Tuesday, November 25, 2008

LeArNing about being a social entrepreneur



The first time I ever heard the term social entrepreneur was just a few days before my interviews to become an Ashoka Fellow in August 2001.

At that point, I'd been pouring my soul into Life in Africa for nearly 3 years, and everything Ashoka stands for spoke to the very marrow of my being. It was an absolute thrill for me to learn that there were others around the world like me, driven by an inexplicable passion to do whatever they saw they could to develop new system changing ideas. I knew clearly in those days that the possibilities for using the Internet for development I was seeing from my side of the world could change whole global development aid system. I wanted to help shape that new people to people system, and it was exciting to learn from Ashoka that I was not alone in having the audacity to think that big.

But by the time I was actually offered the Ashoka Fellowship - 4 months after the interviews - my immediate response was to turn it down. Sept 11 had happened, completely upsetting the online equation I’d built LifeInAfrica.com on. I later learned that many other promising online projects from Africa failed in the post 9/11 shift in global attention too. Nobody had time to think about Africa any more, traffic to our website completely died, and so did the programs it was raising funds for. I worked myself to into a manic frenzy that fall trying to come up with new ideas that could save it. By the end of 2001, my family had lost a ton of money in the venture, my marriage was ending, and the organization I’d poured so much of myself into was going down in flames. I was a blubbering, burnt-out basket case.

So when the Fellowship offer came from Ashoka, I turned it down. But since I was to be the first full Fellow in the East African region, the local Ashoka Director worked really hard to convince me not to. Ashoka isn't about projects, it's about a certain type of person. They had no doubt that I would continue to pour my heart and soul into trying to make replicable, large scale change happen. They were offering 2 years of financial support to help me start over, as well as lifetime membership in an elite global professional network, with access to services and opportunities designed to help people like me grow our big ideas.

But I was in dire need of a break. My whole life had gone down in flames around me, and I wanted to do nothing but sit and rest, and watch the world go by for a while. The local Ashoka director had told me that if I didn’t take the Fellowship then, it wouldn’t be available again. I later learned on a visit to Ashoka HQ in Washington that I actually could have deferred it for 1-2 years. Since the Fellowship was new in East Africa, the local Director probably didn't know. Anyway, in the end I accepted it, with the obligation to continue my work and submit regular reports for 2 years.

In retrospect, not taking a personal break when I knew I needed it then has been the worst professional mistake I’ve ever made. It has hampered my vision, my professional judgment, and my emotional capacity to do my job as a leader in ways that I sincerely regret, for far too long now.

There is a particular strength of character - a good amount of resilience, patience, confidence and determination - that a social entrepreneur must have alongside a deep sense of personal integrity in order to succeed. Sincerely speaking, since my life fell apart in late 2001, that strength that I know I did once have has failed me again and again and again in my work. I look at the past 7 years and know that I have not been the type of leader I’d hope to be if I could do it all over again. I have far too often made decisions based on desperation to just find a way to keep the project going and keep myself emotionally afloat. That’s not to say I’ve achieved nothing of value or made no impact – what I did do was a lot. But my ability to effectively lead others and exercise balanced judgment has been sorely compromised these past 7 years by feeling that I was now obligated to give from my battered and badly bleeding heart, and forcing myself to rise to the task.



For the past 4-5 years, I have worked with intent to develop Life in Africa into an organization that would be carried forward by Ugandans – not because of the weak leadership patterns I now see in retrospect, but knowing realistically that I might someday move on or die. The past two years, in particular though, have been just horrendous. The intensity of the heartache when things started to go very wrong from an unexpected direction was paralyzingly painful. I watched others I love here in Uganda fall apart too, not knowing how to fight against what was happening to the vision we had all put our hearts and souls into making real.

The sense of community we had managed to build locally and globally through Life in Africa was wonderful, but proved to be very fragile... and easy to sabotage by those who felt excluded from the magic in some way. Some of the back stabbing was brutal. At one point we found ourselves in a political war against small town bullies who knew how to fight better and dirtier than we did. I didn’t know at all how to handle the situation, and under the grief of it all I simply shut off. Transitioning to an organizational structure that could give the Ugandans control over Life in Africa took on an unfortunately desperate nature.

I botched up a lot of things and made a lot of decisions I now question, in an intense eagerness to get myself out from under the horrible emotional pressure. That's not the kind of leader Life in Africa needed. And in the middle of that transition (earlier this year) my mother-in-law died, changing many things in my personal life very suddenly. I had planned to spend most of 2008 on a working sabbatical in the USA, building a website to support the new Life in Africa structure. Right or wrong, I chose to stay in Uganda to help my husband and his family get through their crisis instead. With another badly needed break from Uganda thwarted and new challenging demands at the family level, I kept myself shut off from Life in Africa for most of the first half of this year. I let the website go stale, and didn’t pay enough attention to the resulting operational challenges until it was too late.

Among other factors, my inability to effectively lead when others were expecting me to has created all sorts of confusion and imbalances in the transitional plan we worked so hard to design with Life in Africa’s stakeholders. An under-resourced LiA USA providing sole financial support to the Ugandan orgs has unfortunately created the kind of unhealthy dependency relationship that the LiA of my visions was meant to help fix! That feeling of dependency has kept the Ugandans looking to LiA USA to give them the boundaries of what they are allowed to do or try in Uganda. The Americans have been trying to tell them what to do but don't see the Ugandan's vision or reality clearly, so communication between all of them about expectations has broken down. The relationships have steadily become very confusing for everyone involved, with many misunderstandings and well intentioned misfires on both sides, eventually leading to a point of crisis.

It became clear to me over the past month that I had become an unnecessarily dis-empowering presence as a middlewoman in these new relationships between the Life in Africa organizations, that I’d hoped would support and empower my Ugandan colleagues. LiA USA was still looking to broken down me (instead of to the Ugandans) for vision, and I just don’t seem to have the current capacity to provide it. So I’ve done the only thing that feels responsible in the face of this latest LiA crisis, and taken myself completely out of the management loop. About 10 days ago, I officially announced my retirement from the board of LiA Foundation, and submitted my resignation from the Board of LiA USA.

A few months ago I received a surprise sum of money from an investment I'd made with my ex years ago in Europe. Last week I transferred most of it to Life in Africa Foundation (Uganda) as my parting gift, in the hope that it can help to break my Ugandan colleagues' feeling of dependency on LiA USA and give them a chance to fly on their own, while at the same time allowing LiA USA some breathing room to regroup and refocus their ways and means of providing fundraising support.

I've advised the LiA USA Board to start taking their cues from Life in Africa Foundation’s Director, Grace Ayaa, and I am really excited to see how Grace is embracing the challenge of letting her own visions for Life in Africa's future be known. The LiA Kireka community of war-affected families has also received some funding through the gift I made, to be used at the discretion of the community's elected Board. I've been told in a letter from the community's chairman, Peter Ndelo, that they will use it to start at least one community income generating project from among the many plans the community developed this year that lacked funds to get off the ground. I got news from the USA this past weekend that a new website is finally under development, and that sales of the crafts we exported to LiA USA last year have started to pick up.

So things are still moving. I still believe I did enough right to ensure that Life in Africa won't die, and I do believe the new group of Life in Africa orgs that the old Foundation has become will find their footing in the end. I have a tremendous amount of faith in all of the people involved, and I trust them with Life in Africa's leadership more than I trust myself with it any more. I hope to become a model supporter and remain a lifelong Life in Africa fan. If you're reading this, I hope you will also think of doing what you can to support their continued efforts to use the internet in new ways to support African development - whether it's visiting and commenting on the blogs of LiA's leaders, clicking on sponsored ads, helping a grassroots project promote a chip-in campaign, or doing your holiday shopping through iGive, there are many small things that anyone who spends time online can do to help make big change happen. I'm including some links below.

I know others may have mixed feelings about my decisions of this month. I also know that others not understanding me doesn’t change who I know I am. Now that I know what a social entrepreneur is and have lived this life for 10 years, I don’t believe I will ever be able to turn off my desire to make a long-term positive impact on society with the talents and knowledge I have been blessed with. I will always be that particular kind of person who sees connections and opportunities where others don't, who is driven to try new things if they might benefit others, and who takes responsibility for what I put out there in the world very seriously. But I have learned a critical lesson about recognizing my own limits, and committing of myself only what I know I realistically, humanly can.



There’s a lot at stake in my line of work. I owe it to any people and issues I’ve committed to working with to give them my very best. Someday, the leader I know I can be will re-emerge in an evolved form – stronger, with a more level head, and once again ready to face the heart and soul level risks that are always involved in tackling our planet’s most pressing problems, like poverty in Africa.

Once a social entrepreneur, always a social entrepreneur. I fully intend to someday become a better one.... after I've finally taken that long overdue break.

Thanks for reading.

Christina Jordan
Kampala, Uganda (East Africa)
Founder, Life in Africa Foundation
Ashoka East Africa Fellow (2001)

Related Links:
Related posts on this blog:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

crY at goodbye



There is the life in Africa that was.

There is the life in Africa that never was.

There is the Life in Africa that will continue to be.

And then there is me.


I close my eyes and try to embrace the waves of change that crash over me.

Around me.

Behind me.

Without me doing anything at all.


When I see the wave coming that I think might take me closer to shore,

I grab it and hang onto it.

The turbulence propels me,

and I am lifted to a new place... beyond it.


Now I can watch, and cheer my fellow students on.

Ours is not goodbye, after all

but hello

from a new point of view.


My work here is almost done.

Life in Africa continues

and so will my own life,

richer for all I will cry for when I leave


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Putting events of the past couple of weeks into words - or putting anything into words while these things have been happening - is proving itself to be an emotional challenge that I feel myself avoiding. There is the part of me that longs to commit the process of change-making to words; there is the other part of me that longs to sit quietly and just BE for a while.

If you've ever hosted a party and felt like you had to sneak away for a minute to have a breather and freshen yourself up a bit before going back out to face the crowd, well... I guess that's me right now. I've not abandoned the pArtY here - just giving myself a minute to breathe before I come back to start filling y'all in on what all's been going on.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

DrAMa: child soldiers and the path to peace



They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions...

My sister in law is an artist who creates and sells wonderfully unique garden stepping stones, like the one in the picture above. The first time I saw them (and fell in love with them!) the Life in Africa community in Kampala had just recently started doing some work with war-affected children in Northern Uganda. We'd had some great experiences with art-therapy workshops making peacetiles (another collage concept) so I immediately started dreaming of how we might also make stepping stones with those kids.

Over the course of two decades, the Lord's Resistance Army abducted many thousands of Northern Ugandan children, who they brainwashed through extreme violence to serve as soldiers in their brutal rebel army. At the time I was thinking about the stepping stones (circa 2005), there were still thousands of child soldiers "in the bush" with the LRA, but peace talks seemed likely to happen soon. A local radio station had started broadcasting messages from families, telling the kids that they would be forgiven if they came home. It seemed to be working - many children were finding ways to escape and make their way into Northern Uganda's main towns.

I allowed myself to dream for a while of creating a "real" path to peace for those kids who wanted to come home, out of stepping stones that other war affected children had made. We could create the path extending in 4 directions outward from Gulu town (the Northern capital), and keep adding newly made stones that would reach further and further out to the kids. If they could find the path, they could follow it to safety.

I worked on making materials lists, costed it all out, talked to a potential partner about it, thought seriously about how we could get sponsors involved through the website, and got some favorable feedback when I wrote about the idea in a community online. Then I went to Gulu for another peacetiles workshop, and asked the 20 recently returned child soldiers who were participating what they thought of the idea.



They were ABSOLUTELY HORRIFIED.

Unanimously.

{gulp}

When they proceeded to give us a real insider's view of the reality they had been living, we just dropped that idea like a hot potato.

Not only were the stepping stones sure to be destroyed by the rebels, they told us, but certainly any child soldier caught anywhere near them would be shot dead on the spot - probably after s/he had been made to destroy the things, probably in a physically painful way, and probably in front of many other kids just to make sure they all got the message loud and clear.

{double gulp}

We were at a reception center, where kids who'd escaped or been rounded up by the army could stay while the UN provided some medical and psychological care and tried to track down their families. Among the experts advising us were a 15 year old mother of 3 who'd been given to a commander while in the bush, and a 13 year old boy who'd lost a leg because he was denied medical attention by the rebels for a foot injury. Some of the teens had been with the rebels for years. They all had their hair-raising stories, and clearly knew what they were talking about. I probably have more years of education than all 20 of those kids had together, but boy did I feel stupid.

It was a pretty dream, but even lovelier is that thousands more child soldiers have made their way home since then... without stepping stones to guide them.

Which is for the best anyway, since I never could get the cement mixture right. I like to think that was with God's intention.

By the way, my sister in law also makes customized stepping stones to order. They really are very special, so be sure to check 'em out at her shop Selkie Moonlight Design on Etsy.


Related posts:
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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Time out for another ThAnK YoU!

I've been learning a lot over the past month from participating in a blogging community called Entrecard. I've seen blogs of all kinds there, and bloggers of all kinds have been visiting this blog as well.

Here's a quick thank you to the Entrecard members who've visited this pArtY the most over the past month.


LaUgH: my two husbands


I moved to Africa and became a polygamous woman.

Well, no not really, but kind of... it's rather complicated!

I have to say, I have the best ex-husband one could possibly hope for. Not that I ever hoped to have an ex-husband, mind you, but it is what it is and I am very grateful that we're able to get along so well now. We've separated twice, both times for several years. He left Uganda about 1.5 years after we separated for the second time, right around the time I met N.

N is a wonderful Ugandan man with years of experience living abroad, who the kids and I are all crazy about.
It was pretty much love at first sight for all of us. He won't be leaving Uganda with us right away, but does plan to catch up with us when we hopefully move on from Europe to Asia in a couple of years. N and I currently live together in what Ugandans would call a common law marriage. In Ugandan culture it's normal that I refer to him conversationally as my husband and he refers to me as his wife, even if we haven't had an official ceremony. He and my ex get along great, by the way, and we both also get along well with my ex-husband's Greek girlfriend of several years.

But actually, my ex is not officially an ex yet... and may never be.

A warning on the risks of international marriage: the kids' dad and I are still legally married on paper because it's near impossible to figure out where to get a divorce! I am American, he's Dutch, we met in Switzerland, we got married in NYC, we owned property in Belgium and we now live in two different African countries.

Normally, international law says that the court in the country of domicile has jurisdiction over an international divorce. But in the country he lives in, there is no divorce. In the country I live in, divorce is a sentence handed down by a judge when someone violates the law of marriage. One party has to make a terrible case against the other, and conspiring to divorce (ie, divorce by mutual agreement) is against the law.


So my reality is that I kind of have two husbands.

We all get along, and the kids get a lot of love. People always laugh when I tell them that the four of us adults have gone out together with the kids on occasion and had a really great time. I guess it would seem more "normal" for us to be living with much more animosity and pain. If that's the case, then I'm quite happy to be abnormal. Better to laugh at the joy of reinventing new ways for our family to still function than to keep crying over the ways that it didn't, I say.

Sincerely speaking, I never intended to innovate a new form of polyandry but it's working for our multinational family. Don't worry though - I've no intention of pushing it as far as some of Africa's polygamous men do... two is definitely all I can handle!


Related posts:

Get ready to LaUgH!

ThiNkiNg: life after Africa

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Monday, November 3, 2008

iGive 4 LifeInAfrica: a chALLEnGe to fellow bloggers

The iGive 4 LiA Challenge is over - congrats to the winners!

BLOGGERS:
You can still support Life in Africa by placing an iGive badge on your site. If you do, we'll reciprocate with your badge on the front page of LifeInAfrica.com through mid-February 2009.

Here's the badge:



Please link it to:

http://www.igive.com/html/refer.cfm?memberid=524199&causeid=43292

When you've added the iGive badge, let me know where to find it in a comment to this post, and I'll arrange for your badge to get on the front page of lifeinafrica.com

Many, many thanks!



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If you have a blog
, this christinaswwworld pArtY chALLEnGe is for you! Yes, there will be prizes. AND it's for a great cause. Read on to see what you need to do to participate, make an impact, and win!



The holidays are coming soon, and even if we're all tightening belts this year, chances are there's a few gifts you and your readers are going to need to buy, and you'll probably be buying some of them online.

The online Mall at iGive.com features over 700 trusted online retailers like Lands' End, Staples, NORDSTROM, JCPenney, eBay, Expedia.com, Barnes & Noble, QVC, & PETsMART to name just a few, who've agreed to donate a portion of iGive member purchases to good causes the members choose. You'll NEVER pay more when you reach these stores through iGive.com, in fact if you take advantage of the many coupons and free shipping deals available to iGive members, you might even save a few bucks!

At Life in Africa, we're using iGive.com to raise money for the school fees need in Uganda that I wrote about in my blog post of 29 October. When you (and hopefully your readers) sign up at iGive to support Life in Africa, part of your purchases on Christmas gifts, office supplies, computer software or whatever else you plan to buy anyway can help send Ugandan kids to school. Make a purchase within the first 45 days of sign up, and iGive will even donate an extra $5 to the cause.

iSearchiGive.comThey've also got a new Yahoo! powered search engine that you and your readers can use to earn school fees for Ugandan kids with every search.

Cool huh?!

Well, but you know how the internet works. It could be cool... if only enough people would actually sign up and use the iGive service to channel their favorite merchants' generosity our way.

If you have a blog, that's where you and this chALLEnGe come in!

I'm challenging you to a creative blog contest that helps me get the word out, by writing a post on your blog that encourages your readers to sign up for iGive to support Life in Africa through their holiday shopping and/or searching online for the rest of this year.

All qualified submissions will be voted on in an online poll to be held December 1-3 at ned.com - a cool online community where lots of Life in Africa members and supporters hang out. You and your readers can join and vote too. See below for further details on how to make sure your post qualifies.

What's in this for you?

1. Participating in this challenge is going to expand your creative range as a blogger and expose your blog to new audiences.

2. Even if you don't win, you will have the gratification of knowing you helped to fulfill very real needs in the lives of others: these war-affected Ugandan families really need help with the costs of educating their children and the orphans in their care, and a fellow blogger you know with limited connectivity (that would be me!) really needs your help to help them.

3. If you win in the online reader poll, there will be prizes - I've tried to make these special so you'll put your heart into this!

FIRST Prize:
  • A free ad (125x125 above the fold) that links to your winning submission on all ourwwworld team blogs (including this one!) from 5 December through 5 February 2009

  • 500 Entrecard advertising credits

  • A link to your blog's main page and your chALLEnGe submission on the front page of LifeInAfrica.com from 5 December through 5 February 2009 (btw - we're currently updating the Life in Africa site; you and the rest of our supporters will be specially invited to see the effects of the facelift that prominently features your blog on 5 December.)

  • 1 dozen free Jungle Bead bracelets for you to keep or give away as unique holiday gifts. Jungle beads are made from recycled magazines and cereal boxes by the Life in Africa women in Uganda whose families you will have helped by participating in this chALLEnGe. The beads are waterproof and really gorgeous!

SECOND Prize:

  • 250 Entrecard advertising credits

  • A link to your main page and your chALLEnGe submission on the front page of LifeInAfrica.com from 5 December through 5 February 2009

  • A free 16" single Jungle Vine necklace made from recycled paper by the Life in Africa women in Uganda whose families you will have helped by participating in this chALLEnGe.

THIRD Prize:

  • 250 Entrecard advertising credits

  • A link to your main page and your chALLEnGe submission on the front page of LifeInAfrica.com from 5 December through 5 February 2009

How to participate


1. use this link to sign up for iGive to support Life in Africa (you can sign up to search and refer others even if you can't shop online or don't plan to shop right now)

2. make a creative post on your blog that tells the women's story in a way that moves, encourages or offers an incentive for your readers to support Life in Africa's school fees 2008 campaign through the iGive shopping or search service or both (feel free to use your own iGive referral link to keep track of your results if you'd like. Just make sure the cause you specify is Life in Africa.)

3. In addition to the iGive sign up link, include the following in your post:
4. Post the link to your completed submission in a comment to this post by no later than November 30, 2008. (This is a do-follow blog by the way, so your link in a comment here will be counted by the search engines).

5. Sign up for a free account at the Ned.com community and wait for December 1 to vote in the online poll.


Why an online poll?

Ideally I'd love to have you win because of how many people you recruited or how much money your shoppers helped to raise, but in order to protect donor privacy iGive doesn't provide us with access to all that information. I can see the overall results and names of people who signed up on my link, and you'll be able to see who signed up on your referral link, but how much each person's activity at iGive contributes to the cause is only known by that person. (I will aim to keep readers updated on the overall fundraising impact when we start to see it work - you can keep track of how much your iGive activity has contributed to that when you're logged into your iGive account.)

So then I thought maybe a drawing would do, but that would mean that someone who put a lot of effort into this chALLEnGe would only have as much chance to win as someone who just posted a sentence or two. What I'm excited to see (and will ask readers & LiA supporters to vote on) is your blogger's creativity in telling this community's story!

There's some content already available that you can feel free to use - there's a cause toolbox at iGive that provides all sorts of pre-written texts, ads and search boxes to help explain and engage readers in using iGive services. If you're participating in the iGive 4 Life in Africa chALLEnGe, you may also feel free to use content from any of the following places online in your submission:

Life in Africa @ Flickr

Life in Africa @ YouTube

School Fees 2008 campaign

I want to draw your attention especially to the video below (made by a Life in Africa supporter who visited us in 2007) that gives you a good picture of the level at which the families who will benefit from this effort survive. Most were forced to flee their homes because of the war in Northern Uganda, and resettle in the "Acholi Quarter" you see in the video, where quarry work is one of the very few income generating activities available.



As you can see in the video, these families really really need some additional stability and opportunity in their lives. After months of consensus building, the adults who are members of Life in Africa (mostly women) have all agreed that getting help to educate the children in their care is the number one most urgent need that they all face. Please help me to help them. With your help I am hopeful we can make a meaningful impact on at least some of their situations.

Thank you very much in advance on behalf of Life in Africa members in Kampala's Acholi Quarter for participating in this chALLEnGe. Here's to bloggers like me and YOU making good things happen in their world!

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