Community

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what community means to me, and something that happened at the school a couple of days ago got my wheels turning. (And I think it’s about time I got in a post about who I was before I was a Minerva Fellow…)

I was raised in what some would call an unconventional environment. It was a truly special place and I should thank my parents more often for building a life that nurtured so many people. For those of you who don’t know me, I grew up on a horse farm in northern New Jersey. Three Sister’s Farm (named for 3 generations of three sisters in my family), is home to Pony Power Therapies, an organization started by my mom in 2000 that provides horse-assisted activities to people with disabilities. My days were spent outside in every weather condition: splashing in water tubs in the summer, and sledding down frozen manure piles in the winter, and some part of every day was spent on the back of a horse. I was happily dirty from sun up to sun down. While other kids spent their early mornings playing instruments in zero period, my sisters and I were up early bottle feeding our newborn pygmy goats. I grew a love for nature and a found respect for the environment early on. I came home everyday after school and rode my horse, but unlike others in my sport, I trained for horseshows alongside children with autism and cerebral palsy, teenagers with anxiety disorders, wounded war veterans, and hospice patients.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are from summers in Vermont, where Pony Power ran a week-long retreat for women and children living in domestic violence shelters in urban New Jersey. These individuals had likely never seen anything outside of a concrete jungle, and here we were bringing them to a quaint, 600-person village where the only remnants of civilization were the run-down general store and a rustic inn stuck in the year 1800 (yeah, we’re a little crazy). The weeks were filled with lots of horses, farm-to-table food, and fresh air. As a ten-year-old, I was blissfully unaware of their difficult pasts, and I became fast friends with kids vastly different from myself. I was just excited to show them my favorite swimming holes and places to go “frogging.”

Pony Power is a place where people can come and forget about the ailments they faced earlier in the day, or the ones they will face after they leave. My mom always says being on the farm forces you to live in the moment. It’s truly the greatest medicine in the world.

I’ve said it before (in my MF application) and I’ll say it again: horses don’t care what color your skin is, who you voted for, how badly you screwed up on your midterm, or even if you can walk. This attribute, however, is hard to say about most people. I learned this lesson from an early age from the most noble of teachers.

That being said, my friendships knew no bounds of age, religion, color, ability, or species. I learned everything I know from horses (ok…and some people): acceptance, kindness, trust. My childhood was purely inclusive, and the person I am today is 100% tribute to the nature of my community.

So where am I going with this?

I feel a similar sense of community at TGC. By now we all know that the students all come from tough backgrounds. But every kid in a TGC uniform can be whoever they want to be within our gates. They can feel welcome and smart and proud despite the fact that they may have been begging on the streets a few years earlier. Or that their siblings still may be. Or that their parents can’t read or write. The kids have respect for their peers and for their teachers. The school has genuine regard for our planet.

This past week, the school welcomed a new music teacher. The school had been struggling to find a replacement for the last teacher for some time now, and the students had been longing to pick up their guitars again. I was in class and heard laughter and strums of guitars coming from outside in the eating hall. I was surprised because the music room was right across the hall from my classroom. After class, I noticed that the new music teacher had held his class outside. This young man was situated on a wooden bed with wheels, laying on his stomach holding a guitar in the front of the class. The kids played without any regard for the fact that their teacher was a disabled man, who was abandoned by his family as a child and grew up living in an NGO. The students were just happy to be learning guitar again. TGC is a wholly inclusive environment, and it feels a little more like home everyday.

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If you disapprove of my hairstyle and outfit choice, take it up with my mom

Listen

Yesterday was the second of the five-week parenting workshop series run by the local Women’s Resource Center. My predecessors, Emily and Allison, fundraised diligently during their fellowship for this workshop to be a possibility, and while they are not here to witness the fruits of their labor, I can verify that their efforts were not wasted. I left the meeting warm with insight and perspective.

Plain and simple, the purpose of this workshop is to endow parents and guardians with the basic skills necessary to best raise healthy and successful children in their poverty-ridden environments. An education can only go so far if families are not supportive of their children’s endeavors, or if their homes are not suitable for living.

But at it’s core, this workshop acts as so much more. This is a safe place where mothers, fathers, siblings, or whoever else may be raising these kids, can come and share their stories without the pressures of judgement or ridicule. For some, this may have been their first opportunity to speak openly and freely, not only about struggle, anguish, and violence, but also about love, perseverance, and accomplishment. This workshop is really just a place where people can be heard.

“Right listening” is one of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. In the words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk and global peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh: “If you really love someone, train yourself to be a listener. Compassion is the only energy that can help us connect with another person.”

I was under the impression that it was close to impossible to build genuine connections with people through translators. My impressions were proved wrong yesterday. I looked into these peoples’ eyes and listened unconditionally while they uttered sounds that held no meaning to me. But I felt their stories deeper than words could ever express.

I spend all day every day with these people’s kids. They are just like any other student (ok, I’m biased, I think they’re cooler than most). We don’t see them as poor people because at TGC, we’ve equaled their playing field by giving them all the basic necessities (see post: “If you give a kid a backpack”) But this is not how we envision their families- we see them as people who live in shacks, who sell frogs at the market, and who cannot read or write. We compartmentalize extreme poverty in our minds- we see it inside a vacuum of UNICEF and Save The Children holiday commercials. But every one of these people has a story. And when you listen to their stories, they just become people.

I left the meeting in awe of tales of some truly remarkable individuals…

  • A young mother articulated her story of perseverance so that her daughter could be educated. Her husband is not in agreement about the importance of education for their children, and she endured a great deal of suffering to ensure that her daughter was able to continue her studies at TGC.
  • One of the two fathers at the meeting quietly scurried out early to start his two-hour journey home to Kulen Mountain. His son lives at TGC, as it would be impossible to commute such a distance every day. This man is a cashew farmer (if you don’t know how cashews grow, google it) and works 15 hour every day. Despite the long distance and the demanding nature of his work, this man finds the time between harvests to come to every meeting regarding his son’s education.
  • Stories of alcohol, mental illness, and tragedy are common anecdotes in Cambodia. One mother touched upon the story of her family’s resilience and rebuilding after suicide took the life of her husband. She recalled the horrific night it happened- filled with alcohol and domestic violence.
  • One mother timidly shared her story of strength. She sat on her mat in the circle, her face nearly as worn as the ragged clothes she wore, her hands just rinsed clean from her long morning of selling frogs in the market. Her husband died over ten years ago, and she was left to raise her three children on her own without a home, land, or money. All of her children have since completed high school and have respectable jobs. Tears welled in her eyes as she spoke of the pride she feels in raising her children to be responsible, moral, and kind people, despite the challenges she was faced with throughout her life.

Our families suffer such hardships, yet they take leaps of courage and bravery when they commit to TGC. TGC is unlike any other school in the city, and their children are occupied 6 (sometimes 7) days a week. This is precious time that students could spend helping in the home or earning an income. But these people are able to see a value in something they don’t have themselves- education.

I kept hearing the word “sabbay” throughout the meeting. On the ride home, I asked Soben what it meant- sabbay means happy. Listening and caring- that makes people sabbay.

 

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A facilitator helping a group who cannot read or write

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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.

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Seen on home visit
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Seen on home visit
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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.

Ripples

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.

 

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Clean up day!

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Having a little too much fun with charades
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When worlds collide