September 25, 2008

Elizabeth Willse's Random Act of Kindness

The subway seems an especially strange place for random acts of kindness. Strangers isolated in their own thoughts, the linear stresses of getting somewhere by a certain time. Even asking for directions, or maybe reaching out to say "what an adorable baby," or "hey, I liked that book too," could be an intrusion. It's easy to get shy in the seemingly unbreakable silence of strangers.

On September 11th, 2003, I got on the subway with a bag full of copies of Speaker For the Dead, by Orson Scott Card, a novel I've read many times since my teens. It has an elegant view of mourning and commemorating death, by speaking the truth about a person's life and connection to the community. Not just the nice truths- sometimes the painful ones that will help those left behind heal. It's thoughtful science fiction that raises questions about ethics, anthropology, humanness and communication, spiritual goals and memorial practices. It is one of the places I seek perspective when I'm overwhelmed.

When I reached my stop that day, I pulled a book from my bag, and left it on the seat next to me. "Hey," said someone. "You left your book." As the doors closed, I called over my shoulder. "I know. Take it." I hope he did.

I had stuck a note that said "Free Book! Take Me!" to each book I left behind that day. On the inside cover, I wrote a note that read "I am sharing my favorite book with you. Please take it, read it, think it over, and pass it along." and then signed my name and the date. I left one on the subway heading to work. I left one at the coffee shop. I think I left one in Grand Central somewhere, and handed one to a friend at the gym. Stopped to meet friends, and handed one to an acquaintance. I ended my night at a blues club downtown, and left the last copy on a table.

I wondered who would take the books I left behind. Would anyone read the one I'd left in Grand Central, or would it be treated warily as a "suspicious package?" Handing copies to friends felt like I was cheating. Leaving paperbacks without knowing who would read them was a truly random act. Doing it without knowing if or how it would be understood was about my own efforts to heal myself, and maybe others, without being poised to receive gratitude.

Yes, leaving books behind with only a note was easier than interrupting the silence between strangers. Maybe it would have been more courageous to reach out and say "here- I want to share this." It would take trust and openness, from the receiver and the giver. With conversation, the act of kindness would become more connected and less random. It makes me wonder: is there even such a thing as a random act of kindness, or are there only acts of trust?

What do you think?

Written by Elizabeth Willse, freelance writer, book reviewer and volunteer blogger with Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. You can visit her blog at or email with your questions.

September 23, 2008

Making Social Change a Reality: A step forward to Environmental Stability and Global Partnership

Rounding out the last of the Millennium Development Goals are goals seven and eight, Environmental Stability and Global Partnership. Both of these goals are so much more specific than the previous six, Goal 7 including four targets and Goal 8 including five, that it would be impossible to examine them exhaustively in such a short space. Therefore, let’s examine one target per goal. For a more detailed look at these aims, please visit the website for the United Nations,

To ensure environment sustainability, target three aims to, “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. “

One Step Forward:

Thirst Relief International is an international nonprofit organization that works with local groups to implement safe, potable water facilities in communities all over the globe. With projects in the Congo, Amazon, Kenya, and many more countries, Thirst Relief provides funding and serves as project manager, while labor and field oversight are provided domestically by local organizations. Currently, the Life and Water Development Group of Cameroon is seeking volunteers to assist with its own water project in association with Thirst Relief International.

As part of the millennium effort to foster global partnership, target five pledges to work with the private sector to make technology and information systems more accessible to developing countries. Whether school or small business, Internet access and information systems are essential to any developing country seeking to compete in the developing world.

One Step Forward:

One Laptop Per Child
is a project created by faculty members from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The core of OLPC is that for every $100 laptop purchased, one will be donated to children and families in developing countries. Not only do these laptops not require a power outlet, but they also use free and open-source software so that users may alter the system to suite his or her specific needs.

On September 25, 2008, UN member states will convene in New York City to evaluate progress made on the Millennium Development Goals. With only seven more years left to achieve these aims, it is imperative that these member states recognize that despite progress made, the world still has a long way to go. And in that vein, new, more specific commitments must be made to achieve the MDGs by 2015. We’ll have to wait and see.

For more information on:
Thirst Relief International, go to:
Life and Water Development Group, go to:
One Laptop Per Child, go to:
The MDGs or the Millennium Summit, please visit

This blog was written by Allison Tritt, a former high school English teacher, volunteer for Oxfam Japan and volunteer blogger with Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. She blogs to foster global awareness and remind others that there is always a way to get involved. Please leave your comments and feel free to email Allison at with any questions!

September 17, 2008

Join us as we make social change a reality

Hello friends,

A brief post for the evening. We've just added the Followers gadget to our blog and strongly encourage you to start following!

By joining our fan base, you're letting the public know that you support social change and the people who are working to make social change a reality. Never miss a blog again! And of course you can follow anonymously if you wish.

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September 16, 2008

Where do all the phobias come from?

Homophobia? Xenophobia? Both words express the fear of the unknown world of homosexuals on the first case or foreigners on the second. Interestingly enough, the phenomenon is so widely accepted that we actually had to come up with a word to describe our condition. What I enjoy in searching for the etymology of a word is also trying to understand the circumstances and the reasons under which that word was created.

Homophobia for instance, why do we need to describe a fear of homosexuality? What threat does a homosexual person or lifestyle pose for the human being or the society? Is it a physical damage? Is it a psychological, moral, legal damage? Each question may receive a different answer from different sectors of society. Religion, politics, the educational system, academia, history and tradition, all stand differently on the matter depending on their influences and what they stand for.

The defines homophobia as “bias” and “prejudice” against the homosexual people. In Greek, the language where the word originates from, the composite Homo - means alike, similar, same as something else and –phobia means fear, but also in ancient Greek the verb “fovame” (φοβάμαι) meant to be in awe/fear of something or someone (δείδω). So, if we put it together, homophobia describes the situation where we are afraid of the same sex! The meaning it is given nowadays is of the feeling of dislike of homosexuality, challenging and disapproval of it.

Etymology of a word has a strong feature: it gives you the power to decide how to perceive of the situation and the energy it describes. And there’s never just one story behind the creation of a word. A word is charged with the energy of years that needed to pass in order for us to be in a position to observe the situation and then describe it adequately and succinctly, in a word.

I challenge you to pick a word and find its origins. Once you’ve broken it down, see what each composite of the word means and then re-evaluate the word’s contemporary meaning. It’s a fascinating and eye-opening process that I find extremely interesting.

Visit for more interesting information on the topic.

This blog was written by Marina Sapountzoglou, M.D., Human Rights and Regional Development. Marina currently works with Commerce Bank, is an aspiring Human Rights Lawyer, active community volunteer and volunteer blogger with Literacy 'n' Poverty Project. Please leave your comments and email if you have any questions.

Millennium Development Part IV: Maternal Health & HIV/AIDs

Millennium Development Goals five and six are closely related to goals three and four discussed last week. As we move on, it will become more apparent what an emphasis the United Nations has put on healthcare in the fight to eliminate poverty.

The fifth Millennium Development Goal is to “improve maternal health.” Maternal health encompasses not only prenatal and postnatal care, but also family planning and education in proper childcare. Therefore, this is actually a very broad statement and not much else. Included in this goal are pledges to reduce the maternal morality ratio by two-thirds, as well as achieve universal access to reproductive health. This first target does help to clarify the goal. However, the word “universal” in target two is so expansive that its inclusion can actually undermine the UN’s ability to achieve its goals.

One Step Forward:

Each year the world loses over 10 million mothers and children, and the fact remains that many of these deaths are from preventable diseases. Infante Sano, in association with the Boston’s Children’s Hospital, works to improve maternal health throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. By cooperating with locally established clinics and hospitals, members of Infante Santo are able to provide community healthcare workers with supplies and additional education specific to issues of maternal health. Because the organization works so closely with local citizens, they are able to catalyze long-lasting improvements in the communities’ already-established healthcare systems.

In the same vein, MDG six is a commitment to “combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases”. One would hope that combating both deadly and treatable diseases is not new to the international agenda. Target subsets do little to specify the goal, as target one is simply to, “halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS” and target two is to provide universal access to treatment for HIV and AIDS. The goal could benefit from more specified targets. For example, instead of providing universal access to treatment, it would be better to include a designation of the number of hospitals or treatment centers to be built by the year 2010.

One Step Forward:

Today, Cultural Canvas Thailand is working with Rejoice, a local nonprofit based out of Chiang Mai, Thailand to get HIV/AIDs treatment and education to those who so desperately need it. Rejoice services the large population of infected poor living in Chiang Mai as well as the surrounding area. Equipped with a mobile clinic, volunteers travel throughout the area to foster awareness regarding HIV prevention as well as to administer treatment to those already living with the illness. Volunteers are also needed to work at the Cultural Canvas office for clerical support as well as medication distribution from the home base.

If you are interested in doing your part to help save the millions of mothers and children dying each year, ask your local clinic if they have any volunteer opportunities. If you are interested in Infante Sano, please visit For more information about Cultural Canvas Thailand, see

This blog was written by Allison Tritt, a former high school English teacher, volunteer for Oxfam Japan and volunteer blogger with Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. She blogs to foster global awareness and remind others that there is always a way to get involved. Please leave your comments and feel free to email Allison at with any questions!

September 11, 2008

Millennium Development Part III: Gender Equality and Child Mortality

Last week we took a brief glance at MDGs one and two. This week we’ll take a closer look at the third and fourth goals, as well as see how dedicated groups of individuals are doing their part to make dreams a reality.

The third Millennium Development goal is to promote gender equality and empower women. Once again, we see the problem of vague language noted last week in Goal 1. As it is hard to fathom the UN promoting gender inequality, the goal itself, while altruistic and admirable, is quite obvious. Without any set benchmarks or method with which to measure successes, the pledge to “empower women” sounds weak and insincere.

One Step Forward:
Women for Women International is a nonprofit organization working worldwide in areas recovering from recent conflict. While no one will debate the negative impacts of war on local citizens, Women for Women also sees these disaster zones as clean slates. Local women complete a three-step program. While at the beginning stages participants do receive aide, upon graduation they are independent actors in their local communities. If women are part of the rebuilding process, the social structure and norms are more likely to reflect a greater respect for the role of women in the local community.

The fourth aim of the Millennium Declaration is to reduce child mortality. More specifically, UN member states seek to reduce the number of deaths of children under five by two-thirds. In contrast to Goal 3, Goal 4 has the support of a clear means to assess progress. However, the issue of child mortality is an expansive one, and the causes of low life expectancies can differ greatly between regions. Sometimes the cause can be a low life expectancy for adults. In other cases, children are more susceptible to certain diseases than adults. Activists and actors with good intentions must be very conscious of the circumstances at hand.

One Step Forward:
Faith Wanjiru owns a profitable boutique in Nairobi, Kenya. She witnessed the degradation of Kenya’s youth, as young children, some mere infants, were abandoned in the streets. She bought a plot of land outside of Nairobi, and started the Imani Rehabilitation Agency. With its onsite clinic, Imani is able to provide healthcare to malnourished or diseased children. Imani also provides lessons on nutrition and personal hygiene. If the clinic is unable to attend to the needs of any child, Imani makes sure they get proper medical care at other clinics and hospitals around Nairobi.

For More Information or to get involved with:
Women for Women International, go to
Imani Rehabilitation Agency, go to

This blog was written by Allison Tritt, a former high school English teacher, volunteer for Oxfam Japan and volunteer blogger with Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. She blogs to foster global awareness and remind others that there is always a way to get involved. Please leave your comments and feel free to email Allison at with any questions!

September 2, 2008

Millennium Development Part II: Livelihood and Education

The first of the eight Millennium Development Goals is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Encompassed in this goal are targets to halve between 1990 and 2015 the number of people living on less than one dollar a day, ensure employment and “decent work” for all, and halve the number of people suffering from hunger.

This first objective in particular is quite broad and stands precariously on vague language. There is no concrete definition for concepts like “extreme poverty” or “decent work”. Terminology of this sort threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the UN’s aims. The language conveys overwhelming international social problems that seem impossible to solve over the course of a decade by member states simply tweaking their respective foreign policies.

One Step Forward:

The Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs is a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that runs Farmer-to-Farmer projects in Moldova, Belarus, and the Ukraine as part of USAID’s John Ogonowksi Farmer-to-Farmer Program. Volunteers along with paid staff advisors travel abroad to provide agricultural and entrepreneurial support. CNFA representatives collaborate with local citizens to establish long-lasting economic and nutritional sustainability.

The second Millennium Development Goal is to provide free primary school education to all children. Many children live in areas that lack facilities and teachers, or cannot go to school due to the danger of local conflicts. Others must work to help support their families or take up arms in war-torn zones. According to Oxfam International, over 72 million school-age children are not receiving a primary school education.

One Step Forward:

CODENI started out as the final project of a group of ITESO graduate students in Guadalajara, Mexico. Today it is a legally established non-profit organization that affords educational services to the street children of Guadalajara. Volunteers and staff not only offer lessons, but CODENI also provides counseling services, scholarships, and monthly food baskets. CODENI also organizes field trips and social events for students and their family members.

Whether through international cooperation or localized efforts, people around the world are trying to help fulfill the admirable, albeit slightly grandiose, goals set forth by the United Nations. For more information or to get involved with CNFA’s Farmer-to-Farmer program, please visit To learn more about or offer services to CODENI, go to

This blog was written by Allison Tritt, a former high school English teacher, volunteer for Oxfam Japan and volunteer blogger with Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. She blogs to foster global awareness and remind others that there is always a way to get involved. Please leave your comments and feel free to email Allison at with any questions!