Monthly Archives: March 2011

Facebook Philanthropy

By Hannah Oppenheimer


At 10:30 am on a
Saturday morning in large Latin American city, I was sitting with a group of
American students as we waited for a bus that would take us 40 minutes away to
volunteer. I was curious to meet the kids we would be playing with that day. We
were only told one thing about them–that they lived in severe poverty. Our job
was simply to play with them–soccer, arts and crafts, board games. Despite the
obvious language difference, I imagined it would be a lot similar to some of my
teaching and babysitting jobs.

 

And in fact, it
was. Just like my jobs in the US, the kids couldn’t seem to keep the paint from
spilling all over their clothes or the picnic tables. The boys were competing for
who knew the most bad words and the girls were trying to lie about how many
refills they’d already had of fruit punch. There was one adorable quiet boy, as
there always is. But he warmed up to me, as they always do. And as usual, I had
fun escaping the adult world to sit with young friends, who told me their
dreams while I braided their hair or asked them to tell me the stories behind their
drawings.

 

The only difference
between this and my other jobs was the camera flashing. At the beginning of the
day, while we were waiting for the bus, another American volunteer turned to me
and said, “I just can’t wait to take photos with the kids today. We will look
so cute in the pictures! And we’ll look really helpful, too!” For those who
aren’t fluent in modern American dialect, that translates to, “Putting this on
Facebook will make me look like such a good person!”

 

But she wasn’t out
of the ordinary. In fact, the organization in charge of the event held an
informal orientation on the bus ride, in which they literally told us it was
okay to take a few “Facebook photos.” They said, “We’re all guilty of wanting our
photo taken with poor kids.” The volunteers were not, however, permitted to
take photos of the neighborhood because they said, “This isn’t a zoo.”

 

I don’t know if it
was a zoo or not. But poverty certainly seems to be the most fashionable
tourist attraction for travel abroad. And anyway, how is taking a bunch of
Americans on a bus to play with poor foreign kids any different than taking
them to a petting zoo? It’s mutually beneficial, sure. The animals get their
feed, the people get their photo. Not only do they feel good, but they look
good, too.

 

But sustainable?
There certainly are plenty of volunteer abroad programs that work. But I always
worry more specifically about the child-centered
volunteer programs that run on a flow of international volunteers. It’s a great
experience for everyone involved to be exposed to global cultures. But in some cases,
a global mindset isn’t in the bare necessities for the children actually
receiving the services. Kids are complex and soak in everything, so they need neighborhood
role models who consistently show up, who build relationships, who fuel local
empowerment–not just kind-hearted foreigners with good intentions, in and out
in a flash of the camera. 


Hannah Oppenheimer is a 2010 Reynolds Scholar at NYU’s College of Arts & Science.  She is currently studying abroad in Buenos Aires.

Courage in the Heart: The story of how women in rural Bangladesh are radically changing the fabric of their society by amplifying their voices and demanding their rights.

by Annie Escobar 

576-CourageintheHeart-thumb-300x200-573.jpg

This
past summer, as part of our Reynolds Program Internship program, Patricia
Schneidewind (a fellow Reynolds scholar) and I traveled to
Bangladesh for nine weeks to
document BRAC, the world’s largest development organization’s social justice initiatives.  Today, on the 100
th anniversary of
International Women’s Day we are launching Courage in the Heart, an online
storytelling platform featuring the stories of 12 women who are radically
changing the consensus about the value of women by organizing to demand their
rights. Visit the site here:
www.brac.net/courageintheheart

 

Mussamat struck us with her beauty from the moment we saw her.
She greeted us with a brilliant smile, making me second guess if she was the
woman we would be interviewing. I didn’t expect someone who
had acid thrown on her face (by
her husband after he insisted her family pay a higher dowry) to be so full of
life.  BRAC is now fighting her case in
court to bring the perpetrators to justice.

 

Her
interview was like many others. After convincing the inevitable crowd of
interested neighbors to give us some space, we sat, just the three of us, in
her courtyard. Ruhul, our good friend and translator, gave basic instructions
about what our project was and then basically just told her to talk and then left
(the women felt more at ease without the male presence).

 

Mussamat
began speaking. She spoke quietly at first and then her voice developed a strength
and a rhythm.  For long moments she stared into the distance, letting a loud
heaviness settle into the spaces between her words. My
limited
Bangla meant that I could only understand bits and pieces, but it was as if my
body could feel it all. So much is communicated through the
face, the voice, and the breath.
My heart felt compressed and
breathing became difficult. When she was finally done, half an hour later, we
quietly shut the camera off and all held each other and cried. And then, in a
moment that is still profoundly humbling, Mussamat took her scarf and slowly, gently
wiped the tears and sweat from my face. It is a moment I draw strength from
every day.

 

Suddenly,
a feeling of lightness came over us and we all started cracking up. We laughed
and danced in that courtyard until it was time to leave.

 

The last image of her in my mind is of her beaming, holding her
daughter, sending us away with a giant wave.
 As
we drove away, I asked Ruhul if he heard her say how old she was.

“22,”
he answered.

The
same age as Patricia.

 

When
we left her house that day I made myself a promise. That I would make sure that
we were not the only ones carrying that testimony.

 

To
me, our experience in Bangladesh
was a testament to the power of solidarity and connectivity. With the help of
the BRAC staff and Ruhul, we approached these women and incredibly, they let us
into their lives and revealed with intimacy some of their most painful and
proud moments. The compassion we tried to bring to our interviews hopefully
contributed to the trust with which they revealed their stories, but I also
think it was something else too. The last words that Julekha, a mother in
Mymensingh whose daughter was raped and murdered, said to us were, “When you
leave, tell everyone that you heard my story. I have told you everything. I
want to feel justice.” Many of the women seemed to see the camera as an
amplifying tool for their testimony and they spoke out to their imagined
audience on the other side of the camera. Now that audience is there,
listening.

 

Today,
a year after launching this project, Mussamat’s, Julekha’s and others’ stories
will be passed on. My hope is that these women and their stories can give
others the inspiration to believe in their own strength and courage to confront
injustice.

 

Visit
www.brac.net/courageintheheart to see these stories.
Carry them with you. And please, share this project with anyone you can.


Photo Credit Annie Escobar, ListeninPictures