Friday, May 20, 2016

Yo Ghana! Celebration a Week Ago

Some 180 of us honored Mr. Brando Akoto at Yo Ghana!'s second annual celebration May 14 at Africa House.

Brando believed strongly that we--that is, human beings--are here to care for each other, and there was a lot of that going on.  Djimet Dogo opened the program by telling us that Africa House was our home, Madame Victorine put a lot of love and care and energy into her food, and the ladies of Portland International Church donated a dozen diverse and delicious West African dishes.  The Obo Addy Legacy Project threw themselves into a thirty-minute set that had everyone clapping along.  Lilly Akoto (above) helped us to remember the man we miss so much, her husband, as did one of Brando's friends from childhood, Ibrahim Abubaker (also pictured above), who drove down from Canada to be with us.  Among our many volunteers, we are particularly grateful to Aaron Jones and Wendy del Mary for somehow being everywhere at once.  We are also grateful to the more than fifty generous people who donated to us before or during the event and to Agbey Gedza, President of the Ghana Assocation of Oregon, for taking such amazing photographs.

We honored six big-hearted people with Yo Ghana! Star Awards: teacher Ginny Hoke; headmaster Kofi Anane; volunteers
Dominic Fordwour and Essan Weah; and founding board members Dr. Kofi Agorsah and LeeAnn Bronson. Board Member Komi Kalevor emceed with his usual grace, co-founder and board member Elizabeth Fosler-Jones showed her vivid video from her trip of last year, and TreNeasha Shearer of St. Andrew Nativity School spoke on what sharing letters with a student at St. Kizito Basic School in Kpandai, Ghana had meant to her.  Board Member Harriette Vimegnon presented each of our attending teachers, and two students standing in for their teachers, with Kente stoles that Dr. Agorsah had arranged to be woven for us in Ghana.

One of Brando's many slogans was: Take care of relationships, and everything else will take care of itself.  Saturday's celebration was a beautiful illustration of that adage.  Brando, we miss you so much.  It was an honor to honor you.  And thank you for showing us the important things to remember, both as individuals and as an organization.  We shall never forget you.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Brando Akoto: A Life Poured Out

When I think of Brando Akoto, whom Yo Ghana! will be honoring a week from tomorrow, at our Annual Celebration, I think of a bucket that never runs dry.
Think of your life as a bucket of water.  Most of us would be worried about losing any of it.  We would want to wrap our bodies around the top of the bucket on a sunny day to keep any from evaporating.  We would want to make to make no sudden movements, lest some of the water be jostled out.  Certainly we would not want to share our water with a thirsty stranger or friend.  It's our water, after all.  We need to make it last!

Brando was forever pouring out his water to the rest of us.  He loved giving things away: his time, his attention, his possessions, his care.

My wife likes to talk about the "scarcity model" of life in which he hoard and guard our resources.  Brando followed the anti-scarcity approach.  And for all the water he poured out on the rest of us, his bucket always seemed to be full.

I get to hang out with a lot of people like Brando in Yo Ghana!  People like Mr. Daniel, who took time out from the preparations for his father's funeral to personally print and deliver letters to a school that lacked a printer, or Ms. Ginny who makes time between her extensive work and family commitments to coordinate more than 100 letters, or Ms. Elizabeth, our young co-founder who lavishes her time and hard-earned money on us, or Mr. Essan, who sets aside entire days to visit our classrooms.

I hope you can join us May 14, 3-5 p.m. at Africa House in NE Portland.  Here's a link to purchase tickets.  We'll be honoring Brando, a man who poured out his life for others, and the room will be full of others who do the same.

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.