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Recently, I ran across the blog of “Indian Homemaker,” an everyday Indian Homemaker who cares deeply about issues like feminism, human rights, tolerance and peace, gender equality, and her day to day experiences. It was interesting to see those perspectives from a “housewife,” who normally would be stereotyped as an individual who is not feminist or politically active. She defies stereotypes, and I am thankful for people like her for expanding our boundaries daily.

But what struck me most was that her most recent blog posts are heartwrenching, focusing on the death of her 19-year old daughter Tejaswee, who passed away just last month due to dengue fever. What truly tugged at my heart strings was the link to Tejaswee’s blog, where she had written about her own hopes, dreams, and passions. I’ve never met her, but her blog spoke to me; she was an intelligent young woman, around my age, with ambitions of becoming a politician in India, working towards ending poverty, and adopting a daughter. I too, have so many similar goals – down to adopting a child. And so, the reports of her death hit a little too close to home. Here are a few thoughts:

Social justice means fighting for human potential

It made me realize, again: this is reason we [in the "field" of social justice] are doing this work. I saw so clearly that this smart young woman had so much potential. Potential to achieve great things, right injustices, help change lives of the poor and marginalized. This potential was all robbed when she passed away. This made it so clear to me that what I am fighting against is the barriers that lack of human rights and equal opportunity places in front of people, preventing them from achieving their full potential. Because if we all had the opportunities to pursue our dreams – how different – how much better – would this world be! Reading Tejaswee’s posts made this fully apparent.

We live on through our online personas

I thought, also, about how in this day and age, our online personas change the way we think of death, life, and humanity. You or I or anyone else can venture over to her blog, read her writing, and feel like we know her personally. And yet – she is gone. She is not here physically, but she lives on through her online presence. It is a strange contradiction, but somehow a comfort. By baring my thoughts to this online platform, I feel like I, too, would be remembered even after I’m gone. We will all live on beyond our physical time here on earth. We can be remembered for who we were. There is something deeply reassuring about that, and I am thankful to the Internet for ‘eternalizing’ those of us who choose to have an online presence.

Bringing humanity back to social change efforts

I also realized that by reading Tejaswee’s blog posts and intimate thoughts, I almost felt like I knew her – and so, the tragedy of her death was personalized. She wasn’t a vague statistic; she was a human being, with feelings and dreams. And I wished I could have done something to avert her untimely death.

The use of online personas could be a valuable tool in the world of international development, human rights, and anti-war activism. Right now, the violence of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is muted. While we may see destruction, death, carnage through videos and news stories, we can never truly fathom the immense human potential that is being lost through these conflicts. The same goes for the thousands of women who die every day from childbirth, the children who perish from malnutrition worldwide, the senseless deaths of the poor from diseases like malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS. The same goes for the violence and rapes taking place in the DRC, prisoners in Zimbabwe dying from poor prison conditions, the Pakistan floods, and the countless stories of the daily struggles of the poor, marginalized and minorities around the world.

These people and their lives are all reduced to numbers. X number of people have died today of Y disease or Z war. These stories are not personalized and so, most people living privileged lives in the West never truly understand the scale of what is happening and the importance of doing something. We can improve advocacy by personalizing these stories, by making these struggling individuals humans, not numbers on a screen. And we can do that by allowing them to tell their stories, what makes them tick, what they want to accomplish in life, who they are, and why they love – and publishing these online to create their online personas. Only in this way can we get people to understand the immense human potential that is being destroyed every day. Only then can we inspire more people to take action. And only when we turn numbers into personas can we give due respect to the individuality, beauty, and significance of every single human life.

What do you think, about death and the online persona? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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There is a lot of talk of personal branding these days: is it good or bad? How can you build a network of people who respect your personal brand? How can you join a group of people with the same interests to help you make professional connections?

But while we are busy trying to carve an online space for ourselves and create a community of supporters who rally around our “brand”, we forget that the online space we inhabit is also continuously is defining us - and indeed, changing us in ways simultaneously subtle and not-so-subtle.

For instance, when I first got into social media – Twitter, blogging and the like – I was interested, yes, in human rights issues. But the interest was not as full blown of a passion as it is now. Why the change? I attribute much of it to the network I tapped into, which in turn started shaping me.

I began following more and more human rights activists, non-profit leaders, social entrepreneurs, and others in the social space. As I began following people incredibly passionate about bettering the world, it made me a better person. I tapped into these networks, engaged in conversations, and sat back and listened to some of the smartest people in the world debate issues in the human rights, social change, and development arena. And by becoming part of the conversation, I became more and more passionate about these issues myself.

Social media, the blogosphere, and Twitter helped me find my singular passion. Before Twitter, there were always many ideas and many interests swirling around in my head. But after I began actively engaging on Twitter, I learned more fundamentally, who I was. By choosing who to “follow” and dedicate my brain space to — and by choosing who to “unfollow” and ignore — I realized what I personally cared about most. What issues, careers, and industries resonated with me the most.

Social media made me a better person. By surrounding myself by people who genuinely cared, and not only that, cared in an intelligent manner (and yes, there is a distinction) — I began caring more. And more intelligently.

What’s true in real life is also true on the web. Surround yourself with good, smart people, and you will become more like them. Your friends can exert a positive influence on you and make you a better person, or you can fall into bad company and go downhill.

This may sound overdramatic to you, but I swear it’s not. Some people are born knowing what they want to do: be a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant even. They are lucky. I’ve never been that way. I have always had too many interests to narrow down to a single career that would define who I was for the rest of my life (a scary thought, right?). My passions didn’t always fit into the traditional career path. Social media helped me jump into the conversation and find what I really wanted. By finding many more outside my small real-life social circle doing exactly what I loved for a living, I felt my career interests to be validated. I found the courage to follow my heart, knowing that many others out there were also doing so, and sometimes breaking free of societal constraints in the process.

You don’t just create an online network that mirrors your own traits — your online network defines you, and even has the power to change you fundamentally.

Are you engaging with people who make you stronger, more brave, more caring, more intelligent, more informed?

Do you push yourself to join networks that challenge you to be better and to achieve your dreams?

Stop tweeting about what you had for breakfast, or your horrible job. Start conversations with those who intimidate you, with those who you breathlessly admire. Be bold. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll get there too.

How does your online community define and shape who you are?

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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.

The Changemaker

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.

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