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About a week ago I received an interview request from Rebekah Tucker, the Editor of Longwood University’s newspaper, the Rotunda. She sent a few questions along and I thought it would be appropriate to post the answers here. They are good and important questions, and I’m glad that people like Rebekah are wrestling with them, just as I am.
1. How did you start in your activism with PEG?
Actually, the PEG project kind of fell into our laps. We went to Guatemala on our honeymoon, not looking for a project, but while we were there we learned some things that led us to take action. We learned about the conditions that children were studying and living in and the lack of much government funding for education. We also learned how far US dollars can go in Guatemala, and it occurred to me that I have the opportunity, as a musician, to speak to thousands of people each year, and we might be able to raise some money to help out. Five years later we had raised about $100,000, which in Guatemala is a lot of money (we built a one-room school there for $2500 about three years ago).
I should be clear, though, that I don’t think we have to go to distant lands to find meaningful work to do. We just have to pay attention to what is in front of us and look for ways to be of service and have an impact.
One way to explore your own calling is to ask yourself three questions: first, what really winds you up? What frustrates you when you read the news, or gets you really excited? That’s another way of asking “what are you passionate about?” The next question is “What is one small thing you can do about it?” I choose the word ‘small’ intentionally. Don’t start huge, just think of one small thing you can do and let that lead you to the next small thing. We can become overwhelmed and immobilized if we take on too much, but all big things are made up of small things. Doing something small is much better than doing nothing, and may even be better than trying to do something big. After you do it, you ask the third question, which is “What next?”
2. What do you feel are the benefits of working with the project (or any project like this)?
If you’re asking about the benefits for me, I think the main benefit is that it has been extraordinarily empowering. No one can tell me I can’t change the world. There are kids getting an education in Guatemala who likely would not be if it weren’t for PEG. When people start talking about “changing the world” there are always people who will roll their eyes and say that it’s naive to talk and think like that, people who argue that idealism evaporates with a dose of “real world.” They’re wrong, though. It may be naive to think you can *fix* the world, but it’s not naive to think you can change the world. In fact, it’s just the opposite: it’s naive to think you could possibly be in the world and NOT change it. Everything you do changes the world whether you like it or not. It’s just a question of deciding what matters, and which changes you are going to make.
One other simple answer to your question, though, is “Because it feels good.” Sharing what we have deepens our connectedness, and turning outside of ourselves can heal our isolation. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s not just about self-sacrifice; giving of yourself has deep benefits for you too.
3. What are some of the best ways you’ve found to spread the word to others about this project?
Part of what led me to take this on was the fact that because I was a performer I had a public platform to reach people, but the truth is that if you have something worth saying, there are always places to say it and people who are interested. Civic groups like the Rotary Club, Kiwanis or the Lions, church groups, school groups, various publications, etc.— they’re all looking for compelling stories. One myth about this kind of work is that you have to be somebody special to do it. You don’t. Or maybe you do, but you ARE somebody special. The famous Catholic activist Dorothy Day said “Don’t call us saints, we don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” I think what she was getting at was that if we leave good works to heroes, then that gets us off to the hook from actually doing anything. The work gets done by the people who decide to do it.
4. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to start a project like this, or give to a project like this?
I guess I’ll answer that in two parts. My advice to someone who is interested in starting a project like this is twofold: First, pay attention. Find mentors who are doing work similar to the work you’re doing and ask for their guidance. Study up on your topic and on how others have approached these kinds of issues, investigate what the main pitfalls are, some common errors, etc. Mentors will save you from making some mistakes so that you’ll have the opportunity to make other mistakes.
My other tip contrasts with the first one, though. Namely, go for it! If you wait until you have it all figured out, you’re an expert on the subject, you have the perfect plan, etc., you’ll never do anything. Jump in and make some mistakes and get some things done. A lot of people focus on the errors, and there can be some costly goofs in this kind of work. It seems to me, though, that apathy and inaction are much bigger problems than faulty models. It is true that in the worst case scenario you can make things even worse, but I think it’s also true that if you set out to have a positive impact and you’re fairly smart about how you approach things, you’re likely to have a positive impact.
In terms of giving, I think that’s great too. Not everyone is called to go into the field and spend their lives in community with poor and oppressed people, but there are a lot of other ways to be involved too. One of my favorite quotations is from Howard Thurman, who was a big influence on a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said “”Don’t just ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go and do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I like that a lot. I think what he was trying to say was that we have different callings. What brings you joy? How can you use that to make the world a better place? The answer may not be obvious, but if you keep chewing on it some creative possibilities may emerge. I know some guys who are passionate about cycling and they raised over $12,000 for PEG a couple of years ago cycling across Canada in a fund raiser. They had a blast, and they also had a huge impact on a school in the village of Chacaya, Guatemala.
5. Why do you feel it is important to give to those less fortunate, especially during the holiday season?
Honestly, I don’t use the term “less fortunate” much. Honestly, I’ve learned a lot about community and how to live a full life from people who have a lot less than I do materially. I think we’re pretty impoverished in the western world in terms of community— we’re n less fortunate in some ways, and ironically, we’re burdened by our comfort. Sometimes it isolates us and we end up lonely in a way that I rarely see in the third world (or “the two-thirds” world, as some friends of mine say— the vast majority of the people in the world live in what most people in the U.S. would consider abject poverty). Still, the poor are definitely less fortunate in a lot of ways, so it’s not really an inaccurate term. One of the main differences is that there is no ‘net’ for people living in poverty. I’ve got a credit card, and if things go terribly wrong for me, I can run up the bill, I can call the U.S. Embassy for help getting home, I can turn to my family, etc. Yesterday I squatted in the home of a hand loom weaver in rural Andhra Pradesh, India. It’s a mud hut with a palm frond roof. His whole family lives on about 80 cents a day, and if a storm blows the hut away, he can’t go to Home Depot and get building materials. If he gets sick, he simply can’t go to the doctor because he can’t pay the doctor. If he has no money, he has no food. On the other hand, he has a village where everyone knows everyone and helps when there is a problem. I think it’s important for all of us to know each other and to deal with each other compassionately. Caring about each other, learning from each other, saving all the energy we expend trying to avoid the harsh realities of our privilege— engaging with each other makes all of our lives richer.
The holiday season is about faith, arguably for everyone— though for some it is religious faith and for others it is faith that our happiness lies in ‘stuff.’ I think that giving, in whatever way you feel called to give (money, time, compassion, etc.), deepens our connectedness with each other, and that is holy in and of itself. My own religious faith tradition teaches that this is also a very basic way in which we can be faithful to God, and in fact all of the world’s major religions teach that, so it makes good sense that especially at this time of year we should give some thought, prayer and action to these questions.
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a hand loom weaver I visited yesterday