Hero of the Week — Maria Bashir

Maria Bashir II Maria Bashir

 

Maria Bashir is the Chief Prosecutor General of Herat Province Afghanistan (the second largest jurisdiction in the country), the only woman to hold such a position thus far. Her fifteen years of experience as a civil servant has brought her into conflict with criminals, the Taliban, and corrupt policemen. When the Taliban took power in 1996, she was barred from working and instead spent her time illegally educating girls at her home. 

She was called back into service in 2006, focusing on rooting out corruption and eradicating the oppression of women. She has handled hundreds of cases amid death threats and assassination attempts, one of which nearly killed her children; subsequently, she has a retinue of around 20 or so bodyguards while her children are in virtual hiding.

For her courage and tenacity, Bashir has received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award and been recognized among The 2011 Time 100. I recommend reading her interview with the United Nations here; unfortunately, most of the information about her is three or four years old, so I am unaware of her current efforts and predicaments. Thankfully, she seems to still be alive and working as a prosecutor, doing everything she can to better her country and its future .

Needless to say, Maria Bashir is an incredible hero and role model, to say the least. 

An Amazing and Heartwarming Way to Learn a Language

ADWEEK recently featured a simple but innovative way to address two seemingly unrelated issues at once: teaching young people English while giving lonely elderly people someone to talk to.

FCB Brazil did just that with its “Speaking Exchange” project for CNA language schools. As seen in the touching case study below, the young Brazilians and older Americans connect via Web chats, and they not only begin to share a language—they develop relationships that enrich both sides culturally and emotionally.

The differences in age and background combine to make the interactions remarkable to watch. And the participants clearly grow close to one another, to the point where they end up speaking from the heart in a more universal language than English.

The pilot project was implemented at a CNA school in Liberdade, Brazil, and the Windsor Park Retirement Community in Chicago. The conversations are recorded and uploaded as private YouTube videos for the teachers to evaluate the students’ development.

“The idea is simple and it’s a win-win proposition for both the students and the American senior citizens. It’s exciting to see their reactions and contentment. It truly benefits both sides,” says Joanna Monteiro, executive creative director at FCB Brazil.

Says Max Geraldo, FCB Brazil’s executive director: “The beauty of this project is in CNA’s belief that we develop better students when we develop better people.”

Needless to say, this is pretty touching and inspiring stuff. I’d love to see more programs like this take off between other countries. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind participating in one myself.

Check out the heartwarming introductory video below. What do you think?

The James Bond of Philanthropy

In my view, with great wealth comes great responsibility. It gives you the capacity to do tremendous good or harm in the world, far more than the overwhelming majority of fellow humans. A little-known Irish-American businessman named Chuck Feeney exemplifies the incredible moral potential that the world’s richest can exercise if they so choose. Forbes did a piece on this amazing philanthropist in 2012, likening him to James Bond for his uniquely low-key and strategic approach to charitable giving:

Over the last 30 years he’s crisscrossed the globe conducting a clandestine operation to give away a $7.5 billion fortune derived from hawking cognac, perfume and cigarettes in his empire of duty-free shops. His foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, has funneled $6.2 billion into education, science, health care, aging and civil rights in the U.S., Australia, Vietnam, Bermuda, South Africa and Ireland. Few living people have given away more, and no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime. The remaining $1.3 billion will be spent by 2016, and the foundation will be shuttered in 2020. While the business world’s titans obsess over piling up as many riches as possible, Feeney is working double time to die broke.

Feeney embarked on this mission in 1984, in the middle of a decade marked by wealth creation–and conspicuous consumption–when he slyly transferred his entire 38.75% ownership stake in Duty Free Shoppers to what became the Atlantic Philanthropies. “I concluded that if you hung on to a piece of the action for yourself you’d always be worrying about that piece,” says Feeney, who estimates his current net worth at $2 million (with an “m”). “People used to ask me how I got my jollies, and I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”

What Feeney does is give big money to big problems–whether bringing peace to Northern Ireland, modernizing Vietnam’s health care system or seeding $350 million to turn New York’s long-neglected Roosevelt Island into a technology hub. He’s not waiting to grant gifts after he’s gone nor to set up a legacy fund that annually tosses pennies at a $10 problem. He hunts for causes where he can have dramatic impact and goes all-in. “Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model,” Bill Gates tells FORBES, “and the ultimate example of giving while living.”

I highly recommend you read the rest of the article, as it eventually discusses the nuances of Feeny’s character and his rather sophisticated philanthropic methods. The amount of wealth he is donating in both proportional and absolute terms is staggering enough without the added humility and strategic approach.

It is unfortunate that amid ever-higher rates of inequality — best epitomized by the fact that a mere 85 individuals own more wealth than around half of the world’s poorest people (3.5 billion) — most of the world’s elites aren’t following in Feeny’s footsteps, or at the very least donating more than a mere percentage of their assets. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, and even a number of us who are comfortably well-off could be doing more.

The Man Who Cultivated Malala

By now most readers no doubt know of Malala Yousafzai, the brave teen activist who advocated for education and women’s rights in a Taliban-dominated part of Pakistan before nearly dying  at the hands of a Taliban gunman. The assassination attempt — which has done little to silence her — rightly elevated her to international attention while highlighting the plight of women and girls in Pakistan and the brave efforts of reformers like Malala to change the status quo.

Now the man who has been most fundamental to Malala’s courage, her father Ziauddin, is entering the spotlight for his uniquely progressive role in helping his daughter realize her remarkable potential on her own terms. “Why is my daughter so strong?” Yousafzai asks. “Because I didn’t clip her wings.” A simple but profound point about the role that parents should play in their children’s lives, especially within societies that seek to oppress and stifle them.

Check out his incredible and inspiring TED Talk below. It’s well worth your time.

It’s beautiful to see how much this son and daughter team have managed to defy stereotypes and societal pressure to become mutually reinforcing and supportive of each other, leading as much by example as through activism. I can’t wait to see what amazing things they’ll accomplish in the future, especially as Malala begins to realize her dream of continuing her education and no doubt learning more about how she can help the world.

 

Eight Cool Photos of the Monuments Men

I’m not sure how the upcoming film will turn out, but the real-life story of the “Monuments Men” is certainly amazing. I wish I had the time to get into it, but here’s a brief summary: in 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program — whose staff was known collectively as ” Monuments Men” —  to help rescue art and cultural property from obliteration or looting during World War II.

Previously, there had been academic and cultural institutions working to identify or protect European art that was in danger of destruction or plundering. But as the war intensified and the Allies advanced into occupied territory, these groups realized that military and government support was needed, and took their concerns to Washington to spur action. At its peak, the MFAA unit comprised 345 men and women from 13 countries, which included a mix of servicemembers and some of the foremost curators, art historians, museum directors, and other cultural figures.

By 1945, the group sifted through more than 1,000 stashes of art to identify and save an estimated 5 million pieces of artwork and cultural items, mostly stolen from wealthy Jews, museums, universities, and religious institutions. Even six years after the surrender, a smaller group of about 60 Monuments Men continued scouring Europe as private art detectives. Most of the unit would go on to serve in universities, museums, art galleries, and archives across the world.

Anyway, you can check out some of these great photos here. I hope the new film, which I am interested in watching, does this amazing and under-appreciated effort justice.

The Small Christmas Truce

Many readers have probably already heard of the famous Christmas Truce that occurred on the Western Front of the First World War in 1914. Although largely overshadowed by the sheer scale of death and brutality that characterized this first truly global conflict, it nonetheless continues to inspire people generations later with its message of hope and humanity amidst even the most unlikely circumstances.

As we all know, the Second World War would eventually outdo its predecessor by an unspeakable margin, both in death and barbarism. Given the existential nature of that conflict, a similar truce on the scale of World War I’s was unlikely, and indeed there’s no record of any such good will having occurred — except for one small but powerful event.

On a snowy Christmas Eve in 1944, a German woman named Elisabeth Vincken, who lived on the Belgian-German border, was preparing Christmas dinner with her 12-year-old son Fritz, when they heard a surprising knock on the door: three American soldiers, one of whom was badly injured, had gotten lost in the midst of the brutal Battle of the Bulge, the last major conflict on the Western Front.

Although they were armed, the soldiers, who looked no older than their mid-teens, didn’t burst in. She took pity on them and invited them in from the cold for Christmas dinner — an offense punishable by death (neither side spoke the other’s language, but they got by on broken French).

As she and her son prepared their food, there was another knock at the door; a 23-year-old German corporal and three other soldiers (two only sixteen) wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas, but were lost and hungry. Despite the incredible risk, Elisabeth told them that they were welcome to come, but there were others inside who they would not consider friends. The corporal asked sharply if there were Americans inside and she said there were — and they were lost, cold, and hungry like they were. When he stared her down, she stood her ground and asserted: “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.” She then asked both the Germans and the Americans to leave their guns outside and come together for dinner, which they all surprisingly did.

Despite the initial (and understandable) tension, relations between the men became cordial after dinner, with both sides shedding tears when Elisabeth said grace. The Germans even provided some wine and bread, and one of them, an ex-medical student, tended to the wounded America. This truce lasted through the night and into the morning. The German corporal told the Americans the best way to get back to their lines and provided them with a map and compass; he even told them how to avoid German territory. In the morning, all the soldiers took their respective weapons, shook hands, and left in opposite directions.

Elisabeth, her son, and her husband survived the war, although all three have since passed away. The fate of all but one of the soldiers is unknown: Ralph Bank, an American, still kept the compass and map provided by the corporal that saved his life. Bank would eventually meet up with an older Frtiz decades later, thanking him and his mother for taking them in.

Though this was a mere flicker of hope and goodwill relative to the massive level of death and suffering that transpired before and after, it’s nonetheless an important reminder of the capacity for human beings to transcend violence and hatred even in the most unlikely circumstances.

What Martin Luther King Jr. Stood For

Martin Luther King Jr. remains one of the most enduring and popular figures in American history, and rightfully so: his brilliant oratory, moral integrity, and steadfast dedication to social justice make him a timeless role model for people across the world.

But like most prominent figures, especially those who promoted such ambitious goals, many have come to challenge King’s contributions; namely, whether his goals were ultimately achieved. Given the persistence of racial inequality — highlighted by disproportional rates of poverty, imprisonment, and the like — it’s easy, if not understandable, to consider King’s dream a failure (or at least a work in progress).

While I sadly don’t have the time to share my own thoughts on the matter, I’ve found a great piece on DailyKos that more or less echoes my views as well. I recommend you read the whole article, but the following excerpt represents the crux of it:

So yes, Dr. King had many other goals, many other more transcendent, non-racial, policy goals, goals that apply to white people too, like ending poverty, reducing the war-like aspects of our foreign policy, promoting the New Deal goal of universal employment, and so on. But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears. So please don’t tell me that Martin Luther King’s dream has not been achieved, unless you knew what racial terrorism was like back then and can make a convincing case you still feel it today. If you did not go through that transition, you’re not qualified to say that the dream was not accomplished.

That is what Dr. King did—not march, not give good speeches. He crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives.

Once the beating was over, we were free.

It wasn’t the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us. It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid. So, sorry Mrs. Clinton, as much as I admire you, you were wrong on this one. Our people freed ourselves and those Acts, as important as they were, were only white people officially recognizing what we had done.

What are your thoughts?

Around The World On Foot

NPR had a fascinating interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Paul Salopek, who is engaging on a fascinating journey that I’ve long dreamed about: traveling the world by foot. 

“There’s something about moving across the surface of the earth at 3 miles per hour that feels really good,” he tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

Salopek plans to walk 21,000 miles total — from Africa to the Middle East, across Asia, down through Alaska and all the way to Tierra del Fuego. He calls it the “Out of Eden Walk” because the idea is to follow the path of human migration.

Along the way, he’s documenting the journey for National Geographic magazine. In fact, his journey is the cover story in this month’s issue, with photos by John Stanmeyer.

Salopek is currently 10 months into the voyage, and just crossed the border into Jordan from Saudi Arabia. He has faced numerous obstacles, he says, like extreme temperatures and dust devils. As well as manmade obstacles that are vastly different from what early Homo sapiens might have encountered.

It’s remarkable to imagine just how much our early ancestors went through. If we think traveling is difficult and expensive now, imagine being the very first to have done so without the benefit of knowledge or technology? I hope to engage in this life-changing pursuit myself some day. If the fifty-one year-old Salopek can do it, I’m sure I can pull it off — that leaves me plenty of time to save money.

Read more about his journey, and see gorgeous photos, on the official website.

Shakuntala Devi: The Human Computer

Today’s Google Doodle honors the 84th birthday of Shakuntala Devi, who passed away this past April. Known as the “Human Computer” and “Mental Calculator” for her remarkable mathematical ability, she was capable of solving complex equations faster than most computers — without any formal training. The Times of India gives this summary:

Born on November 4, 1929, in Bangalore, to an orthodox priestly Brahmin family Devi had no access to proper schooling and food in her early years.

When she was only three, Devi began showing great affinity with numbers. By the time she was five, she became an expert in solving complex mental arithmetic.

Credited with solving some frightfully complicated arithmetic problems with apparent ease and astonishing speed, Shakuntala Devi’s calculating skills stunned the world throughout the 1970s and 80s. Her sharpness often made sophisticated digital devices seem inadequate.

Shakuntala Devi figured in the Guiness Book of World Record for her outstanding ability and wrote numerous books like ‘Fun with Numbers’, ‘Astrology for You’, ‘Puzzles to Puzzle You’, and ‘Mathablit’.

At the age of six, she demonstrated her calculation skills in her first major public performance at the University of Mysore and two years later, she again proved herself successful as a child prodigy at Annamalai University.

In 1977, Shakuntala Devi extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number mentally. In the same year in Dallas, she competed with a computer to see who gives the cube root of 188138517 faster and she won.

Rated as one in 58 million for her stupendous mathematical feats by one of the fastest supercomputers ever invented, the Univac-1108, Devi believed in using grey cells to silicon chips.

On June 18, 1980 she demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers 7,686,369,774,870 x 2,465,099,745,779 picked at random by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London. She answered the question in 28 seconds flat. This event is mentioned in the 1995 Guinness Book of Records.

Aside from these profound mathematical achievements, in 1977 she published India’s first formal study of homosexuality, concluding that it should be decriminalized and treated with “full and complete acceptance—not tolerance and not sympathy”. Her humanism was as great as her intellect. It’s a shame she’s not better known outside of India.

Labor of Love

The following photo, Dr. Zbigniew Religa, a Polish cardiac surgeon who was one of the best in the field, monitors his patient after a successful 23-hour successful lung and heart transplant (his assistant is sleeping in the corner). The photo was among National Geographic’s 100 Best Pictures.

The procedure took place in 1987 Communist Poland, with the technology of the time requiring constant monitoring — which Religa was willing to do even after nearly 24 hours of difficult surgery. The following is an interview with the photographer, James L. Stanfield:

He’d captured the anxious eyes of Dr. Zbigniew Religa tracking the vital signs of a heart-transplant patient. “I never let him out of my sight, never turned my back on him,” he says. “This was the payoff.”

It was 1987, in an outmoded operating room in post-Soviet Poland. Stanfield was looking for an image that would portray the critical state of the country’s free health-care system—and that’s exactly what he got.

His lens not only focuses on a dedicated surgeon’s eyes, but also on a patient hooked up to technologically outdated equipment. Stanfield also includes a weary staff member (far right) sleeping after assisting Religa with two transplants during an all-night session. “Each of these elements,” says Stanfield, “gives dimension and drama to the photograph, while helping tell a story.

Here is a touching photo of the patient:

 

Dr. Religa passed away in 2009, two years after serving as the Minister of Health of Poland.