Peace, Art, Faith and the inspiring Mary Button

September 14, 2010 at 8:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Sometimes you do something and it inspires someone else to do something great.  Usually we do not get so lucky, but that is because there is only one Mary Button.

I posted in the blog before about the youth peace summit I organized in Kenya last year in response to the post election violence in 2008, and what a powerful experience it was.   Well artist Mary Button (and theology student) was an important part of that summit, and she created art about the experience.  An interview was published about it today in Religion Dispatches.  I am posting a big chunk of the interview cause I love it.  You can see the entire series  from Kenya here and read about the peace summit in a previous post I wrote here.

JS: How did your faith or the faith of other people play a role in this series?

MB: During The Peace Summit, interfaith dialog was a real priority and so the youth participants were not only from a number of different countries—Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kenya—they also came from a wide variety of faith backgrounds.

One of the things that I became very quickly aware of was how unsure and self-conscious I was about talking about my own faith. I was totally blown away by the openness and ease with which so many of these young people talked about what their faith meant to them. Bear in mind, now, that I am a thoroughly churched woman. Daughter of a Lutheran minister. Sunday School teacher. And about to enter my first year of seminary. And suddenly I felt like I had never really considered what my faith meant to me.

The Hymnbook Project focused on cultures [in the Southern US] with which you are intimately familiar. What challenges did working in Kenya bring?

It was a real challenge. My friend Maria Murewa, who’s an artist from Rwanda, and I volunteered to lead the workshop where we made banners and signs with the youth for the peace march planned for the last day of the summit. We ended up camping out with a revolving group of youth, and we all made really beautiful signs. We cut out doves and painted them really bright colors. We had some neon green cardboard and made signs in the shape of Africa. And we ran through hundreds of pieces of pastel poster board. There was such a feeling of urgency, and it was so tied up in their faith.

Earlier in the summit, the youth drew these really amazing life maps where they drew out these circuitous paths dotted with people and churches and told these amazing stories about how they came to be at the peace summit. And when we sat down to write out messages for our peace march, the messages they wrote overwhelming were about God’s love. Continue Reading Peace, Art, Faith and the inspiring Mary Button…


German youth fear Facebook

September 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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So in July I went to Dresden to facilitate a ‘media team’ of young people participating in the youth pre-assembly of the Lutheran World Federation General Assembly, which happens every ten years or so.   We had about 11 members to our team ages 18-30, from Hungary, Kenya, Rwanda, Madagascar, Nigeria, India, Papua New Guinea, the US and one German.   They worked hard to produce content for and I loved them all.  To do a training like this is to see the hunger of young people across the world to create meaningful content and use technology no matter how much money or schooling they have had.

A few lessons I took away:

  • While blogging at a conference is fun, its good to produce a daily newsletter for the people who are not online.  Our main target audience was the conference participants, who had a full day of meetings and no time to get online.  So — the old fashioned paper hand out was still a good idea to create buzz, enhance reputation and drive traffic to the blog.
  • There was a huge interest in video, which is not my area, and it was very hard to manage as an amateur youth media team.  A professional is definitely needed to lead that and do only that if that is an important end goal.
  • Create ahead of time your strategy of how you will distribute the online media you are producing — e.g., write all your blogging friends and press offices and work out a home page highlight at least a week BEFORE the event starts.

Mid way through the conference when our blog traffic was not going up enough I changed tactic.  Instead of urging participants to go to, I told them to go to our Facebook page. They were already going to Facebook, so it was easy enough to get them to go to our lwfyouth page there… and then they would hopefully post an update, tag or comment and then jump over to the blog.  Asking them to visit the blog directly was too big a step of behaviour change in an environment where there was not a lot of time to go online.

So to do that I made a passionate plea to the plenary asking  people to tag themselves in the pictures we posted on FB (everyone loves pictures!).   This was a trick to drive traffic to FB and then the blog.  The photo tagging continues months later…   But the bigger result was getting the German youth attending the conference all riled up.  They came to me and said that they had discussed it as a group and asked that we moderate a forum on if Lutherans of the world should use FB at all?  At this point I was dead tired and generally not enthused about the German culture which seems to shun any form of PR.   I could not think of anything better to say than, Facebook is here, get over it, my job is marketing, I know what I am doing, we have quality control here. Luckily a friend of mine interpretting gave a standard more diplomatic speech in defense of Facebook.   I asked the girl who was giving me an earful if she had a Facebook account?  Yes she says, but she uses a fake name and only uses it to talk to her friends in Latin America.  Her main concern was that a future employer would see photos of her online.

But the incident still bothers me to this day, so I was interested to read German blogger Peter Bihr’s account of giving a workshop on social media to German youth, he writes:

On a side note, I have to say I really enjoyed particularly the discussions with these students. We talked a lot about privacy on social networks and the implications of using these online services. I was surprised on more than one occasion: Not a lot of the participants use smartphones, which may be a budget thing given they’re all still studying. The crowd was much more critical of online social networking than I expected. (There was a strong split in the group, with those seeing chances rather than risks on one side and those highly critical of social networks on the other.)

Two things became very clear, though: (1) Just like German society overall this group had a significant part of online critics (with varying degrees of informed argumentation). (2) All of them are acutely – almost painfully – aware of the role of privacy and how it’s being affected by voluntary participation in online sharing behavior (social networking, Twitter etc), involuntary sharing (government involvement) and commercialization (all major actors are international corporations).

While I wished the overall discourse (on a societal level) about the complex issues of privacy/ownership/control of data online was based on a more informed basis, it’s very clear that we’ll be having this discussion for awhile to come. And that’s good: Keep thinking, discussing, debating. Just please make sure to stay away from panic and fear driven rhetoric as well as hyperbole. And if you happen to encounter such arguments, feel free to drop in some facts and see the fear go away.

My pursuit to understand social media in Europe continues, but  you can see we have some work to do.

My recent crash course in mobile marketing, SMS text campaigns and non profit rules

July 31, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I had my first experience as a mobile marketer!  We did a text messaging campaign at the recent ELCA Youth Gathering, which drew  37,000 teenagers and their chaperones to New Orleans last week around the theme of “Jesus, Justice, Jazz”.  It was — as you can imagine– a mega event, complete with christian rock, a three-story neon cross, and inspiring speakers with their contracts freshly signed.  Needless to say, its hard to break through this Lutheran Disneyland with your message.   Our message?  your church does advocacy and cares about justice, and you can get involved.   Our mode?  The text.

After some harried web searching, thank god for Mobile Active’s list, and this great how-to primer, it seemed there are really only two vendors out there doing the non-profit text thing: Mobile Accord and Mobile Commons.  We went for the Mgive platform from Mobile Accord because it was cheaper (they are based in Denver), while the Mobile Commons (NYC baby!) had more services to offer that we did not really need.    These mobile programs are set up mainly to solicit donations, usually $5 off the phone bill, the main example out there is Alicia Key’s Keep a Child Alive mobile campaign.   However, the ELCA is a church, and 501-c-3, but does not file a 990 –  and therefore we are not elegible to recieve donations through the Mobile Giving Foundation.   Thus we could not purchase any of the packages offered by mGive set up to get donations.

It worked out though – we just bought a keyword, “Justice” for $200 and then paid .5 per text sent.  We sent out one text every day of the conference.

We thought we were geniuses, “oh these youth, they will love to text us and we will capture their data forever” but it was not so simple.  Of the 37,000 people there, only 4,100 opted-in to our campaign.

Our problems:

  • Too many asks — not only did we want them to text, we wanted them to do a role play about homelessness, write their senator, commit to learning about human trafficking in their community….  we competed with ourselves!  Bad bad bad.  But somehow we could not stop.
  • We asked them to text from our booth in the convention center. People don’t really want to text at a booth.  But they will text when they are sitting down watching something.   Our best means of getting people to opt in was through when we had workshops where we talked to the youth.  Then we said, “take out your phones, “Text Justice to 464329”.   And like little happy robots, they did it.
  • Sell the message not the tactic. We had two ways of asking them to opt-in.  Sometimes we said, if you text, you can be entered to win prizes during the Youth Gathering like a snuggie.   Other times we said, if you text you can stay in touch with the ELCA and learn more ways to be involved in our advocacy, hunger and justice work.   These were save the world youth!  They wanted to stay involved.  They were not fooled by snuggies.
  • We did not anticipate that these young Christians would have been told to leave their cell phones at home! Yup.  Their militant youth leaders set rules: no cell phones.  Not sure how to get around that……
  • People were more suspicious than we thought they would be, they thought we would spam them.  Fair enough. Its a new medium.  But we needed some talking points about that.
  • Intergration — we did not get fully integrated into the webpage and the other organizers and social media of the gathering.   We started too late, and we did not pound the pavement convincing everyone else to get on board.   We told ourselves, this is pilot, next time… but ultimately a missed opportunity.

All in all, a good experience, and we will continue to learn from texting this nascent network.  Besides, if all 37,000 had texted us it would have broke the bank…. and that would not have been good.

Remembering Thembi, an advocate for youth living with AIDS

June 10, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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thembi radio diairies

Last year I wrote about meeting Thembi, a young woman living with AIDS in South Africa who streams a radio diary.   She died this week.

The journalist who helped her start her radio diary wrote this in remembrance:

Thembi thought about death almost every day. Yet she was the most alive person I’ve ever met. She sometimes asked me why I chose her to do an audio diary about her life. But I feel like she chose me.

Thembi had been struggling off and on with TB. A week ago she learned that she had multi-drug resistant TB. She died Thursday night in the hospital.  She was 24.

Thembi gave me, and many of us, a lesson in courage and in embracing the craziness of life – good and bad. She was brave and open about living with AIDS at a time when most South Africans were quiet about the epidemic. She thought the virus should be scared of her, rather than the other way around. She drew pictures of her virus. She talked to it in the mirror. She gave it orders.

Thembi had a short life. But it was a full one by any measure. She had a child. She found a soul mate in her longtime boyfriend, Melikhaya. Her story was heard by millions of people in a dozen countries and five languages. On her tour  of the United States, she met Bill Clinton and then-Senator Barak Obama. She traveled to Germany and India as a Unicef ambassador. She was a contestant in an African reality TV show. In South Africa, she became a role model for young people living with HIV. She experienced the hard edges of life in ways that I still find hard to fathom.
I remember when Thembi was invited to address the South African Parliament. “Accept that AIDS is here,” she told the country’s leaders. But life is a mix of cosmic and mundane. The next day, Thembi was back to her normal life: standing in line at the clinic for antiretroviral drugs, caring for her baby, and hoping for a job.

By now, we are all so familiar with the statistics. More than 5000 people die every day from AIDS. Somehow, it never seemed Thembi would be one of them.   Thembi embodied great ambition to be heard and seen. She thought it was important to speak out against stigma and  discrimination. But she was also motivated by fear: she didn’t want to be anonymous… or forgotten.

Thembi we heard you.

And we miss you.

The Youth conference checklist

April 25, 2009 at 6:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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  • youth march for peace at Kenyan Youth Peace Summit

    youth march for peace at Kenyan Youth Peace Summit

    I am trying as hard to stay in Kenya in my head for as long as possible (going on 5 days now).  First thing at hand was working out a nasty computer virus that attacked my laptop.  With the youth media team swapping flash drives faster than 17 year-old girls change outfits all the computers stopped working after a few days.   A few working methods I plan to take with me to what I hope will be many more youth peace summits in Africa:

    • wear the flash drive around my neck so I don’t lose it, and bring 5 to share
    • upload any important files to an internet site in case flash drive goes missing
    • travel with anti-virus software and learn how it works in extreme rescue situations
    • travel with sound cables to hook up the laptop to anything with speakers
    • disallow workshop presenters from using powerpoint because 1) they don’t use it correctly and only put up their talking notes 2) for goodness sakes this is a youth conference 3) I need to use my stressed out moments for human-related problems
    • when an American wants to come, I will say yes only if they have IT  skills including the ability to take a projector apart and put it back together in 20 minutes
    • when an American wants to come, they must first pass a comprehensive  “go with the flow” test (sorry type A’s).
    • must have on hand “the Kenyan big sister” – she deals with women issues including counseling and telling any women acting up to get it together, and likewise “the Kenyan big brother” to keep the boys in line. (obviously nationality to change in case of conference)
    • as lovely as a youth videography team is, if we want this thing captured properly we need a professional
    • build in hours of flexible time into the schedule so we can adjust as chaos demands
    • fight like hell to have time before and after the conference in country to do follow-up and prep.

Youth Uprising in Kenya

April 11, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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George told me why we are holding the peacesummit next week, I mean I had ideas, but this story spells it out.  During the violence after Kenya’s election last year,  a member of parliament asked a group of 10 youth if they would go disrupt the opposition’s rally. The MP paid the group 500 shillings and they went and caused fear and chaos and stopped the opposition’s event. Afterwards, the politician gave all the money to one youth, and the others wanted it so bad they almost killed him to get it.  When the total was divided up it was 50 shillings per youth — less than one dollar.   And here these youth risked their lives and could have been arrested.    This made them so angry and bitter that they went and smoked weed and then took women and raped them.

Uprising Youth Club House

Uprising Youth Club House

He told this story to a group of youth we visited in the Machako Slums in East Naiobi called Uprising Youth to illustrate why we are holding this peace summit, because youth can be manipulated by politicians.  Uprising Youth is a group of young men that are brought together by a love of football, and their team is in one of the premier leagues.  In order to support the costs of the team, like uniforms, registration and transport to games, they have several businesses to generate income.  A few years ago there was a big trash dump right in the middle of the slum, so they cleaned it up and negotiated with the city to have the space where they built a club house, which they use for almost daily meetings  to plan their game strategy and business ventures.  Their first project was to manage the public toilets installed by city hall, which they still do.  But the toilets were not bring in enough money, so they got a small loan and built a shower next door, where people pay 20 shillings for a hot shower.  Business is thriving, and children play in the hot soapy water that pours out of the doors into the open sewer.

The group also manages 6 rental houses, but their pride and joy is a car wash.  They are the only ones in the area with a power washer, and this means they can charge more than the others for their services.  One month money was short right before a big soccer tournament, and the group pawned the powerwasher to the nearby NGO  for a loan in order to get the boys to the game.   It took them about a month to repay the the 7,000 shillings they borrowed (about $100) all in coins.



Several of them told me, “before I joined Uprising Youth I was a jailbird, a hustler.  I just wanted to be a criminal, and now I want to be the best soccer player in Kenya.”  A couple of the young men, holding babies said, we do this for our children, so they will have better chances than us.    Uprising Youth has also  accessed the National Youth Fund in Kenya, which is hard to do for all the bureaucracy involved, and got a loan of 47,000 shillings  (about $450).  They used the money to buy a PlayStation2, which they charged admission from kids to play, but parents started complaining so they temporarily suspended business until school is out.  They have almost paid the money back to the government.

soccer coach for Uprising Youth

soccer coach for Uprising Youth on right

This group of young men live in one of the most violent slums in Nairobi, but all they talk about is soccer and what their next business plan will be.   Dreaming big has paid off, after 7 years of asking, someone has given them a matatu (a van).  They will use it  to drive to their games, and on the other days they will operate it as a bus. Uprising is such a great example of what young people can do with a little support.  But what sticks with me is despite their difficult circumstances, these young men had passion and drive, and that can’t be bought.

How does media coverage help social entrepreneurs?

February 8, 2009 at 3:05 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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For my thesis I am designing a media strategy for Sustainable Health Enterprises, launched by social entrepreneur and Echoing Green fellow Elizabeth Scharpf. SHE is launching a low-cost, locally produced maxi pad to keep girls in school when they are menstruating, an age-old problem in many poor countries.  I am having a great time looking into the question : what does press coverage do for social entrepreneurs?  To answer this I am standing in the overlap of public relations, philanthropy, and social entrepreneurship — what an interesting little triangle.

To to find out exactly what happens after major media exposure, I had  an interesting chat today with Jennifer Corriero, executive director and founder of TakingITglobal, my favorite youth-led technology organization.  Like many non profits, TIG never directly sought media exposure.  But in the early days of TIG, press coverage, like this article from FastCompany about her and Mike, launched the organization skyward.

She confirmed some theories that I will explore further in my research:

  • After the articles came out the response was always immediate.  The main benefit was that high caliber people reached out to TIG and offered partnership and support that helped for years to come.
  • Media coverage adds legitmacy, especially for start-ups; articles can be passed to potential funders and new contacts.
  • Keep in touch with journalists, find the ones that have a genuine interest in your project and keep them updated.
  • Awards matter, they drive press coverage.
  • Media can be a great way to strengthen relationships with funders by mentioning them in the story.

You can be a part of this thesis process: tell me your stories, how have you leveraged the media to achieve your goals?  If you know someone I should talk to, send me a shout.

Thembi´s radio diary tells story of living HIV positive

August 5, 2008 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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On-air speaking about Living Positively

With her doll-like face, she hardly looks her 23 years, but Thembi has learned a lot about life. After she was diagnosed with HIV at age 16, she started taking a tape recorder with her everywhere. At, listeners travel with her to her first visit to the doctor, and hear when she learns about the decline of her T-cell count. The stories cover her progression to full-blown AIDS, starting ARV treatment, and finally giving birth to a daughter.

Presenting her story at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, she talks about how keeping a diary empowered her. “Ever since I knew my status my life has changed for the better. Ever since I started my diary I have felt more confident and comfortable and I am an inspiration to other young people.”

In a conference of thousands of experts, the most powerful presentations still come from personal testimony. In one of her entries, she reflects on the future.

I’m just imagining what a world would look like without me in it. I’m not scared of dying but of leaving my baby behind. I want to see her grow a little bigger. HIV will try to rule my life on the inside but outside I will be boss. I want to study and have a good job, I want to go on with my life.

Beyond the radio, Thembi also writes a blog. Attending a recent concert hosted by the South African government, she reflects below on how AIDS messages still don´t effectively reach young people at risk.

I felt like those images on those big screens with infected people had nothing to do with me. It reminded me of high school. When they would show pictures of thin, poor orphans that look like they are dying, and try to scare you out of having sex. But it never works because young, South African, at-risk kids do not see themselves in those images. They cannot imagine that it can happen to them.

Her shows have been used as a teaching tool all over the world and aired on National Public Radio in the U.S., and in the U.K., Australia and Canada, reaching more than 50 million people.

A lesson in infrastructure, high transportation costs in Rwanda

March 29, 2008 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I remember learning the word infrastructure in social studies class, the definition my teacher gave was that it meant transportation and communication. After some time here in Rwanda, I am realizing that the majority of the country’s spending money is going to pay for getting from place to place.

Providing money for transportation is a key principle for youth participation in any process, but in this case we would have no youth conference if we did not pay for peoples transport– and that includes the speakers. I reimbursed Pastor John for a tank of gas for his car today and it was $100 USD. We think the oil crisis is hurting people in the US– the price of gas here is incredible. I am paying some of the participants the equivalent of $10 a day to travel by bus to and from the site. Otherwise $10 can get you pretty far here– in rural areas it is the amount of a micro-finance loan. Our total transportation costs for this meeting, for both reimbursing participants and managing logistics are nearly going to equate our housing costs.

On the flip side, driving is in Rwanda is pleasant because there are few cars and the roads are well maintained. But this morning I woke in a panic because I was late and all the traffic was stopped from 8-12pm for the national monthly clean-up day. You are not allowed to drive because you are supposed to clean up your neighborhood. Rene told me one time his cousin was on a way to a wedding and the police stopped them. They had to get out of the car, take off their suit jackets and roll up their sleeves to start fixing the road.

Second to transport costs are cell phones. To use your cell phone you have to buy mobile credits, and depending on who you are calling they can run out pretty quick. Especially if you are coordinating a conference you are on the phone all day.

I really think that if you ran the numbers the majority of this country’s cash-in-hand is going to getting around and talking to people; something we in the West do without second thought. We live with the inherent assumption that we can go anywhere and say anything at anytime. We say time is money. Well, in Africa it seems all the time in the world is being spent just getting from place to place.

a song and a powerpoint for reconciliation

March 27, 2008 at 8:22 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The youth conference I am coordinating in Rwanda is in full swing and these youth are blowing me away. I arrived at the conference center this morning and 80 of them were standing in rows at their conference table singing. We have so many resources in our audience, we just have to ask, who can lead a song? and an entire choir comes up and sings in harmony. I don’t know a lot about music but there is something about an African choir that the West can’t even touch.

This was the first day of the conference, so I was worried everything would go wrong, but the it was a great day. We have more than 80 young people from Rwanda, DRC, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and USA. Somehow they came, across language barriers and borders, and the way the information traveled is a fascinating exercise in word of mouth and community networks, but more on that later. After the singing, a young person from each church and country came up and told about their local youth projects and challenges. Everything was translated to English or Kinyarwandan on the spot. Did I mention that this portion of the schedule was unplanned?

Our speaker on peace and reconciliation came with his own powerpoint machine during lunchtime. While I was pleased to see he brought his machine, I was worried about the power supply, the screen, the technology…so many things could fail. Well, now I understand whey a trainer on peace and reconciliation needs a power point. When you talk about a genocide, the pictures of the people who have been killed, bodies stacked in the road, have so much more power than any words. The electricity held throughout, but a tremendous downpour — the kind that is inches of water in minutes– started mid-presentation and rain came through the roof and onto his laptop.

Unfortunately the conference center promised us both internet and a sound system and failed to deliver on both. So our youth media team can’t blog live as planned, instead they have to shuttle in the evening downpour to a hotel so they can upload pictures on their blog. (You can have a sneak peak as they just get started.) But they are determined, so they will stop at nothing now that they have a platform.
media team hard at work
They are cutting videos on the new Flip Video, a camera with a USB port on its side, cute as an Ipod, super easy to use, and takes double AA batteries for an hour of footage. Interestingly, the youth media team of the conference is almost all women. Now this doesn’t surprise me as my co-students in Strategic Communications are almost all female, but we had to struggle to make sure that this conference had gender balance. When you make a call for youth leaders in Africa you will get all men if you’re not careful. In Africa, communications is still a male profession, so building a youth media movement could really do a lot to empower women, as well as promote literacy and civic participation.

There is something really happening here, so stay tuned…

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