Monthly Archives: March 2007

Born Into Brothels

At our Friday Morning Meeting today, we saw the Academy Award winning documentary Born Into Brothels, a story about the children of Calcutta’s red light district. In this film, a New York photographer named Zana Briski goes to Calcutta to live with and document the life of Calcutta’s prostitutes, but instead finds herself becoming increasingly involved and engaged with the children who live and grow up in the district while their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and friends work “the line” as prostitutes.

She ends up giving all the kids cameras to capture life as they see it, and teaches them how to take pictures, choose the best ones, edit and so on. The kids are taken to visit the zoo and the beach and are followed around their neighborhood while they take pictures – and it becomes clear that several of the kids have a real talent for photography. Unfortunately for the girls, it’s only a matter of time before they’re old enough to “join the line” and start earning their keep as prostitutes with the rest of their families. And the outlook for the boys isn’t much better. In several cases, we are shown that the kids are expected by their families to earn the money it takes to feed and care for them.

The only way out of this situation is education, something that many of them are getting from local schools in only the most slap-dash manner, being too busy trying to live to study or even attend school. Briski winds up moving heaven and earth to get some of the girls into a quality boarding school – a difficult proposition, considering that some families will not permit their daughters to be away from the family for so long, and almost no school will take children of criminals, which of course they all are.

Over the course of the movie, Briski succeeds in getting several of the girls into school (some more permanently than others), having their photos exhibited in galleries across the globe, selling signed prints of these photos for money that goes into an educational fund for the kids and even getting one boy selected to attend a famous international photography conference as the child photographer representative from India – a plan that almost falls through when she can’t get him a passport through the sedimentary layers of bureaucracy, corruption and just plain slowness of the Indian government system. Luckily, they do manage to get him a passport literally at the last moment, and he is able to make his flight and proudly represent his country and his group of friends.

All of this led up to the formation of the charity group Kids With Cameras, which is repeating the process with other kids in other areas – offering empowerment, hope and scholarships and other funds to kids through photography.

Check out the film. It’s definitely an eye opener.

My favorite print is Suchitra’s Cat. I tried to link to it directly at the site, but apparently you can’t do that. So that’s a Flickr link. I hope to be able to afford to buy a copy one day. I’ve got it bookmarked just in case.

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Our best, most reliable volunteer broke her car. So now we’re spending most days wrangling the horde with just the two of us again.

*heavy sigh*

On the upside, today was the monthly Chamber of Commerce networking event and this time the cheesecake was back in evidence. Yum.

One thing you learn in Americorps is never pass up free nosh. Especially really good free nosh. Existing on Ramen and peanut butter 6 days a week may be noble, but it blows. Real, gourmet cheesecake on the other hand…now that’s food. 😀

But now I’m tired, the networking event was held outside in anticipation of balmy spring weather that turned cold and rainy and it’s late. So I’m taking my cheesecake-fortified, thoroughly chilled self offline for the night.


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People aren’t always, or ever, who you want them to be

One of the things you will learn if you spend a year trying to save the world is that there’s a good portion of the world that has no interest in being saved and actually has, on average, a rather marked resistance to it. And the people who are working along side of you often have motivations, attitudes and behaviors that are not what you would prefer or expect them to be.

Now, this has nothing to do with anything happening right now, or anyone in particular that I’m dealing with. I’m speaking purely in generalities here, because if there’s one thing a prospective Americorps member should know before they join, it’s that the vision of saving the world and the reality of that vision are often two vastly different things.

The fact is, for most people (and in this context, we’ll consider organizations and communities to be titular “people”) change is scary, labor intensive, inconvenient, painful, expensive, risky and short on tangible and immediate returns on investment. That doesn’t in any way negate the necessity for such change. But it gives you a better idea of what you’re going up against when you are, or represent, the change agent.

Many people join world-changing orgs like Americorps with idealistic visions of doing good to, with and for a joyous, grateful and equally idealistic people. The reality is, some of the people you serve will be surly, tired, frustrated, indifferent, argumentative, resistant and even violently opposed to being helped. Some of the people you serve with will be selfish, lazy, manipulative, shallow and completely self-centered. And some of the people you work for will be joyless, self-absorbed, hidebound, wrongheaded and even actively malicious.

Of course, the opposite is also true – some of those you help will be grateful, cooperative, welcoming and generous, some of those you work for will give Robin Hood a run for his altruistic props and some of the people you work for will be dedicated visionaries who aren’t afraid to go in swinging for what they believe in.

In all likelihood, you’ll get a fairly even mixture of both. Because the fact is, life is…well…life. People are who they are and being a part of something special like Americorps doesn’t exempt you from that. You run across people who make you grind your teeth and make you rethink your commitment, and some of these will be people who are in charge of making your term worthwhile…or not. You’ll run into situations where no one wants you there, doing what you’re doing, even though it’s clear that what you’re doing is good and right and needed, because of turf wars, insecurities or just plain fear of the unfamiliar. You’ll be ignored – or worse, targeted. You’ll be given the task of saving the world one-handed with little or no resources, then vilified when you miss the goal by the tiniest sliver of optimal results.

I’ve gotten lucky on this tour, in that my team and the org we serve with is apparently composed pretty much entirely of idealistic, visionary types who are nonetheless long on practicality and short on blithering idiocy. And, by and large, the same is holding true for those I’m helping as well.

OTOH, in my previous Americorps incarnation, I didn’t get so lucky. There wasn’t any out and out malicious intent or anything, but we had more than one member who no one could figure out why they were bothering with Americorps, given their attitude toward the work we were doing and their complaints about the sacrifices involved, and we had more than one person at the org level who the rest of us felt could disappear off the face of the earth to only positive effect. The only saving grace was the near uniformity of the wonderfulness of the people we served (who more than once kept us all sane with their generosity of spirit and positive attitudes).

People are people and this isn’t going to change just because you’re dedicating a year of your life to doing good. There are just as many screw-ups, NIMBYs, slackers, demotivators, pointy-haired bosses and obliviously clue-free inDUHviduals in the world-saving biz as there is anywhere else. But you know what? The work still needs to be done.

Many religious teachings state that while we are expected to do, and held personally responsible for doing, the work set before us, we are never entitled to the expectation of a result because that is in the hands of Whomever; to take the responsibility for how it all turns out into our own hands is not only to serve out a portion of stress for ourselves over something we can’t do anything about, it is also to a large degree utter hubris for us to assume the power reserved for the Divine – that of attempting to dictate how the Universe unfolds.

In some situations there is no win, only the potential to chip away at the failure rate. In other situations, there are many wins, but never enough to keep up with the need. However, as Mother Teresa once said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

And that’s the heart of the matter. If you go into Americorps to be the Fixit Fairy, expecting to be joyously greeted by welcoming hordes of flower-tossing social experiments eager to be lifted out of their dolorous circumstances by your life-giving touch, then you are in for a serious adjustment to the horizontal hold of your reality.

But if you do the work that needs doing because it needs doing, and because you can’t live with yourself if you know this and still do nothing – and you leave the worrying about the results in the hands of whatever aspect of the Divine you ascribe to – then you’ll be okay.

I just thought you should know.

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Event coordinating for dummies

Heh…my morning site supervisor has sprung a *cough* fun *cough* assignment on me – as part of my job of planning and holding the volunteer appreciation dinner coming up in mid-April, she wants me to coordinate the entire kindergarten class to perform as our entertainment for the event.

Talk about a deer in the headlights. The look on my face must have been priceless, given her hysterical reaction to it. Now I know how all those “daddy daycare/kiddie cop” movie heroes feel.

So now I’m going to spend the next few weeks herding K-graders through their paces. We’ve decided they’re going to do two songs. I can’t remember the name of one, but the other is “I Believe I Can Fly.” That sold me. There’s got to be some sort of cute implosion when three K-grade classes sing that song at once, their wee little munchkin voices wavering in near-miss harmony. Should be fun.

Wish me luck.

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Speaking of your future…

Here’s a great career article on MSN Careers called Six Career Secrets You Won’t Learn In School. Speaking as someone who runs her own freelance business and spends her free time hopping around from one cool adventure to the next, this is dead on. Read it, learn it and put it into action and you’ll be several steps ahead of those just entering the workforce (or, for that matter, a lot of those who’ve been there for ages. Acquiring wisdom through experience is never a given.)

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5 ways to make the most of your Americorps experience

Sure, you can coast through your year of service, or even two, without accomplishing much more than earning a steady (if vanishingly small) paycheck and doing a spot or two of good in the world. And that’s not an entirely bad way to spend a couple of years, if that’s all you want to do. But if you really want to do more than catch the wave and surf it out, there are many ways you can upgrade your user experience.

1. Make some friends.
Unless you’re serving as a single member in an isolated situation, you’re going to be making a lot of friends during your term of service, be it your fellow Americorps members or other folks you serve with. If having a large group of diverse, like-minded people is high on your list of priorities, this is a great opportunity to seal the deal on what could prove to be some seriously great long-term friendships. Take the time to really get to know the folks you want to keep around, and make a point of not letting those connections fade away after your year is up – something that is all to easy to do when you scatter to the winds the day after ‘corps graduation.

2. Work your network.
Being an Americorps member is a great way to get to know people who will be very important to you and your future. Whether you will be going to college, entering (or reentering) the workforce, continuing with community service in some way or, who knows, maybe even running for office, your time in Americorps is probably one of the best times to meet and get to know the movers and shakers in your community. As part of your service, you’ll be invited to a lot of community-boosting events that your local Illuminati would give their 4th quarter earnings to attend, and your tangible commitment and dedication to public service will give you an edge of respect and credibility with people who are in a position to help you. You’d be a fool not to take advantage of that while you can.

3. Learn marketable, transferable skills.
If there’s one thing you’re going to do in Americorps, it’s learn new stuff. If there’s a part of your program that you’d especially like to know more about or feel would be valuable to learn, or a skill you feel would enhance your ability to do your service, chances are someone will be more than happy to put you on that project or at least offer some tips and training. Whether it’s spreadsheets, grant writing, event coordination or whatever, if it’s a skill that gives you a leg up on the competition, you might as well dive in while the training is free, immersive and hands-on. Keep it up, and by the time you graduate from the ‘corps, your resume will look like it’s been on one of those Extreme Makeover shows.

4. Get certifiable.
Some of the best perks of an Americorps service are the certifications. From the merely useful to the financially lucrative, by the end of a service year you’ll need a forklift to haul your resume around, what with all the sparkly certifications padding it out. From CPR to specialized skills, most of these certifications cost an arm and a leg to get on your own, but you’ll be getting paid to take them in Americorps. Take advantage of that while you can – you never know when they’ll come in handy.

5. Grow as a person.
One of the coolest, and hardest, things about Americorps is that if you aren’t personally challenged to within inches of your known limits at least once a week, you aren’t paying attention. A year of that and you’re either a new and better person, or a dead one – and I’m pretty sure the casualty rate for Americorps members is still pretty low. The team-building exercises, the trainings, the work you do, the people and situations you run into – all of these will scour away your comfort zone and, once you’re opened up and susceptible to outside influence, you’ll be put through more eye-opening experiences than a Jehovah’s Witness at his first Burning Man rave. Sure, you could just blow it all off and never get fully invested in the process, but what’s the point of that? Hell, it’s free – you might as well get what you can out of it. Who knows, you might just come out the other end a better person than you went in.

Of course, these are just a few of the ways you can make the most of your Americorps service. I’ll be adding more to the list in future posts. In the meantime, if you take one idea away from this post, it should be this: Americorps can either be a way to occupy a year, or a doorway to a new future. Either way, you’re going to be there until the end. You might as well get everything out of it that you can while you’re there.

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Changing focus

I’d like to spend the rest of this year focusing less on what I’m doing specifically (although I’ll continue to note anything of particular interest), and focusing more on the Americorps experience in general. So, if you notice a change in tone and content of the postings, that’s what’s up.

I’ve also added a new category, Looking Beyond Americorps. I hope to be able to provide some useful info from past experience about that other Big Question…now what?

That is all. Nothing more to see. Move along…