Thursday, September 09, 2010

For What It's Worth

Some clippings of news and events relevant to those who may have a common interest.

-Charity:water, arguably the world’s most hip, tech savy and media savy nonprofit, attempted a live drill for clean water in Congo- and they failed. What makes this story worthy of attention is how they handled failure- they admitted their own frustration, vowed to fight on, and were transparent in using the situation as a teachable moment of the true challenges of accessing clean water in remote parts of the world. Read about it here.

-DonorsChoose founder Charles Best received a phone call that asked one simple question: how much would it cost to fund every California teacher’s wish list on the website. What happened next? A very happy first day of school for every teacher in California who posted a wish list on DonorsChoose. Read about it here.

Pakistan. Floods. We know, but do we really? What if the sound bite were reworded to emphasize the reality: People affected: more than Haiti and Katrina- combined. Rabia Ahmed wrote a moving love letter to Pakistan, posted on the Acumen Fund Blog. Read about it here.

For those who see themselves as storytellers (marketers) in the nonprofit, Seth Godin has some advice: start marketing. Right now. Read about it here.

If you will be in New York September 20th- I envy you. Might be worth checking out The Social Good Summit. Read about it here.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Turning a corner: Capacity Building as Millenials Working for Change

Who are we called to be? We are the generation of 9-11, of Katrina, and of the worst depression since that big one in the 1930's. We are living amidst two wars, environmental decline, and an uncertainty almost never mentioned but always present.

We are the children of the internet. We have access to technology unimaginable a few years ago. What will we blog about? Will our tweets be about what we just ate or a tool to link us together with intellectual curiosity just beyond our otherwise limited reach? How will we use the social media network Facebook affords us?

Oscar Romero might have called us prophets of a future not our own and we stand on the edge of a world in need, and our response to this fierce urgency of this very moment will set a tone for generations to come.
This is our burden, this is our greatest responsibility. And if you’re like me, you react in accordance: at times anxious that you aren’t doing enough to reach your potential, to mange genuine and lasting change, no matter how big or small it may be. Other times you an embodiment of what I think is our reality- incredibly confident that we are indeed the leaders we have been waiting for. This much we know: the world isn’t waiting for us as individuals, and paradoxically, the world can’t wait any longer for us as a group of people to come together, “to get it” so to speak.

And so this blog is going to be “turning a corner” if you will. It’s time to shift the tone from one of self reflection to group reflection and capacity building. I hope, In my own small and humble way, to build upon my work with City Year in Boyle Heights and as a graduate admissions counselor with the University of Southern California. To build upon experience as a social entrepreneur with Magis and move the conversation forward on how to do good in this world. And to continue to to build upon experiences volunteering with the Holy Cross Associates and the Working Boys Center.

I know about the power of service, the potential connectivity and solidarity can have on the ways in which we choose to live our lives. And I know about education, the limitless potential good education provides and the vast shortfall of our society in meeting the curiosity and possibility of so many young people here and abroad.

So I hope you will join me on Twitter. I hope you will contribute your input here and suggest other blogs and arenas in which to read, to dialogue, and to learn and grow. And if you would like to discuss volunteerism, post-graduate service, working in the nonprofits, or the graduate school admission process, please don't hesitate to comment here or email me at pjfurlong at gmail dot com.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Impatient Idealism and the War on Poverty: Let's Talk Hope, Not Despair

How do we talk about poverty? It’s something I have been obsessed about a lot as of late. There is this tendency on behalf of us nonprofity do gooders, and yes that is a scientific term, to paint a very bleak picture. Stats seem to be a favorite tool of ours. Post some depressing statistic over an even more depressing photo and suddenly we have our pitch for why caring about poverty and the people who live in it should matter more than say, Lindsay Lohan or learning where LeBron chooses to play ball next year.

People don’t invest long term in response to the depressing, they just don’t. And who can blame them? The human heart is not looking for punishing blow after blow. People get burnt out on bad news. Our focus shifts: why focus on stuff that truly hurts to internalize when we can focus on a world of reality TV that is anything but real?

And that’s exactly why we need a new framework for how we communicate about poverty. Our stereotype of the poor as hopeless and helpless is at best, often misinformed, at worst, patronizing.

And so I’d like you to imagine a new way of addressing poverty. A photo that highlights the beauty, possibility, and the resilience that is typical of so many of the people in Latin America and other parts of the developing world that speak to the real reality of so many: entrepreneurial people, primarily women, who are ready to make a change in their lives and those of their children and community. Instead of unconquerable despair we focus a bit more intentionally on untapped and eager potential. Doing so empowers a community, it empowers women, and it empowers us to pass by a world consumed by junk consumption for something more authentically life giving.

I am not saying this should be the way we communicate about things all the time. The reality of AIDS in Africa, education in the inner city, and so many other issues is that once in a while must speak to the great disparity. But what I believe is that we error when the message is so focused on that, with almost no messaging around potential and hope! This new communication works!

Don’t believe me- look at what Kiva is doing. They connect people like you and me to entrepreneurs on the ground in the developing world. You read their story, see a real photo of them, and “loan”, yes loan, $25 (or more) to help them start a business. Money is pooled amongst other lenders like you and suddenly you are invested in kinship without ever leaving your living room. Kiva started in 2005 and already has made loans to 378,862 people totaling $147,673,750. Over 80% are women and the repayment rate: 98.27%. These numbers are as of July 14, 2010. Other groups like Inventure Fund are taking their own approach to the microfinance craze and experimenting with some really cool ideas to bring out the best in investors, entrepreneurs, and the community.

Poverty sucks. I doubt you will find much disagreement. It is romanticized only by fools. But having been on the ground, what upsets me aside from this unnecessary poverty is the fact that we are failing the people living in this context in other ways when we fail to share stories of success in the battle against poverty. But don’t take my word for it, take 30 seconds to watch a video from “The Living Proof Project” from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: evidence impatient idealism can improve the world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Answer is Compassion

Activist Dorothy Day once remarked how we all imagine ourselves to be so wicked, when really we’re just ordinary people who stumble from time to time and try to do what’s right.

I heard it said that we should “Just assume the answer to every question is compassion.” Can you imagine a worldview colored by that philosophy?

I am not a theologian, but I’ve come to believe through my own experience, shortcomings, and stumbles that what God wants most is for us to be madly in love with life. Whoever we are, whatever our background or beliefs, God I imagine yearns for us to yearn for kinship. I think God beckons us to trust that he trusts us in what is needed to fall madly in love with life. We are tasked with recognizing where God dwells, not only "out there" but in our own being and in the existence of all those we encounter.

I went to a talk by Greg Boyle earlier this year where he said that “The Lord comes to us disguised as ourselves. We do come to believe that we grow into this. The only thing we know about Jesus growing up is he grew in age, and wisdom, and favor with God. But do we really grow in favor with God? Did Jesus become increasingly more favorable to God or did he just discover over time that he was holy, favorable?” It is perhaps in this spirit of compassion we are called to view ourselves, and view those around us.

If we are to assume compassion is the answer to every question, then at once we stand less in judgment of the burden “the other” carries and more in awe that they are able to carry it at all. And we also cleanse ourselves of the shame in which we view our own stumbles and shortcomings. Liberated to just be present to life, we understand what so often evades us in this culture: we are worthy of love not for what we are able to do but simply for being who we are. Like Father G says, we live ever present to the possibility of living our way into a new way of thinking, a thinking that recognizes we didn’t grow more favorable to God; we just discovered how favorable we have been all along.

This reflection came about from reading Greg Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Earthquake in Chile

As you all know a large earthquake struck the central part of Chile early this morning.

There isn't much to say other than the images that are coming out of the country are heartbreaking. It's made more intense of course when you look at images and recognize them not as disasters in a foreign land but disasters impacting people you came to know and love living in the country for a brief period.

Some news is good. Most of our friends appear to be OK. We have received a fair amount of messages via Facebook and through a loosely formed network of former volunteers alerting one another whenever we receive news. Most news goes along the lines of "I'm okay, my family is alright, our house is a mess." One friend reported that in my former neighborhood, close to 80% of the houses had a wall collapse. I am still waiting to hear back from a couple friends in that area, one friend who is a volunteer there. I can't get anything about the kids I worked with there, as the houses split apart sometime ago but I pray they are all safe.

A friend Ryan shared the following sites as helpful resources. - This has some pretty vivid and telling photos- buildings split in two, bridges collapsed with cars turned upside down.

Google has set up a site to help people communicate about missing people in Chile.

In terms of giving- the Red Cross, World Vision, and Save the Children are all dispatching either teams or supplies. Un Techo Para Chile is a great organization on the ground already, but their website is down. If I hear of any initiatives that are more grass roots from the people I know in Chile- I will be sure to pass it on.

Again, not much more to say except that Chile has one thing going for it- it's people are some of the most proud and stubborn people I have ever encountered. In a crisis- there wouldn't be anyone I'd want beside me more.

Keep em in your thoughts and prayers, and let's pray for some reprieve from mother nature for a little while.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Different Type of Volunteer: Meet My Neighorhood Council Hero John

John is my hero. You don’t know John, most likely never really will. That’s not his real name by the way but in a lawsuit happy country, you never can be too safe. You see, to know John like I now know John, you have to sit through a three hour neighborhood council meeting in Westchester. A meeting full of Robert’s Rule of Order, various public comments that peak my curiosity but baffle my mind, and sometimes painstakingly boring presentations by certain speakers who make it obvious within the first 30 seconds they did not prepare for their moment of shinning glory in front of this auspicious crowd.

Back to John, he’s my hero, in a neighborhood council, I’m glad you’re doing this because I don’t think I’d ever care to sort of way. John has fought tirelessly against the expansion of LAX and had a fairly successful track record. Personal feelings you may have aside, expansion of LAX would be bad for a community right next to LAX, especially as Orange County and Long Beach refuse to accommodate their people thus exasperating the crisis in LA. And so John fights. And he fights against power lines with high unsafe levels of electricity running down residential streets they shouldn’t run down. And he does it with energy uncommon a man his age, and with a twinkle in his eye I am certain none of us could maintain after years of these battles for his neighborhood.

And so John has me thinking. I admire him greatly and yet if we sat down and spoke about politics, we would most certainly disagree, and disagree like water to hot oil. We probably wouldn’t see eye to eye on much, most likely on a local and national scale. But in the spirit of Dr. King, I have been thinking a lot about service and volunteerism. For a lefty like me, it’s easy to look at Americorps and the Peace Corps, and religious projects like the Working Boys Center or Jesuit Volunteers- groups where people literally give of themselves in the name of improving some aspect of society failing the poor and oppressed. As a nation, we are able to recognize the value of service in our men and women deployed overseas, regardless of whatever our feeling is about the conflict that has them stationed there.

But I wonder when we as a nation might wake up and do a better job of recognizing folks like John. People who spend hours a month at meetings that bring new meaning to the adage “more boring than watching paint peel” or people who comb through every dreary public announcement by agencies big and small and then cause a ruckus in the name of true public debate.

John fights a good fight for the neighborhood of Westchester. Whether you agree with him or not to me is beside the point. He does it for free, he does it out of convictions he holds dear, and he does it with a smile and with a dignity that is lost upon many of us. And so a big thanks to John, for the hours he spends on projects to improve my community, and for helping me to consider with a more wide angle lens the spirit that is service and volunteerism in America today.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Dueling Realities

Reality is complex to define. While in South America, I was often subjected to conversations with friends back home who knew nothing of my reality and thus dismissed my volunteering as a cheeky avoidance of reality- an extended spring break of sorts if you will. What I have seen in my time back in the United States is at once simple and complex: the world is limitless with definitions of reality, each one different, real, and wholly unique from the other, and each equally important to understand.

And so I live the reality of a man who has not just seen developing world poverty but lived amongst it and attempted in a rather amateur way to repair it or at least heal some of the wounds that develop as a result of it. And now I am a mid 20 something, surrounded by a haunting reality of a world I can’t and don’t want to forget. And yet I am increasingly entrenched in a world where like it or not your bank statement and your 401K mean something- not so much in terms of competition or prestige but in the simple matter of being able to provide for yourself. Suddenly, the question “what do you want to do with your life?” weighs heavy upon my shoulders.

Living in debt sucks. I know this first hand because it is perhaps the greatest characteristic of my time back in the United States. Working for little pay, I have found myself with a monthly credit card statement that can’t always be paid off on time. And my digs have ranged from a former convent in South LA where my room was the size of a closet to an apartment in a freshman dorm at my alma mater. In that capacity I try, sometimes with limited success, to expose freshman to the challenge and opportunity that is discovering the poverty that lurks in our midst and what we all can and should be doing to respond to it. Life giving as this role is for me, I am faced with the realization that one can only be a coupon whore and live gratis in church attics and dorms for so long.

And all this has me thinking, or more accurately said, worrying, about what my future contains. This I know, I am happiest when directing my energy towards making the world a better place. To take it a step further, I imagine I would be in my element working for a nonprofit focused on combating crisis of health and sanitation in the developing world. But at what cost? I attended a conference of nonprofit leaders in LA last year where the keynote speaker lamented about one of the greatest problems in the nonprofit sector: how are we to eliminate poverty in this world if we entrap our employees within it?

And so dear reader, now 18 months back home, I find myself adjusting to the world that I imagine many if not all returned volunteers face: how does one live with the urgency to expend every ounce of your talent towards fighting against a reality you were exposed to that is poverty, that you know is unjust and in need of repair. And how do you do that while juxtaposing it with a sincere and indeed acceptable desire to make enough money so that an unplanned expense such as a root canal doesn’t bring the prospect of financial misery for many more months to come? I wish I had an answer, but more often then not I find myself overly obsessed with a most frightening question: what if you are fairly certain of the career path that would bring you the greatest satisfaction and horribly uncertain if it can provide for a modest but comfortable lifestyle?