Lessons Learned in the USA

Posted on: November 27, 2009 Posted by: Manin Oem Comments: 0

Lessons Learned in the USA

I just got back from the US. Spanning two worlds that are so different, where I am perceived so differently can be confusing for the brain.  I can’t decide if I prefer to do my visit to the US in one big annual chunk, as I used to, or in more sporadic bursts of other-worldness as I seem to be doing this year.  Anyway, this was a long trip.

In over a month in the US, I contributed greatly to my carbon consumption and deducted greatly from my bank account, visiting family, friends, and PEPY supporters across North America.  I also contributed to my knowledge and inspiration accounts as I learned from many people on my journey, and I wanted to share some inspirational quotes and experiences I had for this month’s lessons learned section.

One of the highlights of my trip was joining the Adventure Travel World Summit in Quebec, Canada.  There were many great speakers, but a few highlights worth sharing were Jeff Greenwald’s speech where he basically said:  *Tourism that changes OUR lives, makes us better people and opens up new worlds to us, is what many of us have been selling.   But, that’s no longer good enough.  We now need to look at travel as a way to positively improve the world around us, not just ourselves. * Jeff’s organization “Ethical Traveler” aims to spread these messages and includes 13 tips for the Accidental Ambassador to help us all become more responsible travelers.

Another speaker I really enjoyed at the ATWS was Dr. J. Wallace Nicholas.  Who wouldn’t love an ocean conservationist who is now studying neuroscience and has dedicated his life to protecting sea turtles?!  His speech was inspiring, describing how it hurt him to watch his two daughters fall in love with nature, as he knows that their hearts will be broken.  He said we all MUST fall in love with nature, though, and help our children do the same, so that indeed, when our hearts do break, we have the will to fight back against all those forces that are destroying our planet, and help future generations still have something to fall in love with.  His organization, Ocean Revolution, is working to create a revolution to protect the 71% of the earth which is covered in water.  He gave us each a blue marble to pass on to someone else to spread his revolutionary message.  (Consider yourself marbled – pass it on!)

On my first day back in the US, I attended The Feast, a collection of inspiring people with a collective will-to-do-good fueled by inspired do-gooders presenting their ideas and knowledge in TED-like short presentations.  Oh, and it is run by “creatives”, a term that always sort of makes me jealous to hear.  I want to be a “creative” – I think I’m pretty creative! – but in the new form it seems to have taken it refers to artists, musicians, web designers, etc – i.e. people whose stick figures look and sing a lot better than mine do. Anyway, the creatives running the show, Mike and Jerri, are pretty darn deserving of the word, and they get 10 points for putting on an energy packed event.

I listened to a talk by Elizabeth Scharpf, which had me nodding the whole time… SHE gets it.  More than any other group I have heard about, I think the design and concept behind SHE (Sustainable Health Enterprises) is an exemplary model of how social enterprise should be done.  SHE is a lesson learned in and of itself.  All of the development lessons I have learned are wrapped up in SHE: a program designed around community needs, local ownership and buy-in, use of locally available materials, capacity building/training/education as a key component, community components designed to be economically sustainable… they have it all.  Elizabeth reminded me of this lesson: stop, listen, and look around.  The needs and solutions are both in front of you, if you don’t push past them with your preconceived notions!

Meeting Daniel Epstein from The Unreasonable Institute at The Feast reminded me how important names can be.  Who WOULDN’T want to attend The Unreasonable Institute with a name like that!? (Pssst, they are accepting applications right now!)  If they had named it the “Learning Center for Responsible and Successful Social Venturing”, I might have been less inclined to yell, SIGN ME UP at first glance.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Rafe Furst at The Feast, as he was my “Micro-Sponsor”.  In other words, I only had to pay a little bit to join the conference and he paid a lot to help me get there.  Mike and Jerri matched us up with our Micro-Sponsors based on our interests, and I was reminded of how important it is to live a life you believe in through speaking with Rafe.

The final speaker at The Feast, Brian Bordainick was by far the most enjoyable speaker for me to watch. Not because it was the most flashy or “creative” or unreasonable even, but because it was honest and heartfelt and fabulous.  A story he told, which really resonated with me and many other entrepreneurs in the room I’m sure, was one I have and will tell many times.  Brian, who began working in a hurricane damaged area in New Orleans through Teach for America, had been appointed the Athletic Director at a school, though little to no sports facilities or budget were available. Step by step he began a project called The 9th Ward Field of Dreams, aimed at creating a multi-million dollar sports facility in this hurricane damaged area.  One day, as he was walking through the halls, depressed about a donation that had fallen through or annoyed at the barriers he was coming up against, he grumbled about how nothing was working out and he might as well quit, and one of his football players came up and put his arm over his shoulder and said “Baby, ain’t nobody told you to start this to begin with!”

Nearly everyone in the room laughed.  Anyone who has started something that sometimes feels like IT’S driving YOU, who has started a company or a business or a project and felt so overwhelmed by it that sometimes they wish they hadn’t started it, would laugh at this, because they know that feeling.  They also know that Brian, like each of us, quickly came around to realize that, despite the frustrations and struggle to perfect that which we are striving towards, doing something you believe in beats doing something less inspiring for someone else’s gain any day. I got back to Cambodia a few weeks ago with my head full of new ideas and my inbox full of unread messages.  The transition back into either of these two opposing worlds is always tough, but I have been reminded over and over again of Brian’s quote as hey, ain’t nobody told us to start this to begin with anyway, so we had better be enjoying it and making our time worth while, because no one else will! I’m grateful to our amazing team here who constantly remind me that this is indeed where I want to be and that, if we keep working hard and learning the lessons presented to us, we can indeed make our work worthwhile.  Happy Thanksgiving, and thank YOU for being a part of why we do our work!