5 things Nakate has taught me the hard way:

June 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Remember the Devil Wears Prada? Nevermind that my brothers tell me I remind them of Miranda, Nigel has always been my favorite character. In particular, I love his relationship with Andy. His monologue in the graph room has stuck with me ever since I watched the movie as a 17-year-old who couldn’t get enough of Adrian Grenier.

In case you’ve forgotten, this is what he says to her:

Andy, be serious. You are not trying. You are whining. What is it that you want me to say to you, huh? Do you want me to say, “Poor you. Miranda’s picking on you. Poor you. Poor Andy”? Hmm? Wake up, six. She’s just doing her job. Don’t you know that you are working at the place that published some of the greatest artists of the century? Halston, Lagerfeld, de la Renta. And what they did, what they created was greater than art because you live your life in it. Well, not you, obviously, but some people. You think this is just a magazine, hmm? This is not just a magazine. This is a shining beacon of hope for… oh, I don’t know… let’s say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class and reading Runway under the covers at night with a flashlight. You have no idea how many legends have walked these halls. And what’s worse, you don’t care. Because this place, where so many people would die to work you only deign to work. And you want to know why she doesn’t kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day. Wake up, sweetheart.

I’m my own boss, but I answer to a million different people – the video guy that wants his check, the stylist that needs pieces by monday, another stylist that wants them Friday, all the people at the party on Saturday night that want to know where they can find the new pieces and the woman next Thursday who I promised to ship to this weekend. I answer to the photographer running a shoot in August, and the one waiting for me to ship her gray and black shades of jewelry so she put them on models in downtown Los Angeles. There’s emails to be answered, meetings to be had – and I have to account for making sure what money goes where. Lastly, I answer to myself. Do I take a salary? How much? How about when it’s between quitting and carrying on? Moving out or staying at home? Am I doing enough? Sending enough back?

I’ve felt discouraged. I’ve had two African parasites I haven’t taken care of because I didn’t want to spend the money. I’m down for the count, exhausted, stressed and about twice a week I feel finished. I’ve been living at home so I didn’t have to take money from my project. But I’ve thought I owed my project this type of sacrifice. I’ve thought I needed to put myself last.

Today, a single tweet reminded me of something huge I had forgotten:

I forgot that when I left Uganda I left with a mission to stop asking for donations, and to find a solution. I left with an awareness that I had seen things other people hadn’t, and that made me different. Not only did that make me different, but it made me responsible in a different way. Like my friend Shannon says, “What I have seen doesn’t make me better. It just makes me different.”

I forgot that I had wanted to make a career our of partnering with women, not giving them a handout, at my own expense.

What I am doing walks a fine line between enterprise and philanthropy. I landed somewhere between high end fashion and Bono, and I’ve been trying to find my way ever since. For every woman that buys a necklace because she’s loves how it looks, there’s three that buy them for the cause. By the same token, a stylist said our necklaces were perfect for an international ELLE shoot last week. So, that makes us like any other company now, doesn’t it? Some people love us. Some people don’t. The only difference is that we send money back to impoverished women. And, that doesn’t make us better. That just makes us different.

So, I walk a balance, don’t I? Somewhere between enterprise and philanthropy, between buying because you love it, and buying because you love what I’m doing, there is a fine line where I’m tip-toeing precariously. This is something terribly different than anything I’ve ever done, and, as I wrote in an apologetic letter to a designer this week – I’m LEARNING AS I GO.

But who isn’t?

So, a few things I’ve learned as I seek to balance somewhere between enterprise and philanthropy. Here’s to hoping they help someone else in their balancing act:

1. No one owes me anything. If I start out thinking that way, I won’t get anywhere. There are people who choose to give of themselves, and that’s fabulous. But, it’s my job to find those people, not to change the people that aren’t like them. If a designer doesn’t want to do pro-bono work, that doesn’t lessen the value of their work, or the “good” in them as a person. Again, it makes them different.

2. I have to keep the enterprise between me and this project. If I don’t take any sort of salary, if there is no professional gratification for me aside from the good I have done, I will lose initiative. This doesn’t make me bad. It makes me normal.

3. It takes much more than two. I’ve started to watch as pieces of my project get given away without me even thinking about it. One person runs design and, before I realize it, they are our designer. Another person runs online updates our site and, before I know it, she’s the site manager. Someone else handles styling as a volunteer here and there and, before I know it, we have a stylist. I couldn’t do all these things anyway, and it’s right that it happens organically this way. This is how genius work forms.

4. I cannot run this project at my expense. I’ve thought I could. I thought that how much I loved these women was enough, but all my friends working in the nonprofit sector have been telling me from the beginning that it’s just not. And, I’m learning there has to be gratification in my work. There has to be the knowledge that I am carrying forward my career, and I am doing something, not only for them, but for myself. Otherwise, I’ll walk away.

5. Things must be run out of pride in a job well done, rather than guilt. My goal was to empower women to do what they are good at, and to celebrate their work. In order to keep up that spirit, I have to celebrate my own work, along with theirs.

What are you learning about your work, this week?

Thurman, Ghandi and Remembering What I’m Doing Here

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment


I know I’ve been MIA, this past week. A few excuses include a sudden road trip to Los Angeles, my best friend’s 21st birthday, a whole lot of social media contracting work and an article I was on deadline with, along with some exciting developments for The Nakate Project.
First, I spent Monday in downtown Los Angeles with an old friend, finishing up a freelance article, and then meeting with Antonio Estebán, who has put together a team of incredibly talented designers, photographers and artists to help highlight our project.
Excuse #2 involves a phone meeting with Troy and Aimee Grover this week, to discuss a shoot with a more feminine approach to our necklaces.

#3 is that our website is finally in progress, and soon to be finished through Micah, from Alt Coast, who has not only been fun to work with, she’s been incredibly quick to respond, easy to dialogue with and ready to run with whatever ideas I send her way.

We’re also en route to a media campaign on several of my favorite blogs, as well as a feature on my work with Nakate in the Auburn Journal, and collaboration with the continuously helpful Mike Handy.

All that to say, I’ve been on the run, without much thought to the direction. I just know that at least I’ve been going somewhere.

I don’t like that.

In the midst of registering for her next workshop, I stumbled across something on Rosetta Thurman’s blog, this morning, that brought me back to a few things I want to remember as I run around like a chicken with my head cut off.

I want to remember that my work is about relationships.
I want to remember that what I do, I do for people.
I want to remember not to get so caught up in getting work, that I forget to focus on projects I’m passionate about.

Thurman referred to Henrik Edberg, the man behind the Positivity Blog, and a post he wrote a few years ago about how to practically change the world through Ghandi’s top ten principles. Among them were changing yourself, taking care of this moment and recognizing that everyone is human.

I think I need all ten of them on my bathroom mirror (and maybe my dashboard too).

Read the rest of them here.
Sign up for Thurman’s latest workshop here.

photo via this tumblr.

10 things Africa has taught me about non profit work

August 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

 August 17, 2010

I have known, for a few years now, that accountability is the key to success in the nonprofit sector.

I saw it in Haiti. The hustling, the donation I couldn’t track. Where did it go?

This year, I read A Billion Bootstraps, and its contents sparked a semester’s worth of research. Author Philip Smith writes that there is a 9 billion black hole in nonprofit spending, and it was his commitment to finding solutions, along with his insistence on having found them, that drove me to research microfinance further after reading his work. In May, I presented my findings to my integration class under the title, “Solutions to Global Poverty.”

I talked about microfinance. I talked about “safe” organizations to donate to. I talked about working through locals that had already established themselves.

I talked about what I was coming to do in Africa.

Yesterday, I sat on a brick wall outside a meeting for the medical mission here next week, and I pulled my legs up so I could rest my chin on my knees as I thought back through my trip, and what I’ve learned. Mostly, I just felt numb and I stared at some corn stalks. I was too tired to think – and that didn’t feel like a good first point to make. Later, I climbed into the car and Isaac fell asleep on me, listening to one ear of my ipod. At home, we started discussing all the beads that I need to fit in my bag somehow to sell at home. I had forgotten some mats I had made in the car “boot,” and drug them inside pull out and look at in the light. We talked about those too, and the difference between giving a handout and a hand up. Alex talked about accountability, and his responsibility, here, to making sure the money that comes back gets used for something more sustainable, even, than rent or school fees – something like a business that could carry forward, even when the mzungus stop coming to pick up necklaces to sell.

My brain turned back on, then, and I realized that my observations in Haiti turned book knowledge have begun to turn to firsthand experience this trip. Later that night, I sat under my mosquito netting, and began to jot down the following list.

I know that the things I’ve learned will take their place in a long line of old hat realizations as I continue to work in the non profit sector, but, like James Taylor says, “We’ve got to keep the big ball rollin,'” so here goes –

1. Habitat for humanity is no longer offering free housing. Here, in Uganda, they’re charging rent. Anyone with momre info, please comment. I haven’t researched this yet, I’m writing what I’ve seen.

2. I’ve heard, from both locals and NGO volunteers, that most big organizations (World Vision included) use at least 90% of donations to cover overhead costs.

3.  100% of your donation going to a person in need doesn’t always mean that it’s serving any kind of good cause. 100% of your donation could be going to imported vodka or acrylic nails – I’ve seen it used for both.

4. Monitoring where your money goes is a day in and day out job that has to be done by someone on the ground. I have not been convinced, in any way, that an organizaiton can effectively do this by checking in either sporadically or remotely.

5. Orphanages are not always the answer. In fact, I’ve found that many “orphaned” or “abandoned” children have extended family that is still living, and that more people could be affected and helped by organizations focusing on helping families to provide for themselves. Not to mention, you’re helping to end a cycle of poverty and devastation, instead of taking children out of it.

6. It’s really hard to truly know the true nature of a nonprofit online. Case in point: there’s a certain orphanage outside of Jinja that many people sent me the blog address for before I arrived in Africa, and I later found out that there were more than a few problems with its management. And the problems are quite serious.

7. More AID isn’t always the answer. I’ve been thinking a lot about the states giving out ARVs in Uganda, and their plans to cut AIDS funding. As I hear, firsthand, about clinics turning organizations that have been providing ARVs to children for free, I begin to wornder if aid that doesnt push towards a goal of self sustainability isn’t aid that cripples.

8. We work to empower, not to take over. Millie said this to me this morning, and I loved it. “The greatest poverty is not lack,” she said. “It is the inability to make decisions or to know what you would like to do and do it. We would like to help people get up their confidence again and run!”

9. Lasting change involves commitment. Again, this morning, Millie commented, “If you come and you do one thing and you go, the people will look and say, ‘Oh, look what Mzungu came and did and then went.’ And, now, what did you leave from what you brought?”

10. When given to the right organization, the right person in the right situation, donations make a HUGE difference.

I’ve seen that firsthand, too.

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