Friday, April 22, 2016

May 14 Yo Ghana! Celebration in Brando Akoto's Honor

On May 14, from 3:00 to 5:00, Yo Ghana! will be honoring Mr. Brando Akoto in its annual celebration at Africa House.

I had known Brando for less than three years when he passed away six months ago, but he left a big mark on how Yo Ghana! goes about its work.

As this photo suggests, Brando attended closely to children. I remember visiting one day last winter when he was obviously in a lot of pain but still enthralled by and attentive to the toddler who was bouncing all over the room and him. He brought the same level of attentiveness to every interaction, whether you were a life-long friend or a boy selling bananas alongside a dusty Ghana road he would never see again. Being around Brando made one feel as if you should expect more of yourself.

Brando brought an acute intelligence and many years of experience in doing grass-roots development in Ghana to Yo Ghana!  But most of all he brought a relentless focus on relationships, on caring for and about each other. Brando always wanted more time with whomever he was with. To a school administrator in Ghana who was regretting that a large nonprofit had quickly built them a cookie-cutter classroom that did not fit their needs and then moved on, Brando replied: "We won't build you a classroom. But if you start one, we will help, and twenty years from now we will still be visiting and working with you." When we returned to the school a year later, they had, indeed, started building some classrooms all on their own, to their own specifications.  In two months we will visit them for the third time, and the teachers and students will ask after Mr. Brando.

I hope that you can join us May 14.  You can get tickets (just $20.00 for over age 10, $10.00 for ages 5-10) by emailing Yo Ghana! or by registering through our Eventbrite page.

There will be dancing and drumming from the Obo Addy Legacy Project, West African food from Madam Victorine and many other West African ladies, awards to some of our amazing volunteers and teachers, and we shall hear from a few of our 2,000 students.  And we'll light a candle for and say some words about the dear man responsible for bringing so many of us together and lighting our way.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Book Two: The Life of the Writer is Not Just About Writing

The contract from Harvard University Press got me a job at the University of Northern British Columbia, and when the book appeared a couple of years later it got me promoted to Associate Professor and then tenured.  By then I was hard at work on book two, which would be a comparative history of interpersonal violence in Canada and the U.S.

My idea was to compare Ontario and Michigan.  My wife's idea was that we would be spending our summers in Portland.  So when I wrote a grant for the Canadian government explaining why my comparative history would be based in the Pacific Northwest, I wanted to write: "because that's what my wife wants."  But I had to come up with a more scholarly rationale.  Academics are not supposed to have spouses or other responsibilities beyond the life of the mind.

Anyway, I was never that happy with the book, and it wasn't very well received.  I found some really detailed and intense accounts of assaults in the British Columbia Archives and Records Center in Victoria and scattered in the regional archives of Washington, including a harrowing and disgusting account of incest in rural British Columbia.  I remember spending day after day slogging through arrest records in Portland from the early twentieth century to establish that black men were fined about twice as much as white men for assault and battery.

I think the main problem was that I was in a hurry.  Academia is about production.  Even at a small university like UNBC, status derived from turning out scholarship.  I was on a schedule.  I had a three-year grant and research assistants.  Once the book appeared, I would duly be promoted to full Professor and get a raise.  Very few people were likely to read the book whether nor not it was mediocre, good, or excellent.  I wasn't sure that most readers would know the difference.  I wasn't sure that I knew the difference, truth be told.  I think the book would have been better if I had just let it sit for a couple of years and then came back to it with fresh eyes.  But that option was never on the table.

The prospect of spending many more long days at archives to keep writing books that very few people would read and that I wasn't too excited about led me to leave my tenured job to return to Portland.  It would be a better place for us to raise our son.  My plan was to move out of the mainstream of academia where, as the son of a commercial fisherman, I had always felt like an imposter,and to write for a broader audience.  It didn't quite turn out that way.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Flywheels and Nonprofits

Some years ago I read a that young nonprofits should approach their work as if they were trying to move a stationary flywheel.  The impulse is to try to do something big and intense.  But the way to get an organization going or a massive flywheel moving is through sustained, concentrated effort, a series of small explosions of force rather than a big bang or two..

I think most of us learn this the hard way in our personal lives.  My junior year of high school I decided to become a great runner by putting in 120 miles a week  It didn't work.  So the summer before my senior year I committed to one high-quality run a day at more moderate distances, and I improved drastically.  Writing books takes years of sustained effort, of research, reading in a wide range of fields, thinking about ideas, considering new arguments and approaches, going back to research more deeply in some areas--in sum, keeping at it.  Sure, the occasional flash of insight comes.  But it is almost always the product of disciplined, sustained work.

When it comes to nonprofits, though, we often think that one big donation or program will put an organization "over the top."  But successful and durable organizations seem to be built more slowly, with care and attention to detail.  "Don't get out over your skis," one experienced fund raiser advised.  An expert in development cautioned: "Build capacity, not just programs"; in other words, do not tackle an exciting new initiative unless you have the resources, the money and time, to support it.

I think Yo Ghana! has, since becoming a 501(c)3 some two and a half years ago, followed this advice. We put a lot of emphasis on quality, evaluation, and collaboration.  If we are trying something new, we like to start small and see how it goes.  We try not to force participation where this is not the will to follow through.

It is very exciting to see our steady growth and successes in terms of reliability of letter exchanges, quality of letter exchanges, numbers of volunteers, numbers and types of grants that we reward, our research and evaluation program, and general enthusiasm and credibility.  Once a big flywheel starts moving, it has a lot of power behind it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Writing for Sarah Moses

I am at that stage of writing, for my seventh book, in which I start to wonder "why"?  I have been working on Africa Existential for over five years now and am currently checking every single quotation and reference for accuracy.  What a joy.

Writing a book seemed easier twenty-five years ago, when I was working on my first one.  It seemed easier because I thought that what I wrote would have a big impact.  I had a book contract with Harvard University Press, which seemed like a sort of miracle, and so I assumed that my book would be a big deal: a history of violence against wives in Oregon from a big-name publisher.

It was not.  I called multiple radio stations and other Portland media outlets for interviews.  Most did not return my calls.  Finally, the leading news radio station of the day decided to give me a few minutes, but then an airplane crashed, so they cut me to a few seconds.  I visited the local Barnes & Noble and found two copies of my book, which was cool.  They had me sign them and put them in a more prominent spot, where they sat for weeks.  (I know this because I regularly checked.)

The book eventually went into paperback, got some positive (and not so positive) reviews, and of course it was great for my academic career.  But there was nothing remotely resembling fame, let alone fortune.

But there were some smaller rewards.  A couple of years after the book came out I was in the U of O Library and saw a professor who had taught me statistical analysis, a tool I had later used in my research.  So I found a copy of my book on the shelf and showed him as a way to both boast a bit and to thank him for his help.  I assigned the book for courses on the history of violence (how else was I going to get people to read it?), and a former student told me that she started working in the battered-women's movement because of the book.  That meant a lot.  I suppose writing a book is a like a lot of other things we pour ourselves into; it is hard to assess the impact.

The title of the book, What Trouble I Have Seen, referenced a quotation that I found in the voluminous divorce records that constituted the heart of the book.  When a father asked his married daughter why her face was bruised, she replied, "Pa, the world will never know what trouble I have seen."  Certainly Sarah Moses would not have guessed that these words, uttered in private, would end up on the cover of a book more than a century later.

So, as long as research libraries--in whatever form they make take in the future--persist, that woman's words will be preserved.  I guess that's the biggest and most subtle pay-off for the years of toil I put into that book: It brought to light remarkable lives that had been hidden in the folds of musty records stashed away in boxes buried in courthouse basements.  And I think it taught me some empathy.

Perhaps our books (like the rest of our lives) would be better if we remembered that they are not all about us.  They are about the people's lives we have the privilege of presenting to the world, a sort of immortality.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Poverty Inc. Coming to Portland April 28!

Yo Ghana! is delighted to be collaborating with Ms. Rhiannon Orizaga in bringing the celebrated documentary "Poverty Inc." to Portland.  The film will be presented at the Living Room Theater on April 28, 6:30 p.m., 341 SW 10th in Portland. Reservations are required.  Click here for reservations and to view the trailer.

The film interrogates that warm feeling that most of us with means experience when we view images of African poverty such as the one shown to the right.  We expect Africa and other developing areas to be poor, and upon viewing images of poverty, we start thinking about how we can help.  And that often entails giving things away.

Poverty Inc. urges us to "have a mind for the poor," not just a heart.  Having a mind for the poor means thinking about why people are in poverty in the first place and how the barriers to a better life might be removed.  It also means thinking about the unintended consequences of giving stuff away.  Most importantly, perhaps, it challenges us to think about how and why we would want a group of people to remain perpetually needy.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Poverty, Inc. Documentary

I recently watched a wonderful documentary, Poverty, Inc., which addresses the poverty industry.

The film's thesis is that international aid has become an industry that benefits aid workers, western agriculturalists and manufacturers, and, often, corrupt politicians while often disrupting the economies of places like Ghana and Haiti.  One of the most vivid examples is from Haiti, where the U.S. exported government-subsidized rice that was so cheap that it drove most of Haiti's rice producers out of business and often into poor neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, many on the fault line where the earthquake occurred.  After the earthquake Haiti was flooded with donations of items such as solar cells--which inflicted great hardship on the local manufacturers of solar cells.

The larger problem that the film speaks to is that Americans, especially, think that places like Haiti and Ghana are defined by their need.  We don't realize that such places are full of enterprising entrepreneurs that we should be collaborating with, not trying to drive out of business.

Yo Ghana! tries to be sensitive to these tendencies in three ways.  First, rather than opening schools in Ghana we work with existing ones that are doing outstanding work.  Second, we sponsor letter exchanges that demonstrate to American students that their counterparts in Ghana are resourceful and dedicated not abject.  Third, our grants to Ghana schools build on work they have already started.  The key for well-intentioned Americans wanting to help is collaboration, on working with people already doing amazing things.

We are hoping to bring this film to Portland, so stay tuned.  Here is the trailer.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Thomas Awiapo of Catholic Relief Services

     The other night I had the great pleasure of listening to a speech by Thomas Awiapo of Catholic Relief Services, Ghana.
     Thomas was orphaned at a young age, and he and his three siblings were constantly hungry.  Two died while he was young.  Thomas might have, also, if he hadn't learned that a nearby Catholic school  offered food to children who attended.  Though he wasn't much interested in school, he decided that the food was worth a ten-mile walk each day.  Over time, he got more and more interested in learning and eventually earned a Master's Degree.  Today he works for CRS Ghana in Tamale.   He says he will never forget the sadness and struggle of his childhood, the holes in his life.  But he is full of gratitude.
     Thomas's main message was to say "thank you" to the people who donate to CRS.  A lot of international charity is very abstract.  Being in the presence of this remarkable man, who may well have died of hunger and certainly would have struggled to make a living without the charity of strangers, put flesh and bone on the consequences of our generosity.