Tuesday, December 11

First Anniversary

One year ago today, I posted a video that I had made for a scholarship project online. Today, on the anniversary of It Only Takes a Girl, I would like to reflect on some of what has come of that video, which I never imagined would be seen by more than a few hundred people at most.

One of the women in my video holding a sign
In the fall of 2011, my sister Sierra and I spent hours making signs, and my sister Celeste and I filmed almost fifty girls and women holding the signs. My mom helped me with the website creation and the video editing, and on December 11, 2011, we posted the video online. By the end of night, it had gotten over 300 views on YouTube. Within 36 hours, it had 1500. After a week, that number had climbed to 100,000. Emails started pouring into my inbox, mostly from strangers who were inspired by the video and wanted to know how they could help.

I also got emails from some pretty cool people involved in organizations whose missions lined up with the sentiments I expressed in the video. For example, Tammy Tibbetts, president and founder of She's the First, connected with me via email. She told me that She's the First started as a YouTube video and grew into an organization that sponsors girls' education around the world. (See my contribution to a blog post for She's the First here.)

Kevin Conroy, the Director of User Experience at GlobalGiving, also contacted me by email. GlobalGiving is a sort of umbrella organization that helps direct people to various charities they might be interested in, including the Girl Effect. Mr. Conroy sent me an email saying my movie was “one of the most incredible videos [they've] seen in a long time.” He told me that they forwarded my video to the team at the Nike Foundation that created the amazing Girl Effect video and shared it with their 30,000 Facebook and Twitter followers.

I made the front page of MoveOn.org!
CEO of the Fistula Foundation Kate Grant emailed me to say they were getting increased traffic to their website because of my video. Two women making a sort of feminist documentary on a cross country bike ride said they'd be in my area and would love to interview me. Teen life website PopCosmo interviewed me for their site.

Other websites started posting my video without my knowledge (which was great!), like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website, the US Military Violence Against Women website, Shape Magazine Editor Valerie Latona's own personal website, and MoveOn.org.

In February, GlobalGiving posted on their Facebook page that my video had directed over $30,000 in donations to the Girl Effect. Not long after that, Peter Hall, president of the organization Hope-2o, contacted me about partnering up to sell water bottles to raise money for both of our causes.

Zoë Keating's "Optimist" was the music for the video
Zoë Keating, the amazing cellist whose music I used in my video, wrote a blog post about me, and Paula Grieco emailed me about contributing to the What's Your Brave? project.

I did get the full-ride scholarship to Tulane, and in April, I was nominated to speak at the TEDxTU event in the fall. I gave a speech about my video and what I had learned at the summer program I worked at over the summer, and I started at Tulane in August. Once at Tulane, I was chosen to speak at TEDxTU, and I gave my five minute talk to over 500 people in October.

After nearly a year, my video was still getting hits on YouTube (the viewership is at over 390,000 today) and positive feedback from the activist community. Connecther used my video as an example for their Girls Impact the World Film Festival call for entries (look under the "for filmmakers" tab). The Seed Africa named me as a Girl Champ on their website. A group of women from Principia College recently began selling my Hope-2o bottles at their school to raise money for the Girl Effect. I have continued to contribute to the What's Your Brave? project; most recently, I was featured in the new free e-guide, Getting It Right the First Time.

I reconnected with Katie Meyler, founder of More Than Me, and volunteered as an outreach coordinator to try to help them get votes in the Chase American Giving Awards contest. After the amazing team at More Than Me and their wonderful supporters worked tirelessly publicizing the contest and acquiring votes, More Than Me indeed won $1 million dollars to get girls in Liberia off the streets and into school.

It's been a pretty cool journey so far, but we still have a long way to go. Thank you to everyone who has supported me since the beginning, and to everyone who has joined the cause along the way.

I'll just end this reflective post with a fun quote from Dr. Seuss, which pretty much sums up what I have learned in the last twelve months: 

Dr. Seuss, The Lorax




“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, 
Nothing is going to get better. It's not.”








Update: My sister has started a parody of It Only Takes a Girl, "It Only Takes a Squirrel." Follow her on Twitter @OnlyTakesASqurl. She's pretty funny.

Friday, November 30

More Than Me

Katie in Liberia with one of the girls
Back in February, I got an email with the subject, “Not a super hero or a celebrity just a girl.” The email was from a clearly passionate and inspiring woman named Katie Meyler who had seen my video on YouTube, recognized our shared passion for girls' education and wanted to reach out to me. She told me a little about her organization, More Than Me. “I live and work in Liberia, West Africa which just so happens to be the third poorest country in the world,” she explained. “It's kinda nuts—60% of the kids are out of school and more than half of them are girls.”

What More Than Me does for these girls, she told me, is get them off the streets and into school. More Than Me especially targets child prostitutes—girls who have no other option than to sell their bodies as young as nine or ten years old—or girls who have a high risk of being pulled into that life. Indeed, as many as 80% of girls in Liberia resort to prostitution to survive (according to gvnet.com).

There is only one government school in West Point, the 75,000 person Liberian slum in which More Than Me works. Even when families can afford to send their daughters to school, the girls often face various forms of abuse and exploitation, including “sex for grades.” Because of this problem, More Than Me not only helps the girls get an education, but it is also working to provide them with a safe place to go after school. In this center, girls will learn how to bead, sew, bake, and other skills that could help them make money.

I have stayed in touch with Katie since February, and now I am participating as an outreach coordinator for their biggest project ever: More Than Me is a contestant in this year's Chase American Giving Awards competition, and they have the chance to win $1 million. With this kind of money, More Than Me could help thousands of Liberian girls work toward a better future—one that does not include prostituting themselves at a very young age.

This girl started selling herself at age 10, and she's
now in 2nd grade and top of her class!
The way More Than Me wins is simple: they need the most votes. To vote, you can visit voteabigail.org, which will direct you to the Chase voting page. All you have to do is sign into your Facebook account, click the blue “vote” button, allow application, go to app, then click the same blue vote button one more time. It seems a little convoluted, but the whole process takes only thirty seconds. That is a small price to pay to raise your voice against the injustices suffered by Abigail—the face of More Than Me's campaign—and thousands of other girls just like her.

More Than Me is a relatively new organization—about three years old. But already Katie and the team at More Than Me have made an enormous impact in the lives of so many vulnerable girls. It is easy to see that with a little help, they could make a truly incredible difference in Liberia and in the world.

“I don't know much about you,” Katie ended the email back in February. “But it is obvious we share a passion for girls' education.” Educating girls is one of the most important things we can do to build a brighter future for everyone on the planet. Abigail and the other girls in West Point may be thousands of miles away, but they are just like you and me. The only difference is that because of where they were born, they may never be educated, never even have a clean glass of drinking water or a satisfying meal, without having to sell their bodies on the streets of Liberia. I do not think this is okay. Katie doesn't think this is okay. Thousands of people are standing up, writing “I am Abigail”on their foreheads, because they do not think this injustice is okay. We all need to come together to take a stand. What will you do?

VOTE on Facebook.
READ more about More Than Me and the Chase American Giving Awards.
WATCH the video that will air on NBC on December 8th.
JOIN Abigail's Tribe and help us get the most votes! Email pam@morethanme.org with the subject “Tribe”.
WRITE “I am Abigail” on your forehead (or anywhere) and tag More Than Me Foundation on Facebook.
SPREAD the word—every last vote counts!

Some More Than Me supporters

Monday, November 5

Shanti Bhavan

Dear Readers,

Today I would like to talk to you about the Shanti Bhavan Children's Project. Shanti Bhavan is a school in Tamil Nadu, India, founded with the mission of helping the most disadvantaged children from the lowest "untouchable" caste to develop into educated and empowered adults. To that end it provides them with a world-class academic and personal education. Most importantly, it provides these children with a safe and secure home such as they could not otherwise find. You can learn more about the amazing work Shanti Bhavan does on their website.

Boys study at Shanti Bhavan
The founder of Shanti Bhavan, Dr. Abraham George, believes that, "If we can take a few children and give them the best care and the best education, and they become leaders of tomorrow, they will carry with them hundreds of others." In so doing, we will begin to break the cycle of poverty.

I have recently become involved with Shanti Bhavan through a club I am part of here at Tulane. We are working towards the goal of raising $1,600 for Shanti Bhavan, which covers the cost of supporting 1 student for 1 year. If we succeed in this goal we will sponsor Shilpa, a 6th grade student who shows a lot of promise. You can learn more about Shilpa's personal story by following this link.

I would really like to encourage you to donate to Shanti Bhavan. As the holidays draw near, it is important to be thankful for what we have, and to remember those who have less. We are lucky enough to live in a country where disposable income is a reality, and where even if we carve out a little money to give away, we can still depend on getting our next meal. Shanti Bhavan is an amazing cause because it not only changes the lives of its own students, but it prepares them to lift up the entire Indian nation along with them. I cannot think of a better use for some extra cash.

Please donate here, and let me know when you do so we can track progress toward our goal, either by leaving a comment, emailing me at gabriella@itonlytakesagirl.org, Tweeting me @OnlyTakesAGirl, or messaging me on Facebook!

Thank you for your support and commitment to improving our world,

-Gabriella


P.S. I encourage you to share this message with your friends, your family or anyone else you know who wants to support children's education in India and build a brighter future for our entire planet. :)

Thursday, November 1

TEDxTU in The Hullabaloo

My friend Ashley covered the TEDxTU event for Tulane's weekly paper, The Hullabaloo. I have a quote in the story!

POSTED: THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 1, 2012 10:48 AM

ASHLEY EASTERLY

Twelve leaders from the Tulane and New Orleans communities came together on Thursday to speak at the TEDxTU event on campus in the Kendall Cram room.

Technology, Entertainment and Design, is an organization whose slogan is “ideas worth spreading.” TED organizes lectures on a variety of topics, and TEDx consists of independently organized TED events. At Tulane, TEDxTU is run by TU Changemakers.

“For TED, we start [planning] right after the last event, so we started in the spring semester talking about how we could improve,” TU Changemakers President Mary Bryan said.

This year, TEDxTU focused on social innovation. The night started off with a speech from President Scott Cowen about reimagining Tulane after Hurricane Katrina, and transforming Tulane into an institution of social innovation.

“You won’t be remembered by what you did for yourself,” Cowen said. “You’ll be remembered for what you did for others.”

Several speakers followed, including Tulane students Anoop Jain, Haley Burns, Sam Turner and Gabriella Runnels and Tulane professors Vicki Mayer and Jordan Karubian.

“We did a nomination process for most of [the speakers] this year and had the speakers send in a video of themselves speaking so we could get an idea of how they would be,” Bryan said.

Runnels spoke about a project that she completed for a Tulane scholarship application. Her project included a video that went viral and helped launch her organization, “It Only Takes a Girl.”

“I was asked to apply for the event at the beginning of the summer, before I was even a student at Tulane,” Runnels said. “[The organizers] were very respectful of the speakers. It was all really self-motivated.”

Topics throughout the night ranged from sustainable urban farming to building bathrooms in India.

“The topics and speakers were very intriguing,” senior Chandler Davis said. “I’m glad I attended.”

Monday, October 29

TEDxTU

For those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you may know that I gave a talk at the TEDxTU event last Thursday evening.

Photo courtesy of my cousin Hannah's Instagram 
The “TED” in that string of letters stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design” and refers to the world-renowned nonprofit “devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.” The most famous and accessible feature of TED is its TEDTalks—short talks by various people about their ideas—which can be viewed for free online.

The “x” means that this event was independently organized; that is, the actual TED organization did not help or monitor the planning or organization of this event beyond initial approval and instruction. And the TU, of course, stands for Tulane University. A group of highly dedicated Tulane students put on this entire event by themselves, and it was an incredible success.

I got an email at the beginning of the summer asking me to apply to speak at the TEDxTU event planned for the fall. I was excited for the chance to get involved even before I was actually a student at Tulane! In order to apply, I had to make a rough draft video generally about what I would include in my final talk. Shortly after receiving my invitation to apply to TEDxTU, the director of the program I was working at over the summer asked me to talk to the kids there about my video and what has come of it (some of you might remember this story from one of my previous blog posts). To kill two birds with one stone, I had that talk filmed, edited it, and submitted it to the TEDxTU organizers, explaining that I would tailor my actual talk to more closely fit the TED event.

It was a long wait before I heard back about my application, but about a month or so after school started, I finally received another email: I was in! I had to attend two rehearsals before the event so the organizers could check my progress, but besides that, I was on my own. I cut down my speech from the summer to about a third its original length and altered it to more appropriately fit the occasion. I went to two rehearsals and got some valuable feedback from the organizers as well as from other TEDxTU speakers. After cutting some here, changing some there, my speech was finally ready—now I just had to memorize it! 

http://tedxtu.com
Because I had given the speech several times (over the summer and in the TEDxTU rehearsals) and had read it to myself many more times than that, it wasn't too difficult to memorize. Still, when October 25 rolled around, I was nervous. The event was hosted in Dixon Hall on Tulane's campus, the main theatre for concerts, musicals and other large productions. I arrived early on the day to practice, and I was ready to go.

The event went swimmingly. Almost five hundred people from Tulane, New Orleans and elsewhere attended. I was the seventh of twelve speakers, with actual TED videos interspersed throughout. The other speakers were excellent, and as soon as the official videos of the event are posted online, I will put them on my blog so you all can see them. The man who spoke right after me said something that really rang true: “There have been so many interesting talks tonight, I forgot to get nervous!”

Overall, it was an amazing experience. I was speaking alongside men and women who had started their own businesses and non-profits, who had been a part of rebuilding post-Katrina New Orleans, who help New Orleans' homeless every day. I was so honored to share my story and everything I've learned from it with so many people. I hope to remain involved in the TEDxTU organizers on campus, so that I can help Tulane continue to share ideas worth spreading for years to come.

Update: You can view the unofficial video of my talk here. Sorry about the vertical format, it was taken with an iPhone! I will post the official video as soon as it is available.

Update Update: You can now view the OFFICIAL video of my talk here! (The link above will no longer work.)

Wednesday, October 17

Update

Hello all! It's been awhile since I've written (school has been pretty busy—but amazing!), so I thought I would post a quick update on what's going on with “It Only Takes a Girl” and me.

GeTM

Photo from www.getm.ch
A Swiss organization called “Genève Tiers-Monde” (GeTM) based in Geneva, Switzerland, emailed me a few days ago asking if they could show my video at a special event called “Step into Action organized by Euforia” on November 30. According to the GeTM, “the purpose of our non-profit association is to improve the living and health conditions of poor countries.” Step into Action is a project that “offers young people from 16 to 19 years old the opportunity to explore their responsibilities as global citizens during an interactive and playful track. The event also offers them an occasion to rethink their role in society by taking action in their local environment.” I am very honored that GeTM would like to show my video “so that young people can become aware also about children and women discriminations and treatments.” To learn more about it, please visit this website.

What's Your Brave?™

Several months back, I was interviewed for a book project called What's Your Brave?™ which “shares the insights and acts of everyday courage of teenage girls from across the United States.” I have kept in contact co-author Paula Grieco, who recently asked me for a few sentences in response to the question "What one piece of advice would you give your younger self regarding body image now that you are in college?" for the new e-guide for parents of daughters, “Body Brave: A Manifesto on How You Can Help Your Daughter Develop a Healthy Body Image.” If you are interested, you can find my quote and inspiring stories from several teen girls in this wonderful e-guide for free when you sign up for weekly updates here.

Newcomb Scholars

Some Newcomb Scholars and Linda Sax,
author of The Gender Gap in College
Tulane University and Newcomb College used to be two separate institutions, with the latter being a “women's coordinate college provided for a separate president and faculty who were given the power to determine policy and the course of study for Newcomb students as separate and distinct from the education of the men.” Josephine Louise Newcomb, the founder of Newcomb College, “first wrote to the Administrators of the Tulane University Educational Fund of her desire to establish a college in memory of her daughter, Harriot Sophie” on October 11 (which just so happens to be the International Day of the Girl—and my birthday!), 1886. Today, the two schools are consolidated into the Newcomb-Tulane College, “the home for all male and female undergraduates.” However, there remain some connections to Newcomb's female history; for example, the Newcomb Scholars Program. This program, according to its website, is “a unique opportunity for incoming women at Tulane who are interested in an academically enriching and shared four-year experience through undergraduate research, seminars, and experiential learning opportunities.” There are twenty Newcomb Scholars in each class at Tulane; twenty young women who encourage, support and inspire each other in their work, actions and ambitions. I applied to this competitive program at the beginning of the school year, and today I got a call saying I made it to the interview round of the selection process. I feel as though Newcomb Scholars is just the right fit for me here at Tulane. My interview is this Friday morning—wish me luck!

Monday, September 3

Giving Back in New Orleans

It is now the second official week of school and I have not attended a single class. No, I am not skipping. Thanks to Hurricane Isaac, Tulane was closed last week from Tuesday to Saturday. While many students enjoyed their “hurrication,” others languished in the heat and darkness of the dorms that lost power during the school-wide lockdown. I personally evacuated to my home, which also lost power during the storm. However, distance and lack of electricity could not keep me from writing for this week's issue of the Hullabaloo! While last week I wrote a story for news, this time I wrote a views story on volunteerism in Tulane students. You can find this and other Hullabaloo stories here.

Students have a responsibility to give back

As I filed into McAlister Auditorium alongside hundreds of my classmates for the president's convocation on Saturday, I was excited to get my first glimpse of an official Tulane ceremony. President Scott Cowen approached the podium to address the new freshman class.

“[New Orleans] has all the issues and problems that plague other great cities throughout our country,” Cowen said. “But now it has you, who have joined in the effort to tackle these problems and improve the lives of those in need.”

Cowen explained that as members of the Tulane community, students are expected to engage in community service and have new experiences that will help the student body grow.

“At Tulane, you will not live in an ivory tower,” Cowen said. “You will also live out there, in the city and sometimes farther afield, in foreign countries, clocking hours at community centers, drop-in clinics, urban gardens, construction sites, schools and churches, meeting unforgettable people, changing their lives, and having your own lives changed by them.”

As Tulane students, we are expected and required to participate in community service during our four years here. This philosophy of volunteering, however, extends beyond our time at Tulane. This university fosters the spirit of service in its students and expects that they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives.

In his address, Cowen spoke about Hurricane Katrina, the most devastating disaster in New Orleans' modern history.

“I’ve spoken many times about Hurricane Katrina and how it transformed Tulane, ushering in a new era of community service and experiential learning,” Cowen said. “Seven years later, we are still reimagining ourselves, but in a spirit that looks not backward to the disaster but ahead to the future.

”

Though the storm occurred seven years ago, the damaging and tragic effects of Katrina still linger in parts of New Orleans today.

Participating in the restoring of post-Katrina New Orleans is a fulfilling and meaningful experience, and many non-profit, New Orleans-based organizations still exist that build up areas torn apart by Katrina.

There are endless opportunities to give back to the community that has given us so much. We are among the most privileged young people in the world by virtue of the fact that we have the opportunity to receive a Tulane education. We have the responsibility to use this privilege to give back to the world around us, and New Orleans is a wonderful place to start.

Friday, August 24

A-One, a-Two, a Helluva Hullabaloo!

SJE Freshman hard at work in the Hullabaloo office

I've survived my first week of college! Okay... so I haven't even started classes yet. I came to Tulane campus a week early for the Summer Journalism Experience (SJE) with the Tulane Hullabaloo, the completely student-run newspaper on campus. Sixteen freshman were accepted to this program to try their skill as a Hullbaloo journalist before college life and classes really begin. The main reason I applied to this program is because I've been enjoying writing for my blog and can see myself in a career that requires writing for an audience. I figured, journalism is probably an excellent path to learning how to write for large groups of people in a concise yet interesting way. Anyway, I was put on the news team and assigned a story about the new LGBTIQA sorority that's coming to campus later this year. This is the first article I've ever written for a newspaper. Enjoy!

LGBTIQA sorority arriving in the fall

A group of LGBT students and allies have formed an interest group toward founding a chapter of Gamma Rho Lamba, an LGBTIQA sorority, which will become an official chapter of GRL in September.

Junior Courtney Amabile, president of the GRL sorority interest group, believes that a new sorority is necessary to provide a welcoming group for LGBTIQA women who felt excluded from traditional sorority life.

“We wanted the same experience, the same sisterhood,” Amabile said. “But at the same time, we can’t change who we are and we’re not going to for anybody.”

Amabile and two other students approached Liz Schafer, director of fraternity and sorority programs, with a proposal to form a new sorority for LGBTIQA students and allies.

Schafer said that the students were well-organized and clearly driven.

“I think Tulane has always had a pretty welcoming environment for LGBT students,” Schafer said. “So we said, ‘sure, why not? See what you can find out.’”

Supporters of the interest group believe that the anticipated sorority will provide LGBTIQA students with a more accepting atmosphere than a traditional Greek organization. Lauren Kwiatkowski, Former Student Women Embracing Equality at Tulane president believes GRL could provide an inclusive and secure group for these students who might not feel at home in another sorority.

“Greek life, at all universities, has traditionally been stigmatized for not being particularly inclusive of the LGBTQ community,” Kwiatkowski said. “Since there’s now an option, queer students - particularly queer females - now feel that they’re not a step back, behind or below their other students because of their sexual and/or gender identity. It’s definitely a great step for the queer community, and, honestly, female community overall.”

Schafer said she was surprised by the positive and encouraging reaction from other Greek organizations when they learned about the possibility of an LGBT sorority.

Amabile said she is still worried about negative feedback from other groups on campus. She is, however, optimistic that GRL would effectively spread tolerance throughout the Greek system and all of Tulane.

“My main concern going into this is the backlash from other sororities and other groups, fraternities especially,” Amabile said.

She believes, however, the sorority will make way for a new way of thinking.

“I believe it will provide a break in the stereotype of sororities and help facilitate conversation for other multicultural groups or Greek organizations to form as student want and need shows fit,” Amabile said.

The national organization is coming to campus in September to induct the leaders of the group. After that, the group will be considered an official chapter of Gamma Rho Lambda, and recruitment will be open to all students who identify themselves women. Amabile made it clear that GRL will not be exclusively for LGBTIQA students.

“Over half of our members are straight, or ally-identified,” Amabile said. “They also identify as feminists, progressive women, women who don't necessarily follow the grain of society.”

The GRL sorority interest group has several plans for the upcoming year after it reaches full chapter status, such as participating in Safe Zone training, hosting a Pride Prom, and working alongside the organization BreakOUT! to combat the criminalization of LGBTIQA youth in the New Orleans area.

Tulane will be welcoming two other new sororities to campus. Zeta Tau Alpha sorority will come in the spring, and depending on this year’s recruitment numbers, the next new sorority will arrive in either 2014 or 2015.

SJE took a boat tour through a Louisiana swamp--and the gators were not shy

Monday, July 23

To Whom Much is Given...

Hello! I hope everyone is having a great summer. I know I am! For the past two months, I have been working at a summer program for gifted children as the stage manager for the musical they are putting on, The Pajama Game. I attended the summer program myself from ages eleven to fourteen and absolutely loved it! So I knew I had to find a way to come back somehow.

Before I even got the job, the director of the program, who saw my video when I first posted it online, asked if I would speak to the students about how and why I made the video and what has come of it. The motto of this program is “Ab illo cui multum datur multum requiritur,” which is Latin for “To whom much is given, much is required.” The idea is that if you are gifted—if you have been given certain abilities and qualities that are special or unique—you are expected to use these abilities to help others and improve the world around you. It is roughly equivalent to the quote by the character Uncle Ben in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The director of the program wanted to expose the kids to the content of my video (child marriages, gender inequality, et cetera), but more than that, he wanted to show them an example of a gifted student using her intelligence and her gifts to create something unique and put good into the world. So when he asked me if I would give a small presentation about my video, I enthusiastically agreed.

Me posing in front of my Keynote presentation, wearing the t-shirt
the folks at GlobalGiving sent me after they first saw my video
In my presentation, which I gave to about 70 students, I talked about what it means to be a feminist, why I made my video, and the different kinds of attention my video received. I ended my speech by highlighting four basic “morals” to the story. I would like to share with you this portion of my speech, as I believe these morals are relevant to everyone, not just gifted children.

Number Four: The Internet is a Powerful Thing 

We are the Internet Generation. More than ever before in the history of mankind, people across the globe are interconnected and interdependent, and this is due in large part to the power of the internet. Information can spread through the internet to more people more quickly than ever before. I encourage you to take advantage of this technology to raise awareness, research charities, or just read about topics that interest you. You never know what article might catch your eye.

Number Three: Don't Let the Haters Bring You Down

Wherever you go and whatever you do, there will always be someone there behind you to tell you that you can't, that you're not good enough, that you'll never amount to anything. This person might be obnoxious YouTube users, your cranky old grandfather, or even the voice inside your own head. You have to learn when to listen to criticism and doubt, and when to trust yourself despite it.

Number Two: Find Your Passion

It is important to be passionate about something. Do not go through life passively; approach it with conviction, with purpose. My passion is for the health and education of girls around the world, but maybe you are passionate about something else. Maybe you care about saving the dolphins or reducing the consumption of plastic water bottles. Maybe your cause is preserving the rainforest or rebuilding Katrina-damaged homes in New Orleans. Whatever it is, you can do something about it. Don't think that you are too young, too small, too insignificant to make a difference. No one person can do everything, but every person can do something.

Number One: “Ab illo cui multum datur multum requiritur”

which means “To whom much is given, much is required.

I feel incredibly lucky that I was born here in the United States where opportunities are not denied me based on my gender. I wish every girl—every person—in the world had this luxury. And because I have been given every opportunity in my life, I am determined to use what I have to do my part to make this world a better place for everyone. Appreciate what gifts you have been given, and try to give back whatever you can to those less fortunate than yourself.

You really can make a difference, no matter how old you are or what you care about. One of my favorite quotes is by the famous British abolitionist William Wilberforce: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

Wednesday, July 18

Bloggers for GOOD


Do you want to raise money for The Girl Effect but don't have any extra cash to give? Well, now you can! GOOD Maker, a website that “gives individuals and organizations the ability to tap into the public's creativity and energy to address an issue that's important to them,” is hosting a contest called Bloggers for GOOD in which bloggers submit entries describing their blogs and how they are using their blogs to promote a social cause. According to the contest's website, no matter what your blog is about, they think “it has the potential to catalyze social impact...Whatever your area of interest may be, we have $1,000 for a cause that your work supports.” I submitted my blog to the contest, and I named The Girl Effect as the recipient of the thousand-dollar reward. Voting opens today and stays open until August 1, 2012. If you like my blog, The Girl Effect, or social impact, please take a moment to vote for my entry here, and make sure to tell all your friends! The only way we can win this money for the Girl Effect is with a lot of votes—competition is pretty tough. So vote today, and spread the word on Facebook, Twitter, or by email! With just a click of the mouse, you can make a difference in the lives
of girls around the world.

UPDATE: It seems as though you CAN in fact vote more than once. I encourage you to check back a couple of times every day for the next week to see how often you can place a vote. Also, the contest guidelines recommend that you use either Firefox or Chrome browsers, but I know several people who have used Safari with no recognizable troubles. Tell your friends—every vote counts and we need your help!

UPDATE: I received an email saying voters can only vote once within the voting period (July 18-August 1).

Saturday, June 30

Girls: A TV Show You Don't Wanna Miss

Summer is here! For some of you (if you are like me), this might mean something more than beach trips, lemonade, and sunglasses—it means no new episodes of our favorite TV shows for a few long months. While this is always a sad realization for me, it does give me an excuse to step away from the television (or, more likely, laptop) and go outside!
Lena Dunham, Creator of Girls

...Or to stay inside, on my computer, and write about the TV shows I am unable to watch. 

One of my absolute favorite TV shows this year is HBO's new series Girls. Created, written, and directed by its own leading actress Lena Dunham, Girls has attracted a lot of attention this year—and for good reason. This realistic and unapologetic show portrays the lives, struggles, and personalities of four post-graduate girls living in New York City. Girls addresses issues that face real-life girls every day: boyfriends, break-ups, being overweight, fighting with friends and parents, losing a job, being a virgin, getting an STD, and everything else. It's not so much the specific struggles these girls have that make the show so real; it's the characters themselves. They are not your typical stick-figure, Hollywood-beautiful people. They are not perfect, nor are they evil. They make mistakes, they're kind, they're arrogant, they're selfish, they're smart, they're rude. They're real. They're girls.

The show primarily follows the lives of four friends: the insecure yet vivacious aspiring writer Hannah (Lena Dunham), pretty and confident Marnie (Allison Williams), the free-spirited and eccentric Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and the silly but sweet Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet).

In a sense, each girl represents a different aspect of almost every girl's personality. Hannah is broke, overweight, and, for much of the first season, she is unemployed and in an unstable and confusing relationship with Adam (Adam Driver). Despite her insecurities and bad luck, Hannah is an artist who dreams of becoming an influential writer. Every girl alive has her own self-doubts, but every girl also has a dream. The important thing isn't to ignore or completely erase all worries and uncertainties; the important thing is for every girl to focus on what makes her special, and to use her unique abilities to pursue her passions and her dreams.

Marnie is probably the most stereotypically “pretty” girl on the show, and even she is a realistic-looking girl with a realistic-looking girl's body. Marnie has a stable job and a boyfriend who adores her (for most of the season, anyway). She knows she is prettier and smarter than a lot of people, and she assumes everybody else knows that, too. In Episode 7, she complains to an uninterested stranger at a party something along the lines of: I'm not a girl somebody just gets over, you know? Marnie's character shows the dangers of being too arrogant and self-absorbed. A lot of girls find themselves thinking that they are better than other people: richer, smarter, prettier, more athletic. While all girls should love themselves and appreciate their own unique qualities and abilities, no one girl is inherently better than another. Despite her pretty face and put-together life, Marnie ends up alienating those she is closest to with her overly-inflated ego. 

Marnie and Jessa
Jessa is a world-traveler from London who has seen and done it all. She is impulsive and independent, and she is always open to trying something new. She is highly charismatic—people are continually drawn to her confidence and unconventional charm. However, sometimes her rash decisions and carelessness produce unpleasant consequences. Jessa represents a girl's desire for independence—to be one's own person, to travel the world, to have sex shamelessly, to feel powerful and free. But independence comes at a price. With independence comes greater responsibility for one's actions and their consequences.

Finally, there is Shoshanna. Shoshanna is sweet, if somewhat ditzy and shallow. She can hold a full one-sided conversation about Sex and the City (which, coincidentally or no, also revolves around the lives of four female friends in New York City). Very different from her cousin Jessa, Shoshanna's most pressing concern in the first season is that she is 21 and still a virgin. Sex, sexuality and virginity can sometimes be sources of stress, doubt and confusion for girls and young women. Besides her chastity, however, Shoshanna's character also shows a sillier, more (for lack of a better word) “girlish” side of a girl's personality. Sometimes girls, like Shoshanna, just simply like to watch trashy TV shows, gossip with their friends, and wear too much makeup. 

From left to right: Marnie, Jessa, Hannah, and Shoshanna
Many of the actors of Girls are not big-names in the TV or movie industry; most of them are fresh faces. Some of the more well-known actors on the show include Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna) who played Peggy's lesbian friend Joyce in AMC's Mad Men; Kathryn Hahn (Katherine, the mother of the children Jessa babysits), who I most recently saw as Jennifer Barkley, the rival campaign manager in NBC's Parks and Recreation and the comically pregnant woman in Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator; The IT Crowd and Bridesmaids's Chris O'Dowd; Peter Scolari; and Freaks and Geeks's Becky Ann Baker. All of the the first season's ten full episodes can be viewed on HBO GO.

Great quotes from Girls:

“I don’t like women, telling other women, what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Every time I have sex, it’s my choice!” - Jessa

“I know and he’s always liking my Facebook statuses, it’s always such a weird, aggressive move, like, 'Oh I passed you an STD but I enjoy your quirky web presence!'” - Hannah

“I'm like the least virgin-y virgin ever!” - Shoshanna

“I pay all the bills in this apartment, does that not give me one night off from talking about you and your problems?” - Marnie

"You know what I'm gonna do from now on, I'm gonna ask people if they're gay before I have sex with them." - Hannah

"Jessa has HPV, like a couple of different strains of it. She says that all adventurous women do." - Shoshanna

Wednesday, May 9

Highlighting Charities

It's been awhile since my last post! Things have been pretty crazy on my end, what with school winding down and graduation fast approaching. This week I finished high school forever. It seems almost unreal—I am finally and definitively leaving behind a major part of my life. I was so excited to find out a couple of days ago that I've been named valedictorian of my class. As I've been brainstorming for my valedictory speech, I've reflected on everything that high school has meant to me, and on everything there is to come. And a thought occurred to me, something that is often on my mind: I've been lucky enough to have had 16 years of quality education so far, and I have at least four more years of college ahead of me. This is a privilege that millions of children around the world will never know. This thought saddens me, but more than that, it inspires me to make good use of my own education in every way I can. As my valedictory—as my final farewell to high school—I would like to promote several different charities and organizations who are working diligently to make this world a better place for children and all people everywhere.

Connecther:

“Connecther matches donors with projects that are helping women and girls in their quest for self-reliance. Because women and girls suffer most from poverty, at Connecther, we believe the benefits of helping women and girls to become self-reliant has tremendous impact. In the eight months since we've launched, Connecther has partnered with 40 501c3 nonprofits that have added 23 projects helping women and girls! Some examples are Hope for Senegal, where for as little as $25, a girl can receive a scholarship to attend school in Senegal; Vanavevhu helps child head of households in Zimbabwe (as daunting as this sounds, when parents die of AIDS in some countries, the oldest child needs to have a form of income to take care of the rest of the family); Grassroot soccer provides a project on Connecther that runs an all-girls soccer club which helps empower girls and reverse entrenched gender roles, which is key to combating the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Two of Connecther project partners, Partners in Health and the Edna Adan Hospital run maternal mortality reduction projects for young women in Africa. Many women die of causes that could be prevented if they had access to skilled delivery assistance and emergency obstetric care.”

- Lila Igram, Connecther Founder

Connecther matches donors with projects that are providing
services to women and children in developing communities
(Photo from Connecther.org)

Hope-2o:

Hope-2o and I partnered up to raise money for the Girl Effect
Hope-2o is an organization whose mission is “to eliminate the use of plastic water bottles by giving every individual in the United States a stainless steel water bottle.” Hope-2o forms partnerships with other organizations or individuals whose missions they support to create customized stainless steel water bottles. These water bottles are sold on Hope-2o's website, and profits from the bottles benefit both Hope-2o and their partner charity or organization. A couple of months ago, President Peter Hall contacted me after seeing my “It Only Takes a Girl” video, suggesting that we partner up and make these awesome water bottles to raise money for The Girl Effect and Hope-2o. Other great causes, such as Hope to Haiti, Earth Day, and UrbanPromiseInternational, have also joined forces with Hope-2o to sell great water bottles to reduce plastic waste and support a worthy cause.

Girls Learn International:

Girls Learn International gives American students a voice in the movement for universal girls’ education. The GLI Program supports the empowerment of American students as they discover that through their own creative initiatives, dedication, and passionate leadership, students can create real solutions that address the obstacles facing girls and women in developing countries and be leaders in the movement to affect positive change for girls and women worldwide.

“Girls Learn International has 85 Chapters at middle schools and high school throughout the US. GLI Chapters learn about human rights and issues that contribute to discrimination against girls. After they are up and running for a while they are matched with a partner school in a developing country where girls still lag behind boys in access to education. Chapters communicate with their partner schools throughout the year. Chapters also hold a big event in spring semester to raise awareness in their communities, and raise money for GLI partner schools.” 

- Ashley Steimer-King, Program Director

The Fistula Foundation:

Obstetric fistulas are the most devastating and serious of all childbirth injuries. It happens because most mothers in poor countries give birth without any medical help. So many are young girls. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death and disability for women of reproductive age in these places.

$85 can help provide nursing care for one patient
(Photo from FistulaFoundation.org)
After enduring days of agonizing, obstructed labor a woman's body is literally broken by childbirth. During labor contractions, the baby's head is constantly pushing against the mother’s pelvic bone — causing tissue to die due to lack of blood flow to this area. All of that pushing creates a hole, or in medical terms a "fistula," between the birth passage and an internal organ such as the bladder or rectum. A woman cannot hold her urine, and sometimes bowel content as well. Her baby is unlikely to survive. If she survives, a woman with fistula is likely to be rejected by her husband because of her inability to bear more children and her foul smell. She will be shunned by her community and forced to live an isolated existence. These women suffer profound psychological trauma resulting from their utter loss of status and dignity, in addition to suffering constantly from their physical internal injury.

The numbers are staggering. Right now, hundreds of thousands of women are suffering from this heartbreaking, treatable childbirth injury because they are too poor to afford surgery that costs about $450. This number keeps growing bigger. Each year approximately 100,000 women develop this childbirth injury—or 273 each day. The international capacity to treat fistula patients has been estimated at 6,500 a year—or 18 patients each day. Surgeons would describe this as an enormous backlog of untreated patients. There is clearly an overwhelming need for treating far more women.

The Fistula Foundation believes that no woman should have to suffer a life of shame and isolation for trying to bring a child into the world. We are dedicated to raising awareness of and funding for fistula repair, prevention, and educational programs worldwide to help eradicate fistula.

For more information, please read this print-friendly document about obstetric fistulas.

More Than Me:

With a little help, the girls in Liberia can do it.
"I live and work in Liberia, West Africa which just so happens to be the 3rd poorest countries in the world and a close relative of America. It's kinda nuts, 60% of the kids are out of school and more than half of them are girls. When I asked moms why they don't put their girls in school they tell me they don't have any money. School is kinda free, but not really. The government is poor and can't quite pay the teachers, so they end up volunteering and don't show up a lot of the time. It's also kinda dangerous because there is something called, 'sex for grades.'

We help young girls get off the street and into school from one of the world's most notorious slums, 'West Point.' We target child prostitutes and girls at extremely high risk of being sucked into that life, i.e. their moms already have been. We bribe them to do well in school, and it actually works; 10% are first in their class! The problem is that after school, they go back to the dangerous slum where they are at risk again. I was completely horrified to find out just a month ago that there was an attempted rape of one of our 10-year-olds. Unfortunately, this is somewhat normal and I'm committed to do whatever it takes to STOP IT! 

After talking to the girls, the community and the school where the girls go we decided we need to build a girls center to keep them safe after school. It will serve 500 children. They will learn beading, sewing, baking and other things they can use to make money. We'll also teach them cool things like how to use computers, the internet and social media. We'll have social workers and tutors to help them with their homework. A place like this that will help 500 girls is only $100,000 to build and run for a year and will only cost $40,000 a year to maintain!

We get little girls off the street and into school in one of the world’s most dangerous slums in the world in Liberia, West Africa. We work with community leaders to identify the girls who are at the highest risk of being sexually exploited to ensure that education and opportunity, not exploitation and poverty, defines their lives. We pay tuition, provide school lunch and we work with the school and community to make it impossible for her to fail. And it's working."

- Katie Meyler, Founder
A girl who started selling herself at age 10, and who is now at the top of her class

Traffickd.org:

Traffickd.org is a centralized reporting mechanism for instances of human trafficking. It is currently available on a variety of media, so that no matter who you are, where you are, or what language you speak, you are able to identify trafficked people to relevant organizations and increase the possibility of emancipation. Several countries have country-level reporting systems, but if someone doesn't already know the appropriate organization for whatever country they happen to be in, traffickd.org avoids the need to research it, and forwards information to the correct group. Given that often people are trafficked across borders, this is of vital importance.

If you have an organization that shares a range of values with traffickd.org, you could become part of the "traffickd.org" alliance in these ways:

A link to traffickd.org from your website - 
Traffickd.org will be most effective if it is easily discovered by people. As such, a link-back would be of benefit in two ways: firstly, through contact with visitors to your site, and secondly because the more websites that link to traffickd.org, the higher it will appear in search results on engines such as Google. This will facilitate the process of locating the site, reporting trafficking, and therefore emancipation of trafficked people. This link could accompany the traffickd.org logo, a description, or stand on its own.

A link to your site from traffickd.org, and logo on our "Alliance" page
 - As part of the traffickd.org alliance, we would show your proud logo with a link back to your site on the traffickd.org "Alliance" page.

Connections to other anti-human trafficking organizations
 - If you already have connections with anti-human trafficking groups or organisations, we would very much appreciate your letting us know of this connection. In an area such as trafficking, which is so prone to corruption, the approbation of an organisation by a traffickd.org alliance member would help to improve quality control. This in turn would improve the traffickd.org service overall.

Connections on social media - 
If your organisation has a profile on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, we would appreciate your connecting with traffickd.org's Facebook and Twitter. This too would help to raise awareness of the site and improve the possibility of emancipation for victims of trafficking.

LitWorld:

Be the LitWorld story. (Photo from LitWorld.org) 
LitWorld believes that literacy is a human right and key to improving the lives of millions of girls and women around the world. Worldwide, 793 million people are illiterate, and two-thirds of those are girls. People with lower literacy skills are far more likely to suffer the consequences of working and living in unsafe or dangerous environments, and they often die earlier from preventable causes. All over the world, children are hungry for learning and for the power it brings. Research shows that children learn to read and write best by writing and telling the stories of their own experiences. Yet it is rare to find safe spaces where children feel fully comfortable to do so.

LitWorld is changing that. LitWorld’s mission is to use the power of story to cultivate literacy skills in the world’s most vulnerable children. LitWorld advocates for literacy as an urgent human right that belongs to every child. LitWorld stands on three Core Pillars: Education, Advocacy and Innovation. These pillars together create a complete approach to how we can impact outcomes for the world’s children and help them become fully engaged citizens. All children have the right to read, to write, and to share their words to change the world.

Note: Most of the information in this blog post comes directly from the websites of these organizations.

Wednesday, March 14

The Essay

As some of you may know, I originally created my video for a scholarship application to Tulane University in New Orleans. If you are interested in more details about how and why I created the video, please check out my interview with teen website PopCosmo.com.

Well, good news... I got the scholarship! The official name for the scholarship is the John Hainkel Louisiana Scholars Award, and it is basically a full ride to Tulane. I am SO excited to attend Tulane starting next fall, where I hope to study public health, journalism, and Spanish, among other things.


The scholarship application also required that an essay be submitted along with the project; so, without further ado, I would like to share with you that very essay:

My mom and I were in a stationery shop; I was five years old. While she was going about her boring grown-up business, I was wandering around the store admiring the pretty trinkets. My sight fell on something unexplainably but undeniably beautiful: a little, pink velvet pillow. My five-year-old self was in love. Please buy it for me, Mommy, I begged. She refused. However, she told me, if you save your own money, I will bring you back here, and you can buy it. I had never bought anything with my own money before. I didn't even know how I would get money. But the elegant little pillow was irresistible: I imagined a glass slipper resting on it, or perhaps a sleeping fairy. I would find a way to save money, and I would have the pillow.

I saved every dollar, every quarter, every dime I earned. After several weeks, I had saved six, maybe seven dollars. I had never had so much money of my own in my life. I'm sure my mom had expected me to forget about the pillow after a few days, but I couldn't stop fantasizing about its magical potential. One night, she came into my room and sat on my bed. Gabriella, she said, I know you have been doing a really good job saving your money to buy that pillow. But I want to tell you about another way you could spend your money. Of course, it is totally up to you—it is your money, and you can spend it however you like. But I thought you might want to know about this. She read me an article about a Jewish organization that took small donations and sent them to a synagogue in Ethiopia. There, the synagogue community used the money to buy meals for the children in their congregation. When she finished explaining that my money would probably be used for a girl about my own age, I immediately got out of bed, gathered my small fortune, and handed it to my mom. I want to pay for a girl's lunch, I said. I have a lot of pillows.

Agernesh in front of her synagogue 2000
Concern for the health of girls around the world has always been a part of me. No other global or local issue touches me like the horrors of child marriage, human trafficking, or female genital mutilation. These abominable yet socially acceptable practices in many developing countries are not only a gross violation of human rights, but they also represent the deeply held cultural belief that women are inherently inferior to men.

More than anything, I want education for every girl and woman on this planet. I truly believe that if you educate a girl, you educate a nation. Since I was one year old, I have attended the school founded by my dad's parents in 1965. My Aunt Karen taught me in the two-year-old class; my Uncle Kurt was the groundskeeper at the elementary school; my Aunt Helen taught me AP Environmental Science, my Aunt Becca taught me AP Physics, and my Pop Pop taught me AP Chemistry. For me, school has never just been school. Education means family. Livelihood. Nurturing future generations and remembering past ones. I want to share this gift with the whole world.

The girl whose lunch I paid for twelve years ago sent me a photograph of herself and a short letter. Her name is Agernesh Sisay Askatach, and she was seven at the time. In the photograph, she is wearing a pink dress and no shoes, holding a little brown bundle, and standing in front of a small stone synagogue. I know I will probably never meet Agernesh. But my dream is to meet many girls like her and to give them what everyone on this planet deserves—even the poor—even the underprivileged—even girls:

Opportunity.

Thursday, March 8

Kony2012

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. 
- Margaret Mead 

This was certainly true for Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey, three young, energetic film students who, in 2003, traveled to Africa in search of adventure. There, they learned about a little-known, long-running war in which children were being abducted and turned into soldiers—sometimes even being forced to kill their own parents.

Many of you know by now what happened next. These guys started Invisible Children, an advocacy group that has created several documentaries and videos to bring attention to these children, including the wildly successful video that has almost 40 million views on YouTube at the time I am writing this. This video was powerful, shocking, and, in my opinion, quite informative, but like anything that gets significant attention, it has also gotten significant criticism: They don't have a plan for what to do after Kony is finally captured. They are only spending 32% of their money on actual aid. Joseph Kony isn't even in Uganda anymore. The video is misleading and oversimplifies the problem.

First of all, of course the video simplifies the issue—you can't get the attention of tens of millions of people if you have to explain every minute detail. However, those who saw the video and became interested can easily research this topic further on their own. While some of these attacks on the IC are blatantly untrue, others are a bit more complicated. Three of the criticisms against the Kony2012 movement in particular really struck a nerve with me.

1. The White Man's Burden
I have read several criticisms of Invisible Children and Kony2012, like this one, that mention that the movement is simply a product of the “White Man's Burden.” These critics present us with a sort of Catch-22: because we are white and privileged, we should feel guilty about the poverty and corruption in the third-world countries of Africa; however, it is wrong to try to help the people of these countries because of course we are only doing it selfishly to relieve our own white man's guilt.

I, for one, do not feel guilty about these problems because I'm white; in fact, I don't feel guilty at all. I feel angry. I'm angry that just because a child is born in Africa, she might have to live in fear of war, kidnappers, and AIDS; I am angry that Joseph Kony and his followers are abducting children from their homes, arming them with guns, and forcing them to kill; and frankly, I am angry that some people can justify ignoring these problems by claiming our aid is nothing more than the “White Man's Burden.” No, I do not feel some deep sense of guilt that I was born into a white, middle class family in the United States of America, and no, I am not outraged by Joseph Kony's horrendous war crimes just because the victims are African. Call me crazy, but these issues upset me because the crimes Kony is committing are crimes against humanity—against human beings—and I could really not care less what shade of brown their skin is.

2. Invisible Children is Just an Advocacy Group
I've seen and heard several complaints that the Invisible Children spends too much money on filmmaking and awareness and not enough on actual aid. First of all, the IC spends about a third of their money on “programs on the ground in LRA-affected areas that provide protection, rehabilitation and development assistance.” But more importantly, I don't understand why people are vilifying advocacy and awareness. As one blogger snarkily comments, “these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow.” I disagree. Kony2012's goal is to bring attention to these problems so that the government—and the world—do not ignore or forget about these invisible children. So if changing your profile picture will get your friends to start asking “Who is this Kony guy I've been hearing so much about?”, then I say do it.

The fact is, this video is getting people talking, starting a conversation. And that fact, in and of itself, is a good thing. These guys went to Africa, saw atrocities being committed, asked for support from Washington, and got no help. Then they started spreading the word about these children, got a significant following, and suddenly Washington paid attention. This is the truth about U.S. politics: politicians will listen if they think the people—their voters—care. And not just some voters. A lot of voters. So yes, the IC is amazing at spreading awareness, and yes, this is what a lot of their efforts go towards. I don't understand why this is such a bad thing. I'll admit, I have had an Invisible Children's club at my high school since before I can remember, and it wasn't until I saw this video that I really knew what it was or what it did. So say what you want about the IC or about Kony2012, but we can all agree on one thing—their message is being heard, and it's being heard loud and clear.

3. Why Aren't They Doing This, That, and the Other Thing, Too?
And finally, the criticism against Kony2012 that is just all too familiar is that the IC is focusing on the “wrong” issues or not addressing enough issues. When I posted my “It Only Takes a Girl” video a couple of months ago, I got critical comments complaining that I didn't talk about male circumcision, or I ignored problems concerning abuse and rape here in the U.S., or I didn't address boys' education, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. My response to those people, and the similar critics of the Invisible Children, is this: one person, one organization, one video, cannot do everything. If you think combatting malaria in Africa is more important than stopping Joseph Kony, great. If you think cleaning up industrial waste and pollution here in the U.S., or eradicating polio, or fighting corruption in the Ugandan government is important—well, you're right. All of those things are important. But that doesn't diminish or disqualify the mission of the Invisible Children. Okay, so they aren't also addressing the issues of Nodding disease or the problem of oil. But these are simply not their mission—at least, not until they complete their current mission of bringing Joseph Kony to justice and providing a basis of support for the children of war. If you care about some other issue and think money should be spent on it instead, then start a charity, make an incredibly powerful video, and collect donations for your cause. But people simply cannot expect the Invisible Children to do it all.

I am all about asking questions and not just accepting things at face value, but I don't think the Invisible Children is the sneaky, devious organization people are making it out to be. Three guys went to Uganda and met a boy who was ready to die, and they made him a promise that they would do everything they could to help. No, it isn't because they are white, and no, they can't do everything. But they can do something—they can tell the world about these invisible children and make sure we never forget. In the words of American author, historian and Unitarian clergyman Edward Everett Hale:
I am only one, but still I am one. 
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; 
and because I cannot do everything, 
I will not refuse to do something I can do.

Tuesday, February 28

Read of the Week: A Thousand Splendid Suns

I'm the kind of reader who meanders slowly through books—sort of “smelling every rose and daisy on the side of the road along the way” type of thing, if that even makes sense. Half the Sky, a book by Sheryl WuDunn and Nick Kristof that I can't recommend highly enough, took me approximately a month to read. I like to absorb every detail, taste each word and phrase individually and suck out every drop of meaning. I highlight, I annotate, I bookmark. Maybe it's because I borrowed Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns from a friend (and therefore couldn't mark it up with my random thoughts and comments) that I devoured it so quickly. But I think the real reason I sped through it in just a few days is that it was simply impossible to put down. Each character was so vivid, so real. I was completely absorbed in their lives—their pasts, their hardships, and their shaky futures.

Many of you may know of Khaled Hosseini's masterpiece The Kite Runner. I have not yet had a chance to read this novel, but from what I understand, if you connected with Hosseini's clear, true, and heart-wrenching writing style in The Kite Runner, you will definitely enjoy A Thousand Splendid Suns as well. A Thousand Splendid Suns takes place in Afghanistan from the mid-1960's to the present day, following the lives of two girls, Mariam and Laila, as they endure war, ethnic strife, loss of loved ones, and abusive marriage. Hosseini shows the political conflicts in Afghanistan—the Soviet invasion, the Taliban take-over, and life after the Taliban—through the eyes of ordinary Afghani women.

The relationships—mother and daughter, father and daughter, husband and wife, young lovers and childhood friends—are what make this novel so incredibly powerful and poignant. Hosseini makes us fall in love with a character, then absolutely hate her, then fall even more deeply in love with her again. He makes us sob at the loss of a loved one, then sob again—with joy—at a beautiful reunion. He takes us on an emotional journey with the characters nearly as tumultuous as the political strife happening around them. The Los Angeles Times said it well: “[He] offers us the sweep of historic upheavals narrated with the intimacy of family and village life . . . What keeps this novel vivid and compelling are Hosseini's eye for the textures of daily life and his ability to portray a full range of emotions, from the smoldering rage of an abused wife to the early flutters of maternal love when a women discovers she is carrying a baby.”

Besides the beautiful intimacy of the story, A Thousand Splendid Suns also imparts important lessons about the status of women, and the status of the developing world in the eyes of first world nations like the U.S. One of the two central characters of the story is Laila, a fair-haired girl born in Kabul, Afghanistan. Laila's father Babi, a university-educated, modern Afghani man, tells his daughter that under the communists, “it's a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan. And you can take advantage of that, Laila. Of course, women's freedom—here, he shook his head ruefully—is also one of the reasons
From Flickr by liber(the poet)
people out there took up arms in the first place. By 'out there' . . . Babi meant the tribal areas, especially the Pashtun regions in the south or in the east near the Pakistani border, where women were rarely seen on the streets and only then in burqa and accompanied by men. He meant those regions where men who lived by ancient tribal laws had rebelled against the communists and their decrees to liberate women, to abolish forced marriage, to raise the minimum marriage age to sixteen for girls. There, men saw it as an insult to their centuries-old tradition, Babi said, to be told by the government—and a godless one at that—that their daughters had to leave home, attend school, and work alongside men.” (Hosseini 121)

This passage struck me as a powerful statement about how changeable a society can be if it loses sight of what is important. Before the Taliban, at least in the wealthier parts of Afghanistan, women were free. Not only that, they were respected, even treated as equals. When the Taliban commenced their reign, everything changed—women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative nor even laugh aloud in public, or they would be beaten. I think it has been difficult—or perhaps unimportant—for many ordinary Americans to keep track of all of these changes, all of these details. As one character notes in A Thousand Splendid Suns: “Not that they give a damn in America, mind you. What do they care that Pashtuns and Hazaras and Tajiks and Uzbeks are killing each other? How many Americans can even tell one from the other?” (Hosseini 190)

The seemingly distant world of the Middle East, and Afghanistan in particular, can often seem confusing, overwhelming, and even hopeless. But after reading Hosseini's gripping, heart-wrenching story, it is impossible to ignore the fact that people—men, women, and children just like you and me—are living these horrors every day. I encourage you to read A Thousand Splendid Suns. It may be fiction, but its message is true and will be true for all time: we are all brothers and sisters, and we all deserve happiness, even in impoverished rural towns and faraway deserts.