Mountain Rider’s Alliance Gaining Momentum with ESPN Article

November 8, 2010

A collaborative movement for positivity in the ski industry, Mountain Rider’s Alliance (MRA) is gaining traction and moving forward in creating a viable product.

Sparking the interest of ESPN editors, MRA was featured in an interesting article, “Dreaming of a New Ski Area.” As quoted by author Devon O’Neil in the onset of the piece, co-founder Jamie Schectman is thinking big, “I want to partner with the United Nations. I want to have a family that’s currently in Afghanistan come to one of our ski areas and see how we’re running things and then go back to Afghanistan and start one of their own [ski areas] in collaboration with us. How’s that for ambitious?”

Well, in my humble opinion it may be ambitious, but it is also thinking positively…something that may just be a little lacking in our current state of world affairs. We need collaboration that is based on forward-thinking ideologies of peace and that all deserve a great life.

Not to mention that now is the time for us all to work together for a common good. Maybe skiers and snowboarders will help show us the way?


Joyful Collaboration and Smiles Created Around the World by Clowns Without Borders

June 3, 2010

One vital aspect to positive collaboration is having fun with the project.

A non-profit bringing joy to thousands around the world is taking this concept to an entirely higher level.

photo courtesy of Clowns Without Borders

Clowns Without Borders is a band of humorous performers making it their mission to bring smiles to the faces of those that need it most…the children of desperate and dire situations. Like those youngsters growing up in Haiti, Guatemala, or Burma.

I was able to get a moment of time with one of the founders of Clowns Without Borders and active humor provider, Moshe Cohen. Extremely busy and rushing off to his next set of joy creation, his answers were brief but thought provoking. Here is what he had to say…

SM: What inspired you to become a clown?

MC: I discovered that I was funny as a performer and that inspired me. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a clown, I like to think of it more as clowning, as a verb, as an action, something I do.

SM: As an original member of the Clowns Without Borders movement, what were key factors in it moving from a dream to the amazing organization that it is today?

MC: I don’t think it was ever a dream, it has always been a reality. It was a response to an enthusiastic reception, and the understanding that followed of the appreciation for bringing reasons for laughter and joyous expression in places of crisis.

SM: What inspired you to help develop the United States division of Clowns Without Borders?

MC: As I was involved in the movement, and the only person from the US doing shows, I discussed with Spain (Tortell Poltrona founded Payasos Sin Fronteras in 1993) about being their representative in the United States. That morphed a year later into starting the US chapter.

SM: Having been in the business for over 25 years now, have you seen any of the children that you helped in the beginning of your career as adults?

MC: A few here in California, however if you are talking about CWB, not directly.

SM: Please share a particular story that helped you believe in the power of collaboration.

MC: The most immediate is the work that I did last year in Myanmar (Burma).

There were artists from France, Belgium, Sweden (including an Australian who lives in Sweden) , myself from the US, and from Myanmar. Three shows were created to tour the delta area where the Nargis cyclone hit in 2008 creating a devastation on the order of the recent earthquake in Haiti. There was great collaboration in that each show involved Myanmar and Western artsists. The show I was involved in was with Kalle and Dave (SW-Aust.) and three Myanmar artists: May, Teto and Emié. We created our show in a day and a half, and performed it about 20 times over three weeks.

photo courtesy of Clowns Without Borders

SM: What have the children taught you?

MC: A lot! Humility, patience, never give up!

SM: In addition to donations, you also accept “In-Kind” offerings. Have you had any interesting (off-the-wall, but very beneficial) gifts?

MC: I just picked up some juggling equipment destined for Haiti from the Renegades in Santa Cruz. They are showing us how to make juggling clubs with simple dowels and 1 liter coke bottles and a few screws and tape. They have supplied us with the dowels and the hardware, and we plan to build the clubs with the kids from Foyer Lakay in Port au Prince, some of whom are already excellent jugglers.

SM: How do the clowns create their acts?

MC: Ohhh, sooo many ways.

photo courtesy of Alain Laferté

SM: What is your favorite aspect to collaboration?

MC: The synergistic energies that swirl, the sense of enthusiasm it generates amongst participants, and the occasional sense of harmony when things are working just right.

SM: What is your vision for the future of Clowns Without Borders?

MC: I am liking what is happening in the increased communication and collaboration internationally between the various Clowns Without Borders chapters. That has been my vision for a long time and it is slowly being realized. Of course, ideally, as Tortell says, “Clowns without Borders would disappear because there are no more wars.”

Thank you Moshe Cohen and the others involved with Clowns Without Borders for spreading joy around the world.

Can We Really Be Happy at Work? Chief Happiness Officer Alexander Kjerulf and Denmark Say YES!

March 24, 2010

One of the great aspects of collaboration is that the organization that is created is usually also a place that provides an inspiring place of employment.

And there is nothing like enjoyment on the job to help people perform their best.

An aspect already applied in some countries around the world — like Denmark, for example — having fun in the work place is a concept that is slowly gaining steam. In fact the Pepperdine University has created a program that teaches the fact that happiness is a key factor in the success of a business.

For me, that bit of revelation did not come until I was a boss myself. I owned a housecleaning business in Lake Tahoe, California. It didn’t take long before I realized that if I allowed my employees to feel valued, have fun and have freedom to do the job as they felt best my clients were the ones that ended up reaping the benefits. And I was getting to be a part of a happy atmosphere in the workplace, something that I had wished for as an employee.

Another person that is helping to spread the word about this concept, is world’s leading expert in “working happiness” (an actual dictionary word in Dutch culture), Chief Happiness Officer Alexander Kjerulf.

Speaker, happiness consultant and author of the book, “Happy Hour is 9 to 5“, Kjerulf is truly spreading the word of activating one’s own happiness one job site at a time. I got a chance to pick his brain about maintaining a positive outlook when it came to working. What he had to say was quite exciting…

EH: What helped you to realize that it is possible, and important, to have happiness at work?

AK: Two things: First of all, happiness is a personal value of mine and my main career goal has always been to do work that I like.

Secondly, it helps a lot to be from Denmark where the idea of happiness at work is so ingrained and commonplace, that there is even a word for it in the dictionary: Arbejdsglæde (which translates literally as workhappiness).

EH: What prompted to you to take the concept to a larger audience?

AK: That’s simple: Seeing so many people who are unhappy at work – yet stay at jobs they hate for years or decades. Considering how much of our loves we spend at work, we should all find work that we enjoy. Unfortunately, happiness at work is still the exception rather than the rule for most people.

Also, I’ve tried being unhappy at work myself and it was the worst time of my life.

EH: Your book on the subject, “Happy Hour is 9 to 5″, is a new concept for many in the corporate world. Was the message difficult for some to digest?

AK: I’ve met remarkably little resistance, though some people do need some time to get used to the idea, that it’s even possible to be happy at work. It’s just never dawned on them that you can get paid, have a career AND enjoy yourself.

EH: What factors are most important in finding happiness in the workplace?

AK: I think there are two things we need to be happy at work.

1: Results
We need to know that we are good at our jobs, that we contribute value and that we make a difference.

2: Relationships
We need nice people around us – good bosses, friendly co-workers, cheerful customers.

EH: How can this methodology apply to a person wanting to create their own business?

AK: The same things apply to entrepreneurs: You need results and relationships. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs work alone and find it hard to have great relationships at work.

Also, many business founders have an expectation, that starting a business will be hard. They expect to have to slog through problems, conflicts, overwork and challenges. And of course, when that’s what you expect, that’s what you tend to get.

My advice to entrepreneurs is: You’re in charge – why not create a business you actually want to work in. Because when you’re happy you’re much more effective at everything you do.

EH: One of your blog posts discusses how it is not necessarily a good thing to believe that the customer is always correct. Could you share a personal experience with us where you stood up for yourself in a business situation?

AK: It was only my second job out of university, working as a software developer for a small consulting company in Copenhagen, but this experience taught me vital lessons.

I was 26 years old, dressed in a suit and tie that still felt like a halloween costume to me, having meetings with the customer’s VP of finance, trying to find out exactly what the IT system we were developing for their new factory should be capable of.

The customer was in France, and I regularly flew down there from Copenhagen for work and meetings, landing in Basel, an airport situated so you can exit into Germany, France or Switzerland, depending on which exit you choose. As one of my colleagues found out to his cost when he accidentally exited on the Swiss side rather than the French and ended up paying Swiss taxi rates for the trip to the customer’s factory rather than French.

Now here’s the problem: At every single meeting, the customer changes the specs for the system. First they want this, then they want that. First they want it in this way, then in that way. Meanwhile, I’m quietly going crazy.

Of course I never show it, oh no, I play the consummate professional, capable of dealing with everything. And of course the customer is always right – right? So I coolly explain to them that “this is different than what you said at our last meeting and implementing the change will be costly”. They just say “sure, but that’s what we want”.

And then, finally, I lose it at a meeting. They introduce change number 2883 (by my loose reckoning), once again going back on what they’ve told me previously, and I snap. I actually pound the table with my fist, snap my folder shut and say through clenched teeth “No. This can’t go on. This system will never get off the ground if you keep changing your mind at every meeting. We need to make decisions and stick to them”. Then we take a break.

During the break I’m standing alone drinking a cup of coffee, thinking “well, that’s the end of this project for me”. I feel really embarrassed for having lost my cool in that way.

So what happens next is totally unexpected for me: They start treating me much better. All the time I’d tried to play the cool professional – that didn’t really fly with them. But when I got mad, and showed it, I showed them some of the real me. I showed them that I was human, and that there were things I wouldn’t put up with.

From that point on, they respected me more and they trusted me completely. I became the guy they went to first and work on the system became much more smooth. Go figure!

EH: How has happiness at work helped other aspects of your life?

AK: It helps in every aspect.

Being happy at work:
Give you more energy
Makes you more creative
Makes you more likable
Makes you more generous
Makes you more friendly
Makes you more open to other people

In fact, being happy at work makes you happier in life. And being happy makes you a better person!

EH: Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream is a company that was built on a foundation of values-based, happiness-invoking business practices. They believe that it is the reason that their company succeeded. What other corporations do you know that founded their business model on happiness and became successful?

AK: The most famous example is probably Southwest Airlines. I wrote a blog post where I share a couple of videos that help exhibit Southwest’s business approach towards happiness, but basically their priority is:

1: Employees
2: Customers
3: Shareholders.

This is the way it has to be.

Their former president Colleen Barrett once said:
“The most important priority that we have is our employees… I spend 85% of my time on employees and on delivering proactive customer service to our employees… They in turn spend their life trying to assure that the second most important customer to us, ie. the passenger feels good.”

EH: What advice can you give a person that has a difficult boss?

AK: My advice is to try to correct the boss’ behavior. Many bosses don’t intend to be bad, but they haven’t realized that they’re getting their people down. Tell them – and give them a chance to improve.

Of course, some bosses don’t give a damn. If you work for a boss like that – get the hell out.

EH: Do have any last words of inspiration for activating happiness?

AK: Yes: Choose to be happy at work. In fact, make happiness at work your number one career goal – put it before salary, perks, titles, anything.

Not only will that make you happier at work, it will also make you happier in life AND it will make you more successful at work because happy people are better at everything they do.

Choosing to be happy at work won’t magically make you happy – you still have to make the effort to ensure that you have great results and great relationships at work. But it all has to start with that simple choice.

The Water School is Saving the Future One Child at a Time

March 3, 2010

photos courtesy of Bob Dell

One of my favorite examples of collaboration is soon to transpire. The Kili2010, as I mentioned before,  was brought to my attention via a friend from childhood, Andy Shirey. He, as well as others, are participating in a benefit climb to help bring awareness and funding to The Water School.

An inspiring non-profit, The Water School, is based on an easy-to-use water cleansing system that is saving thousands of lives around the planet. And the entire concept was started by the collaboration between a scientist and businessman.

Interested in learning more about the life-saving operation, which is involved in urgent situations throughout the world, including Haiti, I was lucky enough to virtually sit down with one of the founders, Bob Dell, and find out more about this amazing organization. Here’s what he had to say…

EoC: How did the original concept of The Water School come about?

BD: Fraser Edwards and I had collaborated on clean water projects together in East Africa for approximately six years and realized that the largest component of our work was “education”. Many NGOs were drilling wells or providing other sources of water. Some were introducing complex systems to treat contaminated water. Relatively few however, were providing a knowledge base and teaching the beneficiaries to use local skills and resources to meet their own clean water needs on a sustainable basis. The Water School was born out of this need.

typical drinking water
source in rural areas where The Water School works

The moment Bob Dell realized the children were drinking
water from a swamp loaded with animal fecal matter. It inspired him to do
this work.

EoC: As the non-profit was started by you and Fraser, collaboration was involved from the beginning. In what ways did working together help The Water School become what it is today?

BD: Fraser had many years of experience in implementing community development programs in East Africa and I had over 40 years experience in water and waste water treatment processes in Canada. We were able to leverage each others experience to find simple, inexpensive and sustainable systems like solar disinfection to treat contaminated water and also implement partnerships that were already in place in local communities. By teaching the educated level of the community and in turn taking the programs to the schools, students are made aware of the importance of health, sanitation and clean drinking water. They are also shown the tools they already have available to clean their water and are then able to take this information home and teach their families.

This is one of Bob’s favorite photos. A lot of
these children are orphans without clean drinking water (The Water School was able to
change that). A very moving experience for Bob, the kids thought his name was Bobba which means father, and they
didn’t want to leave.

EoC: How did your background in business assist the development of the non-profit?

BD: Fraser came from an entrepreneurial business background in Western Canada before moving into overseas work. I was President and owner of a consulting and research laboratory in Ontario before deciding to retire and help children in developing countries get clean water. Both of us realized that an NGO must be run in a business-like and accountable fashion to its donors and that local ownership of implementation programs was quintessential to success.

EoC: What is the most important personality trait for positive collaboration, in your opinion?

BD: It is certainly important to let go of ego. No one yet has the perfect answer and it is important to listen and learn from the mistakes and successes of others. Even though the implementation model has been very successful, The Water School recognizes that each culture is different and the teaching and support process in any new area must be linked closely to those on the ground that understand the cultural differences.

EoC: The Water School is assisting Haiti with water issues after the devastating earthquakes. In what ways is this situation more challenging?

BD: Most areas that we work in are poverty stricken and so was Haiti before the earthquake (we were already planning an implementation program before it happened). The infrastructure of the country has been devastated (90% of the schools have been destroyed). Our challenge is to work with individuals in Haiti like Dr. Bibiana MacLeod who can deal with the trauma and the structural damage and still inspire people to take ownership of their own problems including clean drinking water.

EoC: One of the basic principles of The Water School is to work with the children first, and the adults learn through them. What have you learned about collaboration from the kids that you are working with?

BD: When we first decided to take the solar disinfection program to the children, we were told that drinking water from a bottle was not part of the culture and the children would not do it. To the contrary, the children embraced the concept and thought it was fun. In fact, they taught us some things about culture and have taken the lead in delivering the knowledge of safe drinking water to their families. Nothing inspires a mother more than a previously sick child that is now healthy.

Anne, the first mother to embrace The Water School process, has changed the lives of her children and taught it to her neighbors. She has been responsible for saving many lives in her community.

EoC: What is your biggest obstacle in advancing the positivity that The Water School is creating?

BD: Our solar disinfection process is simple and that has been the foundation of its success. We still have people who do not believe that such a simple process can work but several hundred thousand people in the areas we have worked in will disagree. Our biggest obstacle is having people (at the user end and the donor end) believe that simple does work.

The Water School purification process in action

EoC: Please share an experience that came from the positivity created by The Water School.

BD: In Kisoro, Uganda, there is a hospital that was built 20 years ago specifically to treat patient dysentery from contaminated water. Close to 20% of children under the age of five at that time died from water borne disease. Over the years, the hospital had grown to include wings for maternity, HIV/AIDS, malaria, etc but the dysentery wing remained. As we introduced our clean water programs in this area beginning in 2001, the water borne disease cases dropped dramatically on an annual basis and in the summer of 2007, the dysentery wing of the hospital was closed. It is now a nurse’s residence.

The Dysentery Wing turned Nurses Residence

EoC: In addition to funding, are there other ways that people can become involved?

BD: We do need funding to expand our programs but there are other needs. People who have traveled to our projects in Africa have returned home and become advocates. They are spreading the word to others within their organizations, schools, churches, etc. We see a growing need for teachers and educational experts in a volunteer capacity as we take our program to other NGOs and help them take it to the field.

children hauling contaminated water 4 kilometers before The Water School helped them have another option

EoC: What would you say to those contemplating creating a collaborative non-profit organization?

BD: First and foremost, develop a deep passion and a vision for helping those in need to get safe drinking water. We have been driven by this since the beginning. Second, learn what works and doesn’t work. Many NGOs are well intentioned but not knowledgeable. This wastes resources and time. Above all else, The Water School is about sharing knowledge.

EoC: Where do you see The Water School in the future?

BD: We have expanded dramatically in the past three years. Water School programs are now running in Uganda, Kenya and Sudan. We will be introducing the program in Haiti, Cameroon and Bolivia in the coming months. Our plan is to utilize the Internet to the maximum extent to deliver our knowledge on providing simple clean drinking water. We have our teacher’s training manual on our website in three languages and three more are ready. Our hope is to have it translated and available on the web in as many languages as there are different children in need of safe drinking water.

These are kids whose health, school
attendance and school marks changed dramatically with clean water. Do
you think they will let their children die from contaminated drinking

Raising 5 Disabled Children Brings Lessons of Cooperation

February 24, 2010

The first time I read her blog “Raising 5 Kids With Disabilities” I was inspired.

Not only because she is helping children in need, as that is one of my lifelong passions. Not only because she so eloquently let’s us into her life via her blog. But also because she is a living example of positive collaboration.

Lindsey Peterson is the mom of five bright and beautiful children. The only slight difference is they all have disabilities. Her family, which includes both adopted and not, is one of love. It is a chosen path of helping others have a better life…with a few moments of frustration, sibling rivalry and temper tantrums thrown in.

Her story intrigued me. Reading through her entertaining entries, I knew I wanted to talk to this woman of inspiration more. She was kind enough to sit down with me, virtually of course. Here is what she had to share…

EH: Had you always wanted a large family?

LP: I never really thought about having a large family. I only knew that it felt good to help people. My whole life I’d volunteered at various places to be with people. I have been volunteering with a recreational group of adults with disabilities for more than 35 years. They are wonderful friends and THEY inspire me to be a better person. Adding to our own family became a natural extension of that. If I could have that happiness on the twice a week this group met, why not have it every day in my life? It was FUN to raise kids. Plus, I am not the best housekeeper, so my rationalization was that if I have 5 kids to take care of, washing the floor does not have a priority. I’d much rather take care of kids than clean!!

EH: What inspired you to adopt initially?

LP: When I was pregnant, I desperately wanted a daughter because my mother and I had such a great relationship. I had a difficult labor, (I had actually fallen down the stairs before the birth and bent my tailbone in, so the only way the baby could come out was by bending it back out again, and that took FOREVER!) When my son was born, bless him, I was SO disappointed. The very day he was born I decided to adopt because that would be the only way I could guarantee a daughter. My husband, of course, didn’t agree so readily and attributed my decision to adopt based on the long labor I had just been through! Then, as it turned out, my son had hereditary blindness. Problem solved. Because it was hereditary, my husband did not want to risk having another biological child, so he agreed to adoption. We chose Guatemala because the adoption agency we chose sponsored an orphanage there so we knew the children were well cared for. Our son Francis was 2 when we adopted our daughter, Dinora. We have the CUTEST picture of her sitting in the infant seat and Francis holding her head in one hand so he could find her mouth to feed her bottle with the other hand. He loved her as though she were a fuzzy pet.

EH: What was the initial reaction of your birth children when they learned that you would be adopting?

LP: Francis was glad to have Dinora initially, although as she grew she became the aggressive one and would jump on him and tackle him from an early age. Fortunately she was pretty loud and had heavy footsteps, so he could hear her coming and get out of the way.

After a few years with Dinora, we decided we wanted more children, but could not afford another international adoption, (which can be VERY expensive.) I knew a friend who did foster care and was able to adopt the first baby she fostered. GREAT, I thought, you could have a child for FREE! Little did I know, but soon learned, was that most foster children do not end up being adopted by their foster families. We ended up having 14 foster babies before we were able to adopt Steven. We were all careful not to get toooooooo attached to the babies because chances were they would go to live with a family member or, heaven forbid in some cases, be returned to their birth parents. I had to look at it like we were doing a good thing and giving these babies a head start in life but I prevented myself from getting attached. Besides, I LOVED babies, and I’d much rather play with a baby than wash the floor. We did only take male babies because Dinora herself expressed extreme jealousy if we were to consider a girl.

By the time Steven was adopted, he had already lived with us for 3 years and the permanent transition was easy. Then we had another foster boy we planned to adopt. We had him from birth to age 3. His grandmother had tried to get custody, but because she was 76 years old they had denied it. We were in the middle of the adoption process when the court reversed their decision and decided to let the grandmother adopt him. She turned out to be a lovely woman and we invited the her, (from Puerto Rico) to come and stay with us during the adoption process to ease the transition. We still have contact with them and he visits with us every summer. However, because we had thought he was going to be our son, we had become attached, and his leaving was the most devastating thing that ever happened to our family. Although I wanted more children, we didn’t want to go the normal foster care route. So, we took in a 3 year old who had been in 5 foster homes and was currently in a nursing home for children with AIDS. He had been born HIV positive, but, as happens frequently, his mother’s HIV antibodies left his system and he became HIV negative. Because of his HIV status and the fact he had been in foster care for 3 years, AND the fact that his birth mother had 6 other children removed from her and they were living in foster homes because there was no family to claim them, they could pretty much guarantee we would be able to adopt him if we took him in as a foster child, and we ended up doing this.His name was Angel. My other children accepted Angel automatically, (they were used to babies in the house anyway.) The funny thing was, Angel did NOT, (nor has he EVER,) accepted THEM! He has always been intensely jealous and he often tells me he wishes he were our only child!

We thought we were done adopting, but then a call came in requesting we take in a 7 year old girl who was profoundly deaf. (They called because I know American Sign Language.) It was supposed to be on a temporary basis, but when she was 10 we ended up adopting her. Dinora was, and still is, resentful because she wants to be the only daughter. She was in college at the time, and my feeling was she wasn’t even living with us, but she has never accepted Marie fully. Angel and Steven hated her, as only brothers can hate their little sisters.

EH: How is their acceptance today with their adopted brothers and sisters?

LP: Francis loves them all. He was the first child and had his special time as an only child, plus he is now 27 and does not live at home. He especially enjoys using American Sign Language with Marie. The other children have a tolerance for one another but are not especially close. The whole family has learned sign language and we use it regularly at meals and any time we talk. Well, MOST of us use it all the time. Angel take special delight in talking without signing on purpose so Marie does not know what he is talking about!

EH: What is your biggest challenge in raising children with special needs?

Honestly, my biggest challenge was in learning not to care what other people think. I have always been that way to some extent, but when you have a child with Asperger’s syndrome having a meltdown on an airplane for 2 hours, it would be enough to make most parents crazy. (Even my husband went to hide in the back of the plane.) We have had the ambulance at our house many times and my children have had to be restrained many times, especially may daughter Marie who has serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to early childhood abuse. She has a history of flipping out and hitting, spitting, biting and so forth. (She reminds me of when Helen Keller was under the table when the family was first eating.) She looks like a wild animal, glaring eyes, messy hair, no concept of what is going on around her. It has been a learning process, but I have learned to calm myself during their most dramatic episodes. Now I am so calm I make sure I bring my “hospital purse” with me that has a bottle of diet coke and a large print book to read for those long emergency room visits!

EH: Where do you find the most support?

LP: Support…support…what’s that? My basic support is spiritual. Just me and God. Calming. I do not generally share my problems with others, so most of my friends and work acquaintances do not know the extent of their problems. This is the main reason doing the blog is so therapeutic.

EH: Can you share a story of how your adopted children have brought joy into your life?

LP: Oh, there are too many stories to share!!!!!! Watching Marie, who is profoundly deaf, learn to dance by feeling the vibrations of the base on the wood floor. Being at DInora’s college graduation with honors despite numerous psychiatric problems plaguing her through her 4 years there. Seeing Steven’s eyes light up when he is crouching on the ground in the woods trying to catch a snake, and his sheer delight when he catches it! Watching Angel mingle with the elderly at a nursing home, dispensing hugs and complements. Knowing Francis lives a wonderful and full life despite blindness because of the way we have raised him, (especially looking at the picture he sent me while skiing in the Swiss Alps with the caption “See, Mom, no trees!” because he knows I was always petrified he would ski into a tree!) They all spend time volunteering and helping others which proves to them that their disabilities are NOT disabling. Every day of their lives bring joy into my life, even the “bad” days. I am thankful that I have found them and that they have found me, and I am so proud of the many obstacles they have overcome.

EH: What aspects to your personality have developed from assisting children in need?

LP: My personality has been the same since childhood and living with a brother who is severely multiply disabled. I learned to accept everyone and to believe in the value of all human life. I think back to that old Sunday School picture “God Don’t Make Junk”. I have always helped others, even in elementary school. It is the part of my personality that led to the development of our family in the first place.

EH: If a genie granted you one wish, what would that be?

LP: Oh, of course I would say “World Peace”, but that would sound corny. I think a practical wish would be for people to develop more tolerance towards each other and to learn to love one another despite our differences. Less selfishness and more selflessness.

EH: What is the most important way that we can help others, in your opinion?

LP: It is important to respect the dignity of others. That means saying hello to the developmentally disabled man in the grocery store. Smiling at the mother who has a baby with deformities and telling her she has a beautiful child, (because, honestly, to HER, that child is beautiful!) Helping the person next to you who is deaf who is trying to get his point across at the store service counter, (grab a paper and pencil.) If people have time, I strongly encourage volunteering. It can be as simple as visiting a nursing home to play cards with a resident, serving a meal at a homeless shelter, or gathering clothes for those in need. If everyone in the world just did one little thing to help others, there would be a huge ripple effect that would improve the world.

Birthright Unplugged Founded on Collaboration for Peace between Israel and Palestine

February 22, 2010

The constant battles and destruction between the war-torn countries of Israel and Palestine seems to be a myriad of calamity with no resolution. Deaths, bombings and continual fighting between cultures have created a land full of disaster and sadness. But there are two American women that are making a change for the better.

Let me introduce you to Hannah Mermelstein and Dunyah Alwan…the creators, and current, as well as past, directors of Birthright Unplugged (Hannah left the organization to pursue additional aspirations in 2009). These two Jewish women worked together to creat an agency that is a tool for peace in an, otherwise, dangerous area.

Hannah (left) and Dunya (right) take a break from harvesting olives with an Israeli and a Palestinian woman. Fall 2003, from the Birthright Unplugged website.

Birthright Unplugged has different programs that develop understanding, friendship and peace through one-on-one contact. The main focus is to bring the youth of Palestine into Israel so that they may see the land of their ancestors and to bring Westerners into Palestine so that they may meet, firsthand, the loving people of this land of refugee camps.

I was able to talk with Hannah and Dunyah and learn what their inspirations, aspirations and insight is on the constant battles between the two countries that have been laid to waste by vicious wars. Continue reading to learn more from women working on the front lines of peace.

EoC: How was Birthright Unplugged created?

D&H: Dunya and I started our West Bank work with a human rights organization called the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS). Through IWPS we did several delegations for a variety of people – journalists, activist groups, European diplomats, etc. The predominant request we heard from Palestinian friends and colleagues was to share stories of daily life and struggle in our own communities. As people with quite a bit of experience in the West Bank, we decided to begin bringing more people to hear Palestinian voices and then return to share them at home. We were each leading separate delegations in the summer of 2004. Dunya mentioned to Hannah that her aunt was on a Jewish educators’ trip that refused to set foot in Palestinian communities in the West Bank even after Dunya invited them and offered to host them. Hannah was not surprised, and told Dunya about Birthright Israel and other such opportunities for Jewish people to go on Zionist trips to Israel without any regard for Palestinian life and experience. This conversation led to the beginning of Birthright Unplugged. As people with Jewish backgrounds, with a knowledge of and access to Palestinian communities, we felt it important to offer a travel opportunity with a human rights and activist framing for Jewish people and others. At the same time, we conceived of a complimentary program for Palestinian children living in refugee camps, and six months later we implemented that one as well.

EoC: Why did you choose the name Birthright Unplugged?

D&H: We were trying to unplug, or take the power out of, the concept of a Jewish birthright to a land that Palestinian people are indigenous to and were expelled from. This concept is basic to us and the symbolic value of our programs is just as important as the actual value. We are not able to, nor do we want to, work with hundreds of thousands of people through our programs, but we want as many people as possible to hear about them and to begin to question concepts of birthright. Having a name like “Birthright Unplugged” is the best way to do that.

EoC: What are the ages of the Birthright Unplugged participants?

D&H: While most participants are in their 20s, we have had participants range in age from 12-70.

EoC: How do you find Palestinians that will do home stays?

D&H: Hospitality is a core value for Palestinian and Arab communities and there is a plethora of families who are happy to host international people regardless of nationality and religion.

For both Unplugged and Re-Plugged (the Palestinian youth program), we work with organizations we know and these organizations set up the homestays for the groups.

EoC: Have your clients remained in contact with their Palestinian hosts?

D&H: Many of our participants have remained in contact with their hosts. Some have stayed longer in the region and have gone back to visit their hosts or stay with them again. Others keep in touch via e-mail and via gifts sent through us to the families each time we go.

EoC: What are the ages of the Palestinian children that go on tour with you?

D&H: The children who travel with us on Re-Plugged are generally 10-15 years old. All are under 16, because at age 16, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip receive Israeli-issued ID cards, which Israel uses to control their movement. Until that age, Palestinians through a loophole, have somewhat more freedom of movement. We use our privilege as international passport-holders to accompany the children to Jerusalem, the sea, and their ancestral villages.

EoC: How did you become in contact with them?

D&H: We work in partnership with at least one organization in each refugee camp where we work. Most of the organizations we either know through our other work in Palestine or through friends. The organizations then pick the children to participate.

EoC: Are their parents supportive or worried about them going into Israel?

D&H: Parents and children have been both excited and worried about their trip with us. We designed the trip based on the desire we had heard from refugee communities about the places they long to visit, so the journey is incredibly moving for all involved. At the same time, parents have concerns about their children being out for two full days and one overnight, about possibly being attacked by Israelis, and about cultural differences they might experience. The local organizations that the kids work with have the trust of the families and the fact that we are working with the organizations usually helps quell any concerns.

EoC: What would you say is the biggest difference between the youths of Israel and Palestine?

D&H: We do not work with Israeli youth so cannot speak to that issue. We do, however, work with Palestinians children from West Bank refugee camps and Palestinian children from cooperating organizations inside Israel. Even among these communities the children experience cultural differences based on where they grew up and the different systems and laws imposed on each community. The Israeli government works to disconnect Palestinian communities from each other, and part of our Re-Plugged program brings them back together.

EoC: Have you seen a change in your clients? If so, how?

D&H: Our Re-Plugged participants have consistently moving experiences with us and express themselves through photography exhibits and writing after their trip. I am not sure we can speak about change in them, however, because we do not know them very well before we work with them and we are only in the camp a few times with them after the trip. Our partner organizations in the camp, who have relationships with these children and whose work our program works to strengthen, could answer this question better.

Our Unplugged participants have also been deeply moved by their experience, and many have had radical changes in perspective, understanding, politics, and motivation as a result of our trip. We have seen these changes in the six short days of our trip, and we have also watched our alumnae’s work develop and strengthen over time after their experience with us.

EoC: In your opinion, what other things need to take place, other than Birthright Unplugged, that will help to create peace between the Palestinians and Israel?

D&H: Palestinian voices must be included in any conversations about their future, and in the worldwide (and particularly Western) discourse about Palestine/Israel. More people need to understand the situation in terms of occupation, colonization, and basic denial of human rights, rather than as a conflict with two equal sides. Refugees (a majority of the Palestinian population) must have their historical experiences valued and their rights fulfilled. Birthright Unplugged tries in a small way to contribute to all of these paths towards justice, without which there can be no peace.

EoC: How can we become more involved?

D&H: There is an indigenous call from Palestinian civil society for the international community to engage in boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until Israel honors Palestinian basic human rights. The movement is growing around the world and some divestment campaigns have already seen success. Joining a local group or starting your own is one way to become involved.

People can also read, write, plan actions, give talks, visit Palestine, individually boycott Israel, incorporate Palestine into teaching curricula, and much more.

As for people becoming more involved in Birthright Unplugged in particular, we are looking for venues for our Re-Plugged exhibit to travel. We are also always raising money to keep our programs running – our fundraising happens on a very grassroots level and all support is welcome and appreciated.

There will only be change in these countries filled with death and destruction through understanding, peace and love. As Martin Luther King once said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” Dunyah and Hannah are making steps towards these imperative teaching tools of serenity by doing exactly that.

Please visit for more information.

Collaborative Wiki JASecon Facilitator, Bernard Marszalek, Talks Shop

February 15, 2010

From housing issues to cultural appreciation, JASecon is a collaborative movement inspiring a better tomorrow.

Originally born out of the need for good produce in a low-income housing neighborhood of Oakland, California, the San Fransisco bay Wiki is helping grassroots projects succeed. Specializing in bring people together, JASecon is, “an informal grouping of folks active in the social justice and worker co-op communities. Our goal is to facilitate communication amongst the activists developing economic alternatives in a variety of arenas.”

A member of the inspiring group, Bernard Marszalek, was kind enough to answer some questions focused on the importance of collaboration. Here’s what he had to say…

EC: What was the spark that set the people of West Oakland into activating a collaborative betterment of life and the creation of JASecon?

BM: The JASecon project developed from a discussion at a December (2007) NoBAWC meeting where the limitations of the Green Festival of 2007 was generally recognized as becoming too commercial and irrelevant for the Network to participate in. For several years some of the cooperatives (I always mean the worker co-ops in the SF area… most of which are members of the Network) tried to encourage more coop participation in the green festival for marketing and outreach (the political side) to the larger community. But participation peaked in 2005 and began to decline since then, partly because of the expense and partly because the coops where lost within the hugeness of the event and so had little impact.

The idea was thrown out at that meeting that Network should have its own festival. That idea was discussed through the beginning of 2008 and in the summer the idea of extending the invitation to the large community of non-profits and volunteer groups, etc., that contributed to the economy surfaced. The Network had discussed an outreach to folks working in other areas of the economy under other organizational forms for some time and this idea of pulling folks together to talk about collaboration on some level seemed right. A critical mass of projects was apparent but not much communication between projects was happening.

The Network already was a template for that kind of collaboration amongst the co-ops and it was a natural model for expanding the Network informally. The Network called a meeting for Oct 2008 to discuss this idea and you will find the “Call” on the JASecon wiki.

At that meeting 30 groups were represented from all areas of the emerging economy: non-profit advocacy groups, a dance collective, a local on-line journalist project, clothing designer, bakery with farm that grew the ingredients for their pies and employed kids from la raza to both work in the store and on the farm (one of my fav projects), an advocate of free-exchange, and many more, with seven co-ops represented. After four hours of getting acquainted and discussing what folks could get behind the idea of a “trade fair” got everybody excited.

The idea was to present to the public what was somewhat hidden from public view – people working on a rich diversity of projects that taken together demonstrated that “another world is possible” to use the phrase from the World Social Forums.

I think with this background you can better appreciate the content on the wiki.

EC: Where are you seeing the largest growth in collaborative movements?

BM: Latin America is way ahead of the world in terms of the Solidarity Economy. I know that the recuperated factories in Argentina have as an aim more collaboration to sustain them beyond organizational assistance to economic alliances. I mean this is the aim of all our work – to create synergies of economic relationships between alternative economic projects.

EC: What components are vital to a cooperative business idea succeeding?

BM: Besides the same components of any business succeeding: excellent plan and financing the level of agreement among the parties creating the co-op and the community support.

EC: In your opinion, what is the key factor of taking an alternative business dream, such as a cooperative, to reality?

BM: The commitment of those who have the dream. The reason I have a dim view of the whole idea of social entrepreneurship is that it is based on the illusion of one person with a great idea. Sometimes that works, but most often a sustainable project requires getting others on board… and of course one person might play an excellent role in sparking an idea, the project won’t succeed unless that person can find a crew to work with.

Charisma can charm others, but collaboration is so much more satisfying for all involved and prefigures what I like to think of as a “society of friends.” Mondragon adopts this approach. They encourage collaboration because they know that any project they support must use the talents of more than one person and will thrive if the origins are based on peer relationships, not hierarchical ones.

EC: Do you believe that collaborative business practices will eventually become the norm?

BM: What’s the alternative? Avatar? I think that the research I just wrote about that gives scientific verification to the old belief that people are naturally cooperative is one of the building blocks to a worldview that is developing. This empathetic worldview is evident in the amazing support for the people of Haiti.

EC: You wrote in response to the Conference of Parties at Copenhagen (COP-15) that, “Given the crisis we face, and the institutional inability of the oligarchy to respond in a meaningful way, as witnessed in Copenhagen, we have no choice but to create true cooperative and democratic communities to sustain us in our fight for “system change.” What can we as individuals do to help create cooperative and democratic communities?

BM: You know I think tons of people are working towards these ends but never conceptualize what they may be doing in their lives as related to the larger, global issues. I think the first step is for that realization to sink in. Specifically, and here I am speaking about the cooperative ski area business model you and your husband are activating, you are steps down the road to creating livable communities. It seems now that you are searching for both grounding in a clear way to conceive of what you want to do and for a venue… a community of peers to work with. My heartfelt appreciation of the worthiness of your intentions and my best wishes that they can be realized with others.

Thank you Bernard for sharing your knowledge and time for the good of collaboration…and your kind words in regards to the ski area cooperative movement.

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