rights workshops. 

Over the past 13 years, though, as Una Mano Amigo has expanded its reach across the southern portion of the Mexican state of Chiapas, the population the organization serves has also shifted.

Tapachula has always served as a migration hub, as Central American migrants cross the Guatemala border with ease into Mexico, the largest migration transit frontier in the world, according to the International Organization of Migration. But the population arriving now looks different.

“Before what was more visible was the contrast between straight men and women, and we would see more straight men arriving,” López says as he drives around Tapachula’s rain-slicked downtown one recent afternoon. He has spent the day leading a workshop nearby with a group of 14 sex workers, mostly single mothers who send money home to their children in Guatemala.

“Now what we’re seeing is a migration of people who are gay and trans[gender]. They come to us because they have HIV, and in their countries they couldn’t access the health care so they had to leave, but more than anything they are leaving because of violence.”

López remains the only one in Tapachula, and along southern Mexico – backed by his team of eight at Una Mano Amigo – that is specifically addressing the acute risks that migrants who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) face as they pass through or try to stay in Mexico.

They provide LGBT migrants with information about applying for refugee status in Mexico, and advocate for their rights in migration shelters and migration detention centers.

“They are the only ones doing it, and more importantly, they do it well,” said Rafael Zavala, the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Tapachula. “Rosember has gained acceptance among people in the local government here, who are listening to him.”

More than 700 murders of gay and transgender people across the country were documented from 1995 through 2009 by leading civil society watchdog organizations in Mexico. Assassinations of male and transgender sex workers are common in Tapachula, López says, though they are frequently reported as crimes of passion in the local media.

“It’s more difficult for this population. There is violence against migrants, and there is violence against LGBT people, so this population experiences double the discrimination,” Mr. Zavala explains.

Locating people who dually identify as LGBT and as migrants can be tricky for López and his team. On one July evening, his co-worker Gonzalo Ernesto Cue Rasgado, accompanied by a visitor, cut through the city’s turning streets and popped into brightly lit, tucked away bars. 

Everyone said they were from Tapachula, even one slight and young-looking bartender, who Cue remarked had a curious accent, as though from another country. 

The open office of Una Mano Amigo offers a space for transgender, female, and male sex workers, including migrants, who stop by regularly for afternoon educational workshops.

López has also established the organization as a rare source of employment for people living with HIV.

“In the physical, spiritual, and psychological sense, what he has done is really just create a safe place for people to express themselves,” says Mr. Cue, a coordinator with the organization who works with male sex workers.

López is also trying to impart these ideas to outside facilities, working with state-run detention centers to consider the particular needs of LGBT migrants, as well as networking with church-run migration shelters, which are often at a loss with how to register and house someone who identifies as transgender.

It’s an ongoing challenge, López explains. In 2012, for five months, he personally covered all the operating costs.

“There is still a lot of taboo and discrimination here if you are gay or trans, and so the institutions of government don’t touch these issues – in schools, in the detention centers – they don’t know what it means,” López says.

“We’re working to change this. But the issue of sexual diversity in Chiapas is very new, and this takes time.”

The Operation Jersey Shore Vacation team meets with leaders at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey to discuss the program, which donates an oceanside vacation to military families. From left, back row, CMSgt. Michael Ferraro; Col. John Wood, the Air Base Commander; and CMSgt. Terrence Greene. Front row: Paige Laurence and Amie Sinor of Operation Jersey Shore Vacation. (Courtesy of Operation Jersey Shore Vacation)

Operation Jersey Shore Vacation offers an oceanside respite to US military families

By David KarasContributor / 07.15.13

Summer is a time when many families take vacations to exciting or exotic places, whether across the world or just a drive down to a shore town along one of the coasts.

But for American military personnel and their families, such a luxury is not usually an option.

Operation Jersey Shore Vacation, the idea of a high school teen, is an innovative project that seeks to change that.

Lexi Sinor was a junior in high school when, in 2009, she came up with the plan to work with her father, Randy – a real estate agent – to identify homeowners with summer homes who would be willing to donate a week-long stay to members of the armed forces to allow them the chance to partake in a luxury so infrequent for those in the military.

After Lexi moved to Utah to attend college, her sister, Amie, now 17, stepped up to the plate. And the project quickly became something Amie is passionate about.

“It is great to see them when they come in,” Amie says of the families they provide vacations for. “I have been raised to give back whenever I can … it makes me feel good.”

Now in its fifth summer, Operation Jersey Shore Vacation works closely with military leaders at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey and with the owners of summer homes to identify qualified military families and to secure a home for them to stay in for a week at the New Jersey shore.

Beyond just providing the space for a family to enjoy, the project also works with local vendors and community groups to provide gift cards for groceries and other necessities, as well as free meals or outings on the island.

One location, Fantasy Island,  provides the families with free access to its rides, games, and other attractions as a special honor to service members.

“Being down here and having this chance to be together on a vacation – I think that is just real quality time for everybody to reconnect,” says Mr. Sinor, who added that he has no trouble finding support from local businesses or homeowners to make such vacations a reality.

One impetus for starting the program came when his oldest daughter was traveling in Italy between Florence and Rome and an earthquake struck, Sinor says. It took some 16 hours for the family to find out that she was safe. That experience, he says, resonated with the family as an example of what the families of US military personnel go through on a regular basis.

“We appreciate so much what the individual military people and their families sacrifice for us,” he says.

Seeing the families with children enjoying the rides and games along the coastline is a memory he won’t soon forget, Sinor says.

“It is special to them,” he says, noting the impact such experiences can have on young children. “That’s a memory they might not otherwise have had.”

While running the program takes a lot of time and dedication from an already busy high school senior, Amie says it has become something she is passionate about. The teen still visits each family during its stay – to date, more than 25 families in the five summers the program has been in operation.

“It does take a lot of time, but it is totally worth it,” she says. “When you see the families … and how happy they are to be together, it is just priceless.”

The Sinor family now is working to obtain 501c3 nonprofit status for their program.

This summer, the shore also may be visited by a family or two who have been displaced by the tornadoes in Oklahoma. At the time of a recent interview, Amie was working to identify times for a pair of Oklahoma families to travel to the New Jersey shore to get some much-needed rest and relaxation.

Heather Lamb fondly recalls the vacation her family was able to take through the project last summer, when they spent a week on New Jersey's Long Beach Island. She enjoyed the week-long reprieve along with her husband, Benjamin, and two of their three sons – Connor and Keegan.

“It was the first vacation ever for the family,” Mrs. Lamb says. “Due to my husband’s deployment schedules, we never got time to actually plan everything. You cannot make plans – it is very difficult.”

She said that every detail of the week – from the honors they received at local businesses to the memories they created together – was priceless.

“It was the best week we had,” she says. “It was so relaxing. We were so humbled and overwhelmed with the generosity.”

• For more information on Operation Jersey Shore Vacation, to apply for a vacation, or to support the effort, visit www.ojsv.org.

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