It has taken me way too long to write this blog. When Akhila reached out to me asking if I’d be interested in contributing to the “Be the Change” series, I immediately thought “Yes! Of course!” But, you see, I don’t really know how to write about myself and my experiences – on my blog, I stick to discussing current affairs, politics, etc. You know the image of the writer, scribbling by candlelight late at night, crumpling and chucking sheets of paper onto the floor in frustration every so often? Yeah, that’s me (at least it would be if this was 1809 and not 2009).
“Be the Change”: This expression comes from Mahatma Gandhi’s famous saying “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” which is arguably one of the most overused, cliched “do-gooder” phrases. I’d like to be a bit more cynical about it actually, but, in fact, this saying rings absolutely true to me. One of my dear friends gave me a beautiful little medallion on a chain with Gandhi’s words as a graduation gift in 2005. I don’t wear it all the time, but it’s with me, and reminds me that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” As many of the contributors to this series have pointed out, being the “Mother Theresa type” is daunting, and I don’t believe it makes sense for anyone to aspire to be like her, or like Gandhi. They left shoes too big to fill, and for mere humans like most of us, we can only aim to do the best we can, in accordance with our beliefs, and in line with our skills and abilities. I wanted to share some of my personal experiences in trying to “be the change,” particularly as I think that a lot of Akhila’s readers are just a few years younger than I am, and could find something useful for themselves in my stories.
My grad school program was four semesters long, with the third semester being a full-time internship. The way the schedule worked out was pretty amazing, and we ended up with a break from classes from July to March, with a 14-week internship requirement – leaving plenty of time for gallivanting and exploring. Being a student of international affairs and conflict and security, I knew that I wanted my internship to be in the field, and that I *needed* this experience – needed it for my own learning, of course, but also for my CV and to ensure that I would be able to go on to the job of dreams upon graduation [spoiler: it didn’t work out that way]. However, to my dismay, the internships I ended up getting offered were all in Washington, D.C. or New York. I ended up interning for a well-known foundation in New York for the fall semester, and while the experience was both professionally useful and personally satisfying, I still felt the urge to be in the field, to get my hands dirty. I knew that many of my classmates were doing ridiculously great internships with the International Organization of Migration in Angola, UNDP in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the French Embassy in Myanmar, and I felt quasi-inadequate going back to Paris with my “boring” New York internship. So I decided to do something which I know development practitioners and aid workers cringe at: I volunteered through an organization that provides placements ranging from two weeks to six months in the developing world. And so I spent the first two months of 2007 working and living in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana.
This wasn’t my first time living or working in Africa; I had spent a semester abroad in Cape Town in 2003, during which I had the opportunity to work with a group of women from Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of the city. However, none of my traveling – in Europe, Asia or Africa – had really prepared me for my experience at the Buduburam refugee camp. I was assigned as a health coordinator at the Carolyn Miller School, the only tuition-free school in the camp, which was home to about 40,000 refugees, mostly from Liberia. Already, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that refugees had no access to free education; and not only was it usually not free, but it was typically quite expensive, what with fees for the uniform fee, activities, registration and books. Private schools in Africa are for-profit institutions. What’s more, I was absolutely freaked out that I had to teach health to students between grades 4 and 7; my only experience in public health had been a couple of chapters in my high school biology book.
I relied heavily on the expertise of the doctors and nurses of the camp clinic; well, the one doctor and few registered nurses who were serving the medical needs of 40,000 people. It became clear quite quickly that the level of knowledge about health and hygiene among the students – and, more broadly, in the camp – was even less than mine. Working with a Liberian nurse in training, we taught the students about the importance of washing your hands before eating, of boiling water before using it for cooking. “Water boils…when it bubbles! Water boils… when it bubbles!” was the clever little song I had the younger kids sing; they knew about the need to boil water, but didn’t know that boiling water was more than just “very hot” water. Working with other volunteers and the school staff, we had the boys in the school build trash cans for the school, and the girls drew posters about “Keepin’ it clean!” One of my most memorable experiences, however, was teaching sexual health to the older kids (between 12 and 18.) It took me a while to convince the school that the kids needed to learn about how to use a condom; about what sex was and how to be responsible in their sexual discoveries. (For an account of my short lived sexual education career, see this old post.)
But while I was having a truly life-changing experience, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that more needed to be done. The children at this tuition-free school were particularly vulnerable, and hunger and malnutrition were obvious problems. Low and irregular attendance, particularly among girls, as well as a lack of attention in class and the constant nagging for food and water, were the visible symptoms. I, along with one of the other volunteers I lived with, Celina, decided that we wanted to do more and stay engaged with the community even after our departure. We had been moved to take action, and particularly as we had gotten to know and feel close to this community, we felt strongly that we had a responsibility to them.
Truth be told, I realize this story is not uncommon, and that many volunteers who have had similar experiences also feel this attachment and the desire to continue helping, even once the posting is over. Celina went back to Los Angeles, I went back to Paris, and we began to fundraise and organize ourselves into a non-profit, The Niapele Project, with the goal of returning during the summer to set up a school feeding program, as well as establish a home for abandoned children. And that’s precisely what we did. To cut a (very) long story short, between March 2007 and August 2008, we set up a school feeding program for hundreds of children at the tuition-free school, first in Ghana, and now in Liberia; we organized a home for 20+ abandoned children; and helped strengthen a program for children with disabilities. We had three interns during that time, ensuring communications and managing projects; we created an online presence; organized fundraisers; wrote articles; commissioned papers from Yale and Sciences-Po (my alma mater) and connected with dozens of other organizations and individuals wanting to help or collaborate with us. We wrote proposals, drafted budgets, wrote thousands of emails, traveled to West Africa several times – all of this, of course, while I was finishing grad school and Celina was working full-time.
Today, we are working with two of our original three partner organizations, but now in Liberia. When a crisis between the government of Ghana and the Liberian community created an untenable situation for refugees in Ghana, many quickly repatriated to Liberia, with or without the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For us, a little start-up non-profit, moving operations from Ghana to Liberia, on a shoestring budget, was a real challenge. Today, we are operating in Liberia: the school feeding program is going strong at the Carolyn Miller School in Monrovia, the center for children with disabilities is taking shape, and a new partnership with a grassroots Liberian media organization is promising to develop into an exciting new opportunity for us to affect positive change in Liberia.
I don’t have delusions of grandeur and I am conscious that probably thousands of others have followed similar paths; I realize that we’re not unique in that sense. I look at organizations like Forge and I feel pangs of jealousy. For all the successes we’ve had, our organization is constantly struggling for funding, the thought of which often keeps me up at night. For every person who volunteers his/her time for us, 20 more fail to deliver on their promises. We’ve had so many disappointments, and, frankly, I’ve felt the urge to throw in the towel more than once. Celina and I refer to The Niapele Project as “our baby,” because it really is like having a child together – I never stop thinking about it, and feel really guilty when I take a night off during the week to just sit around and watch TV instead of following up on an overdue task or email. It requires constant attention, devotion and care. Much like watching a child grow, we marvel at our organization’s successes, and cringe when things fall apart (and, let me tell you, they have, on multiple occasions.)
Since we started in 2007, I’ve gone from being a grad student, to being an underemployed graduate (among other random jobs I had following graduation: assistant office manager at a design firm; translator for social audits at French factories; hostess for corporate events) to working full time for a large NGO. In the latter capacity I have learned a lot about the aid industry. I am part of a team of about 20 and am a decade younger than everyone else (except for the office and program assistants). What has surprised me the most is that for people working in large NGOs, the work amounts to not much more than a job. Sure, we’re working for the greater good, yadda yadda. But one of the reasons I quit this comfortable, high profile job, is that I felt my idealism quashed under the weight of politics and bureaucracy (broadly speaking). I’ve realized that while my work for The Niapele Project is often frustrating and stressful, I derive the most satisfaction from our little victories in Liberia.
Just recently, our program manager sent us photos of our nutrition consultant carrying out the baseline evaluation to assess the malnutrition situation at the school. Those photos put a smile on my face and a spring in my step; our hard work is paying off – the kids are eating food produced in the community, we’re creating jobs and we’re monitoring progress. And while this program reaches only a few hundred children, unlike the work at my current organization which serves tens of thousands of people, I still feel a much greater sense of accomplishment.
Like I mentioned above, I’ve quit my comfortable, salaried position at the well-established NGO I’m currently working for. In early November, I’m going to Liberia – for the first time – in order to “tighten the bolts” on our programs and find ways to increase the impact and sustainability of our work. Sometimes I wonder if I’m absolutely out of my mind to be quitting – in this economy! – to go work (for free, and on my own dime) for the tiny organization we’ve created. Most people – including my current boss – are encouraging and support my decision. But frankly, I’m freaked out. I know I have the energy and drive to push the organization forward, but I’m really hoping we can catch our break soon. “Being the change,” quite literally, is inspiring and motivating, and I feel strongly about our mission. I’m not sure what keeps Celina, Megan and me from giving up; it’s so difficult to remain steadfast, to keep believing in what you’re doing, when for every step forward, you take three steps back.
All that said, I believe that there are so many ways for people to “be the change.” Clearly I, and other social entrepreneurs, am not taking the easiest road, but for those who are considering launching social ventures, I say go for it – just realize what you’re getting yourself into. Be ready to experience the very high highs and the very low lows that are part and parcel of this type of work. Be prepared to make some sacrifices, both personal and professional, for the sake of your vision. Aim high, dream big, but be realistic about your expectations.
Having a positive influence in the world is not an either/or proposition. You do not need to be like Mother Teresa, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, or even be crazy and start your own non-profit. What I think is powerful about Akhila’s series is that it reveals the myriad ways in which we can all easily “be the change”: A commitment to reducing, reusing and recycling; volunteering a few hours a month for a local organization or school; voting; making a financial contribution to your favorite charity; spreading knowledge and compassion. I sometimes feel wholly inadequate when I look at some of my peers who have accomplished so much before they even reach 30, and I know that many of us feel this way. But we just have to remind ourselves that this is not a competition, and that we each follow our own path.
**About the title of this post:
“Tryin’ small” is the Liberian way of saying “working on it!”, or “I’m doing my best”, or “I’m getting by”. For example, someone says “hello, how are you?”, you respond “eh, doing ok, tryin’ small”. I really like that expression, and Liberians use “small” to imply slow but steady progress – which is what change and making a difference is all about.
Penelope has a BA in international affairs and political science from Tufts University, and an MA in International Affairs from Sciences-Po Paris. She is currently working as program associate for the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative, a project of the Clinton Foundation, and is the co-founder and director of The Niapele Project. She blogs about international development, Africa, politics and human rights here. Born to a French mother and an American father, she enjoys red wine, cheese, yoga and documentary movies in equal amounts.