Dec 9, 2007
The Person Who Inspired Me to Start this Blog
Posted in: MIT Facts
My cousin was involved in the Free Tibet campaign when he attended Williams College. Long before I became politically conscious, he told me a story about some people whom he’d met at Free Tibet rallies who couldn’t locate Tibet on a map. It seems comical, even absurd, that people who can’t locate Tibet on a map would clamor passionately for its independence. Indeed, I first found that story funny. With time, though, it evolved from a source of amusement into a source of irritation, even anger. During my year off, I read a lot about activists of the 1960s: the students (black and white) who allowed Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak on Washington Mall, the people (men and women) who allowed Betty Friedan to put feminism on the map, and so forth. They were real activists. I couldn’t help but think that some 40 years later, activism had become something of a fashionable habit. I felt as though I couldn’t walk down the street without seeing someone my age wearing a Che Guevara shirt. Did they know who he was? Did they understand the principles for which they stood? Did they even know the country in which he operated? Some of them surely did, but far more, I suspect, didn’t.
It was in response to this degradation – degradation of a noble activity – that I decided never to wear political clothing or attend demonstrations. I didn’t want to associate with individuals who get exercised over issues of which they have little to no understanding, particularly when their ignorance trivializes human suffering. I don’t possess such understanding; however, I don’t purport to have it either.
Enough about me, though. The point is that I’d grown to be quite cynical about the political activity of people my age by the time I came to MIT. I figured that most of them just wanted to draw attention to themselves.
It was Alia Whitney-Johnson ‘08 who made me recognize the folly of my cynicism. In fact, she is the person who inspired me to start this blog.
She traveled to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia in December 2004. It was there, while engaging in humanitarian relief efforts, that she had an awakening that would lead to Emerge:
“My stomach turned as I stepped foot for the first time into Ma-Sevana, a home for sexually abused teenage mothers in Sri Lanka. No amount of mental preparation equipped me for the emotional wave that swept through my body, draining me of my usual composure. 20 girls, ages 10 to 18, were clustered around a table in a long, dimly-lit room, holding and nursing their babies. Their tiny bodies left me in disbelief that they could even bare a child. And yet, there they were, alone and young, straddling two worlds, somewhere between woman and girl, mother and child… It was on that day that I decided to host my first jewelry workshop with the girls so that I might get to know them better.”
Emerge aims to empower these girls – oftentimes the victims of rape or incest at the hands of family members – by helping them sell their jewelry. Alia told me that “[beading] was the best form of therapy that [the girls’] counselor had seen, and I quickly realized its business potential if developed and marketed in the correct way.”
She would soon encounter obstacles as she attempted to implement her idea.
When she returned from her third trip to Sri Lanka, she told me stories about the stifling Sri Lankan bureaucracy, the misappropriation of funds that she had worked so hard to gather, and the late nights that she had spent working in stuffy Internet cafes to finish reports after her hard drive crashed. She described the rape and imprisonment of girls whom she was nurturing and the wrenching challenge of comforting a 14-year-old girl who had lost her healthy son of six months when he choked in his sleep. Most people would quit if they endured these types of experiences.
But she didn’t. In retrospect, I feel ashamed that I ever viewed her endeavor with cynicism.
She has built up Emerge the old-fashioned way: one trip to Sri Lanka at a time, one lecture at a time, one jewelry sale at a time, one e-mail newsletter at a time. Where I saw so many other people falter in their efforts, she persisted. It was at that moment that I recognized that there was something different about Alia – something profoundly different.
What started as a small gesture of kindness – making jewelry for a small group of girls – has blossomed into an impressive NGO that has won a $10,000 grant from the World Bank and gained community partners ranging from Victoria’s Secret to Sarvodaya, a Sri Lankan group that engages in development and reconstruction work.
Her work in Sri Lanka has already won her national acclaim: She was selected as a Truman Scholar last year and as one of Glamour’s “Top Ten College Women” this year (as was the amazing Melis Anahtar, who I’ll be profiling in one of my blog entries next semester).
Alia plans to spend the next two to five years developing Emerge into a sustainable organization. Here, from her website, is the philosophy that’ll guide her as she embarks on this journey:
We see their reality
of both strength and pain,
where dreams have no means to blossom
We believe that joy and creativity heal,
that a livelihood empowers,
and that a community inspires
We aim to give a voice to those silenced,
and to build the reality where every woman can emerge into her own
The girls of Sri Lanka have in Alia an incredible beacon of hope and defender of justice. Having bought a necklace at her jewelry sale, I can’t help but think that her heart is among the world’s rarest gems.