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The Person Who Inspired Me to Start this Blog by The Humanitarian Blog

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.

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.

25 responses to “The Person Who Inspired Me to Start this Blog”

  1. OmarA says:

    This was a very intriguing post.

  2. Anonymous says:

    wait, so 2 MIT girls are on the top 10 list?

    and just because someone doesn’t know exactly where on a map a country is doesn’t mean they’re fake. as long as they know the approximate geographic area, they can still be well-informed on an issue and be legitimate activists.

  3. Oasis says:

    There are so many of these unfortunate women in Southeast Asia – not only Sri Lanka, but also Philippines and Malaysia (and, I’m sure, in even more countries). During high school we partnered with a missionary organization that worked and taught these women in Philippines and Malaysia to make braided goods (bracelets, necklaces) and sold them to the US to help them make a living.

    This issue is real – it’s out there, and it’s everywhere.

  4. JNT says:

    That’s amazing. That’s the sort of thing that will change the world, helping people learn to help themselves and she deserves any awards she gets for it.

  5. Ali says:

    Hi, Anonymous #2.

    Yup, we had two MITers make it to the top ten!



  6. Vani says:

    Wow… it’s stuff like this that’s truly inspiring!

  7. bunny says:

    I totally agree that many activists are just in it for the social status; I’ve never been to a Free Tibet rally, but reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography (Freedom in Exile, if anyone’s interested) really opened my eyes on the issue. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but my sister has been to Tibet twice now, and brought me back a Free Tibet shirt made by Tibetan exiles, and I get a terrible pang in my stomach every time I wear it and someone brings up the stupid Family Guy joke.

    Oh, and Che Guevara was pretty awesome, until he decided that he’d rather be hypocritical than lose what he’d fought for. If anyone’s ever seen Eureka Seven, his revolution was the inspiration for the show; the photographer was actually designed after him.

    Anyways… thanks for the extremely well thought-out and enlightening post.

  8. anon2 says:


    wow, that’s pretty amazing! but i’m not at all surprised…

  9. AParent says:

    I can not help writing a response to this entry. You kids do not have a full picture of Tibet. In history, Tibet has always been a part of China, at least for the past 200 years. It never needs your liberation of any kind. However, I do feel happy to read so many young men and women are activists in the humanitarian efforts to make this world a better place to live for all. Dalai Lama’s story only reflects his point of view concerning the Tibet issue. Besides, the Tibetans are now enjoying a better life than what they had 20 years ago.

  10. Kevin says:

    This is not a question of quality of life. It is, more importantly, a question of human rights and sovereignty. Does China have a right to rule people that it so grossly does not represent? Based on the fundamental rights of men as outlined by philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau, China does not have such a right. This lack of representation has led to a Tibetian apartheid, which, with regards to human rights, can not be tolerated in a just world.

    I would like to remind you that we teenagers can be well informed about the world, especially those of us MIT students and MIT hopefuls.

    On a more civil note, this was an inspiring blog post and I’m glad to see that the future leaders of America do care.

  11. David says:

    I disagree with the comment above by “AParent” and think that the person missed the point. This story was meant to inspire, to encourage people to help others who need it. I thought it was well written, and moving. Personally, I was able to relate to the initial cynicism. It’s not about whether Tibet was free or not, and this probably isn’t the place to say that either.

  12. Meghan says:

    It’s so encouraging to hear stories like that. They give me hope for the world and for what mankind’s future holds.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Yes, it is inspiring, and I so want to go to MIT to interact with such people.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Does anyone know when the admission decision go out?

  15. Anonymous says:

    @ the latest anonymous… ahahahaha nice link for your name

  16. Sparsh Pande says:

    Such stories always inspire you. Thanks for such a beautiful post.

  17. Steven says:

    I can definitely understand your cynicism in the first part of the post. It seems to be the cool thing to protest global warming, then drive home in your SUV.

    The story you mentioned is very inspiring though. It makes me feel as if I can make a difference.

  18. Thanks for this post- quite illuminary. I share your distain for people who “talk the talk” but can’t walk for their lives. This organization, however, the true focus of your post, is just one of the amazing, earth-changing installments to sprout from MIT. MIT ROCKS!
    And @ a parent: You’ve been chastised enough, so I’ll only say this: teenagers everywhere do important things. The ones who don’t are probably held back only by the low expectations of adults who overlook their enthusiasm.
    Thanks again, MIT for the great post.

  19. Hawkins says:

    Well said indeed. Thank you for writing this!

  20. Anon says:

    So Ali,This is your Final year at MIT.who is going to continue the blogs?how does all this feel

  21. Ali says:

    Hi, Anon.

    I need to talk with Ben to ensure that someone continues this blog next year. Thanks for writing!



  22. Steve says:

    I don’t think what Emerge does, which is charity, is really the same thing as activism.

    Alia doesn’t go to the Senate and protest the structural violence that caused the rape and she doesn’t claim to understand those issues either. If people are cynical about SaveDarfur, StepItUp, ONE and the like, I don’t think Alia’s story would really give you a reason to think otherwise.

    In fact, it might give you another reason to tell social justice advocates to do something practical like go to Sudan and work on relief or go to Brazil and work on a conservation project, which is more in line with Emerge, isn’t it?

  23. Grace '11 says:

    haha ali, i’ve never seen you wearing the necklace! doooo it!! unless you already gave it to someone special…

  24. Anonymous says:

    absolutely any form of activism is better than apathy.
    well, we’ll draw the line at terror, shall we?