Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Because we can



Five years ago, I met photographer Tony Deifell in Chicago at a face to face gathering of an online community we both belonged to. Tony challenged participants with a simple question: Why Do You Do What You Do? Today the amazing WDYDWYD project continues to provoke thoughtful responses through artistic expression from around the world, and my own answer continues to be the same: I see that I can, so I must.

At that same conference, I also met a dynamic young woman named Theresa Williamson, who works in Brazil to help local communities in Rio identify and share solutions that work, to improve lives in that city's infamous Flavelas (squatter communities). I don't claim to know the deeper personal reasons why Theresa does what she does, but she does it tirelessly, and with obvious passion. Right now she and her friends at Catalytic Communities need just a tiny bit of help to do something really important. I see that I can ask you to help, so I must...

In the lead up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, some of the city’s most peaceful communities are at risk. Some communities will be razed. Others will be invaded by police. And yet others will be gentrified. What is worse is that many times these communities aren’t being heard. But YOU can help give favela leaders a voice, and it won't cost you a single cent.

Catalytic Communities, the NGO founded by my friend Theresa that has nine years experience working with Rio’s favelas, is now in the final round of the ideablob competition to win $10,000 for their idea: “Rio Olympics: Ensuring a Powerful Legacy for Rio’s Favelas.” They need our help to vote. Its easy and quick, and the idea with the most votes wins.


If CatComm wins, they will train 200 community leaders from across the city of Rio de Janeiro in creative use of social media, which will amplify their voices so they are heard by the muncipal authorities, the media, and the global community. Rio´s current administration is very sensitive to media and foreign opinion, so there is a lot of power in CatComm’s approach.

Why do I think you should vote? Because it's a good idea, and because you can. It's really that simple.

Here's what to do:
  • Go here and click “VOTE”.
  • If you haven’t already registered at ideablob, you will need to register. Registration takes putting in your email address and confirming it’s your address by one click. That’s it. Anyone with an email address, regardless of your country, can register.
  • Once registered, login and vote for Catalytic Communities before October 31st.
  • Blog, tweet, and facebook about it! Try and recruit at least five friends!
Together we can make sure that all Brazilians feel proud to wave their flags in 2016!

Thanks for doing what you can do. Today.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

My Money Madness



I've had a really odd relationship with money since a pivotal moment that occurred when I was 13 years years old. After watching The Money Fix yesterday (highly recommended!), I found myself sharing that story with my 13 year old son, and thought it also worth sharing here.

I had just graduated Valedictorian of my junior high school, when a neighbor - who was also a close family "friend" - took it upon herself to let me know that I would probably never go to college. Yes, of course she knew that I'd always been very smart and done well in school, but it was important for me to face facts: I would not be able to go to college because my parents just wouldn't be able to afford it. I shouldn't get my hopes up to high.

I remember the smallest details of that moment: where we were standing, what she was wearing, and how her face tried to show me a gentle smile. More than anything, though, I remember the personal decision that I made at the time, in unforgettable words left unsaid, that pounded very loudly through my 13 year old head: I decided at that moment that I was smarter and more powerful than money, and that I would never let it stand in the way of achieving what I wanted to do in my life.

Two prestigious university degrees and 46 countries later, I've never regretted that decision. I worked and borrowed to pay for my own education, nor did my parents pay for much of my travel. Where there's a will, there's a way - I've never cheated or stolen or lied, but in my younger days I had a pretty strong will, and a strong faith that if I planned well enough I would always find a way.

I worked hard, married a financially stable guy, and always kept debt to a minimum. Though I actually earned pretty well for a while, money has never been an important factor for me in my career. When I moved to Africa, in fact, I stopped earning money (by choice) and started using what I had to create income earning opportunities for others. Things didn't always go well for me during that time - there's no apparent reason why I should have stayed financially afloat - but it was then I discovered a foolproof secret about money that not many people I know dare to believe.

If I give of myself to the universe, the universe will give of itself to me.

That's my secret, and my financial planning credo. Outrageous nonsense? Believe me, you won't be alone if you think that, but you also won't sway me from knowing that in my life, it's true. Since I started giving my time, talents and money to the world, I've had consulting jobs and fellowships fall into my lap that I wasn't looking for, earned more than expected on real estate investments, and somehow always had enough to be able to meet my own family's needs and give regularly to causes and people I care about.

It has not always been emotionally easy to live by that credo. There have definitely been times when I've been taken advantage of - sometimes by people I've loved. Even more painful was when some people simply didn't believe me (it's not normal, after all, to work from the heart for others) and suspected me of hidden foul play. I am not wealthy, by most Western standards, but I also don't lack any essentials. Most importantly, I know who I am, and I know that I have more control over my life than money ever will.

You don't have to live by, or even believe in the sanity of my credo, but before you write me off as completely crazy, watch The Money Fix. If nothing else, it will help you understand that money does not have to control you either.

(Oh yes - and without telling them what they can't do, be sure to share The Money Fix message with all the 13 year olds you know!)

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

10 simple ways my family fights climate change

Since moving back to Brussels earlier this year, I've been intrigued by local attitudes toward climate change, and our responsibilities as human beings to change our behaviors where we can. The Belgian government does a lot to make it possible for everyone to play a role. Belgians love their luxuries, however, and many ordinary folk I've talked to feel content to let the government be the only one who makes an effort.

Some friends have even told me they believe that "going green" is just another excuse to get people to consume more industrial goods - ie, that we are now told to replace every appliance we have with greener versions is just another push for increased consumerism. But there are also many, like me, who take their own responsibility to fight climate change pretty seriously. In fact, moving to a new country and creating a new life has provided opportunities for my family to develop some new habits (and continue some old ones) that I feel pretty good about.

In honor of Blog Action Day, I counted them up and found 10 worth sharing.
  1. No car - Living without a car is something I really wanted to try to do, and so far, so good. Our house is really well connected to Brussels by public transport, which we all really enjoy using: it's way cheaper than operating a car, there are no parking hassles, and it's always fun and interesting to watch people on the bus and metro. We live within walking distance of a supermarket that has a delivery service, so our weekly shopping is easy too. I said when we arrived that I wanted to try living without a car for a year. In the past 6 months, there have only been about 4 times when I really wished I had one, so I think we're doing pretty well without.

  2. No dryer - Did you know that a clothes dryer is one of the highest energy consuming appliances? Instead of buying one, we've been hanging our clothes to dry in the basement just next to the boiler where it's relatively warm. I'm hopeful that solution will work during the winter months as well. The big disadvantage is that I have to iron a bit more than I otherwise would, and irons also use a lot of energy.

  3. Recycling - Belgium is huge on recycling, and has been for the last decade plus. We regularly sort paper, metal, plastics and glass, and there's different pickup days for each.

  4. Composting - I was too late this year to plant a vegetable garden, but we will have some lovely compost to use next year. All of our veggie waste goes into a simple compost bin in back of our garden shed.

  5. Organic foods - I love being able to choose to buy organic foods, and I am definitely willing to pay more for them. Not only do organically grown foods cause less damage to the environment, but they are also healthier for our bodies. I don't buy everything organic, but on a regular basis I do buy organic eggs, pasta, vegetables and sometimes meat.

  6. Green energy use - when I signed up for electricity service, the Belgian national provider gave me an option to use all renewable energy at a fixed price for 2 years. That's a no brainer, as far as I'm concerned.

  7. Energy efficient lights - yes, it's more expensive upfront to buy energy efficient lightbulbs, but it really does make a difference in my energy bill. So as the bulbs in the house burn out, I replace them with more energy efficient ones.

  8. Sweep instead of vacuum - That's one less appliance, and I actually prefer sweeping to pushing around a vacuum cleaner. Most of our floors are tile or wood, so sweeping makes sense on those anyway. We also sweep our carpets with a stiff brush.

  9. One meat free meal per week - we are not vegetarians but are aware that meat production is actually more harmful to the environment than driving a car. The Belgian city of Ghent has recently adopted a meat-free Wednesday policy in all public hospitals and schools, and they say that if the entire country would go meat free for one day a week, it would have an equivalent impact to taking 500,000 cars off the road permanently. So the boys and I have decided to do our part, with at least one meat free meal per week.

  10. Use the short cycle on appliances - Our washing machine and our dishwasher both have quick-wash cycles that I use about 75% of the time. Unless the things we're washing are really dirty, we don't notice a difference. We also use eco-friendly detergents.
I've no doubt there are more things we could do to fight climate change in our modest way, and many would argue that the actions of 4 small people don't actually make a difference in the big picture of things. But it makes me feel less powerless over the issue to do what I can, and to teach my boys that it's worth doing for reasons that are bigger than we are.

And what about you? Are there things your family does differently now than you did before you knew about climate change? I'm always on the lookout for more ideas.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The lost tribes of my wwworld


In spite of reconnecting with so very many old friends and family through social media of late, there are gaps in this virtual re-creation of my life's journey. Whole countries of people I lived with have failed to resurface in my facebook stream. How do I find those who've been lost from my tribes?

I've never been great with names, and the older I get the more I realize what a sad handicap that is... especially when you travel as much as I have. When I lived in Switzerland (both times) I was young and "fun" and honestly didn't pay much attention to peoples' last names. Today there are people I'd love to look up, whom I'd love to see again, but "Marco in Switzerland" just doesn't work well in an online people search.

The second time I moved to Switzerland was when I decided to start going by "Christina" - it's my name, but until then I'd been called "Tina" by everyone who knew me. As luck would have it, in Geneva there ended up being 5 Christinas in my circle of friends. Most of us worked at the UN, and we were referred to not by our last names, but by our nationalities. "Christina from Brazil who used to live in Switzerland" doesn't work so well in an online search either.

There are family names of friends I met in Finland that I couldn't remember if I tried. When it comes to the times I spent working and traveling in Eastern Europe, I can't even remember the first names. I wish it were customary for business cards to have a photo on them. Then maybe I wouldn't have thrown so many away.

Losing track of those whose names and faces I don't remember well is something my children may not ever have to face. As pre-teens, my older boys are able to keep track of hundreds of their friends and acquaintances from around the world. My hope for them, as they grow up internationally with these cool tools, is that they will manage them well and use them to keep their important relationships strong. There was a time, when these tools were less mature, that I did not manage them well - for a while I spent nearly every waking hour online, and yet lost track of nearly everyone who was important to me.

Once upon a cyber-time before the term "viral" was very well understood, I discovered the powerful fuel for making change happen that lies in using the Internet to share our personal stories. A 2 month personal diary about my new life as an expat in Uganda that I to 60 family and friends with a Christmas greeting quickly morphed into something very different. By a few years later, still well before Blogging became popular, my "Letters from Uganda" series was reaching a responsive audience of nearly 2,000 email subscribers. LifeInAfrica.com visitors and my email subscribers were solely responsible for helping me create an alternative microlending model, that had provided over 450 small loan opportunities to 280 Ugandan individuals. It grew facelessly really fast. Over time, writing about my work in Uganda became the only eXperience I shared with anyone.

Not surprisingly, that took on an impersonal feel to those first 60 who were actually people I cared about and who cared about me - I was no longer communicating with my personal contacts, but at them. Tragically, I actually fell out of touch with the vast majority of my tribes for several years. Soon enough, my life also started to feel impersonal to me. I lost myself in trying to remain entertaining to people I didn't even know, not as Christina but as Life in Africa's founder with professional obligations to uphold. While the community of people reading my stories helped me achieve things I never imagined I would in Uganda, I actually felt very alone.

Over time, the heart with which I kept up my growing networks of strangers diminished, until I just couldn't do it any more. During the second half of my stay, I abandoned email almost completely, and focused my energies on connecting Life in Africa members in Uganda directly to their global supporters. It was important to me to enable our Ugandan members tell their own stories. Those community relationships were also powerful, but not viral - they did not scale as broadly as the personal storytelling approach did.

Can there be room for both? Maybe. But what I've definitely learned is that defining my presence by work alone in this brave new wwworld doesn't leave enough room for my own heart and perspective to grow. When I wax sentimental about how exciting it is to reconnect with "my tribes," it's because I experienced the travesty of almost losing all of them once. Come what may, I don't want that to happen again. In addition to the me online that is my work - in whatever form that takes - it's important to create space and time for me and mine, too.

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