Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reynolds Summit & Personal Manifesto

Two weeks ago my scholarship, the Reynolds Program of Social Entrepreneurship, had a summit in Washington D.C. The Reynolds' introduced us to dozens of influential leaders in the course of three days. It was absolutely incredible. ((Unfortunately they didn't let me take any photos except the last night)

The first night we ate dinner with 3 members of the Supreme Court (Sotomayor, Kennedy and Ginsburg), the second day we heard a plethora of speakers, from Anthony Romero (director of the ACLU), to Larry Summers (Director, National Economic Council and White House economic advisor), General Colin Powell, Dr. Steven Chu (Secretary of Energy, US Department of Energy)and Jacquline Novogratz (found of Acumen Fund-- she was one of my favorites). That night we ate dinner at the Capitol with three congressmen: John Lewis, John Dingle, and Roy Blunt. Nancy Pelosi stopped in for about ten minutes and gave a passionate address about the importance of health care reform. Her energy was contagious.

The final day we went to the Blair House (where foreign heads of state stay when they are visiting) and the US National Security Advisor General James Jones came and spoke. He completely avoided a question about Palestine, choosing to speak instead about Iran's threat to Israel. Later we heard the Director of the CIA (Leon Panetta) speak, which convinced me how desperately the world needs more anthropologists (or at least the CIA does)...

The final dinner was unbelievable, definitely the most decadent meal of my life. Although I (almost) always eat vegetarian, I decided to go for the filet mignon (considering a girl should try it at least once ;). That night we danced and danced and danced (Wolf Blitzer danced too until 1am!).

I feel so blessed to be a part of such an amazing cohort of changemakers. I can honestly say that the most life changing revelations from the three days came from my conversations with my fellow scholars. I decided that I no longer want to pursue the Masters of Public Administration that I have been working towards.

I am now dreaming of creating an entity (business or organization?) that creates web-based multimedia platforms for not-for-profits. My theory is that the more depth and nuance we allow into the stories we tell, the more connected the viewer will feel. Dominant not-for-profit photography tells the story of the work the NGO does and those they work with in a 2 dimensional plane, perpetuating unequal relationships based on pity and guilt between western audiences and those whom they serve. Harrowing images of suffering and pain perpetuate exoticized and static understandings of how our fellow humans live. NGOs should not just aim for sympathy which, although it may motivate through guilt, ultimately dehumanizes those whom they are trying to benefit. Rather,they should aim to spread deeper understanding of a larger issue through the stories of individuals and their communities. They should try to show what life is really like for those they serve.

I believe that we must show individuals as parts of communities (the Kroo Bay project does an excellent job), who have so much more to them than whatever issue they are supposed to represent. This approach values the dignity and voices of those who are part of the community. It promotes a more equal relationship between the viewer and the subjects, emphasizing our interconnectedness as humans. Those who are served by NGOs are not recipients but agents. When we recognize our common humanity, we are called to action, because (in the words of Desmond Tutu) "My humanity is bound up in yours and we can only be human together." The world does not need western saviors, but we must each answer the call to act in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in every corner of the world.

I believe that if you can help people visualize a problem or issue, they can understand it in a much more personal way. Statistics are important but often they barely register in our brains. We can't imagine them so we can't comprehend them. A face stays with you in a way numbers can't.

I am just beginning to form this idea but I have already heard a lot of interest from my colleagues who have started NGOs. This summer will be my first project in this new initiative...

This summer I am going to BANGLADESH (!!!) with my beautiful friend Patricia (a fellow Reynolds Scholar who I adore more than most things on this planet).

Patricia and me at the Reynolds Summit, photo credit Cesar Francia

We will be traveling around rural Bangladesh for eight weeks interning with the organization BRAC in their Human Rights and Legal Services division (http://brac.net/index.php?nid=127). We will be creating a multimedia web based storytelling platform that will feature the stories of eight (we hope) women who are the survivors of human rights abuses (acid violence, rape, human trafficking). I am unbelievably excited about this project, I recognize it will be difficult (especially with such sensitive stories), but I think it will be a powerful testimony to hear the stories of women who are fighting against a system of structural violence that permits such abuses to occur.

Anyways, I didn't mean for this to turn into a manifesto but it kinda happened that way...

Enjoy the photos from our last night in D.C.!

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