Forging New Partnerships. Transforming Communities.

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Photos Taken by Arturo – Mujerave Staff Photographer

There is something beautiful happening in the countryside of Guatemala in Totonicapán. It’s happening quietly, too. Lives are being changed by the work of a community based organization – Mujerave, which was created by Kody Gerkin, a former member of the Peace Corps. I learned of Mujerave (moo-hare-ah-vey) after sitting on a panel with Emily Gerkin Guerrant, Kody’s Sister. She spoke about her brother’s passion with great zeal, which prompted me to dig a little deeper. I knew I had to find a way to get involved after learning of the values, commitments, and goals of the organization.

Mujerave’s mission is to contribute to the alleviation of poverty, the eradication of malnutrition, and the reduction of preventable illnesses by empowering women through sustainable development projects in indigenous communities in the department of Totonicapán, Guatemala. As for the vision of Mujerave: Through increasing food security, expanding community-based education initiatives, and improving health-related infrastructure in underserved rural, indigenous communities in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, Mujerave’s vision is a Totonicapán less burdened by preventable illnesses, chronic malnutrition, and debilitating poverty.

In 2011, at the LeaderShape Institute, I was asked the big questions, “what would you do for the rest of your life if money and time weren’t barriers?” or “what are you doing today to make the world a more just, caring and thriving place?” These questions stayed with me throughout the week and for many years to come. I still ask myself those questions year after year. My vision, though extremely limited and inarticulate at the time, was to make a division-less world. Nearly 6 years later, I can explicitly say that even back then, it had everything to do with ending poverty, creating opportunities for others to have better lives, and working with and on behalf of the global community.

After a few bumps and bruises, failures and mistakes, I began to realize that I didn’t have to save the world on my own. I simply had to do my part to make the world better in my own way, as well as find ways to support others who were already working in other capacities, industries, and communities. This led me to Mujerave, as well as a philanthropic partnership. I’ve made a five-year commitment to support Mujerave’s work to reduce poverty, increase gender mainstreaming in policy and action, as well as aid in sustainable development.

Many women around the world are powerful stewards in their communities, yet they are still overlooked and underrepresented in places of power. Mujerave provides resources and a space for women to use their voices, wisdom, and experiences to make their communities healthier, improve economic stability, and much more.

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To learn more visit: http://www.mujerave.org

Feel free to make a donation in support of the many projects that are currently taking place, as well as future projects.

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Building Together – Finding Inspiration in Your Circle

Community is deeply important in regards to success, social support, and development. When I look at the community of family and friends that support and build me up, I can’t help but be inspired, hopeful, and deeply grateful. These are the people I love, I support, and care about. One of my intentions is to better express my gratitude toward them all.

The initial idea for this post came last Friday after I sat down with my badass mentor, Lisa Hadden, who does all kinds of great work related to Asset Based Community Development. To quote her, “The greatest diversity is the proliferation of gifts to your community. Our communities should allow space for people to become great.” This struck me in a way that resulted in a great deal of reflection over the weekend. Who was in my life doing amazing work? How could I support them? How can I share their stories?

I thought about mentors, friends, family members, and people that I’ve just stayed connected to in one way, shape, or form. The second inspiration came from catching up with my girlfriend. We talked about proactive strategies related to social issues related to education, politics, and enacting change. She’s a boss, challenges me to really be invested in ways I wouldn’t normally be, and she reminds me that there is good in the world.

The last note focuses on a friend and brother that has been in my life for nearly 10 years. Zo was on Snapchat discussing his journey toward joining the US Navy, having a beautiful baby girl, making long term plans for success, and where his life is headed. Seeing your friends succeed as well as find their niche creates a great sense of pride. He also dropped a few musical gems in between the positive notes.

I look at my circle and see tons of inspiration – My family is doing well (parents, brother, cousins, and so on). My best friend is moving to Georgia soon. My college best friends are in their careers and thriving around the country. Lastly, I LITERALLY (not in the ironic way) have friends on every continent, except Antarctica, that are fighting for good causes, building business, sharing their creativity with the world through music and art, and so much more.

Years ago I had the savior approach many passionate people have at some point or another. “I have to be the one to do it.” “This is my burden to bare” “It has to be me” mindset that can really cause you to do more harm than good. Great friends and mentors serve as a reminder that we, as a community, make the world better. “The world needs less ME and more WE.” Happy Monday, everybody.

Office Spotlight – Jeremy Heinlein

Superman is better… for the record, but we both can appreciate The Flash, Star Wars, conversations about community, culture, positive change, and just about anything (including Batman I guess). We also share a passion for Mexican food, sushi, and chicken and waffles. (Not all at the same time – that would be a bit excessive).

Have you heard of Kip Dangerfield (Jeremy’s LAS Competition Day Alter-Ego)? Well I didn’t either until I returned to CMU for grad school. Jeremy is a creative, passionate individual who adds positive energy to any room. If you’ve seen Parks and Rec, Jeremy is a blend of Chris Traeger and Tom Haverford; positive, excited and up for just about anything. In many exchanges over the last year, Jeremy and I have come up with ideas for a Roman-like communication forum to discuss and debate ideas, potato theme restaurants (copyright pending), and intricate future endeavors.

If you know Jeremy, you know you can always count on a positive environment with lots of laughs, movie trailers, and a willingness to help out whenever. Jeremy’s come in the clutch many of times when putting together programs for the Leadership Institute and Special Olympics. Lastly, I admire Jeremy’s admiration for Noelle, his fiancée, and how he treats her. You’re a stand up guy, my friend. So here’s to you, Jeremy and the many adventures to come.

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Jeremy is Executive Assistant in CMU’s Leadership Institute and is completing a Master’s of Art in Communication. He is a young professional seeking to make a positive impact on the world.

Four Line Poems

Below are three 4-line poems

Let The People See… (Inspired by Desiigner at any award show, my unintentional side-eye, and daily happenings)

Let people see when you are full of joy!

Let people see when you are upset.

Let people see your humanity.

End.

Don’t (Inspired by Bryson Tiller in name only, but utterly unrelated)

Don’t let people steal your joy.

Don’t dim your light.

Don’t stand still for too long.

End.

Drink Water (Good Advice – Inspired by Will Frey)

Drink.

Drink Water.

Drink Water Often.

End.

 

What will you do today?

I was gifted the book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, a few months ago. Author Elle Luna gives similar advice as many authors have in recent years; pursue your passion. Throughout the book she informs readers that they must make conscious decisions to do whatever it is that they must do. Must is described as an ache so compelling that the rest of our lives fall to the background when we pursue must. She warns that pursuing must shouldn’t be done on a whim, but also that we don’t have to be fully prepared to go after it.

In a similar way, we begin to feel a sense of wholeness  or fulfillment when we give time to the people, activities, and practices that feed our soul or nourish our deeper desires. Something deep inside us begins to manifest when we start giving more time to must instead of should. Should is the laundry list of things that we feel obligated to do because it is the “right” or traditional path to take. Even if only for 10 minutes a day, there is time to do that activity that they absolutely enjoy. It could be painting a canvas, writing a poem, reading a book, taking that nap, enjoying a cup of coffee, going to that Zumba class, journaling, watching funny YouTube or Instagram videos, taking that trip, getting into a relationship, getting out of a relationship, skydiving, or visiting that friend in another state. The list can go on forever.

Some of these activities require planning, time, money you may not have right now or want to spend, or a variety of other resources. However, doing something you love to do or want to do doesn’t always have to be a huge, time consuming task. It takes 20 minutes to make a cup of tea and watch that interesting TedTalk that you’ve had bookmarked for three weeks. Do something; anything that has been on your list, but you’ve somehow resigned to being out of reach. You don’t need permission for many of the items on your list. I’m advocating that you do something you love. It doesn’t have to be a big career move. It can be spending more time on that craft project or small business idea. It can be traveling alone or simple going to that local coffee shop.

Pursuing your passion has become a buzzword-like phrase that in someways has defined much of our generation. I would like to inform that statement by saying that career choices and pursing your passion don’t always have to be synonymous. Live a life you enjoy. Also, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to happen all at once, which is a lesson I’ve  learned over the past few years. Slow down, take your time, and build a life. Fill it with people and experiences that enrich your life and the lives of others. It’s important that you do.

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Here are some of the must do items on my life. It includes traveling, meeting new people, learning new skills, spending time with friends, and so much more.

How a Messy Room Showed Me the Love in My Life

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I wanted to end today one a positive and grateful note. Too do that I’m going to talk about a realization I had several days ago during a wonderful conversation with a beautiful, passionate, and amazing friend of mine. We talked about love and community and friendship and the importance of recognizing it in our lives. (For my grammar friends, I apologize for that sentence.)

I vocalized that I was looking for love in my life and I wasn’t finding it for the longest time. To set the stage for how I realized my life was full of it, we have to go back in time; I mean wayyyy back to some childhood days. I was messy kid (there’s a difference between messy and dirty). My school shirts landed where they landed, I hated folding my laundry, and my favorite excuse what that geniuses have a place for everything, even when others don’t recognize their organization system. Everything was in its proper place even if it looked like a tornado hit my room. I spent many Saturdays trying to find the easiest way to hide clothes rather than simple folding them and putting them in their place.

Fast forward to my first year of grad school and moving into the housing provided. I am much more organized and I actually put my laundry away. However, I never set my room up to feel like a home. Tables, couches, a bed, a mini fridge and other items all seemed to go in the most practical place. For a year, I felt discontented and unsettled. The arrangement didn’t fit my needs. So I decided to get rid of a few things and reorganize a few objects here and there, which resulted in my room feeling welcoming and reminiscent of home.

You may have ask yourself why does any of that matter and why hasn’t he gotten to the point about love. I’ve purposely delayed the message about love because it is one that is deeply personal. Though introverted and deeply thankful for my private space, loneliness does set in from time to time. In a favorite poem of mine, one of the lines reads, “…Many fears are born out of fatigue and loneliness.” I felt like I was losing my friends and that I was disconnected from those that are important to me. Once I changed my room around, I realized that this could not have been any further from the truth.

At the beginning you found a collection of paintings, books, journals, travel themed items, and many other objects that are all physical representations of the care and love that my friends have for me. I share this because people have different ways of showing affection and care in friendships and relationships. My life is full of love because of the people in it. How they express love is not for me to decide. However, it is my decision and responsibility to see their love through their behaviors and actions. It is also my responsibility to express how I need love to be shared with me. Communication and openness are deeply important practices for friendships, partnership, or relationships of any kind. Love is all around you, you have to be open to seeing it in the ways that others give it.

Hope

Have you found yourself becoming cynical about the world? Have you found yourself feeling defeated, disappointed, helpless, or becoming apathetic? What about your heart? Have you felt any pain from what’s happening around the world? There seems to be an unrelenting hurricane of violence, injustice, intolerance, and pain. Syria, Columbia, the Sudan, Turkey, the United States, refugee violence, racial violence,and religious and social intolerance, fear mongering, corruption, and so much more around the world. This isn’t shaping up to be a hopeful post.

From immediate and emergency situations to systemic oppression, the world isn’t short on challenges or devastating circumstances. From violence against women and minority around the world to the silly, but detrimental inequities in the United States. From equal right to human rights. From gender equity to LGBTQ issues. From racial discrimination to classism divides. From displacement to resettlement. From climate change to natural resources being commodified. Sometimes it feels like the world is going to shit. It is easy to feel helpless, powerless, apathetic, and hopeless. Over the last month, I have felt the weight of all these things.

The many situations and ever-growing list challenges consumed my attention. I am deeply passionate about making the world better for others, but with that comes being aware of and in tune with that many painful experiences that are happening around the world. It can feel like too much some times. I poured on the cynicism, frustration, fatigue, and apathy for the last month or so and it affected my mood, my behavior, and my responses in a variety situations. The stress caused sleepless nights, general fatigue, and caused me to isolate myself. It wasn’t until I noticed how my body was reacting that I did something about it. I started looking for hope. I started looking for pockets of good things happening. I started find the hope that I needed to be reinvigorated and refueled to keep working toward a better world.

From my resilient camper, who in the face of great tragedy carried on with her family. From the conversations with passionated individuals seeking to do their part. From Team Refugee in the Olympics. From the love my cousin professed for his wife as we celebrated their new marriage recently. From the small, simple moments of positivity that come from seeing people laugh and smile. There is hope all around us and people doing their part.

A challenge to myself, and to anyone who reads this, is to look for the bright spots; to find inspiration and hope in those that are working alongside you, even when you can’t physically talk to them or see them. It is easy to see a broken world, one so broken that you can’t possibly see a better one. Fred Rogers said, ” When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Look for the helpers. Look for the hope. We have to build a better world.

Reflection – Fellowship with the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication

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During most of the month of July, I had the pleasure of serving as a Fellow for the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication. Throughout SIIC, I built new relationships, deepened my understanding of myself and others, and I learned a great deal of practical skills that will be useful in building bridges across cultures and across differences. This came through participating in workshops as well as living the experience alongside representatives of 39 countries, many cultures, and across a variety of languages. This time was shared with many others. I am thankful for each person who made this experience truly amazing.

As a fellow, I arrived July sixth greeted by the beautiful, nature filled campus of Reed college and welcomed by smiling, yet unfamiliar faces. These faces would turn into friendships that would transform my life. During our first meeting as a cohort, I sat alongside other Fellows uncertain about how much closer we’d become, how we’d work together to provide an experience for participants, and how we’d find lifelong friendships. There was one thing I knew for certain; sitting with people, from all walks of life, who share a common purpose is deeply inspiring as well as comforting.

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As the days passed, we learned from long-time professionals and experts who helped us understand the process of Personal Leadership, which was developed by Barbara F. Schaetti Gordon C. Watanabe and Sheila J. Ramsey. Personal Leadership, or PL, is a practice we used to deepen self-awareness. We were prompted to use PL throughout our time as Fellows, which proved to be extremely helpful and has continued to be since I’ve returned home. I am better aware of how I respond and react to others, which has allowed me to become more open to understanding why others do what they do.

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I learned some deeply important lessons beyond what I took away from the seminars, workshops, interpersonal interactions, and experience overall. I learned to live as a multicultural individual who embraces all aspects of my identity. I learned to allow myself to be all of who I am regardless of the environment. I have a deeper sense of purpose and direction for my life. Finally, I have learned that if we are to ever make change, we needn’t focus on the loud voices so intensely, but rather focus on the quiet listeners seeking to make sense of a scary, uncertain world by extending an invitation to a difficult conversation. We must be willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of understanding one another. We must listen patiently to those who have differing opinions and prompt them to do the same as we share of ourselves.

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You May Not See Me, but I am Here.

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I’ve decided to be honest. I’ve gained some clarity that has allowed me to express what I’ve felt for many years. It took leaving the US three times to find the words and it’s taken seeing the photo and caption below to find the courage and clarity to express what you are about to read. I feel unsettled here in the US. I feel anxious. I contemplate leaving often. The more I travel the more I feel compelled to leave for good. For now, I plan to live and work abroad by the start of 2018. This is lengthy and there isn’t a short summation at the end or bullet points to recap, but this is quite possibly the most honest reflection I’ve been able to share. The more I discover about myself, the better I am at articulating who I am.

To begin, I want to acknowledge that I don’t hate the United States, nor its people. I’m often frustrated and angered by it, but I don’t hate it. The words you will read hold some generalizations and may or may not apply to you. Whether it does or does not is not for me to say. That is something you must discover for yourself through experience and reflection. As a country, my existence as a black person has been contextualized by violence, oppression, poverty, systemic and interpersonal racism and injustice, self-hate that extended beyond self and into my community, and so many other things. All of which occur at varying degrees of severity. I’m saying this is what has contextualized black experience. I am black, thus making the aforementioned part of my lived experience.

Constantly trying to explain to yourself and people who look like you that you have value, significance, and are a contributor to your community and country while daily messages, physical surroundings, and broken systems communicate otherwise is painfully exhausting. It’s like habitually lying to yourself and those you love to give some peace of mind or paint a less grim picture. The pervasive barrage of messages influences everyone in some capacity. This place… this country taught me to hate myself and my people, while causing me to see them as less valuable or significant. It taught me to see context rather than person and I believe much of our society sees the same thing. The caption says, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surrounds, themselves, or a figment of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.”

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Damn if that ain’t a sad reality. Even as part of this community, I see us that way. I’m not speaking about friends, family, or colleagues who have taken time to build strong, interpersonal relationships, but maybe they see other black people that way. Either way, it’s the reality of my lived experience. I’m talking about immediate misconceptions and assumptions, preconceived notions, and avoidance. I’m talking about inherent fear, distrust and mistrust, hate, and distance that has been instilled in generations, in friends, and in me.

In American society, I am invisible. In every instance during my time abroad, I have felt seen, heard, validated, and valued. I was able to be deeply authentic, embracing all of my identity. Black, Native American, Scottish, and many other parts of my identity that aren’t confined to ethnicity.  I’m stifled here. Something is keeping me from being open to learning and I believe it has to do with what I’ve held inside for so long. So I’ll leave for some time to learn, change, and find ways to create change. For several years now, I’ve been undoing the damage from how I’ve felt and what I’ve experienced. As an institution and country, this place never loved me and most of all it made me hate myself and people like me. Coming to these realizations enraged me. As my anger subsided, I found awareness and understanding. I am now searching for my place in the world while learning new ways to give back to others. One day it will help me give back here in the US. I am reconciling past transgressions against myself and others, while restoring my wholeness.

What’s next? I’ll be finishing up my grad program in May 2017, traveling around the world for three months to advocate and fundraise for those with multiple sclerosis, and then I’ll try to find a job in South Africa, Italy, or with the Peace Corps/an NGO. I understand the responsibility and urgency to rally for and fight alongside minority communities. Some may even say that I am shirking these responsibilities by moving away. Whatever criticisms and critiques you may have of my thoughts and decisions are perfectly acceptable. I’m sure they are informed by your lived experiences, which I will not question, but seek to understand. I invite you to send me a personal message so we can create understanding for one another.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. You’ve honored me by trying to understand me more and for that I will always be grateful.

*Photos Taken at the Art Institute of Chicago – The Invisible Man exhibit

Food and Life – Final Trip Reflection

Until today, I couldn’t find a way to really bring my trip to a close. Writing a final reflection on such a tremendous journey seemed to be a daunting task. So much happened in three short weeks. New friendships were formed. I saw beautiful, natural places. I slowly explored cities and towns. I ate, drank, laughed, talked, woke up early and stayed up late into the night with strangers and friends. I realized that every decision was intentional. I made decisions about what my life would be like each day, but I remained open to how the experiences would unfold.

Today, I used a skill I learned in Certaldo, Italy. I made my own pasta. Luckily, I stayed in at Fattoria Bassetto and they offered a cooking class. It is definitely one of the highlights of my stay. The entire process took about four hours between the preparation and cooking. After that, seven or eight of us (myself, other guests, the owner of the guesthouse and the chef) shared a meal together during dusk. We talked and laughed during the entire meal and enjoyed one another’s company. We worked to prepare something that all of us would share together. What an interesting way to live?

Traveling has helped reveal the best parts of who I am. It’s given me clarity and insight that I could not get in any other way. Together, consistently and patiently, we worked together to achieve something that would benefit the entire group. These subtle, but deeply important, lessons revealed themselves day after day during my travels. Food and cooking was the avenue through which I was able to recognize the importance of working collectively and methodically, but also with heart and care for others in mind.

My trip has shown me the value of intentionally caring for and working alongside others. I’ve known this inherently, but by intentionally embracing this mindset, I will be better able to help others draw out the best in themselves like others did for me. Like a chef who must draw out complex flavors and marry them together in a way that reveals the food’s best features, I will work to bring together people of differing cultures, backgrounds, lifestyles, and histories in order to create a more beautiful, caring, and just world. It is with much gratitude, happiness, and peace that I’ve written this reflection.

Many moments were shared with beautiful, interesting people and I wouldn’t trade any of them for the world.

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