A Peace Corps volunteer's inspirational story about the power of small change
In 2001, Peace Corps volunteer Rajeev Goyal was sent to Namje, a remote village in the eastern hills of Nepal. Brimming with idealism, he expected to find people living in conditions of misery and suffering; instead, he discovered a village full of happy, compassionate people. After organizing the villagers to build a water-pumping system in the midst of the dangerous Maoist war that had gripped the country, Goyal learned how complex rural development truly is. He also witnessed how the seemingly lowliest villager can hold profound power to influence not only his or her own village but also the highest rungs of government.
Years after this experience, Goyal applied the lessons he learned in Namje to his work on Capitol Hill. Approaching Congress as if it were a Nepalese caste system, Goyal led a grassroots campaign to double the size of the Peace Corps. His unique approach to advocacy included strategically positioning himself outside the men's room of the capitol building waiting for lawmakers to walk out. As a result of his determined bird-dogging, Goyal managed to make allies of more than a hundred members of Congress and in the process, he ruffled the feathers of some of the most powerful figures in Washington. But due to his efforts, the Peace Corps was granted a $60-million increase in funding, the largest dollar-amount increase in the organizations history.
On this path to victory Goyal endured a number of missteps along the way, and, as he reveals, his idealism at times faded into fear, anger, and frustration. In this honest and inspirational account of his life as an activist, Goyal offers daring ideas for how the Peace Corps and other organizations can be even more relevant to our rapidly changing world. He urges environmentalists, educators, farmers, artists, and designers to come together and contribute their talents. Filled with history, international politics, personal anecdotes, and colorful characters, The Springs of Namje is a unique and inspiring book about the power of small change.
Rajeev Goyal, a graduate of Brown University and the New York University School of Law, is a lawyer, activist, rural-development worker, and former Peace Corp volunteer. Since 2008, he has served as the national coordinator for the Push for Peace Corps Campaign. He leads environmental and sustainable agriculture initiatives in eastern Nepal through several NGOs.
Protesters throughout this Arab Spring have been inspired by the legacy of the American civil rights movement. Nico Slate, author of the forthcoming Colored Cosmopolitanism (Harvard University Press), explains below how this transnational affinity echoes that of an earlier era, a hidden history of bonds of sympathy and solidarity forged between African Americans and Indians during their freedom struggles of the late nineteenth century through the 1960s.
A 50-year-old comic book about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s approach to nonviolent resistance has been translated into Arabic and has been circulating amongst protesters in Egypt and throughout the Middle East for months. According to a recent article by CNN, the cartoon is only one manifestation of a broad interest in the civil rights movement amongst today’s nonviolent activists. The comic book in question, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, itself documents an older link between the civil rights movement and freedom struggles throughout the world. The comic book, which can be found here, traces King’s leadership back to the nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi in India.
As I detail in my forthcoming book, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India, connections between Indian and African American freedom struggles go well beyond the relationship between Gandhi and King. The comic book was published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization that by the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been working for decades to translate Gandhian methods for use in the struggle for racial equality in the United States. FOR helped organize the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial organization that launched sit-ins modeled on Gandhian protest in the early 1940s and later pioneered the freedom rides. Many civil rights activists—some now famous and others largely forgotten—turned to Gandhi for inspiration and ideas.
Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, two young Black women were arrested on a bus near Petersburg, Virginia. Like Parks, both women were already actively engaged in the struggle for racial equality. By the time they boarded an old bus bound for Durham, North Carolina in late March 1940, Pauli Murray and Adelene McBean had long discussed how they could most effectively challenge racial segregation. The poor condition of their bus gave them the opportunity to translate their thoughts into action. Seated near the back of the bus, directly over a wheel, the two young women suffered with every bump. When McBean began to feel a sharp pain in her side, she and Murray occupied seats in the middle of the bus. The driver told them to move back. They refused and, after a lengthy debate with the driver and local police officers, were arrested. Murray wrote friends soon after her arrest, “We did not plan our arrest intentionally. The situation developed and, having developed, we applied what we knew of Satyagraha on the spot.”
Gandhi used the word satyagraha, combining the Sanskrit for “truth” and “holding firm,” to refer to his particular approach to nonviolent civil disobedience. In her memoirs, Murray remembered that when she and McBean were arrested their knowledge of satyagraha was “sketchy” and they had “no experience in the Gandhian method.” Like Murray, many Americans would learn the “Gandhian method” in the process of applying it against racial injustice. Less a rigid system than a series of guiding principles and a source of inspiration, Gandhian satyagraha would be reinvented in restaurants, department stores, buses and jails throughout the United States.
Connections between South Asians and African Americans extended beyond nonviolence, as Manning Marable’s new book on Malcolm X makes clear. Marable’s work demonstrates the breadth of linkages between African American Muslims and global Islam. Colored Cosmopolitanism reveals that such linkages were part of a larger constellation of connections in which nonviolent activists, Black and South Asian Muslims, Hindu reformers, Christian missionaries, followers of Marcus Garvey, African American soldiers, Indian immigrants, labor organizers, and many others forged links across freedom struggles. What provided coherence to these multifaceted linkages? I argue that a transnational conception of color came to serve as a bridge between people struggling against racism throughout the world. African Americans and South Asians together imagined a colored cosmopolitanism, a “dark” or “colored” world united in the struggle against racism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. Advocates of colored cosmopolitanism fought for the freedom of the “colored world” even while calling into question the meanings of both color and freedom.
The war in Sri Lanka has been over for almost two years. I've been back to the island twice in that time. My most recent trip took me up to Trincomalee on the northeast coast this past December where I was doing some volunteer work at a home for girls. I also wanted to see how the city and its people were putting the pieces of their lives back together again since war's end. Government propaganda aside, no one on this island believes that this is going to be an easy process. Ethnic distrust and hatreds between the Tamils and the Sinhalese; 300,000 civilians forced into IDP camps after the war; families separated from one another; civilians used as human shields in the last days of the conflict-- these are memories that are not dislodged easily.
This was my second trip to Trincomalee. My son and I had been there during a short-lived cease fire in 2002 and had witnessed a city nailed shut by war. I remember how silent it was. This December, Trinco, as it is known here, had shaken off war's stupor and come to life again. The sounds of buses, trishaws, and cars competing for one square lane in the center of town told me that there was petrol again. I was plunged into a shopper's paradise. Plastic Santas, Christmas tree ornaments, and toys all hung outside the Muslim shops, and the downtown area was marching to the beat of shoppers and bala music. Religion wasn't a factor here. Christmas was an excuse to celebrate. For Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims, it was a time to eat, dress up, give gifts, and visit with family and friends. People were cleaning their houses and cooking in preparation for the festivities.
Along with everyone else in Trinco, I went down to the open air market in the center of town and bought vegetables and curry leaves. But mainly what I bought were mangoes. Lots of them. Jaffna mangoes to be precise. They are known as karatacolomban . I knew about them because for the better part of 20 plus years, no one south of the war zone could get hold of them. Roads were closed. Trains had stopped. Commerce between north and south had come to a standstill. Someone had told me "You'll know when the war is over when the Jaffna mangoes appear again."
And they had!
I made a little fist of victory with my hand, stuffed them into my straw basket, and headed back to the orphanage. In my other bag I had a kid's badminton set, a couple of stuffed animal, two puzzles, some Bombay sweets, and lots of hair clips.
Make no mistake. War's residue remains part of the daily fabric of life in the northern part of this island. And it will be that way for years, if the present is any barometer. The final bloodbath in this civil war took place in Mullaittivu, less that 100 kilometers north of Trinco. Fishermen displaced from their homes in the last weeks of the conflict still wait in Trinco to be allowed to return to their villages. Half an hour inland sit Sinhalese villages that were overrun by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). The villagers are in the process of moving back to their land that was razed and burned, their homes destroyed. Many are still trying to find family members from whom they were separated in the final weeks of the conflict. Others, newly released from the IDP camps, come home to houses with no people in them, or to no home at all. The wounded wait for the government to deliver on its promises of rehabilitation. Tamil fruit sellers in town worry that the Sinhalese have retained control over the market. And almost two years after war's end, roads that scream for repair are still lined with Sri Lankan Military, young Sinhalese soldiers in bunkers bearing rifles. The aftereffects of war linger with stunning tenacity.
There is also the small matter of several very large waves that destroyed 900 lives on Dec. 26, 2004. This December, on the day after Christmas and under a driving rain, Trincomalee stopped and remembered. The Buddhist temples held special ceremonies, the Hindu kovils special poojas. We took the girls from the orphanage out onto the beach and organized an impromptu ceremony of our own. From there we went inside and lit candles in memory of the victims. I looked at the girls standing there. Some were too young to have much of a memory of what had happened. Others had lost family members that day, a moment in time that explained why they were standing in front of me now.
Part of recovery from war's trauma, from any trauma, is the process of re-finding the life and the person you were before the trauma. This past Christmas, the people in Trincomalee did just that. The women got out their saris, wrapped themselves in elegance and set off bearing fruits and cake to see friends and relatives. A friend went to buy a new shirt. We had cake and chicken at the orphanage, swam at the beach and dove between each other's legs. It was all part of the process.
There is much still to do on this small island of twenty one million people. Part of that long, slow journey towards recovery begins with a cake, a pot of something boiling on the stove, a new shirt and a bala dance. Sometimes the rest can wait for another day.
In the weeks leading up to the fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975, nearly three thousand babies and children were airlifted out of South Vietnam, often under chaotic and dangerous circumstances. Dubbed "Operation Babylift," the mission was a highly publicized U.S. backed plan to evacuate Vietnamese orphans and bring them to America for adoption.
In The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam, Dana Sachs, who has written about Vietnam for 20 years, draws on extensive research and countless interviews in both the U.S. and Vietnam to offer a fresh look at this complex and often controversial mission. She traces the stories of adoptees, including a woman whose Vietnamese mother managed to find her twenty years later, and looks at why there was so little oversight and such sparse documentation attached to the movement of these children, many of whom, it was discovered, weren't orphans at all and were desperate to go home.
This week, in the lead up to the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon on Friday, Sachs was interviewed about Operation Babylift and how its lesson can be applied to the current debate about international adoption:
In To Uphold the World: A Call for a New Global Ethic from Ancient India, author Bruce Rich contemplates the rule of the Indian emperor Ashoka over 2,200 years ago, whose philosophy of tolerance, conservation, nonviolence, species protection, and human rights still have much to teach us today. One of the many programs established by Ashoka was a system of universal health care for people and animals which, once established, served the Indian empire for close to a millennium. Rich discusses Ashoka's health care system in this video.
Bruce Rich is a Washington DC based attorney who has served as senior counsel on international finance and development issues for major environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Rich has published extensively in environmental and policy journals, as well as in newspapers and magazines such as The Financial Times, The Nation and The Ecologist. He is the author of Mortgaging the Earth, a widely acclaimed critique of the World Bank and reflection on the philosophical and historical evolution of the project of economic development in the West. He has been awarded the United Nations Environment Program 'Global 500 Award,' the highest environmental prize of the United Nations, in 1988, and also won the World Hunger Media Award in that year for the best periodical piece on development issues.
The drama in Haiti took a new turn when 10 Americans (8 of whom were released this week-- ed.) were arrested as they tried to carry a group of Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic. While the American group claimed to be rescuing orphans, the Haitian government accused the group of child trafficking. These conflicting accounts reflect the opposing views in a debate that has been raging ever since the devastating earthquake occurred last month, leaving in question the fate of thousands of displaced and homeless children.
On one side of this debate, for example, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators is promoting legislation to speed up the adoption process. "The littlest and most vulnerable victims of the tragedy in Haiti are orphan children," Senator Christopher Bond argued, "and they cannot wait for help." On the other side, several international aid organizations have been calling for a complete suspension of adoptions in order to adequately investigate the orphan status of each displaced child. "Haiti's infrastructure has been severely damaged by the disaster, and with it the systems to ensure that children are correctly identified as orphans," said a statement issued by Save the Children. "The possibility of a child being mistakenly labeled as an orphan during this time is incredibly high."
These arguments seem eerily familiar, and speak to the fact that the United States has yet to develop a well-reasoned policy regarding displaced children in time of crisis. Thirty-five years ago, in April 1975 in Vietnam, another evacuation of children took place. The scene was Saigon, on the brink of collapse as the Communist forces approached the city. The foreign volunteers who ran international adoption programs begged for help getting their wards out of the country. In response, President Gerald Ford authorized funds to evacuate thousands of children, who were flown out of the country and placed with new adoptive families overseas.
By all appearances, Operation Babylift, as the evacuation came to be called, looked like a bold response to a heart-wrenching humanitarian crisis. In Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of people had lost their homes; hungry children wandered alone through the streets; foreign aid agencies could not meet the most basic needs of the population. The idea of evacuating displaced children and placing them in loving homes overseas seemed not only wise but also deeply moral.
Today's post is from Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on her latest book,Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka. Barker has taught at the universities of Arizona and Washington, and is the author and editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. In 2001-2002 she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami she returned to the island where she traveled to the areas most devastated by the waves and by the thirty year old civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central Sinhalese government.
I was on my way home from Sri Lanka, sitting in the transit lounge of Heathrow Airport when the earthquake struck Haiti. Several hours later the first film footage began to come in. We sat with our Starbucks and along with everyone else just stared.
Two weeks earlier my son and I had spent December 26th driving up the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. It was the fifth anniversary of the tsunami. We stopped at a couple of beaches and swam along with other Sri Lankans. On the surface it looked like just another day. But it wasn't. How could it be? We have friends over there who will never ever go to the shore again, much less swim in the waters. Others marked the day in their own way. Officially nothing was done by the government. But privately people remembered.
Like most of us, I've spent a lot of time over the past few weeks in front of the television set looking at images of Haiti. We used to live in Sri Lanka. I had written about the tsunami, and so people have asked me if what happened in South Asia in 2004 can teach us anything about how to respond in Haiti. People want answers; I want answers, but the answers aren't easy to come by. We want people not to die in these disasters; we want aid to reach its mark in something approximating a timely manner; and we want to see life returning to normal as soon as possible. Do we have a shot at any of these or am I simply dreaming? I am neither a seismologist nor an aid worker. Like all of us though I am devastated by the disaster, puzzled and irritated by the problems getting aid where it is supposed to go, and wishing things were different. And so I offer here a few thoughts.
Today is election day in Sri Lanka, and today's post is from Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on her latest book, Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka. Barker has taught at the universities of Arizona and Washington, and is the author and editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. In 2001-2002 she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami she returned to the island where she traveled to the areas most devastated by the waves and by the thirty year old civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central Sinhalese government. This post is part of a series, appearing at the Huffington Post marking the anniversary of the 2004 tsunami.
January 4, 2010
It's kite season on the Jaffna Peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. On the tip of the peninsula, people are flying their homemade kites along the sea's edge with a little help from the northeast monsoon winds. It's a good season up here for other things as well. Peace has come to the north of this war torn country. It's a very different place than it was three years ago when I was here. Sri Lankans from all over the island are now free to travel to the north. For foreigners it is still problematic. Small guest houses that had gone to ruin are being rebuilt. Just outside of town the land is being cultivated for the first time in many many years. People are busy turning the soil, and planting everything from onions to cabbage and chilies on land that was occupied by the military during war time. Each week more land is being released back to the population at large, something that is absolutely crucial given the number of people up here who need to be resettled.
Downtown Jaffna is booming with the kind of energy that tells you that this is an area intent on rebuilding. Three years ago when I was up here working on my book Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka, the center of Jaffna looked like a poster city for civil war, twenty-six years of it to be exact. Mostly the stores sold tools and twine, the markets were bare, textile shops sat waiting for the odd customer. The only shops that seemed to be doing well were the ones selling bicycle seats since petrol was both expensive and generally unavailable.
CNN Newsroom featured a live interview with Sonia Sanchez on Sunday.
The five minute interview focused on the Smithsonian's Freedom's Sisters traveling exhibit, which features Sonia Sanchez and nineteen other 19th and 20th century African-American female activists. The video is embedded here, but if it doesn't appear, you can follow this link.
Today's post is from Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on her latest book, Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka. Barker has taught at the universities of Arizona and Washington, and is the author and editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. In 2001-2002 she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami she returned to the island where she traveled to the areas most devastated by the waves and by the thirty year old civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central Sinhalese government.
This post is the first of a series, appearing at the Huffington Post, marking the anniversary of the 2004 tsunami. This week's tragedy in Haiti calls painfully to mind the human loss and devastation of five years ago.
December 25, 2009
Everyone is complaining about the heat here, even the stalwarts who were born to it. Disgorged from mind numbing twenty-some odd hour flights, my son and I arrived to find the chocolates we had brought as Christmas presents liquefied into something the consistency of a post-rain mud flow. Vitamin capsules succumbed to the heat in Ziploc bags; lipstick lost its former identity as we moved to the tune of Christmas carols, bright lights and election streamers that dot the streets of this country just a heartbeat north of the equator. We are back in Sri Lanka. It's Christmas in Colombo!
My son Noah and I have come back to this island that was our home for a year after 9/11. Noah has not been back since 2002. I returned for eight months after the tsunami to work on my book about the island Not Quite Paradise. I thought I had finished the book in 2004, but then the wave hit. And everything changed. The book will be out in a few days. We both decided we needed to return, to put our feet on the island again, to take stock of a place that had so deeply defined our lives for that year and longer. In just days it will be five years since the tsunami. It feels to us as if it should be marked in some way, but so far there has been nothing in the press about it. Friends tell me that the country is too busy with other things, the upcoming presidential election in January for one. The kickoff to the campaign began the day after we arrived. For many this is going to be a bitterly fought contest between the incumbent president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and General Sarath Fonseka both of whom claim responsibility for the victory in May of this year over the Tamil Tigers. Some say this election is going to determine the future of this country. Others fear that the direction has already been charted and that nothing is going to change regardless of who is running the place. But this is what is garnering the attention these days as Noah and I thread our way through the traffic of Christmas shoppers and campaign throngs in downtown Colombo.
Most impressively, the authors keyed into what concerns rural youths about their adult lives and how these quandaries fuel the exodus of young people from rural places. Their dilemma, in short, is between remaining as adults in rural communities where they sacrifice educational or economic opportunities or leaving beloved rural places for expanded options in urban areas. Rural kids find that they must negotiate between their commitment to place and their commitment to the American ideal of individualist achievement, an ideal increasingly difficult to reach as the economic foundations of many rural communities continue to crumble. “When moving up implies moving out,” what should young people do?
We sweltered through customs at the hands of men in gray Mao suits and women in neutral “Mad-Men”-era outfits, every heart topped by a pin of Kim Il-sung. Then over the next few days we were shown carefully presented slices of Pyongyang: the subway, for example, which we rode for a single stop, where elaborate murals of a workers’ paradise were lighted by chandeliers. We went to endless museums and parks but were sternly instructed not to speak to any locals. We took meals at restaurants where we were the only customers, and the food seemed to come from the same Western-facsimile kitchen: bread with swirls, bland fried flounder, mayonnaise-based salad served in a martini glass. Finally my mother, weary of the utter weirdness of the place, told our tour guide in Korean that we needed to try some real North Korean food.
Yet for decades, in spite of the terrible numbers, the military has managed with astonishing success to get away with responding to grievances like Krause's with silence, or denial, or by blaming "a few bad apples." But when individual soldiers take the blame, the system gets off the hook.
And it can be shown that the patterns of military sex crimes are old and widespread -- for generations, military service has transformed large numbers of American boys into sexual predators.
Today's post is from Dana Sachs, the author of The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam, which will be published by Beacon Press in April.
This week, many people have recollected their interactions with Senator Edward Kennedy. I also met him-- in the pages of a 34-year-old transcript I discovered while researching a book about the war in Vietnam.
My research involved Operation Babylift, the U.S.-sponsored evacuation, and subsequent overseas adoption, of several thousand children from Saigon at the end of the war. The transcript came from an April 8, 1975, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing titled, "Indochina Evacuation and Refugee Problems, Part I: Operation Babylift and Humanitarian Needs." The chair of the subcommittee was Ted Kennedy, 43 years old and 13 years into his Senate career.
By early April 1975, the war in Vietnam was nearly over but the misery was intensifying every day. The North Vietnamese-backed final offensive had displaced hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom were dying of starvation and disease. "Tragedy is piled on tragedy," Senator Kennedy said in his opening remarks. He recognized a "deep and despairing sense of helplessness among the American people" over what was happening in Vietnam. At the hearing, he hoped to find answers to a simple question: Why, after so many millions of dollars in aid had been promised to Vietnam, were we still witnessing so much suffering?
Kath Weston grew up working-class, dreamed of becoming a writer, put in time on the street, and trained as an anthropologist on scholarship at the University of Chicago and Stanford. She has taught at Arizona State, Harvard, Wellesley, Brandeis, and Tokyo University. She is the author of Traveling Light: On the Road with America's Poor.
Remember that old party game in which everyone has to grapple with a deceptively simple question: If you were stranded on a desert island, what book would you take with you? In the working-class suburbs of Chicago where I grew up, answers ranged from the classics (The Souls of Black Folk, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare) to the religious (the Bible, the Qur'an) to the voluminous (War and Peace) to the cliché (Robinson Crusoe, ha ha ha!). It was a question meant to entertain and perhaps to reveal something about a person's values. Who would have thought that, thirty years later, the same question would be posed in earnest by people caught in a global economic meltdown?
Dispossession in a place like Tokyo has come to be symbolized by the archipelago of blue-tarp tents that dot the city, islands of homelessness tucked away into the recesses of parks like Ueno and Yoyogi. Around the city's train stations people who have lost their jobs patch together even more makeshift lives, heading to the underground arcades for warmth and shelter, then heading out again in search of work or small change. Many of these scenes would be familiar to people who have watched the rise of inequality in the United States. As the sun descends behind Shibuya's skyscrapers, men fish aluminum cans out of trash barrels to redeem for cash. Women scrub vegetables for the evening meal in public water fountains. Bedrolls spread out on the grass. A recent flurry of news reports professed shock at discovering such islands of need in the midst of plenty. In truth, these tent cities have been occupied for quite some time. And there are some scenes that never seem to make it into the coverage of financial crisis.