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Malaika (a poem)

When you educate a girl, you save the nation

When you teach girls to lead, they become our salvation

Digging wells isn’t just about digging holes

When a community is nourished, you’ve nourished its soul

Malaika Malaika, Swahili for angel

YOU are Malaika, helping girls succeed from every angle

Creating change agents for tomorrow

By focusing on the good, not the sorrow

If each girl can wake up with a possible new beginning

She’s waking up every day with the chance of winning

Building community, one girl at a time

And day after day, we’re seeing the signs

That an investment in girls is some thing never wasted

Because day by day, new trailways are created

All our girls need is hope and a chance

Then we can get out of their way and watch them advance!

Honorata* (a poem in support of Congolese women in war)

5 million screams falling on deaf ears

Fatherless children fathered by foreign soldiers

Homes with no husbands

Husbands with no honor

Rape as a tool for much more than power

Pregnant women’s legs spread

Aborted by their own community

Thus another rape committed

Another violation unforgiven

Another lifeless life lived by abandoned women

But on behalf of men worldwide

I ask you to stand with pride

Because your screams were never silent

We were never compliant in these acts so violent

Across oceans we cried for you when you ran out of tears

Incapable of international intervention to assuage your fears

Your stories became our poems

Your horrors inhabited our homes

But now you must hear that we are here for you

I implore you to forgive the world for having ignored you

As they raped you they said “today you will have husbands …”

But as we embrace you I say “today you will have brothers”

For all of my Congolese sisters, daughters, and mothers

Your perseverance is appreciated

Your persistence respected

Though human interest has depreciated

I’ll ensure you’re no longer neglected

Let these wods be your pillow to comfort your despair

And let the love of this one man show you that men care

 

*Inspired by the story of Honorata Kizende

To hell with the dark continent

 

While peacemakers cheer the new "peace process" and transitional government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), massive human rights violations are still taking place in the east, including rape as a tool of war and mutilations. Mass graves are still being uncovered in Bunia. Now I could say that this is a result of a war (supposedly ended) that has killed over 4,000,000 in four years. I could say that this war has caused a second genocide in less than 100 years that has gone without mention. I could say that the root cause of this war is the world's insatiable thirst for diamonds, coltan, copper, rubber, and gold that began even before King Leopold II infected the Congo with his Acquired Immune Dictatorship-from-a-distance Syndrome. I could even say that in addition to corrupted Congolese leaders caught in their own scramble for Congo, this war is a result of Western forces such as the United States and Belgium, who have participated in assassinations of democratically-elected Congolese leaders so as to insert a leader (Mobutu Sese Seko) whose 32-year dictatorship easily rivaled Saddam Hussein's. I could say that is why mass graves are still being dug up, the proliferation of child soldiers continues, and women are still be used as sexual toys. I could say all this but what's the point? Nobody gives a damn about the Congo, much less Africa.

I watched coverage of the war on Iraq from before day one. As much as I empathize with the people who suffered under Saddam, I kept asking myself why no one cares about US-supported dictators in Africa. I wondered, rather than debating whether America is responsible for Saddam because of the support he enjoyed in the eighties and nineties, why is it that no one talks about the current support that Rwanda and Uganda receive from America, even though these countries invaded Congo twice within the last decade? I wonder why it is that Americans do not realize that our purchase of cell phones, computers, and diamonds have indirectly supported this genocide. The reason is that no one gives a damn about Congo, much less Africa.

Once again, Africa has vanished off the map of human concern. The average American is resigned to the fact that whatever transpires in Africa is destined because Africans are savage and "unsaved." Africa is still the Tarzan-inspired, AIDS-infested country where people die because they are heathens. I even wonder how many readers will gloss over the fact that I just referred to Africa as a country and not a 54-nation continent. I can do this because, as you'll find in many of your conversations, we recount our travels to China, Brazil, India, Canada, and Africa. To the average American, Africans have been engraved in our mind's constitution as three-fifths of a person from three-fifths of a continent. I should actually say four-fifths since Northern Africa is so conveniently left out of the doomsday-statistics concerning the continent.

As disheartening as these facts are, as a former middle school teacher, I looked every day into the eyes of America's future and saw the cycle continuing. Before I showed videos of my travels to African countries, I had my students write about their images of Africa. I got the same answers you probably would have given as a child (or give now as an adult): far, half-naked heathens, "people" living next to wild animals, dirt roads, huts. However, after seeing my videos of African cities, my students asked to take a field trip to “Africa.” It was no longer far. It was no longer savage. In 15 minutes, I often changed images of Africa that these children had learned since birth.

While I never heard the word "spic," "chink," or "kike" used to refer to any of my Latino, Chinese, or Jewish students; insults such as "African bush-boogie" or "African booty-scratcher" roll off the tongues of my students whenever a dark-skinned student aroused their ire, particularly if that student had a "foreign" accent or name. Is this the melting pot that we are striving for in America? Is this indicative of a nation that promotes true understanding of diverse backgrounds and is open-minded towards the beliefs of others?

It seems that we Americans talk about embracing differences only when we feel threatened by a foreign agent or domestic upheaval. Since Africans in the Diaspora are, for all intents and purposes, complacent with the stereotypes put forth about them throughout the international community, Africa will continue to be that dark, faraway, unsaved country (yes, "country").

I could tell you about my cousin in Congo who died of tuberculosis at 22 years of age; which happened on the day I met him for the first time, because his family could not afford medicine. I could tell you about my other cousin in Mozambique who is living with AIDS and has already lost her husband to the AIDS grim reaper because he had to choose between money for expensive Western AIDS medicine or financial aid to feed his children. I could tell you that this great country that invaded Iraq to "liberate" the Iraqis has supported genocidal regimes in Africa. You would probably like that.

On the other hand, I could tell you about the warmth of the African people who opened their doors to me and fed me like a king though no one in the family was working. I could tell you how I honestly felt more safe walking the streets of all but one of the ten African countries I have visited than I do on the streets of America where I can have my life snatched away just as easily by a crook as by a cop. I could tell you that I often think about why I should give a damn about human suffering in Iraq or Israel and how I could never think that way because of an African traditional principle that my mother taught me hate hatred, not humanity. I could probably even tell you that each time I leave the African continent, I am more inspired that those "savages" are the hope for all of humanity's children. I could say all of this but what's the point? As long we do not have a government, an educational system, and a society that actively challenges its people on misconceptions of a people whose ancestors built this country, the same, irrefutable fact will hold for all eternity no one gives a damn about Africa.

The future of youth: what 6,000 students just taught me

             The absolute best thing about being a motivational youth speaker hands down is travelling this country and globe and meeting incredible young people. I look forward to the start of every school year because I relaunch our national “Be An UPstander, Not A Bystander” tour. The goal is simple: travel to as many schools and organizations across the globe as possible and build with a community of like-minded young people focused on doing nothing short of changing the world one person, one school, one city, one state, one country at a time. Whether it's ending bullying or celebrating cultural differences, our goal at UPstander International is to build better communities. This fall so far has exceeded my expectations and more importantly, reminded me of the great work our youth are doing across the globe and proved to me again that our youth are greater than the negative images of them portrayed in mass media.

            In October, I spoke to over 6,000 students across Washington DC, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and New York. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I partnered with NFL player Aaron Rodgers, actor Emmanuelle Chriqui, and the Enough! Project’sRaise Hope for Congo” campaign to create a rally for Congo. It was phenomenal event that brought the sports, acting, and music community together along with great students and called on the leaders at the University of Wisconsin to pledge to have their campus be conflict mineral free. In New York I spoke at 5 different colleges as part of the Price of Life’s campaign to end global slavery.  In Boston, I watched perfomed at one of the best showcases of youth artistic talent—the OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center 19th annual benefit entitled “Twist & Shout.” In DC, I launched year two of the UPstander Leadership Training Institute at the Upper School Washington International School. Everywhere I went, I was more and more inspired about the future of youth.

            Anyone who believes that our youth are a lost cause needs a vision adjustment. Whether I am speaking at the poorest school in the most crime-ridden city in America or a top Ivy League institution, I see a bright future in the eyes of every young person I am fortunate enough to interact with. Some may have their brightness blocked by the cloud of low teacher expectations or a society that views them as a suspect before a prospect, but I can still see it. If we as adults could work a little harder to extract that brightness like we extract gold and diamonds from mines, we would find those diamonds in the rough and refine them until they shine. Most youth I encounter are passionate about something and just want to make a positive contribution to the world. It would be so amazing if we adults simply met them half way.

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Partnering w/NFL’s Aaron Rodgers & Emmanuelle Chriqui for Congo

As a youth speaker, I enjoy motivating youth across the globe. As part of the Raise Hope for Congo campaign and the Conflict Free Campus Initiative, I traveled to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to partner with NFL Greenbay Packers player Aaron Rodgers and actor Emmanuelle Chriqui. The goal of the event was to raise awareness on how materials in our electronics products are coming from a war zone that Oprah Winfrey calls "the worst place to be a woman." Watch the video here.

 

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