#685 Teen shows power of intention

Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan

Alaina Podmorow and other Little Women taken at Sally Armstrong talk on April 30, 2013; photo from LW4LW Facebook page

What can one teen do in the face of a major social issue, in this case the need for more teachers, training, supplies and schools for women in Afghanistan? As it turns out, quite a lot, at least if that teen is Alaina Podmorow of Kelowna, British Columbia.

In 2006 Padmorow listened to Sally Armstrong’s stories about the barriers Afghani girls face in their efforts to gain access to education. Armstrong was speaking on behalf of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Since 1996 they had been raising funds to create awareness of and support women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Learning that $750 would pay a teacher’s salary for a year, the 9-year-old Podmorow recognized something she could do. Within a month she had raised $2,000 and galvanized a group of girls who wanted to help her raise more. They formed the core of Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan, launched in spring 2007. They have been raising funds ever since.

Every dollar they make is sent to Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, which in turns sends the entire amount to Afghanistan. The dollars are used to train teachers, pay salaries, fund mobile library kits, and buy school supplies.

In July 2012 the 15-year-old Podmorow spoke at TEDxKelowna, encouraging her listeners to believe in themselves and to engage in change.

Podmorow walks that talk. Since 2007 Little Women has raised about $375,000 and inspired other groups to form in Canada and the U.S.

Whatever Podmorow chooses to do with her studies and professional life, she is already a change maker. She gives me hope.

You can follow Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan on Twitter and Facebook.


#684 Beginnings inside endings

“One day as I was about to step on a dry leaf, I saw the leaf in the ultimate dimension.  I saw that it was not really dead, but that it was merging with the moist soil in order to appear on the tree the following spring in another form.  I smiled at the leaf and said, ‘You are pretending.’  Everything is pretending to be born and pretending to die, including that leaf.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

On my walk through Kelowna’s Rotary Marsh a few days ago, I stopped to photograph the perfect cluster of tiny flowers on a mountain ash. I was entranced. White petals like tiny scoops, pale yellow stamens, green leaves edged with teeth as jagged as tiny saws. I felt my heart expand, just looking at such perfection.


I stepped back a few paces, to capture more of the tree, against the sapphire blue of a cloudless sky. That’s when my attention moved to last year’s berries, hanging in shriveled, but still orange, bunches beneath the branches.


As spring progresses, the white flowers will fade, giving way to bright berries that will perch above the canopy of leaves. When the leaves fall in autumn, the bright berries will remain, now hanging below the branches that hold their clusters.


Later, against the white of a winter snowfall, the orange berries will shine with colour. Even those berries whose seeds do not become trees will eventually become part of the richness of soil and the new life that sprouts from it.


We are all perfect flowers in our youth. We bear a dizzying number of seeds of possibility. Some will fall onto fertile soil and blossom into new relationships, satisfying work, beautiful homes, happy children, new music, books, paintings. Others will seem to go nowhere yet become part of what fertilizes the ground in which something unexpected can grow.

And isn’t that the way of all life? Doesn’t every individual of every species start with the germ of promise that is the gift of its predecessors? All life is fruitful. Even in death we bear life. Even if we opt for a coffin and embalming, we only stave off our return to the soil that recycles us into new life.

The same is true for every ending, throughout our lives. Each holds within it the seeds of a new beginning. As with these bright berries, it is in the letting go, the falling to earth, the release into the darkness of uncertainty, that the seeds within those berries are released to emerge from their shells, sink roots into fertile soil, and once again grow and blossom.

Birth, growth, death. Beginnings inside endings. The pattern repeats itself throughout our lives, and each repetition contains the seeds of magic.


#683 Loving our true colors

Swirls of colour

With thanks to Jusben for this photo, via morgueFile

They are pure gold, yet they help us shine. They are the friends, family or lovers who accept us as we are. With them, we don’t have to hide our real selves.

John Legend, the singer and songwriter and creator of the Show Me Campaign expresses that kind of loving acceptance in “True Colors”, the Cyndi Lauper song below, and in the work he does through Show Me, whose mission is to break the cycle of poverty and ensure education for all children. When he sang “True Colors” to the educators gathered for TED Talks Education, he touched every heart. Teachers know how hungry their students are for acceptance and how challenging they can be in their search for it.

It is not just students and teachers, of course. We humans are fragile creatures. We readily identify our imperfections and our guilt over real or supposed failings. We easily compare ourselves with others who seem to have their lives so perfectly in order.

That’s why when we are with someone who knows and accepts our quirkiness and missteps, we open like spring flowers. We relax our guard and push away the protective curtains.

John Legend sings:

You can lose sight of it all,
And the darkness inside you
Can make you feel so small.
But I see your true colors
Shining through.
I see your true colors,
And that’s why I love you.

Of course, it is easier for us to offer loving acceptance to others if we offer it first to ourselves. So this is a celebration of the colors we each bring to this human kaleidoscope. They are our true colors, and the world is more beautiful because of them. In loving our true selves, we become more able to love the true selves of those around us.


#682 Guys in pink helmets

Cascos Rosa

Cascos Rosa, from their Facebook page

If you see young men and women wearing pink t-shirts in Ecuador and if they are spreading a message about “Neomasculinos”, they are likely members of Cascos Rosa (Pink Helmets). The network of Ecuadorian youth formed to struggle against the harmful aspects of machismo and to promote a new, more egalitarian way of relating. Their vision of new masculinity calls for an end to sexism, violence against women, gender inequality, and sexual exploitation.

I learned about them through the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS). Leisa Sánchez wrote that the network grew out of awareness training by the Ecuadorean chapter of Acción Ciudadana por la Democracia y el Desarrollo (ACDemocracia – Citizens’ Action for Democracy and Development) and the Coalition against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean. A group of teens and adults who wanted to transform the discriminatory patterns formed Cascos Rosa.

Starting with 33 members in 2010, the group grew to 140. In 2013 women were invited to join what had been an all-male organization. They received training, donned pink t-shirts, and took their message to places youth gather, such as music festivals.

Their workshop leader, Carolina Félix, told IPS:

We do not impose a way of thinking. We encourage the construction of a society based on equality, human rights and equity. The goal is to create spaces where men do not have power over women, where they express their emotions, and where women also understand that we have rights, freedoms and responsibilities, just as men do.”

Social change is never fast, never easy, but by raising awareness among young people Cascos Rosa hopes to gradually transform society. Ending discrimination against women leads to a more open and accepting society, and that benefits everyone.

Cascos Rosa has already changed the lives of the young members, and those youth are influencing others. They give me hope.

You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube


#681 Status4 helps kids be everything they can be

Kevin Gibson

Photo clip of Kevin Gibson from CBC video

Music and martial arts are not a combination that comes to mind when I’m thinking in pairs, but they are linked in Winnipeg, Manitoba – thanks to Status4 (a code that means “on the scene” to the city’s emergency responders.)

Since 1988 policeman Kevin Gibson has been patrolling the streets of the city. A lot of young people have weighed heavily on his heart in those years. He never gave up on them. One of them, Jennifer, sought him out to thank him.

Jennifer bounced from one foster family to another until she was 16. Broke, hungry, alone, she became involved in the sex trade. From the time she was 17, Kevin and his colleagues kept an eye on her and tried to persuade her to do something with her life. It took the murder of another prostitute to persuade her to accept the hand held out to her. She tells her story in the video.

Jennifer was one of the inspirations for Status4, with its slogan of “Be yourself and Free yourself.” The organization got its start after two police officers were shot in 2006. Gibson organized a fundraiser for them. “Brothers in Arms” raised tens of thousands of dollars for charities and prompted Gibson to turn the initial effort into something longer lasting. He wanted a way to reach youth before they got involved in crime.

Knowing how young people respond to music and martial arts and determined to help them reach their potential, he wrote funding proposals and gave presentations. In 2011 the hard work paid off. With initial funding, in-kind donations and a small room in need of renovations, he opened the doors. Youth walked through them, bringing their curiosity and enthusiasm.

Thanks to Kevin Gibson and a lot of supporters in the city of Winnipeg, more young people will have a chance of avoiding crime and achieving their dreams. They give me hope.

You can follow Status4 on Facebook and YouTube and meet Kevin Gibson in the CBC video below.


#680 Shave and a haircut, one hug

Hair clippers

Photo by AngryJulieMonday, via Flickr Creative Commons

Anthony Cymerys has his own version of the old ditty, “Shave and a haircut…two bits.” His jingle would be, “Shave and a haircut…one hug. Thanks to Jessica Hill of Associated Press, this big-hearted man’s quiet generosity is making the rounds of mainstream and social media. She writes:

The 82-year-old Cymerys, who is known as Joe the Barber, began offering his services 25 years ago after retiring from a career in business. He had cut hair for his family but decided to put his clippers to work for the less fortunate after being inspired by a church sermon about the homeless.

He wanted the homeless not to look homeless.

Cymerys started offering barbershop services in shelters and convalescent homes in 1988. Then for a while he was at the YWCA. When that closed, he moved outside. With his battery-powered clippers and a folding chair, he opens for business every Wednesday in Hartford, Connecticut’s Bushnell Park. His customers line up, get their hair tidied by the man they call “Joe the Barber”, and then pay him with a hug.

Wandering around on the ‘Net for more information about Cymerys, I came across a piece Jennifer Warner Cooper wrote for the Hartford Courant in February 2007. She said the volunteer barber was at his post every week unless it rained (which could short out his clippers), offering sandwiches and soup as well as haircuts. When she asked him if he felt vulnerable in areas considered risky at night, he told her, “No, of course I’m not afraid! These guys are terrific. They’re like my sons, my nephews.”

In 2010 he told Kristie Borges of the Hartford Courant, “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. You can’t buy this. Money can’t buy what I get for what I do out here.”

Mark Spencer wrote about him again for the Hartford Courant in April 2011. Cymerys had spent the winter in Florida and was looking forward to getting back to work. Volunteers had brought food for his customers, but they were in need of haircuts.

A local church serves the Wednesday lunch now, but Cymerys still provides the haircuts. He told Jessica Hill, “It really is love. I love these guys….That’s what it’s all about.”

If you take a look at the photos, you’ll see the love that shines through his eyes. Joe the Barber’s ministry is love, in the guise of a haircut. He gives me hope.

I didn’t find any public domain photos of Anthony Cymerys, but a Google image search turned up photos that will make you smile.


#679 Boy Scouts take a small step in the right direction

Boy Scouts stamp

By Jphill19 (Own work created with document image scanner) [Public domain, GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The ban on gay and lesbian scout leaders in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is going to seem like a curious throwback one day soon. In the meantime, I am celebrating the hard-fought decision announced May 23, 2013. The organization has finally opened its doors to membership for gay youths.

In theory that means boys will no longer have to check their identity at the door to be part of the scouting organization. The reality is likely to be less friendly until the last ban is rooted out. Conservative, homophobic leaders will still be allowed to inculcate anti-gay attitudes in their young charges. OnMyHonor.Net will continue spouting its ugly rhetoric. And an organization in which 61 per cent of those responding to a survey supported excluding gays is not likely to provide a welcoming atmosphere.

The Boy Scouts are extending only a tentative hand to gay youth. As long as they ban gay and lesbian leaders, they will be holding a rock in the other hand. Once gay members turn 18 and want to become leaders, out will come the rock to bash their aspirations. That is clearly an untenable and hypocritical situation for an organization that purports to be values based and to build character.

Not so many years ago one of the values they espoused was the exclusion of African American youth. That is why I see the current decision as reason for hope.

Michelle D. Holmes has an insider’s view on that. The associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health is one of 1,400 BSA board members who voted on the change. In an article for the Boston Globe, she cites other examples of positive of social change and writes:

With youth membership now under 2.7 million from 5 million in the 1970s, and with Cub membership, the biggest single segment of Scouting, falling the fastest, Scouters from states like Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas told me it was better to adapt to the times and allow gay members rather than risk a national collapse of Scouting by keeping gays out.

That sentiment was reflected by a 2-to-1 margin Thursday.

The ban on gay and lesbian scout leaders will be next to go. But we can still celebrate the Boy Scouts’ decision as another step in the proverbial journey of a thousand miles.


#678 Listen for the right notes

Pablo Casals statue

Pablo Casals centenary statue; By User:Mdd4696 (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Years ago I read a story that affirmed what I believed about how to be an effective storytelling mentor. Students kept wanting me to be hard on them, to ferret out every small failing in their delivery, every tiny stumble in their stories. I was not comfortable with that. I wanted to point out what was right with their storytelling so they would do more of that.

This was long before I began reading theories about how we shape the world by what we focus on. But like everyone else, I had experienced my share of painful barbs from people wanting to improve me.

Reading about Pablo Casals and a young cellist was one of those pivotal moments when something we hear or read or see so profoundly affects us we never forget it. I may have skewed the details in the years since I read the story. I found only one reference to it online, with slightly different details. But that author must have been as affected by it as I was because both our versions convey the same nugget of truth.

The gist of the story is this: A young cellist had the opportunity to play for the master. He tackled a particularly difficult piece and made many mistakes.

He was mortified and not reassured when the great Casals praised his playing. In fact, he was disappointed that his idol did not rip apart what was so obviously a poor performance. The incident haunted him.

Years later the young man met Casals again. By this time he had established a successful career and wondered if Casals remembered hearing him so long before. Casals did remember so the young man asked why he had praised such an error-filled performance. Casals sat down at his cello and played a passage.

“Didn’t you play it this way?” he asked.

The young man nodded, and Casals played another passage. “And isn’t this the way you played this section?”

Again the young man nodded. “I had never thought of playing it that way,” said Casals.

What Pablo Casals taught the young cellist is that anyone can hear the wrong notes. It takes a musician to hear what is right, what is unusual, what is inspired.

That story has stayed with me for more than three decades. It has guided me as a storyteller, a teacher, a community developer. And it is still the shining star I walk toward as I blog about reasons for hope, about stories and storytelling, and about catching courage from each other’s experiences.

Anyone can hear the wrong notes. My task is to look for what is right.


#677 Denise Ho comes out

Denise Ho coming out

Denise Ho coming out; Photo clip from video posted by Derek Yiu

Denise Ho is young, popular, and beautiful. That she is a lesbian has no bearing on her talent, but it still took a lot of soul searching and gumption for her to declare her identity on November 10, 2012. Prejudice and discrimination continue to create risks for people whose gender identity does not fit into standard, heterosexual patterns.

Ho came out before a large audience in Hong Kong, during the city’s 4th LGBT Pride Parade. Fridae translated part of her remarks:

For many years, when I faced questions from the media, I always felt that sexual orientation is a personal matter, that there is no need to label yourself or tell the public. But in 2012 when one would expect more acceptance and progress (in terms of gay equality), I find that there is still discrimination and prejudice. I feel that silence is no longer an option.

Fans had long speculated about the androgynous performer, whose repertoire includes songs about love between two men (“Lawrence and Lewis”) and two women (“Goodbye, Rosemary”), but Ho made her decision to come out only after a lot of soul searching. Writing on her blog afterward, she declared her commitment to changing discriminatory attitudes. You can read translated excerpts on PopularAsians.com.

Rainbow flags, thumbs up and a lot of cheering greeted her announcement she is “tongzhi” (Chinese slang for gay). As the first mainstream female singer in Hong Kong to come out as a lesbian, she showed tremendous courage.

Denise Ho brings the day closer, when people will look back with amazement at a time when it was risky for so many people to simply be who they were.

She gives me hope.


#676 Bullitt Center becomes world’s greenest commercial building

Seattle's Bullitt Center

Seattle’s Bullitt Center; photo clip from EarthFix video

It can be done. That is the message of Seattle’s Bullitt Center, billed as “one of the nation’s first mid-rise commercial buildings to achieve ‘living building’ status, a new benchmark for environmental sustainability.”

Located on the northern edge of the Central District, next to my old Capitol Hill neighbourhood, the Bullitt Center opened on Earth Day 2013. In keeping with the Bullitt Center’s sustainability goals, the building’s electricity needs will be generated by solar panels. Landscaping will provide green stormwater infrastructure and natural drainage. Rain will supply water needs. Wastewater will be treated onsite.

Instead of the closed-up, climate-controlled environment of most commercial buildings, this one offers fresh air and daylight to every worker. To encourage people to use public or active transportation, the building offers no parking spaces for vehicles. It does, however, offer plenty of bike parking. Tenants who ride the elevator will probably be embarrassed, as walking up the stairs will be the norm.

Built of non-toxic, regional materials, the building walks the environmental talk. Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes told the Seattle Times: “You can be exceedingly environmental without eating granola and living in a yurt. This is a highly productive building.”

The EarthFix video explains the vision and the plan, to create a building “in complete balance with nature.” The building will become a model for other commercial ventures. It gives me hope.

You can follow the Bullitt Center on Twitter

Seattle’s Bullitt Center: The World’s Greenest Office Building from EarthFix on Vimeo.