I’m May al-Ibrashy. I’m the director of the Imam al-Shaf'i Conservation Project. which is what we're gonna talk about today. I am an architect, and I specialize in heritage and conservation. And for years, I've also been studying the historic cemeteries of Cairo, which are very special, because they're very old, but they also have a very old tradition of being multifunctional. So they're not just funerary, there are also places where people live, and where there's commerce, and where there are markets.
And there're also sites of visitation. And, arguably, the most important site of visitation in the Southern Cemetery is al-Imam Shaf'i, uh, Mausoleum. This is a mausoleum from the 13th century that houses- that has within it the ... Al-Imam Shaf'i who is one of the fa- one of- a fa- the founder of one of four rites of Sunni Islam. So it's a very important building, both spiritually and historically. And also art historically, because it's almost like a, like a record of all the styles, uh, from the Islamic period that you have in Egypt, from the 12th- from the 13th century onwards.
So we have been, uh, starting in 2016 until 2020, 2021. Uh, we have worked on the conservation of the building with funding from the Ambassadors' Fund for Cultural Preservation. And right now, we have the opening in April 2021. And now we have a second grant from the U.S. Embassy, uh, uh, for a visitor center, and a training program there over the next year to, uh ... Both to, uh, train people and how- to introduce the visitor center, actually set it up, to train people on how to run it. And also to, uh, raise the profile of the building so that we get more visitors, whether within the local community or also within Cairo or internationally as well.
Understanding the different types of significance, uh, for the building for the different kinds of users. Because it has so many meanings, different meanings for different people.
You are dealing with a- with a cemetery, and so you are required to- to, uh, deal with it, the kind of respect that a cemetery deserves, especially a cemetery that is that historic, and that also has a number of shrines and burials of spiritual significance.
You also have to take into account the fact that al-Imam al-Shaf'i is the center, not just the spiritual, but also the residential and the commercial center of al-Qarafa, or the Southern Cemetery.
So you have residents living around you, and you have to take those into account- uh, into account as well.
Then, you also have to, uh, work with the understanding that it does not just belong to Egyptians. Uh, it belongs to Muslims in general, Sunni Muslims in general from all over the world who ... Especially those who are, uh, uh, who adhere to al-Shaf'i as the Sunni rite, as a Sunni- as a branch of Sunni Islam, if you will.
And you also have to take into account, the fact that because it's such a beautiful building, because it is such a- a- a- a work of art, because it's such a- because it is such a feat of structural engineering, you also have visitors from Egypt and from all over the world who come to it because of its cultural significance. So a good part of our work is balancing between all of these different considerations. (09:04)
We had a concern about the relationship between monuments and heritage sites, and the community around them, especially in densely populated living cities like historic Cairo. And we felt that the- the best way of preserving and safeguarding the heritage of cities such as these, is to bring the community in as a- a main actor, a main player in the process of conservation.
We felt that historically, this had not been the case, and that people's connection to these heritage sites had been- had weakened, had lessened through the years.
In 2012, from, I think, July to December, we o- we met with different stakeholders, whether from the community, or from, uh, uh, from the government, or uh, different kinds of- of- of uh, professionals, for example, academics etc. To ask that question.
Is it true that if people have a sense of, uh, ownership of their heritage, they will take better care of it? And if it is true, how do we, strengthen this, uh, sense of- of ownership? And at the end of- by- at the end of the six months of discussion, we felt that this sense of ownership is strength- strengthened through benefit, that if, uh, people feel that there is, uh, uh, that there is a link of mutual benefit between them and, uh, heritage sites, and that if they feel that they benefit from these heritage sites, whether spiritually or socially, or economically, or culturally, they will take care of.
And this is how we came to the general mandate of our initiative, which is heritage as a driver for development. So in the case of a place like al-Imam al-Shaf'i, um, this is a very specific kind of building. We cannot really drive very- um, kind of functional uses out of it, you cannot adapt it- adapt it for another re- use for example. But what you can do is, uh, to uh, amplify sp- spiritual benefit at many levels, for different kinds of people, to amplify cultural benefit, and, uh, also, at many levels. And to also figure out ways where the local community feels that the building serves them in some way.
So in our case, the visitor’s center also incorporates an activity room for children, and the training includes, uh, training for, uh, the people who will be running, uh, the visitors center from the government, to run, uh, regular activities for the children of the neighborhood, maybe to incorporate women as well, so that there is an educational benefit that people feel connects them more, uh, to the building.
In other neighborhoods where we work, we kind of open it up a little bit more. So for example, in the neighborhood of al-Khalifa, which is the city proper, we investigated the problem of groundwater, and drive the solution to de-water heritage sites, but also use the water extracted to irrigate, uh, gardens around. And so to introduce gardens for the benefit of the community, and also in the process, lower the water level for the benefit of the heritage site.
So these are the kinds of things that we try and investigate in order to, uh, um, to create stronger links between the community and their heritage, so that they feel out of their own accord that they want to take care of these buildings and safeguard them and protect them.
I have worked on cultural preservation since I was a student in architecture school. So I have a passion for historic cities. I have a passion for Cairo. I've worked in Cairo and historic Cairo almost all of my professional life. But, um, in- from 2009 to 2012, I stopped working on conservation, and tried to explore, uh, working, uh, as an academic full time, because I felt that the work that we do is ... There's something missing in it, that we- we kind of lovingly conserve a building, we lovingly restore it. We have this- it's just such a wonderful thing to do. But then the building is closed up. It is not used. It is not maintained, and maybe 5 or 10 years later, it reverts to its original- to- to the condition it was in before we did the conservation project.
I kind of took the time off to think about it. And to be honest, when we sta- first started investigating this idea of linking heritage to the development, we didn't really know where we were going to land. I mean we started off with a- had a theoretical question question, if you will. But by the end of it, we found that we were on to something that has potential, and we started off with conservation and heritage education. Then, that extended to, uh, heritage industries as well. And then it ex- it extended to working on an urban, uh, level, an urban regeneration. And we started off in one neighborhood. In, uh, in the municipality.
Of al-Khalifa where we work. And now we work on t- in three different neighborhoods.
And as we do that, we- we develop more and more techniques to create these kinds of links. And it's very gratifying because it has taught me a lot, because it has taught me that heritage is not just about what is 600 years old, maybe even more importantly it is about the heritage that we are making today for the future. And to make heritage, you have to create this link, because you want this continuity. And it does not happen without people feeling that they have a strong relationship to, uh, their heritage. (22:14)
The idea of the school is to educate children about their heritage in a manner that is relevant and that is interesting. And to create this link between the past and the present that shows them that they are part of this continuum, that puts them in the place where they understand that they themselves are creating their own heritage and their own culture.
And the idea of relevance, it's not just, uh, in terms of connecting, uh, them to the past, but also in connecting it to real needs now. So at the beginning, we were kind of very, uh, um, strict about only teaching heritage. But we found that we are in a neighborhood where maybe some kids go to school, but can barely read or write, that they need help with mathematics, they need help with languages, they need help with science.
And so we started to expand the program so that it teaches basic skills, but always from the perspective of heritage. So if I'm going to teach them about geometry, then I'm going to teach them about the geometry of a dome.
If I'm going to teach them science, there is a link to the history of science, and how it relates to buildings that they have, they see around them that are also historical.
Uh, this program developed after to include a heritage industries component for teenagers where they start to investigate, uh, vocations, and, uh, and professions that they could pursue that also are, uh, related to heritage, but from which they can actually derive a livelihood. And this has been very interesting, we- the- our teenagers are now designing products, they're running tours, and quite a few of them are now interested in pursuing, uh, vocations and professions that are heritage-related.
Uh, we also have a program for women that does the same thing, but with women so that they themselves encourage their children to do that, and they're able to educate their children. So we expand bit by bit according to kind of the terrain and where it leads us, but also with a very specific mandate in mind.
I think the most important thing I would say is that.
To do this, you have to have first of all, a passion for the place where you're working. But you also have to have the ... You have to be willing to, uh, to explore different kinds of dis- disciplines. And [inaudible 00:23:29], you have to understand that you're at the intersection of many disciplines. So, uh, you are obviously at the heart of the discipline of conservation. And that is a technical s- uh, it's- it's a technical discipline. It's a technical know-how. And it's, uh, it- it- it requires running a site, the way you run a construction site. It requires understanding structure, understanding the qua- the- the properties of material, understanding chemistry. Uh, it's- it also requires people skills, because you're running a team.
In parallel to that, you have to have the, you know, the spirit of a researcher, because as you conserve, you learn, and you do more research, and you learn more, and it's an- it's an intern- uh, an in- there in- in- it's interchangeable. So you have a question, you investigate it in one way, and then you're cross-referencing with something that you find on site, and then you go back and investigate again. And it doesn't end.
So it's important to keep that kind of spirit. But then you also have to have, um, a passion for understanding the socioeconomic context, the urban context, and for connecting, uh, between the- these different kinds of disciplines. (
So it's quite tiring, but it's also extremely gratifying. And it's never boring. (laughs) And- so we get a lot for people who are- who hear about us and are interested in training with us or working with us, and a lot of people- some people drop out, because they feel that it's overwhelming, or it's, uh, not the field that they're interested enough.
But those who stay, they stay, because it's almost- there's this ... No day is the same as the next. It is not a boring nine to five job, it is an extremely stimulating and gratifying job. It's also extremely tiring, and at times, extremely frustrating. So it is not for the faint or the weak-hearted. (laughs) This is what I'm saying. (25:28)
Everyone has a story to tell. On Voices of Exchange, join us to hear the stories of people, places, and international exchange. This podcast features many voices, all of whom are alumni of U.S. government exchange programs, including cultural and sports envoys, exchange visitors, and U.S. Speakers.
For Season 2, we travel to Sri Lanka, Switzerland, France, Turkey, and even the International Space Station as we speak with the grandson of a famous oceanographer, a former NASA astronaut, a diplomat whose poetry draws on themes of the immigrant experience, and an architectural engineer/cultural preservationist.
Missed Season 1? Catch up on those 10 stories below to hear how one student’s exchange program led him to pull the plug on a career as a doctor, how a non-profit founder is mobilizing “sea-citzens” to take action, and a paratriathlete inspires himself and us, and more.
New episodes of Voices of Exchange are released every two weeks on Spotify, iTunes, and wherever else you get your podcasts – hit the subscribe button to tune in every other Thursday. The second season drops September 30, 2021.
Voices of Exchange is brought to you by the Office of Alumni Affairs in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). Join us on Instagram at @voicesofexchange to get the latest on our podcast.
For past episodes of 22.33, visit ECA’s website at Life. Changing. Stories. | Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
SEASON 2: PREVIOUS EPISODES
Episode 1: Dan Tani: Citizen of the Planet
Description: To Dan Tani, becoming an astronaut seemed unimaginable. And yet, for 16 years, Tani lived his dream as a NASA astronaut, going on two space expeditions. In this episode, Tani reflects on his pride in the U.S., his love for planet Earth, and his passion for sharing his experiences with others. Among all of his identities, Tani is proud to be a good “citizen of the planet.”
Dan Tani (00:01:53):
Um, my name is Dan Tani, and uh, I grew up in Chicago, but not... Right now I live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Uh, currently I am a director of a non-profit foundation, called the U.S.-Japan Foundation, and we are interested in bettering the relationship between the people of the United States and Japan. (2:11)
Dan Tani (00:02:12):
But for 16 years I was a NASA astronaut, located in Houston, Texas, at the Johnson Space Center. (2:19)
Dan Tani (00:04:52):
You know, I grew up in the '60s and so, like virtually everybody in and around the world, you know, I would play astronaut and pretend to be an astronaut, and think about being an astronaut. But I really had no idea that that was even possible to become an astronaut. (5:09)
Dan Tani (00:05:10):
You know, I went to public school and, and uh, graduated, went to university and studied engineering, and um, my first job, uh, out of college was with a big aerospace company in California, and uh, they happened to be making, uh, rockets and satellites. And so that's the... That's exciting. I mean, building satellites is really exciting. So that's, uh, the job I chose for my first job. (5:34)
Dan Tani (00:05:35):
Well, that company had the misfortune of having a satellite that didn't work in space. It got deployed and didn't work on the space shuttle. And so, uh, they had to find a team to figure out how to go fix that satellite, and of course, uh, since, since the company I worked for made the manuf- manufactured the satellite, uh, we got to build the tools and the, the, uh, pieces that the astronauts would use to go fix the satellite. And it was really exciting when the astronauts came and visited our plant, and uh, talked to us and, uh, discussed what kind of tools they would need. And, so I, I got to meet these astronauts and it was just an exciting thing to hang out with them for the day and go to lunch with them and talk to them. (6:14)
Dan Tani (00:06:15):
And uh, then later in my career I... At a different company I worked with more astronauts, and the sort of slow, a-ha moment for me was that, um, by meeting these astronauts and talking to them and getting to know, you know, funny things about them and their families, I realized uh, that they're just... They're people with jobs. They're people that have a great job. I never really thought about that, I never thought about an astronaut as somebody who applies for the job and gets the job. But, um, once I realized that, that it's uh, achievable to anybody who has the... Can fill out the application, um, it... That set a seed in my head. (6:53)
Dan Tani (00:06:55):
So I went back to graduate school and, and uh, uh, got another job of course- as I said, in the aerospace industry. And then I heard somebody say, "Hey, you know, they're taking applications for the astronaut program," and uh, they do that every... About every two years. And so, uh, a couple of guys I worked with look at each other and said, "Well, you know, we'd be stupid not to apply, (laughs), to be an astronaut." I mean it's, uh, it seems like the greatest job in the world, so we filled out the applications and sent them in. (7:23)
Dan Tani (00:07:24):
Uh, I just got really, really lucky and out of, you know, thousands of applications, mine got pulled to go for the interview. Uh, and um, and out of 120 they interviewed, I was one of 35 that got picked that year. A, a huge class of astronauts, but uh, it was, uh, quite surprising to me that, uh, that I made it even as far as the interview, much less getting selected. (7:46)
Narrator: Every year, thousands of people apply to become a NASA astronaut.
Out of those thousands, an elite few are chosen
and Dan Tani was one of them.
Dan Tani (00:09:45):
I, I remember the, the, the moment distinctly because, um, it's one of those things that, uh, you just absolutely remember. Uh, and it was January 7th, I remember the date, and I remember I was taking down, um, uh, Christmas lights from my house. And uh, I heard the phone ring and I heard my wife pick it up, and she said she gave me the phone and said, um, "It's the chief of the astronaut office” - my boss. And there's not many reasons why the chief of the astronaut office would call you on a Sunday afternoon. And so, uh, um, I got on the phone and he said, "Hey, we're putting a crew together to fly, uh, later this year, and uh, we'd like you to be a member of that crew." (10:25)
Dan Tani (00:10:26):
So it's one of those moments where it's, uh, a whirlwind of emotions. Uh, it's, you know, it wasn't as shocking to me as getting the call to be interviewed to be an astronaut. Uh, because you know, we are selected to be astronauts and we're sort of waiting for the call to get, uh, assigned a mission and we know, uh, most likely that we're gonna get that call. Uh, of course it's exciting when it happens. (10:54)
Dan Tani (00:10:54):
The call to become... To come down to Houston for the interview was a complete shock. That was out of the blue for me. And uh, that was a, a rush of emotions and thoughts and ideas and questions that I, uh, you know, felt, uh, were... I had no way of expressing all of those emotions. (11:16)
Dan Tani (00:11:16):
But, uh, getting the call to be a, a crew member was fantastic, and then of course I wanted to know who I was gonna fly with, whom my commander was gonna be, all that stuff. And uh, it started a whole year of, uh, a whirlwind year of training and, and learning to be a crew member and, and uh, the anticipation of my first mission. (11:35)
NASA astronaut candidates go through about two years of initial skills training -
like spacewalking, robotics, and spacecraft systems -
as well as focusing on behavior skills, like leadership and teamwork,
which prepare them to live and work 250 miles above Earth
aboard the International Space Station -- also known as the I-S-S.
There, astronauts like Tani,
take part in experiments that benefit the human race,
and prepare us for life (In Space) beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Dan Tani (00:17:09):
Um, you know, we... When we're in training, the moment we're selected to be an astronaut, we are, uh, we are knee-deep in data and s- procedures and uh, um, regulation and expectations. And so, the... For the year of training, we are so involved in how do we get the space shuttle up into orbit safely? How do we transform the spaceship into... The shuttle into a space, an orbiting laboratory? You know, all of the technical things that you have to do, and, and we, we take notes and we cram for, uh, for simulations and we, you know, we're so involved in the mechanics of getting into space and doing the work that we are expected to do when we're up there. (17:59)
Dan Tani (00:18:00):
And there are... It, it's easy to lose the emotion and the philosophical aspect of wow, they're gonna, they're gonna put me on a rocket and I'm gonna go 17,500 miles an hour. And uh, and so even on launch day, you get strapped in and, um, there's a... You know, we are strapped in about, uh, two-and-a-half hours before launch, and so there is a moment there, when, when they're getting the rocket, the space shuttle ready to go, where there's not much for us to do. Uh, and we fall back into this familiar pattern, uh, uh, the crew does, of joking around and talking to each other, because we do that, uh, a lot in the simulations, it feels just like the sim. (18:39)
Dan Tani (00:18:40):
And uh, however, you know, on launch day it's different, and you know it's different. And you have this... I had this feeling like, you know, any minute now they're gonna figure out they made a mistake and chose the wrong guy and come and pull me off this thing, because I don't know why I got fortunate enough to be sitting in this seat, and get ready to go into, to space. (19:01)
Dan Tani (00:19:02):
Um, but my expectations were mostly technical. My expectations were on day two, I've got to get that suit ready to go and do my spacewalk. I have to, um, you know, there's... I'm, I'm in charge of all the cameras and all the film back then, it was film. And so I'm in charge of all that. And so, my mind was filled with, uh, making sure I get my job done. And really the, the, the um, emotional part of it was kind of secondary. Um, but until you, until you light those engines and boy, it's just a fantastic experience, and then it was uh... I was trying to be in data record mode, I was trying to... I was talking to myself, "Don't forget what this is like, try to remember every moment of this. This is so, uh, this is such an, an amazing experience, I really would like to remember this so I can tell my friends," and, and um, and express to people who, who will not, probably not get this chance to do this, that, uh, what it's like. Because it's just fantastic. (20:04)
First space walk
Dan Tani (00:20:10):
Um, yeah. Spacewalks are fantastic. Well, what did it feel like? Again, just like a launch, you're so... Your head is so full of procedures and making sure the machine of the spacesuit is working properly, that, uh, it's easy to, uh, it's easy to not think about what an incredible experience, uh, you're going to have. Um, I've always said I've, I've had the pleasure of doing six spacewalks, and I've always said, uh, the space... ‘The Best part of the spacewalk is when it's over and you can look back on it.’ And uh, think about the experience that you had because you're so, uh, concerned with making sure that you do the right thing at that moment and know what your job is, that it's not, uh, it's not easy to appreciate the moment that you have. (20:59)
Dan Tani (00:21:00):
But, uh, first of all I got to do my first spacewalk with, uh, uh, a great friend of mine, and a, a, a wonderful woman that became a mentor of mine, Linda Godwin, and so we got suited up, and uh, just like the simulations, just like the practices we had, um, the suits worked great. And then you open the door and, uh, you leave the, um, the, the environment of the space shuttle and now you're in, in space. (21:26)
Dan Tani (00:21:26):
Now the space... Doing a spacewalk from the space shuttle was a little bit different, emotionally, than the Space Station. Uh, when you leave the space shuttle through the airlock you're in what's called a payload bay, so you leave the space shuttle, but you look around and you're surrounded by this, more of the space shuttle. The cargo bay. So it doesn't feel like you're out in the open of space. You will be in a few minutes, but, but for that moment you're not. (21:53)
Dan Tani (00:21:54):
On the Space Station, when you open the door and you, you float out the hatch, you are filled with nothing but earth. Uh, your, your visor can see nothing but earth and you see, as you leave, you don't see any of the Space Station. And it feels like now you're just part of, uh, of the universe looking down at earth. So, uh, it, it's a much different experience leaving the Space Station than it was leaving the space shuttle. (22:20)
Four months on the ISS (International Space Station)
Dan Tani (00:28:49):
Sure. So, I've had two trips to space, and my first one was for two weeks on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. We went to the Space Station and, uh, it was just a, just a fantastic, uh, introduction to space. And uh, but as I, as I mentioned, working on the space shuttle is, uh, I mean you are scheduled every 15 minutes, you're up there for a short amount of time, so they need to maximize the amount of work you do. And so, there is very little downtime on a space shuttle mission. (29:18)
Dan Tani (00:29:19):
Going to the Space Station is much different, and for me a huge pleasure because now you live in space. That's... Now it's your home for those few months. And uh, we work hard, we work, uh, five and a half day weeks, but there are moments where... There are days where you have nothing scheduled. Because that's, that's what a resident would do. And so, um, uh, Sundays and half of Saturday, uh, were... They were just fantastic because now, uh, I could go to the window, I could just sit in the for... In the window for hours and, and watch the earth roll by. I could, um, uh, look at all my pictures and sort of do all the administrative stuff that you do have to do, uh, on earth. But I... You get to do it in space. (30:02)
Dan Tani (00:30:02):
So for me, my Space Station mission was a real pleasure. I got to, um, make a home out of the Space Station. I had to... I got to find my favorite places to hang out, um, sometime it would get warm up there and so you know where the cool places are to just, to hang out. Um, you know, uh, you can look at your predicts for the next week and see where you're going to be flying over, and oh, I'm gonna go over Paris and so you can, uh, set the alarm on your watch so that you can go take some pictures of, of Paris or some other place that you wanna see on earth. (30:38)
Dan Tani (00:30:38):
And so, uh, life on the Space Station, for me, was just fantastic. Now, I, I was up with a crew of three, um, my boss, the commander, was Peggy Whitson, and then my other, uh, flight engineer was, uh, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, and um, the three of us got along really well, uh, um, Peggy is a very accomplished astronaut. She's a classmate of mine, so we knew each other for quite a long time. And um, and so... And she's a farm girl from Iowa, so I learned a lot about, uh, farming. And uh, all the, all the, uh, very difficult things that farmers have to do, (laughs). (31:17)
Dan Tani (00:31:18):
And then uh, uh, Yuri had a daughter about my age. About the age of my children, and so it was wonderful to connect with him about how his daughter was doing and how he communicates with his wife and, and children and, and so, uh, we had a lot to talk about, uh, there also. So as a community, as a crew, uh, I could not ask for, uh, a better, uh, crew mates and we really, uh, I think enjoyed our... Each other's company and we got a lot of work done, too. (31:46)
The tvorg / food romance
Dan Tani (00:47:48):
What, what's really interesting is, uh, I get the question a lot. Which is, you know, when you came, uh, when you were in space, what foods did you crave? What did you really, you know, what, what, what were you missing in space? Um, and my answer is, pretty much nothing. I mean, the food up there was delicious and I did not sit around and crave, "Oh, I wish I had, you know, this or that." (48:12)
Dan Tani (00:43:48):
Sure. Um, well, uh, yeah. Eating in space is very important. Eating in general is very important. And NASA, all the space agencies understand the morale importance of food and how it's... You always want to look forward to, uh, something that you're gonna eat. And also the social environment. Peggy was, was fantastic in mandating that we have dinners together. And that, that was important family time for us. And so, yeah, food is... We feel food is very important. (44:13)
Dan Tani (00:44:14):
Um, when I was on the Space Station, and I... It's still true now, uh, half the food is donated, or half the food is provided by the, the uh, NASA system, the American system. And half is provided by the Russians. And so when we get to the dinner table, we can choose whichever one we eat, you know, and it's just sort of what you happen to be hungry for during that... At that time. Or else you'll look into your pantry and say, "Hey, we're loaded up here on the beef stew, we've gotta start eating down this beef stew." (44:42)
Dan Tani (00:44:43):
Um, I liked all of it. There were very few things that I wouldn't eat. There were a couple of cans of meat, uh, that the, uh Russians provided that just didn't sound, uh, good to me. And so, uh, as long as, uh, as long as, uh, my Russian counterpart, my Russian crew mate Yuri would, would eat them, we, we, uh, I didn't feel badly about not eating, uh, some of those Russian, uh, cans of food. But some of the Russian stuff was fantastic. (45:10)
Dan Tani (00:45:10):
I would say my favorite thing in space is this, uh, sweet cheese that the... That Russians have. There's a sweet cheese that the Russians have called tvorg, and it's... Think of it like, uh, the, uh, cheesecake. It's that sort of sweet cheese, um, and uh, uh, they have it both in cans, which is delicious, and they also have it powdered and you add water and you mix it together. And we would take some strawberries and rehydrate them, and uh, and put them on the tvorg and it was all, it was like a cheesecake. I really miss that. I have not had tvorg since I've, uh, been back to earth. (46:32)
Dan Tani (00:48:12):
Um, the irony is, when I got back to earth, there was space food that I still crave. And so, uh, it's a, it's a surprise to people to find out that I sit at home and I go... First of all, that tvorg, I would love to have... To eat some tvorg. And there was real pleasure in, uh, when a new, uh, spacecraft would come up, they would bring fresh vegetables and fruit for us, and uh, one of the things that Peggy would do is, she would take an apple and she would eat apple and peanut butter, which I'd never seen before. But I love that now. And now, every time I get an apple, I'll slice it up and I'll put peanut butter on it, it brings me right back to being on the Space Station. (48:56)
Leadership and teamwork
Dan Tani (00:34:12):
Well, I would say the whole, the whole experience of being an astronaut has been very, uh, has been very good for me. I, uh, of course learned a lot about what I am capable of doing, and what I am incapable of doing. Where I was able to draw... Uh, or I was able to refine the boundaries of what, uh, I, uh, let me say this. I was able to help, uh, define the boundaries of what I, uh, have the capability and interest of doing and what I don't. But also what my job is, what my role is in, in the team and how to best help the team. (35:00)
Dan Tani (00:35:01):
Really as astronauts, one of the things that we learned, one of the most important things I learned is the importance of teamwork. And I know everybody, um, everybody talks about teamwork as important, but the astronaut program and NASA really focuses on that. We do specific training on teamwork. And uh, I don't think that I would understand how teams work and what my role in any given team would be, if I was not an astronaut, because we focused on it so much. And so now I think about leadership and teamwork all the time, because uh, I think that was the culture of what we were taught and what we were asked to be really good at astronauts and crew members on a space mission. (35:50)
Dan Tani (00:35:51):
So I think that's what I've really learned. It wasn't particularly being in space, it was the whole process of training, uh, to be a crew member, both on the space shuttle and on the Space Station. And those are skills and ideas that I take with me every day in my, in my life, both professionally and personally. (36:10)
Dan Tani (00:37:31):
So you know, I lived in Japan for a couple of years, and you'd be in the subway, and it's packed, and you're in the middle. And the doors open, 20 people are gonna try to get on, and there's hardly room for one person to get on. And what that team needs right now for you standing in the middle is for you to shuffle over three inches, so that the next guy can shuffle over four inches so you can make room. And I think leadership, like, my job... The team right now is this car of people, and the thing I can do to help the... This car of people right now is to squeeze into the corner a little bit more so that more people can squeeze in and we can get, uh, two or three more people onto the car. (38:12)
Dan Tani (00:38:13):
And uh, I, I really... It's funny, I, I really now think about how do you help the team, and what does the team mean? Is it my family, is it my community right now? Is it a, a, you know... And a lot of time it's the world. What can I, what can I do, what's my role in the world and, uh, what can I do best to help, uh, that team? (38:32)
U.S. Speakers experience
Dan Tani (00:03:22):
My interaction with the State Department is, I've been privileged to be, uh, a participant in the Speakers Program and uh, as part of that program I've got to visit Japan and Portugal, uh, and Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco. It's been fabulous and I've done virtual visits to Malta and Madagascar. It's just been a, a wonderful experience for me. (3:45)
Dan Tani (01:00:24):
Um, so there's certainly many on my end. I mean, these, these trips have really, uh, allowed me to grow in ways that I would not have been able to or, uh, experience things that I would not have, uh, been able to. Uh, one of the, one of the, at least on my end, one of the thoughts I have is... And it was not with the State Department trip, but I was asked to go overseas and speak at an American school, or an international school at a commencement. And I'd never been in an international school before. I'd never seen an international school, and it was fantastic. (1:00:59)
Dan Tani (01:00:59):
It was in Germany, it was just wonderful. The people were great and the students were having a great time, and, uh, the languages they spoke and the, the diversity of the, of the um, student body, it was just fantastic. That set a seed in my head, which two years later, turned into me bringing my family to Japan because I wanted my kids to do an American school experience. And so we went to Tokyo and my kids, uh, attended the American school there. And I actually taught at the American school there, that, that was the vehicle that I was able to bring my, uh, family to Japan. (01:01:32)
Dan Tani (01:01:32):
So, I mean I think that's a big ripple effect. Um, uh, I, I have heard anecdotally of, uh, people that have come to listen to me speak and now, uh, really want to work as an engineer or want to work in the space, uh, in- industry. And that's fantastic. If I can, if I... Whenever I hear those stories I am amazed that I had the, not power, but it... That, that just my presence, just hearing my story, allowed people to dream a little bit bigger, or to um, widen their horizon a little bit more to things that are, um, possible and, and I... You know, I'm, I'm warmed by that, I think that's, uh, a wonderful response to hearing me speak about space. (1:02:22)
Dan Tani (00:57:25):
Sure. I, you know, as an American I feel so privileged in all the opportunities that I've been given. And, uh, the fantastic place that I get to live and the fantastic, um, the amenities of being an American. I never want to take it for granted. And, um, through this program, it's been wonderful to go and, uh, be an example of an American to many people that may have never had met an American before, or certainly don't interact with them on a regular basis. (57:58)
Dan Tani (00:57:59):
And um, uh, I feel, I feel a responsibility and a privilege to, uh, convey my story, which is a fantastic story. I mean it's... I can't... I'm constantly amazed at the opportunities and privilege that I have been, uh, provided. And so, uh, yes. I love to have fun with, uh, audiences and, and bring them to space and show them the cool things that, that we get to do and see. (58:31)
Dan Tani (00:58:31):
Uh, but I also recognize that, as a representative of the United States, I'm there to be friendly, I'm there to be funny, I am there to, uh, be uh, empathetic and uh, to, uh, ask questions, uh, about uh, how they live and what they do and what they, what they like and, uh, uh, I try to find out a little bit about what their impressions of America and Americans are. Most of the people that come and talk to me of course, uh, want to be there and want to interact with an American. Uh, but um, so you know, I view it as such a great learning experience for me, but I also recognize, of course, that um, you know, I want them to come away with a positive image of the United States. (59:22)
Dan Tani (00:59:22):
And uh, so I, I do feel that responsibility. And um, uh, space is such an easy and accessible way to reach people, uh, that... Because it's not really cultural. Um, you know, it's amazing to me that kindergartners around the world love space and love things that fly around. And, um, and so I'm, you know, I'm lucky in that the vocabulary that I have, the tools that I have to communicate with people are so universal and, uh, um, in that way it's, it's easier for me to, uh, get the attention or to, uh, start the conversation with, uh, with people around the world. Um, and try and connect with them and try to have them connect with me as, as the American they get to talk to for that day. (1:00:15)
Point of Pride/American dream
Dan Tani (00:42:24):
Yeah. I say that, you know, sort of the, the real point of pride for me is that, um, the irony of my parents had their cameras and their radios taken away from them because they were not trusted with radios and cameras. Yet just one generation later, you know, that same government spent a lot of money teaching me how to use cameras and radios. And I... It's a real point of pride, not only for my, um, you know, the Japanese-Americans or my heritage, but it's also a real point of pride for my government, uh, that, that we have been able to, uh, uh, get... We have been able to address that black mark on our history and reconcile, uh, reconcile it. (43:08)
Dan Tani (00:43:09):
And so I'm very proud of both my, uh, my community and my government, uh, for getting to where we are now. (43:15)
Dan Tani (00:38:58):
So, typically, um, you know, I'm the astronaut. So they want to see rockets fly and they want to see people floating around. And they want to see what it looks like, what the earth looks like from space and they want to talk about exploration. (39:10)
Dan Tani (00:39:11):
And so, um, I really like to just tell my story and, and show them what it's like to be inside the space shuttle when it's launching and um, what it feels like to put the helmet on and go out on a spacewalk. And I think the... And the message I try to convey is basically, I was pretty much like most of my audience. I wasn't born into, you know, great wealth, nor, nor privilege. In fact, um, my family, my parents were imprisoned by their government just for being Japanese or having Japanese ancestry. They weren't... They were, they were, uh, native-born U.S. citizens, but their parents were Japanese. (39:56)
Dan Tani (00:39:56):
And so, uh, you know, that seems like a real, uh, deter- that seems like you're really starting from far behind to, to end up to go into space. And so I like to try and connect and be a... As human as I can to my audiences, so that maybe they can connect with hey, he's... To have that idea that I originally had, which is, "Hey, this is just a person. And it's... And, um, they have a great job and they've done some incredible things, and maybe that's something that I can do." (40:27)
Dan Tani (00:40:28):
So A, I like to be a person, and I like to try to connect on a human level with my audiences. And then one of the messages I like to convey as an astronaut is, what a beautiful earth we live on. And I mean, it's visually beautiful and I show pictures and movies of just how stunning the earth looks from the vantage point of the Space Station or the space shuttle. And the message I try to convey is gosh, I am so proud to be a citizen of that, and you know, we all have memberships that we like to adhere to and sometimes they conflict and, and uh, but when it... When it boils down to what is your real membership, and for me now it's being a citizen of the planet and, um, and…(41:16)
Dan Tani (00:41:17):
So I try to shrink all of our experiences to we all live here. This is our home, and um, you know, we speak different languages, and we eat different food, and uh... But, uh, if we can see ourselves as mostly the same, you know, maybe some of the problems that, uh, that we're experiencing can be a little bit less. Uh, we're not gonna eliminate all, all pain and all suffering, but, but if we can all feel like we're all in this together, you know, maybe our chan- our attitudes can change a little bit, and we can have, uh, a better attitude about each other. (41:53)
Message to the world/Spaceship Earth
Dan Tani (01:18:39):
Um, yeah, I mean this is, this is what... This is exactly what I try to do every time I talk to groups about, about space. Um, as much as I hate analogies, an analogy that I... That might resonate with people is that, um, when you sit in your house, and you look around. A lot of the time you look at the paint that's peeling in the corner, or the door that squeaks or the, the, you know, something that just isn't right with your house and it really bothers you and, and you know, it, it really gets at you. (01:19:21)
Dan Tani (01:19:22):
But then there's a moment when you're driving by your house, and you look at it, and it's your home, and you're just filled with warmth and you love your house. You love your home. Um, and, and the, the paint is still peeling and the door still squeaks, but you... That difference in perspective allows you to feel a kinship to your home. And um, sometimes it just takes stepping away a few feet, uh, and, and looking at it as a whole instead of looking up really close. (01:19:59)
Dan Tani (01:20:00):
And that's how I feel about our Spaceship Earth. I think that it's too easy for us to be down here, uh, where we are most of the time, even the astronauts. And think about the peeling paint and the squeaking door and all the little things that bothers us about it. And the, the few... The privileged few of us get to take a few steps back, and look at our home as, uh, as our home. I mean, look at our planet as our home. I, I would... You know, if, if people can think about that and go, "You know, I've had that experience, I've had that experience of seeing a picture, maybe on Google Earth of my house and feeling pride and feeling like, oh, that's my house. I love that house." (01:20:45)
Dan Tani (01:20:46):
Um, and extending, and extending that, that imagery to our planet and, and uh, the... Having that emotion of yes, I... You're right. The little things bother me, but I take a step back and for that moment it's not so important. And that's what we astronauts get the privilege of doing and, um, you know, when I fly over the earth, I, I, I get to fly over Africa and I know the millions of people that are down there, I, I wonder what they're doing and, you know, what's going on in their lives and, and you know, and I'll probably never, ever meet them. But I feel like, uh, I'm, I'm with them. (01:21:31)
Dan Tani (01:21:31):
And then I go over Asia, and all the people of Asia. And so, um, and, and so you know, I would love for uh, all the people on earth to feel like earthlings. And uh, and, and, and carry the, you know... Wear the badge of being an earthling and feel like that's a, that's the club they belong to. And uh, that's what fills me with, uh, optimism, um, uh, after coming back from, from space. And that, that is what I want to share with the people of earth. (01:22:03)
Close (narrator): We would like to thank Dan Tani - astronaut, director, father, and good citizen of the planet - for sharing his stories with us.
And thank you, our listeners, for tuning in.
If you haven’t yet, don’t forget to subscribe to Voices of Exchange wherever you get your podcasts. And be sure to tell your friends too!
Voices of Exchange is a bi-monthly podcast brought to you by the Office of Alumni Affairs, in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Our team includes Desmon Farris, Asha Beh, Maria Eliades, and Emily Rand.
Have a question or suggestion? Email us at email@example.com, or reach out to us on Instagram @voicesofexchange.
SEASON 1: PREVIOUS EPISODES
Final Episode: A Letter to My Younger Self
Final Episode: A Letter to My Younger Self
Description: Three women. One goal. And a letter to their younger selves. In the final episode of our first season of Voices of Exchange, a team of exchange alumni - Pandora White, Vanessa Diaz, and Ashleigh Brown-Grier - join us to talk about international exchange, their Citizen Diplomacy Action Funded project -- We Represent -- and how they are bringing diversity, equity, and inclusion to exchange programs.
Dr. Pandora White
I'm Dr. Pandora White, and I am the CEO of We Represent, and I am over everything, it appears (laughs). I am Dr. Pandora White, and I am the CEO of We Represent, and I oversee all operations.
I am Vanessa Diaz. I'm the COO and director of creative communications. I design all social media and website graphics, as well as work closely with the CEO of We Represent.
I am Ashleigh Brown-Grier. I am the director of external relations, and I help wo-, solidify relationships and partnerships within We Represent.
Dr. Pandora White
What is WeRepresent? What is our story of beginning? I was at an international, uh, alumni event. I, i.e with partners of America, I had started putting on events for alumni to meet each other, to talk about, you know, what's the next steps after you do these exchanges? How do we use this to further our career? So at that meeting, they announced that there is gonna be the citizen diplomacy grant to do projects in various fields, including, uh, creating, uh, communities for alumnis and promotion of the program. And so at that meeting, I actually s- just met three or four other alumni. So it was about 30 to 40 of us there. And they were like, "Does anybody wanna do a project like this?" And we're like, "Okay." So we just took each other's phone number, [in the] first couple of days of knowing each other.
Dr. Pandora White
So the plan originally was to basically go to the schools, go to HBCUs, minority serving institutions, and just have them have an opportunity to hear from someone, uh, who looks like, um, or who've done that experience. What's it like, especially at those smaller universities that might not have a study abroad office? So promotion. And so in 2020, we was gearing up to do it, and I had some really cool, uh, plans, like going to Hawaii, uh, or reaching out to the people and then COVID happened. Our future was canceled. And we have to like sit down and think about what was going to be the future, uh, we represent. And so at that point it became a conference. And so, um, I was like, the only thing we can do at this point would be a virtual conference or a virtual setting. And so we, how did we get that mission, that ideal?
Dr. Pandora White
No one that I knew I had ever really went abroad. You might know one or two people who would take a boat down to Mexico, because I'm not far from New Orleans and there's a port there. But going to another place, living there, really seeing what it was like to be in someone else's shoes, that wasn't something that you would see. And then the other thing was, if you knew someone who did it, maybe they didn't look like, you, maybe they didn't have a similar background to you. They got me thinking that we should do it, and that's why. And see if we can increase them as, uh, students from different, uh, backgrounds that apply.
We also, uh, our group, a lot of our team members were also doing similar work prior as alumni ambassadors, um, as co-founders of affinity groups in which we were trying to reach underrepresented groups anyway, on virtual, like virtually and in person. So it kind of, um, was great that Pandora reached out to us cause we were doing similar work, and then now we were able to like hone in. Between everyone, we had like 60 volunteers, panelists, moderators. Yeah. It was, it was really amazing.
Also with our affinity groups, they were also willing to promote, help promote the conference, which really helped gain those, uh, other alumnis, um, put us in contact with them or alumni (laughs), and put us in contact with them as well as, you know, promoting to, to their base, to students who may be interested in attending the conference. The most rewarding part, or just for the team in general was, um, we were able to really push the WeRepresent brand and, um, our mission to people. Right? And so we were surprised in the beginning when we had so many advisors from these institutions who are like, "Oh my gosh, we wanna work, we, we're interested in learning how to really, um, reach our minoritized students on campus." And so that was, that was a little shocker for us. And what I told Pandora was, you know, it's great that these advisors A, attended and, registered and attended this conference. Because what they took from that con- com- from our conference is they can go back to their campuses and they can use these tools, um, to help with their outreach on their campus with minoritized students.
But now they also have connections with alumni from all four programs that they can call on and say, "Hey, do you mind speaking with our students or do you mind, you know, there's a student who's interested in X, Y, and Z. Can I, you know, uh, put them in contact with you?" So I think that was one of the most rewarding. And also that so many people attended the conference. I think that was also (laughs) really, um, not saying that we didn't expect anyone to attend, but, you know, it's COVID, there's Zoom fatigue. So to have people attend, whether that was, um, via Zoom or, uh, via our social media accounts, I think that was really, um, a reward for us.
Being able to have a space where we talk about underrepresented groups, but like multiple underrepresented groups. And not only that, but like, recognize that you can be more than one thing. So you could be like a gay black man who is also disabled abroad, you know, and like being able to talk about those things in like an intersectional way versus like just checking off one box. I think it was rewarding to hear stories about people maybe even traveling to the same place. Cause my experience in Jordan, it's very different than a colleague of mine that looks different than me. And so I think having those parallels and having those stories heard side by side are really important. Having the opportunity for people to talk about that candidly and openly, but in a way that was like, I learned a lot and I would go back.
Um, and here's what I can give you, uh, I think was really refreshing. And um, yeah, I think, uh, pat ourselves on the back, I think we did a good job in that aspect. As the person who put out everything you saw having to do with the conference was like trying to effectively, effectively communicate and reach our audience, um, on a virtual platform, which means like building a website that works, that's functional, that tells a story. Um, having, reaching the panelists that we wanted to, reaching the audience. And to some degree we definitely reached it because the fact, there was so many faculty involved that came out in, that, um, attended. So for me, a personal goal was like, is our intent aligned with our design aligned with, like, the reaching goal. And I think, there's always room for improvement, but we did an okay job (laughs).
Dr. Pandora White
I'm from Fayette, Mississippi. So I'm first gen. I ended up going to Alcorn State University, which is an HBCU [Historically Black College and University]. And while there, I ended up, um, applying for the Gilman to Ghana, and going to Ghana in the fall of 2012. I got the travel bug. It was like, you know, that first time is the scariest time. So I went on, did a summer internship in India. So I ended up meeting some exchange students, some Fogerties [Fogarty Global Health Program for Fellows and Scholars] and Fulbrighters, and ended up saying, you know, I think I can do this. So during my PhD, I ended up staying in Taiwan, Boulevard, in Poland and I came back to the states, graduated with my PhD in biochemistry, got a postdoc of Fulbright to Peru, came back, finished my MPH. And now I'm a visiting assistant professor of chemistry.
I was a 2016, 2017 Fulbright, ETA to Jordan. Um, I'm also a Gilman alum and I traveled to Qatar in 2014. I am first gen, Latin X. My family are Colombian immigrants. And so my travel experiences were definitely like, I had traveled before I had gone to Columbia. My first time, I hadn't really gone anywhere outside of my comfort zone of south America. So I went to Virginia Commonwealth University and they had a sister campus in Doha, Qatar. And I was able to do, um, a semester abroad there with Gilman, literally the same semester, just in a different place. And so I was kind of enamored with that idea, and the fact that it was in the middle east, I was super excited because it was a place I had never gone to before. I had no expectations, nothing. I was just like, I'm a sponge, I'm going to soak it in.
And I felt there was so much, um, a little, uh, a lot of ignorance and a lot of, um, I guess people didn't really care that I was so excited about the middle east. Um, at least my peers. And so I wanted to find another way to go back, then someone recommended me to go and apply for Fulbright. I, I only got it the second time I applied to Jordan. And then while I was in ETA, I was able to not only teach, but also like, um, do some pro bono design work. And now I work for the LGBT community center in New York City as a digital and design coordinator.
My first international experience was, I studied Italian opera in PISA, Italy in 2013. And so, um, that just really opened up my eyes to like being able to travel. And so in 2015, I applied to Fulbright. Um, I actually was at Morgan State University at the time, um, working on a master's of arts and teaching and just was like, okay, I think I wanna teach abroad. And so I got on the Morgan State website, did some googling, came across Fulbright and was like, I'm gonna apply to Fulbright. And so I went to the, uh, Fulbright program advisor at Morgan State, wasn't selected. And was like, okay, I am going to take this main application and apply into Malaysia, um, the following year. And so that's what I did. And honestly, my experience teaching in Malaysia just really, it changed my life.
But just some of the projects that I did with my, uh, students, um, taking them to visit the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur. We published a really cool Malaysian American poetry recipe book, uh, where we collaborated with, um, my student, my former students here in the states, as well as the students in Malaysia. And so we have this really cool book of just their favorite, the points are about their favorite foods and, uh, their favorite recipes. Um, but it just really changed my trajectory. I came back to the states and, um, was like, I'll see you all in the K through 12 arena at another time, all of my students, I pray to God that you make it (laughs) to college because that's where I will be seeing you all. And so, um, I'm currently at Howard University working on my PhD in higher education with a focus on internationalization at HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities. And outside of the classroom, I'm all about increasing students and HBCU students, um, knowledge and awareness about government funded, internationally exchange programs.
We're all very involved in trying to increase the amount of representation, um, of underrepresented groups in government and exchange programs, actually Pandora and I met through various venues. And Dory and I were both alumni ambassadors in the 2019 cohort. We were selected to go around, honestly, the U.S. at different universities, speak about our experiences and kind of like have students get inspired to apply through our personal stories. So all of us are alumni ambassadors. Ashleigh is an alumni ambassador from the 2020 cohort. Yeah. So we all have done very similar work. So I co-founded Fulbright Latin X, uh, an online community on Instagram and Facebook that kind of helps, um, uplift, highlight stories of Latin X Fulbrighters, um, so they can be seen, they can feel represented. And, uh, actually founded or co-founded Fulbright HBCU that helps elevate the stories of HBCU, um, alum Fulbrighters. So, that's how we know each other.
Dr. Pandora White
So when I knew I needed a new team, I reached out to the Nelson, was like, "Yo, you wanna do this?" And she was like, "Okay." So then I had to find at least two or three other people. So I said, I think Ashleigh might be a good try, we'll see. She's doing so much with her life. (Laughs). So I asked her, and she was like, "Okay, I guess I'll try it." (Laughs). And then the other two, uh, who aren't here, I actually found Shawn, he's a Gilman, and I met him on Facebook. And just was like, "Hey, I'm looking for somebody to help me with this project. Does anybody wanna do it?" So I posted it on one of the Gilman alumni groups, (laughs) and that's the team.
Dr. Pandora White
So for me, WeRepresent is essentially a letter to my younger self. And it is a letter telling me that I can do it. I was in high school and I for real was like, I'm gonna get to welding school. I'm gonna get a welding license. I'm gonna to go work on the boat and make a lot of money, and that's it. And somebody reached out to me and said, I mean, "You should go to college, give it a try." When I was in high school, and I'm first generation, I don't really know of anybody with advanced degrees. So at that time I just wanted to do what a lot of people did. I wanted to make money. So I went to college and I picked a random major, and said, "This sounds about right." Cause it was the only subject that I liked.
Dr. Pandora White
So then I'm in college and now I just know, you know, I have to graduate. But I was a very horrible student. I'm talking the worst. And, you know, part of it was, my school didn't really prepare me for college. It kind of but not for the college that I went to. So I get the college and I have to work to pay my tuition. So I had scholarships, I had loans, but my tuition was like almost $40,000. So I'm working and, you know, signing over my paycheck to the school. And I was like, I just want to graduate and be done with it. So I'm on academic probation. I'm about to get kicked out of school. And, you know, at that time I ended up finding trio programs. I transferred schools. I went and became a part of student support services in the Magnera Magneto scholars. And I pulled my GPA up.
Dr. Pandora White
And so at this point, the only goal I got is graduation. And I had heard about study abroad and I saw the price tag and I said, you know, I don't have $10,000, $5,000. I can barely afford to be in school. And that's when they told me about Gilman. And so I applied for Gilman. I go to Ghana and, you know, it was my first time on an airplane. Is my first time seeing a bus, like a city bus. That was, you know, is life-changing.
Having the opportunity to tell people this story or share other stories that all are different, but all means that you needed to have someone there, that first contact to get you on that path. And so having the opportunity to do that for students is important. And also for those faculty and staff that wanna help students, but don't know how. And so that is what WeRepresent is to me. What I wanna say about mentors, is that mentors are important, but sometimes you're gonna need more than one mentor, right? So if you have a team of mentors, the support team where it feels-
I came here to this like, okay, we can get more, um, outreach and recruitment to our HBCUs. You know, sometimes we have to really build those relationships with people. And so while this year we had some HBCU, um, students and faculty attend the conference, hopefully next year, you know, we've been around, we have some, we have some proof that (laughs) we've done some work and so next year, hopefully we can really hone in and get more, um, HBCU students to attend. And also predominantly black institutions. Because a lot of times we, we, you know, I, I didn't think about this in the beginning, but I'm like they're and they're also, um, mostly a majority community college institutions. And so that would hit, definitely hit, uh, more than one of our goals. (Silence).
I think for me, um, what this means for me is bringing the message that you don't, like, that these programs, these government exchange programs aren't for elite, you know, they're not for the top, um, either a super academic or just a certain group of people. Anyone can apply to these programs, right? Um, within the e- eligibility standards. But I just want to like, make sure that anyone that has ever been told, like they're not worthy or they're not smart enough, or like they're not meant for those programs, that would just feel out casted. That could feel that they have something to bring to the table. Basically, just being able to tell people that they can apply too.
Um, I went to Talladega College, which is a small private liberal arts HBCU. And so in undergrad, I had no clue about international exchange programs. And so I didn't even apply or know about Fulbright until my master's program. And so, um, I was intentional on when I got some Malaysia, I re- recognized that there were a 100 people in my cohort. Two of us were from HBCUs and only about 10 of us were black and or mixed identity with black. And I was like, oh, we have to change this. But so, I think it's that knowledge and awareness piece. I can't expect someone to apply for these programs if they don't know about these programs or that they exist.
Dr. Pandora White
Did we meet our goals? Was there anything, uh, that was surprising? We really only had two big goals. To have at least 10 alumni speak and to have 275 people attend the conference. And so we met both of those goals. And I think what was surprising and what we didn't think about before, was the number of, uh, faculty members that wanted to learn more for their students. And so now we're thinking, uh, bi-modally, so when we do outreach to purp- uh, to purposely look at things to help advisors and help students. So I think that was the change.
I did have a few people that pushed me for sure. Um, I will say I've always been interested in traveling, but the first time I went abroad, um, as a study abroad with Gilman, I didn't know what Gilman was. So the person in the national scholarship office was kind of like leading the way and guiding me. She was fabulous. Um, and she helped me through that essay, and writing is definitely not my strong suit. So there was a lot of writing workshops and stuff, a lot of guiding all the way. And, um, yeah, if it hadn't been for those people, I probably wouldn't have been pushed as hard.
Mentorship is, is a really big thing. Uh, for me, it started with my family. My grandmother was educator. I did have this one professor who, she still supports me to this day. She wrote my first, uh, she wrote, wrote my recommendation letter for both of my Fulbright applications. And then when I got to Morgan State, I never thought about doing like a PhD program. But when I was working on my masters, those professors there, w- we will be in class and they'll be like, "When are you all applying for the PhD program? When are you thinking about doing X, Y, and Z?" And so that aid, that instinct, you know, pushed me to go further. But also when I told them that I was interested in, uh, the Fulbright program, they supported it a 100%.
My favorite part of the WeRepresent conference was the identity panels. We had a bunch, some of them on LGBTQ, uh, being black, indigenous, or a person of color, and or person with disabilities abroad. Um, I thought I learned a lot from those panels and hearing the panelists.
So my favorite part of the WeRepresent conference was Lynita Burger's, um, speech. It re- resonated with me, um, and especially with, um, in my area of international education. So that was-
Dr. Pandora White
And my favorite part of the conference was the networking sessions. All the networking sessions, we essentially did a speed dating version of networking. So you were matched with someone one-on-one and you had the opportunity to just talk to them for five minutes and you can extend it or whatever. So we had two different sessions. We had one for faculty and staff and one for students. And so I told, you know, the team, let's also pop in on some of those sessions, so we can, uh, talk to people and see, you know, firsthand how they feel.
Episode 9: The Endless Journey
Episode 9: The Endless Journey
Description: A motocross accident forever changed Daniel Gómez de la Vega’s life. But today, as a world champion-winning medalist, founder and director of Surfeando Sonrisas (Surfing Smiles), and exchange alumnus of the Global Sports Mentoring Program, Daniel finds that being in a wheelchair is challenging, yet fun -- an endless journey, as he calls it.
Daniel Gómez de la Vega
My name is Daniel Gómez de la Vega. I'm 37 years old. I'm from Mexico City, but I used to live in Acapulco Bay, it's a beautiful bay, uh, obviously on the ocean Pacific. Now I live in Guadalajara. My wife is from here. I have two kids. I have a, a, one kid, his name is Sebastian, he is three years old, and I have a baby girl, Jimena, is eight months old, almost nine.
Um yeah, I do... I do a lot of things. I love sports, I love adrenaline, uh, I have a non-profit. I also do, um, motivational speaking, like keynote speaking.
Uh, when you hear about surfing, you can say, "Well those guys don't, don't do anything. They just smoke weed and blah, blah, blah." Probably there's a lot of people like that. No, and there's no harm in that. But, uh, I think it's more, way much more than that,, uh. Surfing people, they care about the ocean. They care about, uh, the beaches. Uh, plastic pollution. Uh, surfers nowadays are, uh, more athletic than they used to. Um, and after my accident... I, I surf probably six or seven months after my accident. I have to say that I, when I got my accident, I passed five months in the hospital. So two months after leaving the hospital, I was riding my first wave - of course, with the, with the help of my friends, and that moment was the moment. That was everything. That was, uh, oof.
In that wave, in that particular wave that I have, I, I have it, I have it recorded. A friend of mine was, was taking video and I have it. It was a small wave, but probably the best wave in my life. And, and that was that wave that told me you have to get back in the ocean. This is healing. You have to start working from here. Um, and yeah, surfing and sports in general, have been, uh, a huge, uh, pillar, pillar, I don't know if that's a word. (laughs) But we used it in Mexico. Pillar. Uh, a, a, a big thing in my life, you know? It's not just fun to have to do exercise. No, it's more than that. It, it, it teaches me all the time. It makes me who am I today. Uh, it helps with my good habits. Uh, sports helps with a lot and now, uh, I, I just think about surfing all the time.
Take, for example, when you go to the beach. I don't know if you, if you live around the beach area. But, if you don't, when you go to the beach, you start feeling different. You start feeling, uh, this freedom. When you start feeling the wind and it's in your face. When you start smelling the sand or, or, or the sea water. Or probably you can smell some fishes. I don't know, I think just going to the beach, going to the ocean, allows me to open all my senses, which sometimes when we live in big cities, you are shut down. You, you are just looking the same things, smelling the same things. And just by going to the beach, it's, uh, it opened my mind.
And when you go into the ocean, that's when everything starts to happen. Um, I'm very, I'm very, a risky guy. I, I, I love to take risks. Um, I love to put me in situations that I don't know if I can control them or if I can go, uh, if I can go alive out of that situation. Surfing is very, very, it's a serious sport. It's very dangerous. And, I think what, what I, what I think is more healing about being in the ocean and healing.
For a start, I don't need my legs to be in the ocean, you know? I don't, I don't need to, to walk. I, I feel, uh, I feel even with my peers, with my friends. And that was something that it bothers me a lot, uh, in the past. That I don't, uh, I don't, I don't like to be left behind because I can't walk or because I can't move or, or whatever. Uh, when I'm in the ocean, I'm the same. I don't feel about... I don't think about my legs. Uh, I don't think about if I, if I can surf on the standing position.
Surfing is surfing, you know. Surfing is, it's just riding a wave. It's, uh, it's flying in water. And you can do it on a standing position or on the prone, uh, position. I surf, uh, laying down on my stomach. And I think what, what is more important about surfing for me is that, uh, it gives me the chance to be present. You know, to be there. To be at that precise moment. And I think as humans we, we always are trying to be present all the time. But, but our minds, our technology. Now what's happening with all this, uh, social media bombing all the time. It, it's pulling all, pulling us in different directions. And surfing, uh, it keeps me away all that. Eh, I'm just thinking about being there, being safe, reading the ocean, hearing my, uh, hearing my body, hearing my thoughts. And I don't think about anything. I'm, I'm just... The two or the three hours that I'm surfing, I'm surfing. You know, I'm not anywhere else. And I thing that, that's what is healing for me.
I had an accident on 2011, uh, a motocross accident. I was riding my bike,, uh... An average accident, I- I may say. It was, it was pretty random. I wasn't going that fast. I hesitated the jump and that was it. Uh, I broke my back, I have a spinal cord injury at T8 level, which is around,, uh... above, above my core. So yeah, it's been... a very, very... what's the word, very... I don't know. Emotional, uh, fun at the same time. Uh, challenging, uh, being in the wheelchair. But definitely, uh, it could be worse, you know? So I'm not that bad.
Being in the wheelchair is, is, it's like, uh, an endless journey. Uh, when I go out with my kids, to move around on the sidewalks. Uh, trying to do, uh, new sports. Um, going on vacations to a place that I don't know anything about it. Uh, when I started dating my, my wife. All those things were totally different. Even though I- I knew it from, from past experience, it was very new to be in the wheelchair. To be in the sitting position, you see the world with a different perspective, and I... and I think the world sees you also differently.
Even though I'm the same Daniel, I have, uh, a few upgrades, I might say, um, but, yeah, people... I, I think people see me different. Not bad, just different, you know? It's like, I didn't change a lot my personality, but at the same time, I could, I could tell that I'm different from my accident today.
So, so after a few years of trying to walk again, to do a lot of physical therapy and, and do this and that, that's when I... that's when I had realized that, "Yeah, this could be my life forever." But not until I try it, you know, not, not because just the doctor told me that. Uh, of, of course a lot of fear, uh, but fear is really, really good. I love the fear. I'm not fearless like a lot of people can say, but, uh, it's a good tool if you know how to use it.
Uh, of course I went through a lot of depression in different moments of these past 10 years. I can tell you that I have, uh, sometimes a little bit of depression, not regarding my accident, but regarding different aspects of life, but I think I can... I can go through them on, on the more fast way than I used to. Uh, I know when the depression, or when a sad moment, is coming and I... I can know how to navigate it.
I was thinking more about going to a university and have a lot of more, how can I say, yeah, more challenge. More, more intellectual challenge. You know, like being very challenged to... I, I don't understand it. Can you explain me to do? Can I make an essay? Can I do things to, to get over it? And my first work was very difficult because, uh, everybody was so happy and, yeah, high-five here and there. And I wasn't like that. I was like, whoa, whoa, these poor people. I hate it.
So everybody was very optimistic, that's the word. And, and to be like that, you have to feel like that. You have to believe like that. It is very difficult to be optimistic to everybody else if you don't feel that way. Um, that was the first difficult moment for me and after a few days, and then you are here. Be optimistic. Why not? Just make high-fives with everybody. And, I think the best experience of the GSM, GSMP program was that, um, that interracial experience. To, to be in the same room with people, um, from different countries with different languages. With different, uh, customs. Everything like, everything was different.
In my program there was people from Korea, from China, from Senegal. From a lot of different places in Africa. From Egypt, from Latin America. People, able=bodied people. People with disability. I think that's, for me, the most important part of the program. Because, if you don't have that big picture, big picture, you don't know how, um, the social impact world, the non-profit world, is around the world. You only know what's happening in your country. And if it's not good, if you live in a third world country that it's very difficult to develop a, a program like Surfeando Sonrisas or another program, you don't have that different mind thinking about...stop complaining that Mexico doesn't have what USA have, but try to change it and tropicalize it so you can make more with what you have in Mexico. With, uh, with, with whatever you learn on the GSMP program.
Um, another thing that I love about this program is that just because being part of the Department of State program, you have a lot of huge benefits. You get into this big alumni database. You can apply for different programs. Uh, it's awesome how the USA can help others. It changed, a little bit my way of thinking about the USA, which in the past, I didn't love it a lot. But after this, I was like, yeah, they can do a lot of good, bad things, whatever. But for me, they are helping a lot. I can tell you that probably half of the money that we, that we have since, since the moment that we founded Surfeando Sonrisas, have come outside, outside Mexico.
Um, I had opportunity to go to Phoenix, Arizona, to Ability360. And wow. That's, that's a big non-profit. It's, it's bigger than a company. It's, it's, it's doing so much good. And for to do so much good, you have to be, you have to run a, a business. Even though it's a non-profit. I started thinking about non-profit as a business. Because it has to pay salaries, it has to have people. You have to have money. Here in Mexico, non-profits, they see them like no, you, you don't have, you, why you have to have money? You are a non-profit.
Now, if, if you see, I don't know, if you go wherever, to LA and if you saw a football player,, uh or a business man, getting out of a Ferrari you would say, "Okay, they earned it." But if you see, I don't know, a big, uh, I don't know, the biggest non-profit, whatever, you name it. Um, the CEO of that non-profit getting out of a Ferrari, you will say that's very, that's very hurtful, you know? He shouldn't have a Ferrari. You don't know if that guy has another business and he can, he can have it.
So, yeah, I changed my mind.
Um, yes. Well, it's gonna be very difficult. You have to know that to follow your passion or your dreams is gonna be very difficult. Because normally everything that we do and we care, it's difficult. But, uh, you have start knowing that. And you have to also be very conscious that you can fail on the process. And that's also an option. And you have to be very aware of that. Because if you don't, and you fail, which you are gonna do, you are gonna fail somehow or somewhen, and that's not bad. Uh, it can take you to the bottom if you are not aware that failing is an option.
I'm not saying that you have to feel very good about failing. No, not at all. But yeah, it's part of the journey. And, be around people that that is following the same things as you. Probably it doesn't have the same dream or same passion but you can tell when people is more in tune with you. And if you don't have that people around you, start making decisions. And start saying no to some, some social, uh, circles that you don't want to be longer in, in, in that space. You know?
Uh, I don't think we don't have much, much time in this world to, to do things that we don't want to do. Or to be with people that we, we don't seem the meaning of being with them. Uh, that's not bad. You can say no to a lot of things. And I think that it's very difficult for us to say no to something because you start thinking what, what would they think of me? And we start putting a lot of, a lot of weight into what people is thinking about you. I used to do that a lot of time. All the time. I was trying to be in people's minds, which is crazy. I can't do that. I, I, I don't have that power. Uh, yeah, I'm in a wheelchair, but I'm not Charles Xavier from the X-Men. You know? (laughs) So I don't have... I'm not that able. Uh, but when, when you stop thinking about what people think about you, uh, it's so liberating.
People doesn't care about you. You have to understand that. Nobody cares about you. The only thing who cares about you is you. Probably your family too. But when you, when you think about that, when you go to social media, when you post something and you just wanna have likes and, and people to join to your page, that's when you start with the wrong foot. You have to do it because you want to. You have to be, uh, authentic. You have to be you. And, and that's the way you, you are gonna develop more things in this world.
Because, like I said before, everybody is pulling and pushing from different directions and what's your direction? You have to dig in that, and, and follow that direction. Um, and of course, uh, a fear, I, I always talk about fear.
We all, we all want to be approved by somebody. But if you are not au- authentic, you are not gonna be approved by anybody. And you have to be, you have to be approved by you first. Not by every- by everybody else.
Yeah, so Surfeando Sonrisas. Everything start when I, when I get back on the water. Um, uh, after that, wave, that I told you guys, uh, that I applied, that was the start of the journey. And, I started surfing more and more and more. And a good friend of mine, Arturo, uh, which we are very, very close. He told me, uh, "You cannot be selfish about this. You cannot, you cannot just serve you and not let other people to, to know about this." I'm, I can see what it it's doing to you. I can see the way you are changing. The way you are getting better just by surfing. Your... Uh, I think he was the first friend. We came to, we came very close after my accident. We were friends, but we weren't that close.
And I think he was the first friend that gave me the opportunity to, to get back life. Because he pulled me to his project. Uh, it was a project about surfing. And then I start going to beaches and I start going to places that I thought it was very difficult. Which they are, to be in the water and be on the sand totally difficult. And, and every time that I challenged something else, I was discovering that it was, it was possible to do it. It was difficult, of course, but it was possible.
And, and being in a wheelchair and being the only guy in the wheelchair in the beach, normally, I'm the only guy on a wedding, or the, or the party. It was difficult, you know? It was like, I feel different. Yeah, you are different. You are the only guy in the wheelchair.
So, so challenges, challenging those particular moments from the beach, uh, and, and Arturo saying, "You don't have to be selfish about it." That's where we thought about doing the non-profit. And this was almost eight years ago, and the non-profit, uh - Surfeando Sonrisas - was founded four years ago, almost, in 2018. So it took me a lot of years to develop this.
Uh, I wasn't, at that moment, I wasn't prepared to help others. Uh, I was receiving help from others. Now, now I'm up to the task to provide, uh, more, more things to, to the, the disabled world. Um, I don't like to talk about disability. I like to talk more about inclusion. But, um, sometimes it feels that the disability world is so far apart from the able-bodied world [in] which we are both human and live. It's so stupid to say this, but it feels like that and, and the purpose or the objective that Surfeando Sonrisas has is, of course, uh, bringing more, bringing more,, uh continence, more, more outdoor experiences for people with disability.
And, of course, surfing is so difficult to do it. When, when these kids and their families realize that after the day, after the three days, they were able to do it, that's very empowering, you know? Because, uh, you can move around on the beach. You can change yourself on the wheelchair in the beach. You surf and you had a, enough of day and night. I think at the end of the day, that's very empowering for people. Not just for kids, for the families, for the volunteers, for the instructors, even for us, for our staff. Uh, this is a huge impact and I think, um, we as humans have to be more sympathetic about someone's problems.
We have to be more in tune as a collective, uh, as a collective world, instead of being very individual. And of course, one of the main objectives of the non-profit is to bring inclusive to Mexico. If you have in the same place, in the same event people with disabilities and able-bodied people, that's inclusion. You know, because the problem is, is, is that people doesn't know about disabilities. They don't know about what, what happens to a spinal cord injury. And when, when I go to schools, I do a lot of the speaking. When I go to schools and I bring my surf boards or my hand cycle and I talk with kids from every ages, uh, they know, they, after the, after the talk, they have a different opinion, you know?
They aren't, "Oh, he's just in a wheelchair. He, he is like me." He doesn't have the, that ability,, uh for walking but he has a lot of ability. Uh, and, and that's very empowering. Also what Surfeando Sonrisas - and this is a new project that we are trying to develop - is that all the places, all the cities, all the beaches that Surfeando Sonrisas goes, uh, we have to, we have to bring or to, or to develop access to the, to the, to the beaches because that's, that's a big problem.
We don't have um, good access to beaches for, for everybody. We always think about ramps for people in wheelchairs, but we want to shake that mindset. Ramps are for everybody. For everybody. We, we have to think that way. If not, we always segregated. Because, ah, it's for the wheelchairs. No, it's for everybody. It's for the guy who is bringing in a cooler full of beers. It's for a girl with a stroller, with, with her baby. Or with her son. Uh, and yeah, so Surfeando Sonrisas started to just to providing a positive experience for people with disabilities. But I think during this journey, our mission is way bigger than just providing, uh, sports for people with disabilities.
Yeah. Because that, that's the biggest problem for me. Moving around. It, it's my biggest problem. And when you can’t move around, when you can’t go to a, to a, a toilet in a restaurant, to a bathroom, that impacts your self-esteem for sure. If I cannot move around just because one stair, one stair and my son which is three years old can be in danger for because of the cars or whatever, and that, and I can do nothing because just one fucking stair? That's huge. And we have to change that.
Um… I think everybody has a mission in this world. It can be, it can be small, it can be big. But if you don't pursue your mission, if you don't pursue your calling, I think that affects on a worldwide, uh, view. So everybody has to, to try to push, uh, and, and, and follow your dreams. Because if you do that, uh, our global dream, it will be, uh, it will not be that far away.
Episode 8: Dispelling the Gender Myth
Episode 8: Dispelling the Gender Myth
Description: Her dad taught her gender equality. Now, entrepreneur and alumna of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program Olive Michele Dol-Somse is training and empowering women in the Central African Republic to help them move past gender as an obstacle.
I founded Bekilita in 2015, uh, right after the- the crisis that hit the country in 2013. Uh, the other time I was working as, um, uh, head of, uh, head of sales and marketing in a, in a hotel. But with the crisis, uh, business was not, uh, doing good. So I left the hotel and I were thinking about something, uh, I- I could do by myself to- to help and I started my business.
When I started Bekilita, I would really- I would really wanted to- to offer services in communication. Because, I- I have a major in marketing and, uh, in communication. So, um, I offer two services, communication services and catering initially.
And then little by little I found myself, uh, overwhelmed with people, uh, asking me for help, women asking me for, uh, uh, to link them to job opportunities. Uh, friends asking me to help them find a good seat for helpers. And I was doing it just naturally. I was just trying to help people around me.
And I ... It was not, uh, a paid service. It was just a help, I was just helping. But, uh, it soon became very overwhelming. Because, uh, when things did not work out, uh, uh, both- both parties were complaining. They will, uh- uh, I was at the center of the complaint. So, I found myself trying to- to help both sides. And, uh, it- it took- it took, like it took a lot of- of my time.
But I didn't really see it as a business opportunity. So when I went to the USA for the- the exchange program, I came to realize that I had the opportunity to turn this as a- a social enterprise. And that's- that's when all started. So when I came back, I decided to- to capitalize on this opportunity to- to help people. But to include this as part of my- my business.
So, I started training the women before linking them to the ... To job opportunities and, uh, redefining the- the- the way we work together with the- the women, the customers. Uh, where I started on my- my communication and pricing strategy. And also, I- I was, um, I- I searched for help to draft the contract.
So, I will have my customers sign the contract. And also my employees how they sign the contract. And, uh, he helped me monitor the relationship between customers and employees, uh, yeah, that's- that's- that's when everything took off.
I spend more time working with these women than doing communication and marketing.
I first started applying for the Regional Program in Nairobi. But, I- I did not complete the application and I missed the deadline. And, uh, a few months later I received an email announcing the Mandela Washington Fellowship application opening. I was still too busy (laughs) to start my application.
Then I had two friends who prompted me at that time to apply. One of my friends was also an alumni from, uh, uh, Mandela Washington Fellowship- Fellowship Alumni from 2014. And the other one was the U.S. Public Affairs Officer in at that time. Uh, they really prompted me, motivated me to- to apply.
And, uh, at some point, I- I really wanted to give it a try also. So, I decided to, uh, dedicate like two, three days of my- my life, uh, to fill the application. And gather all the docu ... Required documents. That's how, that how I- I applied to them in the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program.
It was my first time in Virginia. And, um, I was really excited. Because before the fellowship, I studied in the U ... In the USA. Uh, I was at Temple University in Philadelphia. So, I know a little bit about Philadelphia. I went to- to New York. I went to ... I had a chance to go to Washington but I've never been to Virginia before the Fellowship.
So I was really excited. The other thing is one of my friends from high school were also selected as part of the program. And he was going to be at the same university at, uh, in Virginia. So I was really, really excited to meet him again after like almost five years.
t was just awesome to, to be with, uh, different, I will say people from different- different backgrounds, from different parts of Africa. The part of Africa I know is mostly the Francophone Africa. Um, but some of the people I met there from Namibia, uh, I met- met people from Zimbabwe. It was my first time to meet people from this part of Africa.
So it was just like ... It was awesome to me to be part of this, um, journey to get to know, uh, all those brilliant people to- to learn about what they do in their- in their country. And how people are like, um, giving ... I would say, uh, traveling so hard to positively impact other people's lives, uh, in the environment.
The first time, um, I read the profile of the fellows on my campus, I was blown away. I was telling myself how come, like ... I have the feeling that everyone is- is doing something, uh, valuable somewhere. Then I asked myself, "Um, what are you doing?" And uh, like ... I- I- I- it becomes obvious to me that, um, I was not doing enough.
We may all live in different parts of Africa. But at the end of the day, somehow, we all face the same challenges, plus or minus. Like, we all have the same ... Uh, we all have dif ... Uh, challenges. We all, we all have obstacles. It all depends on the degree of those challenges but at the end of the day we all have to go through something.
So ... And despite all of the challenges people, uh, face, um, there are improving things, life and they are positively impacting people and bringing hope in the community. So, as I say, all of a sudden, I- I feel I was not doing enough for- for my country or for people in my community. And, uh, I felt the need to push harder.
Uh, I felt the need to, to strive and to overcome. And, uh, I felt the need to- to work on my resilience to be able to push even when, when it seems impossible. Uh, because, I- I realized I have no reason to accept failure and- and give up. Because somewhere people also do face worse than my challenges. But, um, they are all successful. So, uh, challenges and obstacles are not enough, um, excuse for me not to- to do better, to- to do better than- than what I was doing.
When I came back, I realized I need to push, I need to- to look beyond my- my own, uh, persona. Like I was ... Uh, I started a business, it was just all about me. I wanted to start my business. I wanted to run my business. I wanted to work for myself.
But when I came back, I changed my- my vision of the business. Um, I started putting, um, the- the women program on the, the center of my, my vision. And there is, there is one story I, I think that's, uh, could help you understand my, my motivation.
Um, when I came back it was really difficult. I have to admit. Because I spent ... We spent six, six weeks, uh, abroad. And during this time my business was almost collapsing. So, when I came back, I- I- I- I really was tired mentally. And, um, I needed to make a decision whether to- to pick it up and- and- and- and start over or to- to drop it there. Go find myself a decent job, uh, put money ... Save money and come back later.
So I was, I was thinking, and, uh, I have to make a decision. But, um, I had, uh, some of my employees, women who wanted to talk to me at that time. And during the meeting, they- they remind me why I started this business. So, they testify that, um, the life has changed ... Sorry, since they started working, uh, with me.
Because, um, I help them get a paid job and now they're able to take care of their family, to send their kids to school, uh, to take care of their ... One of them actually told me she's now ... She was now able to,-to take care of her mom who has been, who has been sick, seriously sick.
So, I, I stayed there. I was ... I- I- I couldn't just realize that some people were happy working with me. And what I was doing had a positive impact on some people life. I- I couldn't imag ... I couldn't ... I mean, I couldn't picture that. And right after this conversation, I made that tough decision to pick my business right from where it was and to start working as hard as possible, uh, to grow it. Because it was not about me anymore, it was about people who relied and trust me more than I trusted myself.
So, I didn't want to see ... I didn't want to, uh, I didn't want them to be disappointed, so, (laughs) I- I started working hard, uh, to make sure they will be ... They would be able even in the future to keep taking care of their kids, taking care of their family, and being able to take care of themself. That was my motivation from that day.
And, uh, even today, uh, this is the- the main reason why I still push in that direction. Because I know some people hugely depends on what I do to have a decent life, to- to hope for a better life, uh, for their kids, for, for themselves.
And some people depends also on me, uh, to dare, to dare make right- to dare make the right decision for their own life. Why I'm saying this? Um, women, most of the time depend ... In my country they depend on their husband. So, when someone depends on someone, you can you know ask that someone to- to go against the rule in the house.
So when we talk about, um, uh, sexual violence or- or gender-based violence and so forth or- or gender equality. We're talking about giving the opportunity to those women to- to be heard, to make decisions for their home. But how do you believe someone can make a decision for her own if she's not even able to buy food for herself.
She depends on someone to, to have breakfast or to have lunch. She depends on someone to have a piece of soap to- to- to wash her clothes with. We ... You can ... We ... You cannot ask someone to say no to- to- to her husband or to her father, um, who's abusive if that person still depends on them.
So my solution to that is, let me empower them, let me help them get a job, get money so that they can take care of themself. And then at the end- end of the day they will be able to say no to some of the things we are fighting. Like gender-based ... They will be able to say, "Enough is enough, I am not staying in this house anymore. I am living because I have enough money to rent a house for me and my kids."
Uh, they will be able to say, "I will not tolerate that you don't send my kids to school. I will pay for it. Because I have enough money." Uh, let's give them the opportunity to say, "I ... When I am sick, I can go to the hospital because I have enough money to pay for the fees, to pay for the medicine and so forth."
This is, this is my vision. Empower those women, so they are able to take responsibility from their- their own life and from the ... Their- their family. And, uh, this is, this is the main, uh, goal of everything I'm doing. Of course, it is not easy because I work with uneducated women most of the time. And, uh, to get them to that point, it's not easy.
Uh, but, uh, I didn't say I was going to give up, I didn't say it was going to be easy. I just said I need to push harder. So everyday I try to come up with new s ... New strategy to help, to empower those women, how to- to communicate with them. How to make them understand that, um, uh, what we are doing together is not just about them. But it's also about the- the kids, the children they are raising today. And, uh, the future they want for their children.
I have been appointed, like, some months ago as the Chairperson of the, um, Football Commission in my country which is under the, uh, the, um, Soccer Football Federation Association.
So, I work with women, uh, uh football players. And, uh, this is a new challenge I took on since, uh, uh female soccer is not very developed, uh, here in. But these w ... those women are really serious about what they are doing. They, they are very passionate, passionate about, about football. And, uh, I feel I need to do something to empower them.
So they can actually, uh, take ... I would say benefit from their passion. Because it's a pity that someone is, is working so hard in an area and- and they are not getting, um, the return on investment. Because, because this is a world of men, soccer is a ... Like football is a- a view of men.
I want to change that. I want those women also to be known for what they are doing. I want those also to benefit, to get a - the return on investment. I want them to live from what they're doing. So, I want to change the- the whole, the whole face I would say of- of- of the female soccer here in my country.
I grew up in a family of six. We are, um, four sisters and two brothers, but my parents are just wonderful because the way they raised us is ... Like there is no difference between my brothers and- and- and- and I and my sisters.
Uh, my dad is- is such a gender equality advocate. Like he, he will push. Everything he say, he said ... He used to say, "You are the only obstacles ... The only obstacle between you and your goals- your goals is you. So, no matter what you wanna do, it's not about, uh, being a woman, or being a girl or a boy. It's just being able. Make sure you have the skills, uh, required to do it." So, this is how I grew up.
So, to me it's quite normal that, uh, when I decide to do something, uh, I, I mean I don't even think of myself as, uh, women or men. I just think of myself as a human being, uh, with a vision. But when I returned back to my country in 2012, I was shocked because I realized we are still at that age when some of the things depend on your gender like whether you are a woman or you're a man. And I was, I was really shocked and to me, it was really frustrating and I wanted to help.
In ... With ... In my family, people don't do that to- to me because I- it's a different set, but with the colleague, when I used to work at the hotel, the colleagues, in some of our conversations, I noticed that. So, I was frustrated and, uh, I- I wanted to do something but it was not ... Uh, uh, I wouldn't call it, uh, advocating for gender equality, no. No, no, I just wanted to ... Again to help them. I wanted them to know that it's not normal. This is the way other people do it in the world.
So, maybe they- they- they should, um, also uh see things differently. But when I started my business, I realized this is a serious matter. And if we don't start changing things right now, then the future generation will also suffer from it because it goes from education to education. It is in the family. If the mom b- believes that, uh, "My daughter cannot do this, only my son can do this. My son can go to school because, because ..." then they will transfer this to their children and- and so forth.
So, I wanted for my part to change this with my employees. That's- that's how I can ... I- I could answer this question. It's not one day I woke up in the morning and I say, "Me I am going to advocate for gender equality." Is just that the context, the environment actually pushed me to- to react and- and do something to help.
It is, um, a life experience and uh, there is lots to take from it. And know exactly what you wanna take from, uh, the program.
When you attend the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program, you will meet a bunch of people coming from different backgrounds, different countries, you will hear stories from different people, success stories. Uh, and sometimes you get lost, in the midst of all that, you get lost and you get confused. But if you know exactly what you are looking for, then all those stories and those people will help you improve or define better your vision. So, yeah, to recap two things, it's a life experience. Uh, take the most- most, uh- uh from it.
Episode 7: Breaking Out of the Box
Episode 7: Breaking Out of the Box
Description: This week, Howard University alumnus Dr. Brandon Ogbunu takes us on a journey from his humble beginnings to his Fulbright in Kenya, and why he’s not afraid to go where no one has gone before. Growing up in L.A. with a Trekkie mom, he shows us why barriers were meant to be broken, and how he's drawing on data to connect the dots on disease.
Dr. Brandon Ogbunu
My name is professor Brandon Ogbunu. I'm an assistant professor at Yale University and I'm a geneticist who studies epidemics.
Again, I was that, you know, child of the HIV pandemic, it locally, in the, in the United States. I remember what that was like. I remember what the crack epidemic was like in the United States. These are things I have very vivid memories of, um, growing up in the '90s mostly.
Um, and so, and so, you know, this is a big part of my imagination, but to see the way it looked in another setting, to see how disease manifested in another setting, for all the problems, I never had to deal with the mosquito borne illness.
It's one of the leading causes of death in the world for children under five.
I also saw the, you know, the way HIV/AIDS worked or, you know, in, in, in, in ravaged communities, right? In that part of the world. And I think, you know, by them, you know, you know, HIV continues to be a major problem. But I think even by the 2000, mid 2000, early to mid 2000s, it was a different conversation in the United States, right? We, this is 10, you know, this is over a decade post Magic Johnson, right? So the United States have had a lot, um, uh, sophisticated conversation. We had pretty effective drugs that were pretty widely available, right? I was able to see kinda how this pandemic was playing out in another setting.
So broadly I was exposed to, uh, you know, illness and the way that it kind of ravages communities and the way it shapes economies. And that's the interesting thing about malaria. Uh, not only does it cause a lot of disease, mortality and morbidity, it actually kind of like drains communities because of kind of, uh, the number of daily adjusted, you know, life years lost, work. These, these types of things, that it actually just drains communities, uh, families are affected.
When I think about kind of the long view of what my story is, um, I think it's, you know, I think you could think about it m- multiple different ways. You can kind of paint it with the classical descriptions of, right, you, you know, an African-American growing up in a, right, in a, you know, at best lower middle class, but probably not even setting.
That's an important detail, but by an enormous amount of privilege I have being raised by the woman that I was raised by. So I think mom, I was raised by an African-American w- woman, uh, from Baltimore. And I think I had a lot of an advantage over a lot of other people in my community because she was, I mean, really just an extraordinary person.
She kind of had this view of there's nothing in this world that you can't have.
Importantly, it wasn't just that she pushed me to be academically successful. I actually was not an especially good student. I, I always, school was very easy for me, but I actually didn't really try very hard.
Her thing was more like expand, push the envelope, be original, be a leader, think differently. Right? So for, you know, for example, you know, my mother was interested in science fiction in the '60s (laughs), you know what I'm saying? She was a Trekkie (laughs). Like, and, and that's something... So I had that at home. Right? And, and so seeing that, she was put, putting New York Times science articles on the refrigerator from young. And so my point is, it's like I never, ever, ever felt like there was any setting I didn't belong in. I felt like I was never, ever felt lesser than anyone ever. And I saw her kind of stand up to people and defend herself in these really amazing, I would see her get disrespected by people and her just break them down. And you're seven years old and you see your mother doing that... She’s raising you by herself...
I mean, you know, so I, I always entered this world that, you know, uh, with the, with the notion that barriers are meant to be broken, uh, rules, I mean, you wanna obey the law, but silly rules don't matter. And if somebody tells you something, uh, that, uh, you know, you, uh, that you can't do, uh, it's just a matter of you, uh, hustling and, and figuring it out. And that's something I've carried, I, I run my research lab that exact same way (laughs) to this day. So I, I, I, so again, you can think about it from one perspective that is, these classical kind of markers of, right, disadvantage, which are true. And I think had a very, very large impact on me and my life and my mother's life, um, and would still do in some ways. Um, but I think there's, I had a lot of privileges that other, other kids did not have by virtue of my, my mother.
My motivation is, I mean, you know, like one of the things that I'm about is, I'm about kind of giving access to people. And part of that is just my politics. And I believe in people having an opportunity, but, you know, part of it is, there's just no question that my mother would have been a better scientist than I would had she had the opportunities that I had, no question. I mean, she taught me algebra (laughs), you know what I'm saying? And so she didn't have to raise three kids by herself. So my point is, I mean, I, I, I have to try to do well. Right? Just kind of add an honor. That's why I don't, I, when, when people talk about what people are capable of and incapable of, it doesn't even make any sense to me. You know, because I, I see this at home and I see, I see how society and, and, and, uh, challenges kind of force people in kind of to be able to do certain things
You think the difference between me and my mother is talent, and that's just, that's, that's like, that's, that's the silliest thing I've ever heard in my life. And so I try to go through life with that way. I, you know, um,
Like life presents challenges to people. They were people more talented than me in my community, they just didn't have my mother (laughs).
At Howard University where I went to college, there was a kinda growing interest in students applying to kind of prestigious scholarships and fellowships like the Marshall and the Truman and the Rhodes, and the Fulbright. And the idea here is that, you know, we had a, a, a good group of students who, whose interests were growing and diversifying. And so I think there was a campus push, I think maybe a year or two before me was the, uh, first Rhodes scholar in the history of Howard University.
Right. So the, I think there was this kind of idea that our students can compete nationally and should be kind of immersing themselves in these, uh, types of experiences.
I was eager to kinda push myself and kinda do different and eclectic and exciting things.
There was kind of a campus buzz around people kinda getting involved in things. And then I think that ran parallel with a growing interest of mine in global health and activism and doing well and, and inequalities, uh, and things of this nature. Which also ran parallel to my scientific career. So I at least kind of, a lot of things were going on at the same time.
Here's the greatest thing about my experience of Howard University in the sciences: Everybody next to you, you wanted them to achieve. That's the single thing. We wanted us all to do well.
So we pushed each other and competed, but we really, really wanted everybody to succeed. And we had a pride in everyone doing well. Now that changes the classroom dynamic because, your self-esteem, your, your self-esteem isn't on the line all the time. You're, you're, you're in a place that's nurturing in a way, it's still hard.
You still have to do the work, but you're doing it from a place of, it's not antagonism. It's a place where, you know, uh, I actually want people, I, I, I wanna do better than you, but I want you to do better than them (laughs).
And, and I think that was a really important thing for me to see at that point not coming from a great academic environment.
And I think Howard was really, really important for me and kids like me, who come from those types of backgrounds. And, uh, that's why I think you see it working.
Look at Vice President Kamala Harris, for example, right? She's a woman, right, who, uh, has a very kind of interesting background of her own. Right? And I think her, she's, you know, she's, you know, you know, she's kind of lived in multiple places, she's from a multi-ethnic background of her own. That's another thing you hear, you notice, about Howard University.
Howard University as a whole is a very accepting place with regards to what your background is.
There are a lot of individuals of mixed ancestry there and they come there and they kind of come, they kind of learned to embrace the positive parts of, of their identity.
This has, this is something else very, very powerful, uh, I see manifesting in president, in Vice President Harris.
Personally, I had this growing scientific interest in infectious diseases and it kinda interfaced nicely with my growing political awareness around inequalities. Um, and I think that kinda, it was fostered a lot by kind of my experience growing up with, with HIV, with the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Which is really the thing that kind of changed my imagination and framed how I thought about kind of disease and the relationship between disease and society. So this was a part of my identity from pretty early. And I think it grew and I learned to get interested in things like malaria during college. So then kind of when you take these two things and you put them together, I said, you know what?
It would be really, really interesting and important for my career to be able to kind of do some real work, right, in another part of the world where they're actually being affected by these things. Certainly I saw HIV/AIDS in my community but I wanted some other experiences, and I had done a lot of laboratory research during college. Uh, but it was important for me to get this other step, uh, to b e able to really, really see these things. At that point I kinda was between careers, I didn't know whether or not I wanted to practice medicine. I don't know if I wanted to do research, but I had a bunch of different ideas. And so I thought that this experience could be a good opportunity to do so. I ended up meeting with some of the administrators on campus, uh, involved with the, uh, U.S. Fulbright fellowship.
And I decided that it was for me. I then ended up contacting individuals everywhere, kind of across the country who had connections to kind of countries around the world in particular, right, Africa where, uh, where there was kind of a major malaria problem. Um, and I was, um, end up forging this relationship with, uh, the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology based in Nairobi, Kenya. One of the leading, kind of, NGOs in the world that did, kind of, malaria vector control and other kinds of insect work actually, which was important. And that kind of led to me applying, uh, to work there for a year. Uh, and I, and I was accepted.
The Fulbright experience kind of, uh, changed my career, right? And, you know, closed some doors and opened others.
Because again, if you look at my career, even today, I have multiple interests
My lab works on multiple things. I look at the world in multiple ways. And that's just a part of my personality and it's kinda always been that way.
So in college I said, all right, well, I'll apply to everything. I said, I'll apply, uh, to, to medical school. I'll apply to graduate schools and everything from chemistry to biophysics (laughs). That's how kind of diverse my interests were coming out of college. And then I applied to everything. And I got accepted into everything (laughs). And then I also got the Fulbright fellowship.
So I went there with the idea I was gonna come back and start medical school at Yale, um, and then also kind of do a PhD. And, um, and I think that year in Kenya, in Kenya, working there really was the most important year of, one of the most important years of my life, for personal reasons, spiritual reasons, scientific reasons, social and political reasons.
It opened my eyes to everything about how the world worked, the way disease works, the way people are kind of thinking about it. And I decided at that point (laughs), there was pretty much no way I was gonna be bottled up in a, in a job where I couldn't kind of do this type of expansive work all the time.
So a career like medicine -- which is a great profession, right?
Um, I, I knew right away that it wasn't a fit, right? There's no way you're gonna kinda fit me into a hospital setting where there were so many rules.
And also, kind of having seen and been exposed to the way the world worked, I was eager to recreate the life to be a more adult version of the life that I have in Kenya in some ways. Where I was able to, you know, create and, and, and innovate and work with innovative people around solutions.
Problem solving on a global scale was the thing that I knew I wanted to do from my Fulbright experience.
My time in Kenya definitely opened my eyes to the way the world works.
The things that Kenya taught me about the world, uh, were, were important for me to learn at that stage in life. You have to remember I'm from public housing in the United States, right? And so I had this conven-, you know, conception of the way poverty worked here. And I still have that conception of the way poverty works here, because it's very, very serious in the United States.
But I think what I needed to learn was the way it looks and operates and manifests in other parts of the world. And so broadening my perspective on how inequality manifests.
The COVID era, right, misinformation, you know, has been one of the great shapers of COVID-19 policy around the world.
I think early on, it's been this misinformation, kind of war against misinformation around the vaccine. I think that was the early conversation, right? How do we make sure that people have the right information, have access to the right information and understand that this thing is safe and effective?
So the war, it's not where we, we've been fighting the disease, but we've been fighting this poor messaging.
And I think with social media, things can go viral in a moment. And I think I constantly do that. So what do I do? I engage in active conversations with communities. I've engaged in multiple forums. I've talked to heads of church, everything like that self available. And, and what do I actually say when I'm having these conversations is the most important point. Number one, you have to come from a place of empathy. You look back in American history or not even look back, you look at history now, right? Right. You look at all, you know, there are a lot of reasons to be distrustful, ain't it right? There are lots of reasons to be distrustful, right? I think the experimentation on certain bodies and certain populations is a part of the legacy of science and medicine. It is.
And so we have to admit that and deal with that very, very squarely when we're talking about kinda how to get people on board, uh, with this. That said, what I try to say, what I'm thinking, what I'm telling people about why I'm confident in the vaccine, is the vaccine development process. The people who are doing the science, it's not some person, uh, sitting in a white castle, right, pushing buttons and making a decision. The people working on the vaccine are the people like me. It's people who are hustling and trying to do the right thing, right? And we really, really are. It's, right, there's no kind of magic kind of, uh, person on the moon making these decisions. This is a process of tens of thousands of scientists who put their kind of effort and their lives on the line, you know, uh, to try to make this type of thing work.
So my point is by walking people through both the past and the present, the idea here is that we can get people to understand that science, um, it can work.
This thing did not take a year. The research behind the vaccine goes back decades, decades.
The mRNA technology in particular, I mean, you know, vaccinology is several decades, right, right, in, in terms of its modern phase. So this technology itself has been around for many, many years.
I think what, with, what COVID did was all the virology world stopped. Everybody stopped what they were doing and pivoted their attention towards COVID. And so we were able to do more in a short amount of time and better ever. My group, for example, I, I had other things to work on. We stopped a year ago, shifted our attention towards COVID and put out, you know, we published several manuscripts on this. And I think that goes for a lot of people. So, when you actually think about, A, the fact that technology is better now, right? Well, well, A, it's the fact that we've been thinking about this for many decades, right? B, is that technology is better in 2021 than it's ever been. And then C, everybody, the whole kind of medical world in the biomedical world and the scientific world stops and pays attention. All of a sudden that amount of time isn't so short, right? When you actually think about it that way. It's, you know, and I think that's how we were able to do this.
I call myself a disinformation and misinformation warrior, and it's (laughs), I mean, which is, you know, a silly label in some ways, but it, it does acknowledge that the, uh, the climate calls for people who are willing to kinda engage, um, that disinformation misinformation are just as big illnesses as the actual illnesses are.
I've been involved in kind of very, very large conversations with people where they can ask questions about kind of the vaccine and why they should or shouldn't or things that they saw on YouTube. I mean, I got a lot of very interesting theories and things on Mars and, and, and, you know, and ro- robots in the bloodstream. But again, right, to the bright, to a point that's very critical and important to make, I cannot dismiss those. You have to engage people. Because at the end of the day, people wanna be healthy and happy and have fun with their family and have a good time.
So simply calling on your credentials, right, is not an appropriate way to engage people. You have to meet people where they are. You have to empathize with what their fears are and try to gently walk people through. You don't talk down at them, you talk with them. Um, and at the end of the day, I can't tell anybody what to do.
Right. What I can do is lay out the information in a manner that kinda empowers them to make their own decision. And I think I've been able to do that.
As far as I'm concerned, that's, that's more powerful than anything I will do in a laboratory.
And I found that just as, uh, gratifying as anything."
What my Fulbright experience did for me, uh, well, it, it really is the most important intellectual year of my life.
Number one, I came out of college. I was chemistry and mathematics, and I, you know, I had taken a little bit of biology here and there. I had never taken a course on ecology, on evolution, on insects, anything, ever, not for a second. Okay? I went to Fulbright and I read everything about mosquitoes, knew, I, I published three manuscripts about mosquitoes and ecology and doing work in nature. I had never done work in nature before. Right? At that, so my point is, I was able to really do science originally, uh, with, on my own, with a lot of independence having forged my own relationships doing work in infectious disease. So that's what my point is in terms of my independent scientific trajectory. I mean, now I'm a professor of ecology and evolution of infectious disease. I mean, the thread runs directly from my Fulbright experience. I still publish work on malaria. I don't do mosquitoes, but I still do work on malaria, and we writing the grant of malaria.
So the signature on my science is very, very, very clear.
I have a very kind of interesting and complicated, you know, complicated family history of myself, right? So my father is Nigerian, but I was not raised by him. Right? So I don't have a relationship at all with my father. I was raised with my mother who's, you know, who's African-American. So my point is going to Kenya, where it's not -where I do not have ancestry. I have no connection to Kenya kind of, uh, part, you know, ethnically or, you know, uh, genealogically. It was still me connecting with Africa in a way in, and, and I kinda, I found out kinda they were, that I, uh, uh, making a connection with the continent in this way was very important for my kind of emotional and psychological development as a young person. And I did not realize that until after I was there. Um, to see how beautiful the continent is and how beautiful the people are, how young the continent is, how they will not be denied moving into this next century.
They're gonna, they're, they're bright. They're gonna do great things. And they're gonna be, the more, the world is going to have to contend with them in a good way, right? In the sense of they're gonna kind of continue to do, they're gonna do wonderful things in this world. That was very, very important for me to see. And then more generally, just like the global perspective on things. Look, the thing about being American, independent of what your background is, we are narrow. And even me, I thought I was kind of broad-minded as like a college kid. Right? I thought I was, and I thought that I kinda knew what went on in the world, um, particularly after 9/11. Right? I think a lot of us began to think about how the world worked. I realized when I was in Kenya, I didn't know anything about the way the world actually works, and have, to have to kind of even talk to not just Kenyan scientists, but Cameroonian scientists and, and Belgian scientists.
And, and, right, from around the world, I think, wow, this is how science actually works around the world. There are independent scientists around the world doing cutting edge world-class work. I felt like more of a citizen of the world because of the Fulbright experience.
You know, I can only speak for being an American is the only place, that's the only citizenship I've ever had. Um, all right, only place I've ever, you know, lived, lived before I went to my Fulbright. Uh, growing up, um, even when you're eclectic and original, you're still original within a very narrow context.
So I was interested in comics and sci-fi and things of that nature, and that was eclectic for the setting I was in. You, you know, and I, you know, and it, and it's still is. It is still is eclectic. But I, part of, kind of my triumph, the triumph of a lot of people is realizing, even if I'm doing well in this box, this is still a box. And there's a lot of other experiences that you can kind of break into.
I remember my mother took us to dinner one day, she made us dress up and go to some fancy steak house or something like that. I was a little, little boy. She made us dress up and like the violin player, you know, came over and started (laughs) playing violin at our table.
And this was an important thing for us to see, right, because like, this is the way some people live. And I remember being seven or eight years old and thinking I belonged there, right? Now, we didn't do that ever again. I haven't done that since, as a grownup with an actual job. But the point is that there are other places in this, in my, in the country when I was young, there are other settings, right, where you, if you wanna do it, you can belong. Is that the art world or what have you? And I think that attitude of being encouraged to explore and try different things, um, it doesn't mean the things outside of your community are better.
It just means that you should be able to have, to have access to whatever you want. Right? Um, and that's my, that's what I've tried to do. So going to Howard University, going to the Fulbright, going to Yale for my PhD, going to Harvard for my postdoc, going for my jobs from Vermont to Brown. Now back to Yale. At all of these places, two things have been true. One is, I've had to expand and get out of my comfort zone in every single one of these settings. All of my research, I've had to learn new things, all of my writing and outreach, I have to learn new things, but I also stick and bring myself to those jobs. I do not feel like I have to be someone else in the settings.
Like what you're getting here is pretty much just the grownup version of me at 17 years old. Right? Just, I just read a lot more books since then. And I think that message of your home and yourself is a valuable thing. You are brilliant and beautiful the way you are, but there is nothing in this world you can't have. I think that's a theme. And I think the Fulbright experience was a very important part of that theme.
I encourage people, like don't be afraid to get outside of your comfort zone. If you look in any paradigm, the people who made leaps forward did just that. They were people who kind of like got into different things and were thought, you thought, they were, you know, they thought they were crazy or other people thought they were crazy. So programs like Fulbright, right? And I really urge people to try something truly different, right? True now, now you should have the skills to do the work (laughs). You shouldn't be unprepared to do the stuff, right? Uh, but if you have the skills to do it, try something different in particular as your junior person kind of developing your professional identity and who you are.
Be that photography or anthropology or art or in my case, science, um, you will be, you will thank yourself for the long term for having kind of made these types of bold steps. And I think the Fulbright is a perfect example of that.
The exchange changed my life.
Episode 6: Mermaid Advocacy
On this week’s episode, we dive in with Anna Oposa, co-founder, director, and Chief Mermaid of Save Philippine Seas, to learn how she is working to mobilize “sea-tizens” to take action to protect marine and coastal lands on a local and global scale.
I am the co-founder and executive director and chief mermaid of an organization called Save Philippine Seas, that was created as a response to a major illegal wildlife trade case that happened.
At that time, I had just submitted my thesis for my undergraduate degree and I was looking for a job and I had a lot of free time to, you know, comb social media.
I always say that my advocacy was built on the foundation of my, my English language education and my English studies education, because I think when you are an English major, you're trained to read a lot, you're trained to listen to the way people use language. Um, and I was taught by my teachers to ask, like, the right questions and the good questions, which I feel are things, you know, they're life lessons that help me everyday.
I grew up wanting to be a Broadway star, that's what I thought I was going to be. And ever since I was maybe 11 years old or 12, I was in voice lessons and I spent summers, uh, being immersed in musical theater workshops and dance workshops and teaching musical theater. So, that's another part of my background that was really formative for developing discipline.
So, sometimes people ask me, you know, "What do you do when you're not motivated to, like, work on saving the seas?" And I always say, “It's not about motivation, sometimes it's about discipline,” right? So, it's, like, getting up and putting in the work, whether you feel inspired or not, which I think being both an English major and a theater, um, actor taught [me].
So, my dad was an environmental lawyer. He actually started environmental law in the Philippines. So, even since I was young, I was really exposed to a lot of environmental issues, not just fishing, you know, not just, like, illegal fishing issues or marine conservation issues, but even, like, reforestation projects and illegal logging and different kinds of environmental injustices. So, I always joke that my environmental law degree came from the dinner table because our everyday conversations with my family would be about politics and environmental laws and issues like current events.
So, it's always been there, and I actually deliberately did not want to pursue environmental law. Because.
I, didn't want people to think that I was just where I was because of my last name or because of my connections.
So, I really resisted it and I think even when Save Philippine Seas already started, I was still very hesitant to think that it would be my, my path, my chosen career.
In 2016, I participated in an exchange program, um, in the U.S. and it was on oceans. And I was selected as a mentor or a facilitator for a youth program, and I enjoyed it so much. Um, so it was a, some Southeast Asian and East Asian students and I would be their mentor, not just to teach them about the oceans and answer all their questions about the sea, but also help them adjust to culture shock in, in the US. So, a lot of the students that were there had never been outside of their hometowns, so obviously there's some culture shock.
And I remember one of my Filipino students, when we ate spaghetti for the first time -- so, for context, in the Philippines, spaghetti is very sweet, like, there's a lot of sugar and there's a lot of hotdogs, it's very strange, I know it sounds strange, but it's really good --and she was so confused why the spaghetti didn't have hotdogs, and why it was a little bit sour and salty (laughs). So, those are other things that I wasn't really expecting to have to explain, but on a personal level, uh, we got exposed to so many different programs in the US. We got to travel to, like, aquariums and speaks with environmental educators, and that really left a big impression on me and.
I still actually continue applying the lessons that I learned during that exchange program to this day.
I actually lived in the U.S. when I was younger. Uh, my dad did his masters in Harvard, so my family lived there for, we lived in, in Cambridge for a year when I was about eight years old. And then I went back in 2004, um, for a creative writing program in, in Pratt Institute in New York. And then I did a fellowship in Duke University, um, after my Masters. So, I had been to the U.S. several times.
Being in the U.S., and specific to the program that I was part, um, under the State Department, one of the, I don't re- I don't remember exactly where we were, but I remember what the topic was about, the speaker was talking about this concept called science cafes, and she said that the point of the science café is to make science more engaging and more approachable.
So, that's left a big impression on me and I, I was asking myself, how do we bring science to, to, closer to, you know, people who are not, you know, studying marine biology or, and, and we decided that (laughs) with another YSEALI alum actually, to create what we call conservation workshops, so communicating for cons- conservation in a brewery, and I think that, that experience was something that planted a seed in my mind to do something like that in the future.
You know, before, pre-pandemic (laughs), we used to travel all the Philippines, holding workshops, um, you know, working with communities closely in a physical, face-to-face setting.
And now we're developing what we call Earthducation kits. So, it's, you know, education for the earth and we're working with teachers, we're working with students, we're working the Department of Education in the Philippines to create these learning kits. So, that's also a, you know, a little seed that was planted in my mind back in 2016.
What I'm thinking about now is. If we can't bring people to the sea, then how do we bring the sea to them?
You know, when you're eight, you don't really have a grasp of how things affect you so much, you know?
You know, coming from a tropical country and suddenly having four seasons, I mean, that is, like, I still, it's still so clear to me the first time I ever saw snow. It's like one of my core memories. Um, but it's also, like, little things like eating TV dinners and, like, doing my own chores, um, and then watching Nickelodeon all day, 'cause we didn't have Nickelodeon in the Philippines back then (laughs). And of course, as an eight year old, these are things that you get super excited about.
It was also hard to learn to speak English the whole time, because in the Philippines, we mix English and Filipino a lot when, in, when we converse, we code switch a lot.
So, I had to train myself to speak in straight English, which, you know, can actually get really tiring.
I feel like I had to grow up quickly.
And I remember there was even a time I started crying because I just felt like, "Oh my god, how can people know, how ca- how, how can people have figured this out?" And, like, you know, I do well in school, but in, like, real life, it - it's hard (laughs).
Um, and then the pace of the education was also different and what I valued in that, in that, um, creative writing space was how much, um, the class put value on, like, poetry and fiction and non-fiction and the creative space, which I felt like, you know, in the Philippines, we are always conditioned that you have to be a lawyer or you have to be a doctor, and because I got good grades, you know, people always assumed that I would go down those paths, and I think that course really influenced me to major in English, much to the, um, disappointment of my parents (laughs). But, you know, it was just another reality that, oh, there are other choices, there are other care- career paths that I can take.
Sometimes you get scared to ask questions because you feel like people will think you're stupid.
So, I remember being in the, like, the laundry room in the school, and I'd never used the washing machine before, so, I remember being there and just standing with my laundry and someone went up to me and was like, "Are you okay?" And I said, "I don't know how to use a washing machine." And she was like, "How can you not know?"
So, so that, I felt like, oh my god, I shouldn't be asking people these things, I'm supposed to know these things.
So, when I had my opportunity to mentor these young students who are going to the U.S. for the first time, I just always reminded them that, "You can ask me anything, um, there are no stupid questions, uh, whatever it is that you're thinking, just let me know. Um, you know, if you're shy to ask it in the group, then you can ask me during the break," you know, things like that.
I don't think I can run out of challenges (laughs). But there are of course, like, the organizational ones, which, you know, if you're running a non-profit, then you're always going to be financially, um, un- unstable I guess because as a non-profit, you kind of have to keep raising funds, and I've been very fortunate to have the US government support our work in the last maybe six, seven years already. Um, so that's been a huge part of being able to sustain our organization and the work that we're doing.
But on another, um, aspect of it, whatever you do to one sea, you do to another. And I think that's why I like the, the US calls it Our Ocean, right, that's the branding that they created because they want to emphasize that it's ours, and whatever you do in one country, you do to another.
And still, it's hard to advocate for the seas when there are bigger or, I guess, more urgent issues like health and, you know, economic, or economic situations. So, it's kind of been pushed a little bit lower compared to other development issues.
When we protect our environment, we also end up protecting our- ourselves. Um, so whether that's clean air or clean water or a clean environment, those are all related to, to the state of our health and the state of our wellbeing and our, and our physical health as well.
In 2021, I think it's particularly, um, challenging because of the pandemic and how it's so hard to advocate for, let's say, you know, reducing plastic pollution when so many of the things now are dependent on it being single use.
I've seen a lot of face shields, you know, being blown into the streets in, in the coastal areas. So, the medical waste is part of it.
But also being on lockdown means there's inception of e-commerce packaging because, like, the plastic is wrapped in another plastic, which is wrapped in a bubble wrap, which is wrapped in a paper bag and which is wrapped in another plastic, so that's another, um, another challenge that we're facing.
A lot of people who are working to protect the oceans also were related to the tourism industry. So, you know, dive operators and diving, um, patrol boats would be around marine protected areas and these, th- they can't run without the income coming from the tourism sector.
I've always been a very, like, internally motivated person, I guess, um, and there are days that I really don't want to work or I don't feel like, like what I'm doing is actually going to result in something. But what motivates me is knowing that, well s- there, there are different ways that I, like, give myself a pep talk. So, on some days, it's like, you have a deadline," (laughs), "you can't miss this deadline. So, for practical reasons you have to get up and work, even if it's just for two hours, just start.
I always have to remind myself, okay, I'm doing this so that I can, you know, work with young people or work with fisher folks or work on shark conservation. So, it's just finding what inspires me or what can motivate me on that day. And sometimes it's not always the same.
If you don't know something, you can't love it. And that kind of approach has made me a big advocate for what we call experiential learning.
So, for example, in our programs, we learn that 90, 80 to 90% of the students that we, that we work with have never been in the water. And for me, that's very strange knowing that we're the second largest archipelago in the world. Why are we so scared of being in the water?
So, in every program that we did pre-pandemic, we would always make time and allocate resources to bring people into the water because it's one thing to watch, you know, documentaries and see photos, but it's completely different when you're there and feel this sense of connection and this kinship with, with the environment.
Growing up, we've always been snorkeling and we've always been, you know, going to beach trips as a family, but going underwater, I was just so blown away by it (laughs). It sounds silly now that I'm talking about it, but I was like, "Oh my god, there's so many fish," (laughs), "there's so many colors underwater."
Um, and I was thinking, oh my god, if I were an artist, I wish I could draw, I could paint and, like, make people see what I'm seeing and make people feel this excitement and this sense of wonder that I'm feeling.
I've done maybe, I would say, let's say over 400 dives, um, in different parts of the Philippines and in some parts of, other parts of the world, and it still brings me so much li- life.
No two dives are ever alike. You know, even if you go to the same spot and you dive on the same day, uh, same time, it's just always gonna be different, and I think that's part of the thrill of it.
So, my story of the chief mermaid, um, we had a volunteer who said, you know, "Why don't we come up with business cards so that people take us seriously?"
This was like, you know, a few months into Save Philippine Seas. And I said, "Oh my god, that's a great idea." And then she said, "Okay, I'll design it, what title do you want?" And I said, "Chief Mermaid," and she said, "You're joking, right?" And I was like, "No, I mean, others have chief executive officers and chief finance officers. Why can't I be the Chief Mermaid?" Anyway, it's just for fun.
So, I printed it on my business card and so I would give it to people and one time I was giving a talk in a- in a university, and someone got my card and it turns out that person was from the government, and then a few days later I got a letter with a letterhead of the, of, you know, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the letter said, you know, Anna Oposa, co-founder and chief mermaid, and I was like, “oh my god, people are taking it seriously.”
And then I tried to, like, rebrand myself and drop the Chief Mermaid.
But then people love it and people still call me Chief Mermaid.
Episode 5: Walk with Confidence
DESCRIPTIONThis week, we travel to Mumbai, India, where we meet ElsaMarie D’Silva, the founder of Red Dot Foundation, Safecity, a platform that documents sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. Hear about her journey from the corporate world to award-winning social entrepreneur, the circle of sisterhood, and how she is helping women walk with confidence.
My name is Elsa, and I am an Exchange Alumni.
I was really lucky to have been, uh, selected for both these programs, the Fortune, uh, State Department Mentoring Program, as well as the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
Oh I've, I really consider myself lucky. Uh, both of them were, I would say life changing, especially the Fortune Mentoring Program, because you are mentored by some of the most successful women in the world.
And to be in that circle of sisterhood, and I would say leadership, is really, really real forming, not only for yourself as a leader and, and a social entrepreneur, but also as, uh, someone who comes from, um, maybe India to the U.S., you know
I understand the value of the relationship and therefore I pay it forward by also mentoring others and facilitating mentoring relationships with established leaders in India with vulnerable girls.
It's a gift that you cannot measure in the present moment, but in the future, when you look back, you will know how valuable that gift was.
And that's really now, you know, when I look back on my Fortune experience, I really really know the importance and the value of it.
I believe I've always had that passion to positively impact other people and have them explore their potential. But the current work that I do with Red Dot Foundation actually began in December, 2012. At the time I was in the aviation sector, I was heading a department called Network Planning where I was optimizing over 500 daily flights. And then in the middle of December 2012, we had a horrific incident where a young girl was gang raped on a bus in Delhi and subsequently died of her injuries. And that incident was so brutal and horrific, it opened up a lot of conversations around the topic of sexual and gender-based violence.
Now I was in my bubble in aviation, but this also, you know, got me really upset. And I felt I was at a moment in my life looking for my purpose, but I wanted to contribute in a very concrete manner.
And this incident was a catalyst for me launching SafeCity. What is SafeCity? It's a crowd map or crowd sourcing tool where we encourage people to report their experiences of sexual and gender-based violence anonymously. And this is then collated as location-based trends visualized on a map as hotspots. And the aim is to make the issue more visible because until that incident that happened with Jyoti Singh, I don't recall reporting my own experiences of sexual violence.
In fact, all my women friends had experienced it, but none of us had made any official complaint, which meant that this issue was invisible due to the lack of data. The official statistics do not reflect the true nature and size of the problem. And what we were trying to do with SafeCity is make it more visible by bridging the data gap, putting it in a format that people could understand what was happening, where, and also make the data available in the open source format so that you can use it in whatever way you wanted to use it at the individual level to improve your situation awareness. Or engage with your community to find solutions with you. Or even to demand accountability from service providers like the police, the municipal corporation, or your administration on college campuses.
And it's not very different from the various apps we use in our day-to-day life. You know, we are now in a space and technology where we are, every decision we make is made, uh, using peer reviews.
We depend on what other people are sharing about their experiences regarding a hotel or restaurant, so why can't we learn from each other's experiences on sexual and gender-based violence?
We can definitely learn from it. We can make ourselves situationally aware so that we respond quicker, faster, better, uh, more effectively.
You see what happens is when a woman is confronted in these circumstances, you tend to freeze because there are three responses. You can freeze, you can flee, you can fight back, but we freeze. And then we beat ourselves up emotionally saying that was not an adequate response.
So if you had advanced intelligence to say, "Okay, on this street corner, this is what I can expect. Or if I'm taking the train, this route has this, uh, kind of a problem." You can have many strategies to respond, and you're aware. Also the perpetrators looking to catch you when you're not aware, or, you know, they'll prey on the vulnerable, so to speak. But if you knew you will walk with confidence, at least that's my hope. And you will respond even co- even more confidently, which will, uh, intimidate the perpetrator.
And then take the community, for example. If you went and told your story, again, the onus comes back to you saying you were in the wrong place, you were wearing the wrong clothing, who told you to go out? Et cetera. But if you can prove that it was happening over and over again, in that same location, the pattern is appearing through the data.
You can then ask questions of your community as to why they're okay with this kind of behavior and, uh, and demand for them to have your back. And that's very powerful. And the solutions that we have seen range from not only policing, but also where do you place the CCTV cameras? Because in my city, everybody loves putting CCTV cameras. So you can have a say how you know, where those CCTV cameras are placed, but you can also use art on walls to challenge, uh, these cultural norms that, uh, promote harmful gender stereotypes, and so on and so forth. And then institutional accountability. We have seen that you don't need big data. You need relevant disaggregated data to convince the authorities to implement better policies and procedures. So whether it is increased, beep patrolling, or change of beep patrol timings, fixing broken lights, fixing broken toilets, all these contribute towards the feeling of being unsafe.
So 2012 was a landmark year for me. So the company that I was working with underwent a financial downturn and eventually shut. Of course, as head of network planning, I was working on recovery plans and we were in talks with, uh, another airline to, uh, you know, buy us off, et cetera. But I thought to myself that if I wanted to make that change, or if I wanted to pay it forward, this was my moment. It, it was never gonna come again. And if it didn't work out, I could always go back to a corporate job. But if I didn't make that decision now, you know, at that time, I didn't think I would have had the courage to make it in the future.
Now I come from aviation and at one point in my career, I was a safety instructor. So aviation is a very safe industry in the sense there's a lot of investment in situational awareness and emergency preparedness
And you go through all these drills annually all the time thinking about all the various situations that could go wrong, right? And we study accidents and we study in a way th- I'm just applying what I learned in aviation to this particular topic.
So when now my team explains this to the partner organizations in the communities that we work in, it makes a lot of sense to them because they know intuitively that this is happening on a daily basis, but without the data, you cannot give it, you know, that touch and feel to it. And you have to convince the men and boys around you to say that this is a problem. That they may never have been challenged before. They may never have been spoken to about it before, because a lot of the men interestingly say that, "Oh, we never thought it was a problem."
Every city has its own dynamic and knowing what will happen where, it's very important because the kind of crime that we are seeing surface on our data, uh, on our mapping Delhi is very different from Bombay, is very different from Kerala, for example, or Goa. And just knowing what is ahead of you is, is really important in your own, uh, plan of action for your own safety.
But basically there's very poor understanding of the spectrum of abuse. What constitutes sexual violence. What is the legislation? Many men don't even realize, and many women too, that it is a crime in India for every category of nonverbal, verbal, physical forms of abuse, it is a crime.
So knowing your rights is absolutely critical and we shouldn't be waiting for something to happen to us to then find out what is the law and what are our rights.
And that data is absolutely, uh, critical as well, because it allows you to think of innovative options, non-confrontational options, or it helps you build dialogue within your community and between your community and institutional service providers.
Once we get a sizable amount in any community -- 100 reports, 500 reports, we help analyze those reports and present the findings back to the community and then ask them, what do they wanna do to solve the issue.
One of my favorite examples is in Delhi, in, uh, in an urban village, low-income community, one of the hotspots was near a tea stall. And if you've been to India, you know, the tea stall is a kiosk on the side of the road, which is a male-only space. You'll never find women hanging around over there drinking tea. Now, the way it was located, women and girls had to pass by on the way to school, college, work, and men would loiter over there, stare at them and intimidate them with their constant mail gigs. And when asked, what would they like to change? They said, "We want the staring and the loitering to stop."
Now, how do you challenge this kind of behavior? So we organized an art-based workshop and on the wall near the tea stall, a huge wall, we painted a mural with staring eyes and subtle messaging that says, "Look with your heart, not with your eyes. We won't be intimidated by your gaze. We will speak up. We will not stay silent." All of this is through the wall. Okay. We call it talking walls now. And this was so effective that the staring actually stopped and the loitering also stopped, because the tea stall owner was now put on notice and he would, you know, send the men away. Now, this wall mural idea was so powerful that we used it in other places...
...outside of girls college in Bombay, we, um, got them to paint their feelings on the wall. And I remember during that time, men would stop to see what we were doing, a bunch of women painting the wall. And these girls decided that in between these panels, they would put the sections of the law that make all of this crime, whether it's staring, taking pictures without permission. The men said, "Thank you, because we ourselves didn't know it was a crime."
And they became advocates to, uh, educate their own communities, their peer groups on, uh, you know, why they shouldn't indulge in this behavior. So you see the ripple effect where one innovation then goes to another and to another, and you're constantly learning what has worked in some community or not, or the other.
We have to talk about female, female leadership, because there's just not enough of it. Take for example, Kamala Harris, when she was elected as vice president, the whole world was celebrating. Why? Why is that? Because we felt we had broken that glass ceiling along with her. If you take India, we have 14% of women in parliament. 14%. That's a miserable amount. If you take business leadership, also it's pathetic. It's nothing like 33%.
We need to make the effort to make women more visible. Men need to make space for them. And I'm tired of this tokenism where people want to tick boxes. There has to be an effort made.
They'll never have the experience unless you give them that space. So when I look at my own leadership journey, I've been very fortunate that my male bosses gave me that opportunity to excel.
And at very, at a very early age, I got all my promotions and that's because there were men who believed in me, who trusted me. Even if then I didn't believe in myself. So there are people out there, we just need more of them and we need them to feel comfortable, you know, getting more women into that top job.
So yes, women's leadership is absolutely critical.
It's not that all women will be great leaders or that they will always do the right thing for gender equality. But at the moment, we do not have as many reference points to say what female leadership does look like.
You know, we don't have that problem with men, right? So when one man as a leader fails, we say, "Okay, he was a bad person," but when one woman leader fails, because we are so few in number, they put the whole onus on the gender saying, "Oh, you know, the entire, a lot of them are bad." If you look at how countries have fared during COVID, by and large, the countries that have done well have mainly had women leaders, or the cities that have done well. So there is a point to be made for female leadership and we just have to put in more of an effort and it has to be top down driven.
Ever since I started with SafeCity, I do have to say that the U.S. Consulate Mumbai has been one of my biggest supporters. And then I have personally benefited from the two State Department exchange programs. I do not feel like that relationship has ever ended. It's a continuous one. It's one for life. And I have used it for the benefit of my organization, but more importantly for the benefit of my cause, which is advancing gender equality and prevention of sexual and gender based violence.
So I'm deeply grateful and humbled as well for having been, uh, selected for these programs. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I re- highly recommend it to everyone out there, and I'm deeply, deeply grateful for
The U.S. Consulate, uh, Mumbai who have always supported my work, always, uh, helped me think through solutions, uh, and, you know, seeing the potential in what we were doing even before we realized that.
Episode 4: From Bullets to Books
Episode 3: Jumping Out of the Water
What happens when you’re an artist living in a tyrannical state: do you risk your life to fight tyranny, or do you escape your country because your gifts are valuable to the entire world?
Join us as we meet Gail Prensky, a U.S. arts envoy exchange alumna and documentary filmmaker, who is working to shed light on the plight of artists living under continued oppression. Hoping to advance peace and unity across the world, Gail and her team are currently working with a Mandela Washington Fellow alumnus to shift the focus from bullets to books in South Sudan. This is the story of “Bullets to Books,” and Gail’s journey as a storyteller and envoy.
Voices of Exchange is a new podcast featuring the voices of alumni of U.S. government exchange programs, cultural and sports envoys, exchange visitors, and U.S. Speakers. On this podcast, you will hear how one student’s exchange program led him to pull the plug a career as a doctor to become a disinformation warrior/health activist... how a mid-career exchange helped a woman rediscover her love of illustration, leading her to co-create a 280-page love letter to New York City’s public art… the discovery by an exchange participant that the things holding her back weren't her disability... and how Anne Frank’s diary has been a source of strength, inspiration, and career-changing for an exchange alumna, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, and back.
Voices of Exchange launches March 31, 2021. New episodes will be released every two weeks on iTunes and wherever else you get your podcasts. You can also listen to Voices of Exchange right here on this page, starting in April.
Voices of Exchange is brought to you by the Office of Alumni Affairs in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). Voices of Exchange is a successor to 22.33, ECA’s first podcast that wrapped up in early 2021.
Join us on Instagram at @voicesofexchange to get the latest on our podcast guests and upcoming episode
Episode 2: From Introvert to International Illustrator
In the latest episode of Voices of Exchange, we learn how international exchange helped a “shy, nerdy kid” reconnect with a childhood friend and her passion for art. Travel with us from Buffalo to Chicago, Paris, Tbilisi, and New York City with Returned Peace Corps Specialist and illustrator Maria Krasinski.
This week, Exchange Alumna Maria Krasinski tells us how she took the leap from working in Chicago in international education to volunteering with the Peace Corps in Georgia. We explore how her international exchange experiences were the key to carving her own path as a professional artist.
My name is Maria Krasinski. I'm an artist and an illustrator. I'm also a freelance consultant on different nonprofit projects, mostly related to civic engagement, youth and different social sector issues. Currently I am in Buffalo, New York, my hometown, but I also spend a lot of time in New York City where a lot of my creative work is based.
When I went to the Peace Corps, it, I was mid-career. I was the vice-president of a, a nonprofit called world Chicago, which was actually a partner of the state department in ECA implementing exchange programs. And I loved it. It was probably my dream job that brought together my academic background in international relations and policy with my personal passions and interests for travel and cultural exchange and language learning. And I had been there for about five years and had kind of moved through all of our different programs, met hundreds of just super interesting, smart, driven people from all around the world. World Chicago is one of the largest local organizations that works with the state department on these programs. So we would have upwards of a thousand visitors every year from a hundred or more different countries. And so just being in Chicago, being able to meet all these folks from all around the world, just right in, in my town, which was pretty amazing.
But I think like, like everything, you, when you reach a goal, then you, you start to push your goals a little bit more and think what's next, what's next. And, you know, I sort of reached a point where I was thinking about what was next and actually got pretty inspired by a lot of the delegates who, who came to Chicago on these programs. And I was working a lot with different entrepreneurs at the time, and just seeing how they were just kind of leaving that safety net, that security and just striking out on their own. I was thinking about like, what might I do in that space?
And in a chance occurrence, I was speaking on an international careers panel with the diplomat and residents for the Midwest. I'm from the state department, some folks from the Peace Corps and then me and the Peace Corps representative talked about the two-year program, but also the Peace Corps response program, which I was not familiar with. And it is a shorter stint. It's not the full two years that you might think of. And it is geared more towards mid-career professionals who have some significant experience or volunteers who have already gone through the two-year experience. And it definitely piqued my interest. And so I went home and I looked it up and I shot off an application. And then a few months later got the call and it just seemed like the perfect alignment of still continuing to work in an international development exchange space, getting some on the ground experience abroad and kind of getting to live the life that I had been working with in Chicago with all the delegates coming there, but on the flip side.
An unexpected thing happened while I was in the Peace Corps and it completely changed my trajectory for what would happen after the Peace Corps.
So a friend of mine, Laurie came to visit me in Tbilisi a few months into my service. And she and I have been friends since we were nine years old. We, we lost contact for a little while. We went to different high schools and colleges, but then through the magic of social media, we reconnected as young adults and realized we were still really similar and had had a similar trajectory. I ended up in Chicago, she was in New York and Philly. And, you know, since then we have traveled a lot together. She's an art curator, I'm an arts writer has worked with different artists. So I was in creative fields in museums and exchanges. And so we had these really complimentary experiences and probably at least once a year, we would take a trip together somewhere in the world and go traveling and exploring because we had a similar interest, but also a similar way of moving through the world.
Again, like I'm, I'm sort of this observer and I just like to wander around and don't have an agenda, don't have a map, just kind of see what you might discover wandering through a city or a small town. And so when she came to visit me into Tbilisi, we were just chatting one night and I was sort of telling her about life in Georgia and its slower pace of life. And with that new-found free time, I, I had started drawing and painting more, again, something I had neglected for some time just being always busy at work.
And she says, What! I have no idea you drew!
And I was like, we have literally been friends for like 30 years, how did you not know that?
And I started showing her some of my sketches of Tbilisi just around my neighborhood, just again, from taking these meandering walks and just discovering the little nooks, not the big things you see on postcards and National Geographic, but here is this really cool raw iron gate design, or here's like this funny street that is winding and twisty, just the little things that kind of jumped out at me.
And she had this, this moment of being like, Oh, I've been looking for an illustrator for this book idea that I have, and this is exactly the style that I want for the book.
I actually started drawing the book in Tbilisi. I would be at my Peace Corps site. We do our projects and at night I would come home and start sketches and their process continued for a few more months after Peace Corps. I was, I was still traveling different parts of the world, drawing New York City streets while I was in Paris or Guatemala or some other location that was not New York. And in a way it was sort of, Lori's writing is very, it's fun, it's accessible and the best way, and it's, it's not dense art history sort of texts. It's really engaging and really paints a picture. And for me not being physically in New York for the production of most of this book, it, it helped me channel that that excitement to, of, of sitting in front of, you know, this, this building where, you know, Marc Chagall used to live.
And that was the same idea I would have in Tbilisi. You know, the more I learned about the history and the incredible writers and artists who are all around that city, and I got to wander through the Writers’ House of Georgia, you know, where all these storied authors and, and, you know, luminaries of the past lived, and this is beautiful Art Nouveau building. And just physically being in the spaces where, or these people were just gets you excited. And so that definitely got channeled into the production of the book before even being in New York.
this book would not have happened were I not living abroad for a multitude of reasons. One, I just, at that point in my life was not making space for, for art in any real way. I did creative projects here and there, or would help friends with things, but I just didn't make time for it. And it was kind of this neglected passion that I always, Oh, when I have more time, I'll, I'll paint again. When I have more time, I'll do this again. And, and being in a completely foreign environment that, you know, from the language to the food, to the people, everything was new. And that really opened my eyes again.
When I think back and reflect on where I started, even as a kid, I was this really shy, introverted kid who was scared to talk to anybody, even my own classmates to, to now, you know, having lived in, traveled to, you know, dozens of and, and had these very expansive experiences. It's sometimes I, I think about what, what advice, or what would I tell younger me, you know, kind of like, hang in there, it's going to be, be better. But, the thing that I come back to is, is opportunity.
There are several inflection points I can identify growing up that kind of led to where I am now. And they all centered around me saying yes to something that terrified me. And even as a kid going on this exchange program, when I was 15 with a school that was not my own, it wasn't even my own school. I was going with a bunch of strangers from the US to go be with a bunch of strangers in France. And I was terrified, but there was something in me that was like, you have to do this even at that age. And, and I think it was very much tied to my artistic interests because of course, France: Paris, Monet, Van Gogh, like this was the place to be. And so that, that love that passion, those interests that I had really, it was sort of overridden my shyness and extroversion and by saying yes to that, and then having a fantastic experience there, when I, you know, I came back to the States, then it was like, Oh, well, college is coming.
I think I'm going to leave my hometown. Okay. That's terrifying. That's scary. Just say yes.
And then I ended up in Chicago and then from there just the, that ability to look at a seemingly scary situation or an unknown situation and, and be able to, to find the benefit in it or the, the less scary parts. It's a huge takeaway for me from, from these types of exchanges, whether from a, a high school cultural exchange to an ECA, very structured program. And so I would absolutely recommend and advise anyone considering that, to really think about all the ways you don't even know what will benefit you going into it.
Episode 1: More Alike Than Different
For our first ever episode of Voices of Exchange, we travel to Florianópolis, Brazil, with Critical Language Scholar and disability rights advocate Anna Landre. Anna takes us on a journey of overcoming cultural, lingual, and physical barriers in a new city, while describing the lessons she learned to advocate for herself and for others with disabilities. Through Anna’s story, we learn that we are more alike than different.
For our first ever episode, we traveled to Florianopolis, Brazil with critical language scholar and disability rights advocate, Anna Landre. As we dive into Anna's story of overcoming cultural, language, as well as physical barriers in a new city, we come to understand that we're more alike than not. With Anna's efforts to fight for disability rights stretching beyond campus, we learn that such issues transcend borders and boundaries, and can contribute to bridging the cultural gap. You're listening to Voices of Exchange, a podcast of people, places and international exchange.
I did the CLS program, the Critical Language Scholarship in Brazil. Uh, it was the first year in Brazil and it was just a fantastic experience. I first heard about it through Georgetown University's Fellowship office. I'm a student there and they send out these great emails about different opportunities. And I was just really excited about, especially the fully funded nature of the program, because I am someone who doesn't have access to a lot of these paid programs. I wouldn't be able to afford them. Financial aid is a lot of times really shoddy. So suddenly I was looking at something that was fully accessible to me financially. And I was just so excited as someone who had just started learning Portuguese and was seeing them doing their first Portuguese program. Um, I think I was also really drawn to their emphasis on inclusion, like in the application they had questions about, do you have a disability?
How does your disability manifest? Does it mean how could you travel a certain distance on foot or in a wheelchair or something else, uh, like that. And it was really encouraging to me to see that they were thinking about this. One of my favorite parts of the program was that I was able to get in touch with a local, uh, disability rights organization. Um, so right up my alley and it was one of the program coordinators who helped me find it 'cause he kind of saw that I was struggling with the inaccessibility of the environment. You know, this was one of the least wheelchair accessible places I had ever been to. And that was taking a toll on me, you know, both physically and mentally. And so they were able to connect me with this organization and I just felt at home immediately, you know, I was around other disabled people or other people working for disability rights.
And I got to meet everyone in the office and talk about, you know, the- the state of- of disability issues in Brazil versus how things are in the U.S. and it's a connection that I still use. I still talk to them all the time. So that's definitely the highlight. I think for me. I wasn't too surprised to find them because I researched Latin America and I know that, um, a lot of places in the region have a strong presence of disability activists, but the fact that, you know, I happen to be staying in a city with a really great organization, was, you know, a little bit serendipitous, you know, not every city has an organization like that. Certainly not every city in the U.S. does. Um, so it was surprising, but also just kind of confirmed some amazing hopes and connections that I hoped to find there.
So I faced those barriers that every, I think student abroad faces things like culture, shock, language, fatigue, just being in an environment that because you aren't comfortable in, it sometimes feels a little exhausting. And like you're constantly having to be totally aware of everything you're doing. You're nervous to make a mistake and maybe offend somebody else. Um, and then on top of that, I was facing an environment that was really inaccessible to me with my wheelchair. Um, you know, I, in DC, I can count on there being a ramp on basically every sidewalk pointer. I don't have to think twice about where I'm going or how I'm getting there. But in Florianopolis where I was living, it was different. A lot of times the sidewalks themselves would be filled with holes and I couldn't traverse them, or if I could, I would get to the end of the block and I couldn't cross to the next street because there was no ramp.
So it was physically exhausting because I was trying to like, not fall over in my wheelchair in this really, this really difficult terrain. And just mentally of not always being able to go to the places that the other people in my program were going to, you know, they could say, oh, we're gonna go to this restaurant for dinner and- and just not think twice and get an Uber and go, and I couldn't, the Ubers weren't accessible. I would have to make sure the bus I was taking had a lift because not all of them did. I would have to call the restaurant and check that they had a ramp and check that the path from the bus to the restaurant was accessible. So that was really difficult.
Um, but I also think in handling that and in pushing through it to the greatest extent that I was able, I now have like this really great confidence in myself to handle difficult situations that I can be independent, um, in even those really tough environments. And I think that's a similar thing to what non-disabled students would feel after handling language fatigue after handling culture shock. Like suddenly you have more confidence in your ability to – to get through almost anything. And for me, that was also really useful because I- I would love to have a career that involves traveling and involves going to different places and- and learning about them and connecting with people. And now I feel like I could handle that almost anywhere.
At a certain point, I asked one of my program coordinators who was there to just make sure that we were all safe and- and doing well on a daily basis. I asked him, how do you say ableism in Portuguese? And he said, and I was trying to explain it in Portuguese. Like, how do you say that word that means discrimination against a person with a disability or something and he was like, I don't think we have a word for that. And then finally I said it in English, in English, it's ableism. And he was like, “I don't know what that means in English.” And I was like, oh, okay. So it was like a lot of homework, not only on the language translating side, but also just on the, you know, disability culture and explaining these things to people, whether it's in English or Portuguese. So many means of translation that – that we had to go through.
I was so pleasantly surprised to see the emphasis on civil rights in relation to disability in Brazil. I think that's something we don't necessarily have in the United States. Here when we talk about disability, I think it's more often tied to like healthcare or charity or something like that. It's more of a- a charitable model. Whereas there, when you talk about disability, it's more recognized that this is a marginalized group of people that, you know, their exclusion is, uh, a product of lack of access to rights and- and services and inclusion. And that was definitely a product of a lot of internalized ableism, just growing up and being socialized with the idea that the way I existed in the world was somehow bad and was somehow less compatible with success. And I saw disability as, like, a very individualized problem, a me problem that I just had to, like, push off and overcome.
And then as I grew up, particularly in high school and then rapidly in college when trying to reach like everyday milestones, that my peers could reach without a second thought, you know, going to college or driving for the first time or getting their first job, I started to see that every time the things holding me back weren't my disability. It was things like social stigma, lack of access to a building or lack of access to a certain piece of healthcare or like a discriminatory law. I wasn't having to overcome anything related to my body. I was overcoming these other things, these outside things.
And this was really transformational for me to kind of reframe my identity as all of these things that I might be missing out on, all of this exclusion isn't inherent to my body. It's things in society that can be changed. And I think that really hit me most when after my freshman year of college, I was able to get a paid internship in DC. And I was so excited. It was like my first big full-time paid job. And I was gonna be able to pay my own rent, afford my own groceries. But then when I mentioned this to my disability services coordinator, they were like, “Oh, well, if you're making money, you won't get any services anymore. You'll be ineligible.”
So essentially the system creates this poverty trap that was threatening my life. I was, by accepting this job, which I had already done 'cause I didn't know, you know, these regulations, I was looking at getting all of my services revoked and not being able to go to school or live dependently, or do any of these things. Um, and this, in my opinion is one of, I think, the biggest disability rights issues in the U.S. right now, um, this sort of poverty trap and through a lot of advocacy, I was able to get the state to let me keep my services. They basically made an exception because there was, I was reaching out to reporters, to my local officials. There was like a – a bit of outrage. And – and I had a lot of allies working for me, but they still haven't fixed it systemically, you know, they gave me an exception and sent me on my way, and haven't budged for everyone else who's being affected by this problem.
So I think that was my first kind of light bulb, where this is an awful issue of exclusion, of oppression. It's systemic. And I feel like I have a responsibility to other people in my community to kind of work on these. And to us, they're simple fixes, you know? If you ask almost any disabled person, they can tell you ways to change the law or change their environment to make things easier. And I think those of us who can have a responsibility to – to do that, so that the next generation of people with disabilities don't have to face these things and we can have better equality and inclusion. On a personal level, first, I'm hoping to graduate, finish my undergrad, uh, this spring. Um, and in the midst of the pandemic, I've been working a lot on disability rights policies in connection with COVID-19. Um, I've been interning with the partnership for inclusive disaster strategies, which is the only organization in the U.S. that works on disaster relief from a disability center perspective.
And too often in these disaster situations or in any conflict situation, on a broader scale disabled people are just thought of as expected losses and we're trying to change that. Um, and I've been lucky enough because of my background in – in Latin American studies and because of the fact that I speak Spanish and Portuguese, I've been able to work with the partnership to start expanding our scope outside of the U.S. to other places in the Americas, um, to the Caribbean. And this is something that I'm working on and then in September, I'll be headed to London to study on a Marshall Scholarship. So I'm very excited about that too.
I was really interested in applying for the Marshall partially because of the UK's, um, strong history of – of disability rights. You know, they have a really active disability community. Um, nonviolent direct action in particular is really big and that's something I've been involved in, in the U.S. but would love to learn more about. And so I was thinking about that and the fact that the UK and it's academic community is a big leader in international development studies and has a lot of connections to the global South and thinking, wow, this would be a really amazing place to be. And so in applying, I was looking for places I could be where I could not only have a- a great academic program that fit my academic interests, but also outside of that, be in a location where I would be constantly in contact with the disability community and London was an amazing fit for that [inaudible 00:15:04] emergencies.
So again, I'll get to do work on ensuring that disabled people aren't just viewed as expected losses when something goes wrong, that we're implementing, um, means of- of access and support and disaster situations or conflict zones to support this really large portion of the population. Um, and yeah, I'm really excited to- to go. I've never been to the United Kingdom. So it'll be another exchange experience for me. I'm really lucky to be at Georgetown, where we have a disability studies minor and a disability studies program, which is absolutely fantastic. You know, the faculty is doing really exciting work in the classroom and activism wise on – on policy and that having access to a program like that really informed the way I do activism. I, a big neutral friend in the disability community is the disability justice movement, which not only works to change laws and change legal structures, but also to center the voices of the most marginalized people with disabilities and to work from the ground up in getting rid of social stigma.
Because I think what we've seen is that you can change laws anywhere in the world. And if the social stigma hasn't evaporated too, if you haven't changed people's preconceptions about disability, those laws aren't gonna be implemented. So having access to this academic atmosphere where we're talking about theory, and we're talking about the best ways to approach a problem an – and attain justice for the people who need it has been amazing inside the U.S. So it's really lucky that, um, I think it was either my freshman year or the year before I started at Georgetown was when this program began and I didn't even know about it until I got there.
So it was really serendipitous. Um, and of course, Georgetown has a really, really strong foreign service atmosphere. Um, I'm in the School of Foreign Service, we, a lot of our faculty have experienced whether working at the State Department and are working in international development policy making, and they bring in a lot of real world experience and issues to the classroom and are just so inspiring about telling us the urgency of – of being global citizens and – and ensuring that we're constantly working to make the world a better place, um, and being great at telling us how to start.
So I'm definitely very grateful to the – the Georgetown community, especially. First of all, to absolutely try and do it, even if you're a little bit unsure. I, when I went to Brazil, wasn't really imagining having such an academic or career focus on Brazil, um, and being there and – and getting the sort of experience and cultural competency that I got changed, my academic tra – trajectory and my career trajectory. So absolutely try and go on an exchange experience. It'll really open up your world and – and the things that you think are possible, you'll meet amazing people, um, who hopefully will – will stay with you and we'll stay in touch throughout the course of your life. And I think while you're there, just try and get the most out of it. It's really hard when you're on an exchange to kind of remember to – to keep going and keep planning things, because you're exhausted all the time.
You're in a new place, you're speaking a new language. Um, but I was really lucky during my experience that the people in my cohort were constantly planning things to do and, um, doing different excursions, going to different places. And then finally, I think it's important to just go into it without a lot of preconceptions, or just knowing that a lot of the things you think might be disproven and might be wrong, because as people from the global North, from the U.S. in particular, we probably have a lot of stereotypes about the places that we're going to. And it's important to ensure that you're not speaking for anyone that you're being conscious of your place in the world. Even I have to be really conscious as a disabled person from the global North and speaking about disability as if it's a universal experience, which it's not, it's really different depending on where you come from, depending on what disability you have.
So just going into it with a really open mind and being willing to be humble about the knowledge that you may or may not have. I'm, I don't have a – a particular career in mind yet. I would really love to, you know, work in the UN, uh, Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and working on the, um, CRPD, the convention on the rights of people with disabilities. That's, there's so much to be done on monitoring and implementing it. Um, the State Department also has an awesome international disability rights team, which I think would be a super cool place to work. Um, basically I just, it's really important to me that I get to work on disability rights in a global context 'cause I think that's, there's so much potential for learning from one another and – and getting best practices and pulling resources across borders.
Um, and I think my time in Brazil on CLS is definitely gonna be a part of that. You know, I have such a love for – for Brazil and – and for Latin America because of the experiences I've had there. And I'm never going to forget that, you know, it's always gonna be one of my favorite places to work. And – and I have now a bunch of friends and colleagues, who so I'm constantly in touch with about what's going on. So there's no getting out of that nor would I want to. Um, and I really hope that when I go to the UK, I'll get to meet people from a lot of other places who are there for the same reason to study, to learn, to connect. So I'm really hopeful about what – what that'll hold.
Thank you, Anna Landre for joining us in our inaugural podcast episode. With your story, we've truly come to understand that we are more alike than not, join us in two weeks for our next episode of voices of exchange until next time.