Lead with kindness

Yesterday was desolate for the promise of a future of democracy in Cambodia. The esteemed and highly respected Cambodia Daily newspaper was forced to close its doors as a result of government crackdowns on free press and free speech. For the past 24 years, the Cambodia Daily, an American family-owned, independent newspaper, has provided the people of Cambodia with honest, unbiased news, “without fear or favor.” Additionally, the paper has provided young aspiring Cambodian reporters and writers with the invaluable opportunity to gain genuine journalistic experience. There was a lot of goodness in this little paper, and it’s truly a shame to see it go.

Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, has been in power for over 36 years, making him one of the longest serving leaders in history. Opposition has never been a problem for Hun Sen, as political activists and opposition party officials are regularly silenced by arrest, journalists have a reputation of being murdered, and protests are historically met with explosions. But July 2018 brings another election, and for the first time, the Cambodia National Rescue Party poses a legitimate threat against Hun Sen and the CPP’s power.

In order to ensure that the citizens are not receiving any anti-democratic rhetoric from media, Hun Sen has shut down over 20 radio stations and an independent newspaper, and forced foreign NGOs focused on democracy out of the country.

The CPP’s latest act was serious enough to grab the attention of the New York Times. Over the weekend, hundreds of Hun Sen’s armed police officers raided the home of the president of the opposition party in the middle of the night. His initial whereabouts were unclear, and it was later confirmed that he was arrested for “treason” based on a speech he delivered years ago.

And just last week, a woman was arrested for posting an anti-government comment on Facebook.

Morale was low yesterday. Fundamental human rights are being undermined. People want change, but have no platform on which to get there. Fear dominates.

I am not familiar with the practice of holding my tongue. When I don’t agree with something, I speak up and I protest. I want so badly to share that passion with my kids. So, it breaks my heart to come into work every day to my scared, confused, sad, funny, caring, and intelligent students, and to see that they are essentially powerless in their country.

How do we carry on with this cloud hanging over our heads? My unsettled stomach is somewhat consoled by last week’s work at TGC…

Over the past two weeks, we conducted home visits for all the students. It was fascinating to make connections between the students with whom I have built fast relationships, and their home lives. Most of the homes we visited acted merely as shelters from the elements: tin roofs and plywood walls raised up on branches. The week of visits ended with our bi-annual parents meeting at the school last Saturday. Everyone initially gathered in the courtyard, parents mingling around the tables, and young siblings kicking balls around with the students. Then the parents were called in for the commencement of the meeting. It was obvious that many of them felt uncomfortable in the room- surrounded by basic electricity, running water, and computers.

At this time, our principal, Dara started handing out snacks, simultaneously whispering to me that before we started the meeting, we had to ensure that everyone felt comfortable. He took about fifteen minutes to mingle and laugh with the families. The meeting only began when smiles filled the room.

His pure kindness struck me. The success of TGC is tribute to its governance. In the face of the disturbing political headlines, I am comforted that I’m part of an organization that acts as a model for leadership. From Cambodia to Washington DC, leadership must always start with kindness.

Seen on home visit
IMG_3528 2
Seen on home visit
Seen on home visit. This family’s main source of income: frogs. Zoom in for full effect






Leave No Trace

Reading my journal from before I left home is strange. It feels like I’m reading my diary from 5th grade- only this 5th grade me ditched my family and friends, and hopped on a plane to the middle of South East Asia (Right- ok. Not quite the same…) But the similarity is in the sense that my perspective about this place has already shifted so drastically in such a short period of time, and I already feel like a very different version of myself. Five weeks ago, I was thinking about this experience in terms of the “me” and the “I”. The proof is in my earlier blog posts- “What would I contribute?” “What legacy would I leave?” “Would my relationships be meaningful?” etc. etc. etc. I am sure that I was not alone in grappling with these questions (amirite @fellows10???)

Cambodia is rebuilding. Essentially from scratch in terms of business, culture, and education. There is a clear need for sustainable development, and the void is being (somewhat) filled by copious eager NGOs. Intentions are mostly good, but the execution could use some work.

Many people come to Cambodia and other developing countries to work for NGOs or humanitarian organizations. And for various reasons, they end up staying longer than they originally intended to. This is great- it boosts the economy, creates a community that people are eager to visit, and development is rampant. But this development is not sustainable.

Too many people are thinking in terms of the “I” and the “me.” There is simply no room for ego or personal intentions in this field of work.

I am here for 9 months. And while in earlier posts I deemed 9 months as a long period of time, in reality, it is quite insignificant on the timeline of an aid organization. Our purpose is not to carry plans for change on our backs until the goal is achieved. With this approach, we neglect the foundation. The goal of sustainable development is, in due time, for a person, organization or a business to be completely independent and self-reliant within its own community. If the foundation is non-existent, then the enterprise or organization in question will cease to exist.  Organizations become comfortable with western ideas and aid, and thus, often become reliant.

Remember that good ol’ Minerva Fellows Mantra? I used to think it was really culty when Tom and Hal made us chant it at every PUBLIC fellowship gathering pre-departure… but I’m starting to get it now:

“But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.’”

Here’s my perspective shift: for true sustainable development to occur, I need to take myself out of the equation. I need to help, but leave no trace.

Here are some of the ways I’m trying to live by this philosophy:

  • This past week, I opened a line of communication between TGC and Naga Earth, an amazing environmental NGO in Siem Reap. Naga Earth has various ongoing projects, but their current work is focused on collecting used cooking oil from local restaurants and converting it into biofuel and organic soap. Too often in Siem Reap, used oils from restaurants are sold to street vendors and reused, often causing serious illnesses. Joe To Go (the café that TGC operates) will be donating their used oil to support their work. Additionally, Naga Earth provides recycling workshops to their partner organizations, so the staff and students at TGC will be getting their hands dirty making awesome recycled paper in the coming weeks. My hope is that this relationship will carry on long after I’m gone.
  • One of my students has expressed a serious interest in studying human rights law. She certainly has the potential to succeed in the field, and as long as she presents an interest, I am going to help her in any way that I can. Together we have been researching local internships in law, as well as scholarships available for her continued education. Who knows, maybe this will be the student that changes the education system in this country for her fellow Cambodians.
  • Finally, in imposing myself on a beautiful, new, and developing country and community, it is so important that I truly live these values in my day-to-day life. I hope that in my endeavors to bring sustainable development to TGC and Siem Reap, I will also “leave no trace” in Siem Reap, and leave this city more beautiful than it was when I arrived. Each day I strive to be more conscious of the waste I am producing- I hope to be living completely waste-free in the coming weeks.


If you’ve stayed with me this long, thanks for reading all my jumbled trains of thought (:


Peace and love, xoxo

Responding to hate

It feels wrong to not address what went on in Charlottesville this week. I’m the one living in a developing country with no hot water, but all of you back home are living in a truly barbaric time. I feel shame and utter sadness when I think of home.

How does one respond? How are we supposed to grapple with a society filled with so much hatred, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness? How can we possibly persuade someone to choose kindness? I don’t have answers.

I am reminded of the words of the aspiring young feminist I talked about in an earlier post. In her words: “If you believe in something, just do it. Others will see, and they will follow.” Please: don’t sit back and watch. Care. Speak out, stand up against this nonsense. Resist. Protest. March.

I truly believe that all hatred comes from fear, and fear comes from the unknown. So what better remedy for such an obscenity than education? We must learn to decenter- to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to see the world from someone else’s point of view. And we have to talk about it.

I am keeping a log of all of the people I’ve met since I’ve been here. Today marks 52 people, countries of origin ranging from Singapore to Moldova to Australia to Holland to Trinidad. The other day, a friend asked me if I was getting bored of having the same conversation every time I meet someone new.

No. It’s not getting old. I’m getting really good at explaining what I’m doing here (still figuring that out) and what TGC and the Minerva Fellowship are. Really, I am just learning– about social initiatives going on in this city, about strangers’ perceptions of new places, about different cultures and languages, but most of all, I’m just learning about people.

I feel lucky and humbled that as a Minerva Fellow, I get the opportunity to return to Union for the month of May to share my experience, and educate the community about a culture and a people different from their own. My hope is that this will be my small contribution in moving towards a world filled with more unity and compassion than difference and hate.

I stand in peace and solidarity with all those affected by this tragedy, and with those fighting for social justice and equity.








To be where you are

Finding the comfort in the discomfort- it’s universal in the nature of starting something new. This was obvious, and something that I expected to have to do.

I have always spoke about personal growth in these terms, in finding the comfort in the discomfort. It sounds deep, but in reality it is really just a coping mechanism- a humanistic reflex response, if you will. We’ve all traveled to new places, faced tragedy, and perhaps encountered varying levels of adversity. We’ve all had to find the comfort in the discomfort at one point or another in our lives. And this was one of the platforms on which I persuaded the Minerva Fellowship selection committee that I was a worthy candidate. Sure, I can find the comfort in the discomfort.

But here I am, one month into my fellowship, and I have found myself facing a new challenge: finding consistency in an ever-changing place.

I am a creature of habit. I like my routines (thanks, Mom). Each time I feel as though the novelty of this place is wearing off, and I begin to feel comfortable in my new surroundings, something changes.

  • Last week I started teaching my own classes at The Global Child.
  • This week- throw in some English lessons at the school’s café, Joe To Go.
  • The friends I have made will be continuing on their voyages beyond Siem Reap
  • The roosters that woke me up each morning at 3 am for three weeks- gone…
  • The oldest grade will graduate from the school in a few weeks
  • If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes.
  • If the Wifi is working, wait 10 minutes…

You get the point.

I have never been a fitness/wellness/health enthusiast- any one of my friends could tell you that. But in an attempt to create some routine for myself, I reached out to a new yoga studio that had just opened in town. After two weeks of practicing yoga and a bit of meditation with an amazing teacher, I am finding myself able to just “be.” (OK yeah. I’m also really sore.)

Before leaving home, I worried that I would be missing out on that quintessential first post-grad year: working and eating and drinking with all my best friends in a new city, while the world continued to turn and everything merry (some of you may call this FOMO) I deeply longed for this for the first few days I was here. And it hurt. But in longing for this hole to be filled, I wasn’t here, I wasn’t present. And I knew that to gain the most from this wild and crazy adventure, and for me to contribute meaningfully, I needed my whole self to be here, and to be open and vulnerable to this community. I found this sort of faith (?)- faith that my relationships back home are strong, and will persist through time and place. It’s certainly not a “one and done” kind of deal. Like everything in life, it takes work. Being present may be one of this world’s hardest challenges to overcome, but arguably one of the most important. Learning to “be” has given me the ability to stand strong and tall when everything around me is changing, and to be entirely welcoming to whatever these changes may bring.


With regard to social entrepreneurship, entrepreneurs and humanitarians alike generally aim for big impact on a large scale.

The public education system in Cambodia is still recovering  and rebuilding from the Khmer Rouge. Standards are low, resources are scarce, and incentive is almost nonexistent. Education reform is a big undertaking, and is frankly not something that any one NGO could possibly assume.

The Global Child is a private, non-governmental institution. A relatively small number of students are given the cliché “opportunity of a lifetime” when they are accepted to this school. When recruiting a new class, thousands of applications are distributed, and only a handful of students are selected from the pool based upon criteria such as need, capability, and likelihood of retention. So at first glance, one might assume a small impact.

Along with a top-tier, 12-subject education, the students are also provided with daily meals, healthcare, uniforms, bicycles, and housing if needed. The organization invests a lot of resources in just a few individuals, out of a massive population in Siem Reap who presents need. On a personal level, I have been one to criticize private education in the US, so I understand the opposition to some of these concepts. Some days I wonder if there could be ways to help a larger number of children with our resources.

But then I remind myself that it is not TGC’s mission to educate as many students as possible. The goal is to focus the resources on a small group of smart, motivated, inspired, and empowered students, and arm them with the resources with which they can develop their own communities.

The students at TGC come from dozens of the villages surrounding Siem Reap. There, they have family, friends, community. They have the rapport that most volunteers and NGOs will never have. And if I’ve learned anything from Hal’s Social Entrepreneurship class, it is that as a stranger, you cannot force yourself and your vision for change on a community (thanks, Ripples and Ernesto Sirolli.) But if we do our jobs correctly, we will see a trickle-down effect. Every one of the students is a natural leader, mentor, and role model, with the potential to enact large scale change.

In less than a month, I have witnessed this dynamic relationship between TGC students and the community, and each time, it’s pure magic:

  • One girl operates her own community initiative- Football for Kids. She has started sports programs in the villages around Siem Reap. This program allows her to share her love for sports with local children, all whilst empowering youth and creating a greater sense of community for everyone around her.
  • At the city clean up day (which, mind you, was not even a requirement for students to attend), I sat back and watched another one of our students help the youngest children from the local primary school. She assumed a leadership role without prompting, and handled herself with such poise and confidence: handing out breakfast, helping them try to put on their t-shirts, hats, and gloves all while holding sticky pastries in their other hands.
  • But best of all, when I opened one of my classes last week with the question: “what are your personal goals after you graduate from TGC next month?” I was taken aback by their responses. These girls truly understand the value of this “opportunity of a lifetime” they were given. The majority of this group of 7 girls are committed to rural development, and some day in the near future, I am sure each of them will lead powerfully.

This is the greater impact that TGC has on its community. This is scale.


Clean up day!


Having a little too much fun with charades
When worlds collide






To be a humanitarian is to be an environmentalist

Siem Reap is a “good work city.” This place is overflowing with NGOs eager to lend guiding hands to a community in the process of being rebuilt after an unbelievably devastating period of history. The Khmer culture was nearly erased as a result of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge- between one and three million were murdered in attempt to eliminate an entire social order and turn Cambodia into a “working class” nation. More than three decades have passed and the effects of the Rouge are still lingering within large populations of uneducated citizens.

Nevertheless, I have never felt more empowered by the sheer number of people here, both Khmer and expats, who are dedicated to social change. The causes that have stood out to me among the many have been education and environmentalism. And the two are not mutually exclusive. The students at TGC regularly partake in events held by local environmental organizations here in SR. They get it- they understand the importance of sustaining our planet’s precious resources, and why taking action is so necessary.

The sustainability initiatives in this community are noteworthy. The campaign, “Plastic Free July” just ended in Cambodia, and I was lucky enough to attend the closing event, where one speaker stood out. She looked just shy of twenty years old and was at the event representing a yoga studio that participated in the plastic free challenge. She got up on stage unprepared, and spoke with such poise about a cause so clearly dear to her. She spoke of the direct effects of climate change that she has experienced in her village: droughts, erosion, and water pollution. She spoke about her own efforts to limit her environmental footprint. But then she went further to talk about the people who laughed at her, who questioned her, who didn’t understand. The elders in her village, the sellers in the markets, her own friends didn’t understand why she cared or why she was so committed to the cause. She shared about her failures trying to persuade her opposition otherwise. Her resolution: “If you believe in something, just do it. Others will see, and they will follow.” I don’t think she understood the power of her words at that moment. We all have something to learn from this girl.

In an earlier post I wrote about living simply (I told you these posts would jump around…) Well, two weeks have come and gone and I’ve produced just about one shopping bag full of garbage. Leaving a small environmental footprint is almost inherent in the culture and lifestyle of Cambodia, and most developing nations for that matter. Even so, these places are facing the absolute worst effects of our western actions. Funny how that happens… those who contribute the least face the harshest consequences. So here is my wish for those of you reading from home: next time you shrug off climate change or environmentalism as an abstract phenomenon way out in the distance, take a moment to stop and think about someone else, far away, who may not have the luxury to “shrug it off.” You don’t have to be an environmentalist, you just have to care.

Some of my students had the eye-opening opportunity to go to a US Embassy sponsored event that showed the film A Plastic Ocean. If you would like to learn more about the consequences of a disposable lifestyle, check it out at: https://www.plasticoceans.org.








Loneliness, vulnerability, and purpose.

Nine months is a long time. The honeymoon phase has worn, and I’m often left thinking about how much time I have left here: if I will spend it meaningfully, if my relationships will be profound, and if I will leave any legacy. It’s daunting at times- wrapping my head around something so unquantifiable. It hits me the hardest when I’m not at the school, when I stop moving (which isn’t very often). I’ve come to embrace this sense of loneliness and vulnerability, it’s refreshing really.

But even in those moments that knock the wind out of me, I force myself to take a step back as to not feel overwhelmed by all of this, and I find comfort in knowing I have a purpose.

I may not know what that purpose is yet. Hell, I may never know, but that’s the beauty in all of this, I guess.

I’ll get up every morning and I’ll go to work. And I’ll try to find somewhere that I fit into this beautiful little puzzle. And just maybe we’ll all make a difference together.

For now, I have a clear job description in the Minerva Fellows Mantra, and I’m trying my hardest to live it everyday:

“Go to the people

Live with them

Learn from them

Love them.

Start with what they know

Build with what they have,

But with the best leaders

When the work is done,

The task accomplished,

The people will say

We have done this ourselves.”

-Lao Tzu

Cheers for now, xoxo!!!!!