Archive for June, 2009

Eat Your Broccoli

Posted in Uncategorized on June 18, 2009 by racheltobias

Today was similar to drinking a few cups of Nyquil and washing it down with Swedish fish. (Just to clarify the analogy for those with differing taste buds: Nyquil = the worst    —-   Swedish Fish = the best).


At this moment, after spending most of the day in tears, I feel so exhaustingly drained of emotion, yet simultaneously so invigorated and certain of myself, in a boggling way.


So to preface the day, for those who are still unclear on what it is that Ashoka does, let me summarize: As our CEO Bill Drayton says, you can give a man to fish and he’ll have a meal. You can teach a man to fish, and he may never go hungry. But social entrepreneurs are not content until they have revolutionized the fishing industry. The heart of Ashoka is the network of Fellows that we elect. Our Fellows represent leading social entrepreneurs in their fields, people who are not only addressing certain problems in the world, but are actively and creatively pursuing ways to change the system in a way that roots out the issue’s source and creates an effective, sustainable change.

Since I work in the D.C. office, most of my job involves reading and writing about future fellows and the work they are doing, which is wonderful because it gives me a small window into others’ motivations for change the ways they pursue that chase. However, I think today I really felt the essence of Ashoka as deeply and fully as I think is possible (at least I hope so, for my emotional sake.)

We had a prospective candidate visit today to speak to me and another Ashoka colleague about his life and current work, which involves the problem of urban violence. However, before he began looking at violence as a systemic problem, he spent over a decade working throughout Africa and across other continents as a highly specialized doctor attempting to eradicate infectious diseases. He was at the top of his class – top of the world – a doctor with the potential to make a 3924803498520092304 figure-salary (I exaggerate for effect) and with the inflating reputation as one of the most skilled and prominent professionals in his field. Nevertheless, without any funding or friends, he left the United States and worked in one of the most desperate and horror-filled countries on the African continent. Because of his dedication to his work and the people he touched, his marriage fell apart, he saw the absolute worst of humanity, submitted himself to, well, hell. And by hell I mean hell. Perhaps you have reached to those depths at some point in your life, perhaps you have not. This particular individual has in a very profound way.

Listening to his journey invoked within me the familiar feeling that swells regularly depending on my mood and situation. Today I felt as though it almost burst. As he went on about his struggles and his achievements in regions of the world that are absolutely desperate for something, anything, thing, I felt that irrepressible being within me rear its not-so-ugly head, that being that makes me certain of where I should be and what I should be doing.


I feel so called,            so called,             to go where people need help the most, where people need humanity the most.


The most.

Specifically, I feel called to those African countries and regions that, as the candidate I spoke with today described, live in a different time. Not a different place, but a different time. They have been forgotten, left behind, abandoned. And why? We’ll get back to this.


I listened to him talk about how difficult his work was, the hardships he endured abroad, the relationships he lost along the way. So I asked him,


Did you do the right thing?


He looked at me, and all of a sudden he was changed. He began to cry, and something appeared in his eyes that I have never witnessed before in my life. It was something that reduced me not only to tears for the rest of the day, but to a deep inner conflict which I imagine will continue throughout the next few years, if not the rest of my life. I saw in his eyes, suddenly, this reflection of pain, of desperation, longing, of the horrors he had witnessed and the death that had surrounded his soul. I cannot articulate in any translatable way what this moment looked or felt like, I apologize. But for the three us in the room it was an incredibly powerful moment, and one that I am so so thankful for.


With these weary eyes, he could not give me an answer. He knew I was asking that question for myself, for my own life. And that was an answer he could not have. He did relate, though, how insurmountably difficult his experiences had been, how scared he had felt at times, how many tears he had shed, how much of himself he had lost, and


 how many lives he had saved.


In a life like this, he said,


you will die many times. You will be born many times over, but the birth canal will be very painful. Very painful.


Despite the tears and the eyes and the tales of past, what scared me the most was this moment with this candidate reinforced to an new level, my own resolve and need —– need —— to do this. To save lives that few others are willing to save. To go against all the norms and expectations. This is scary stuff. He was looking into my eyes and speaking into me, literally; I pictured in my heart and mind myself in his memory, and that was powerful. Really really powerful.


What am I supposed to do? I listen to someone who as bluntly and clearly as possible tells me how awful and difficult and life-changing/ending those experiences were, yet at the same time impresses upon me the fact that


it was indeed the right thing do.



This is the troubling thing about how I feel. There is nothing I can do about that not-so-ugly being rearing up within. If you have a calling to something, then you will know. I feel powerless to it because I honestly truly will not be able to rest until I have wrestled that creature face-to-face, heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul. That’s it.

Today was an important day for me, because I think I finally understood in many ways the depth of the sacrifice that I am preparing to make, both emotionally and psychologically, as well as in regards to my family, friends and connections. But the point is that I have to do it. I have to do it in Africa. I just have to.

It’s not an obsession or a phase. It is something that is as much a part of my soul and my being as the blood that streams through my veins. I cannot be dissuaded or stopped because I have no more control than anyone else. 

I cannot exist here in this world, free and happy and rich with life, when another world exists, another time exists, that is the opposite. Our parents tell us to eat our broccoli, finish our dinner, because there are “starving children in Africa.” Yes, but what does that really mean?

It means that we have created a society in which we don’t have to fundamentally examine that “other world.” By momentarily acknowledging starving children and finishing our meals, we excuse ourselves from any responsibility. Those children, that other world does not exist in our own, and they do not exist as true human beings in our minds, perhaps in mythical form, but not in reality. In his preface to “The Wretched of the Earth,” Sartre writes how we have become men at others’ expense. He says how “[our] passiveness serves no other purpose but to put [us] on the side of the oppressors.” sAt Newseum this past weekend in Washington D.C., I spend a good amount of time in the Pulitzer Prize photography exhibit, which included some deeply moving and strenuously heavy images. For example, an image of a crouching child, a skeleton of a child, and a vulture in the background, just waiting for this child to die. Think about how many people look at that photograph every day, are moved by it, and then move on. That image is not real to us. It means nothing. It resonates to the senses, but where else?

As a good friend pointed out to me tonight, one of the most profound things he has taken from his few years here in the United States is that (and I hope he won’t mind me repeating this), all people are exactly the same. There is nothing that distinguishes anybody from anybody else, except a particular visage or habit. And it’s true. We are all exactly EXACTLY the same. There is nothing inferior about anyone else.

The candidate today said, and this is reflected clearly in his work, is there are not good people and bad people, only good behaviors and bad behaviors. As a doctor, he does not distinguish people as good or bad when he treats them, there are only people. There is nothing fundamentally more significant or superior about anybody on this earth. We are all the same.

So why do we forget? Why do we create myths and abandon reality? Why do we eat in the name of a starving other? What is the next step? If the world really believed everyone was exactly the same, there would be no starvation, no violence, no hatred. Because that starving child in Africa we mentioned at the dinner table, well he would be your brother. That factory worker in Singapore, she’s your mother. But we don’t think like that. Not now. Maybe someday.


“And the day when our human race has full matured, it will not define itself as the sum of the inhabitatnts of the globe, but as the infinite unity of their reciprocities.”  – Sartre.


Today I was affirmed in a painful, tearful, and yet sweet way. I know what my next step is and I welcome it with steady anticipation. I don’t expect approval or excitement from many who love me, nor do I blame them. But perhaps one day I will be able to articulate this in a way that they can understand it, and in that way, can ride some inner wild beast of their own.

I See, I Feel, I Am

Posted in Uncategorized on June 9, 2009 by racheltobias



As I sat listening to Neil Macfarquhar speak about politics in the Middle East in Politics and Prose bookstore earlier tonight, I couldn’t get the whole King Abdul Order of the Merit business out of my head. I looked around the bookstore to a crowd of AmericanAfricanAsianPersianIraqiGermanEveryone and I just thought, how on earth can we continue to judge when we all sit here as clear equals. Morgan’s comment on yesterday’s blog post really strengthened my own convictions about cultural sensitivity in the American media especially. Really, there is just no excuse for that kind of article. None. 

However, I think I may be a tad bit invigorated by a number of buzzing thoughts and interactions scurrying across my life this week. Let me share—

1) My current reading materials, all of which are deeply concerned with the problems of the world and the long oppressed who have struggled desperately for freedoms:

  • The World Is Flat   by Thomas L. Freidman
  • Orientalism    by Edward W. Said
  • Things Fall Apart    by Chinua Achebe
  • The Nine Parts of Desire
  • The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid    by C.K. Prahalad
  • The Wretched of the Earth   by Frantz Fanon
  • On the Road    by Jack Kerouac…I think this is my fifth time reading it (my Bible basically)

Hefty, depressing, invigorating, progressive, heavy, but all inspiring. (I know it’s crazy to read 140583039 books at one time, but that’s just the way I page…I figure you need have a lot of voices in your head at one time to create your own opinions.) I recommend each and all of these books, which I am a good part of the way through most, and am on my second time around for a few of them. There’s some really interesting verbage going on in a lot of these works. 


2) This awesome video my mom shared with me. Pretty much my dream.

Speechless, right?


3) I am absolutely positively over the moon inspired by the group of interns at Ashoka. We had intern orientation on Friday, and it is really just way way way radical./neato./far out./amazing./awesome./wicked./whatever word you want how passionate these kids are. First of all, they are all

BRILLIANT                          we’re talking cream of the crop here….like harvest the corn from the field and served it creamed…

now you get it

But it’s more than being smart; we were all in this one room together for the whole day, talking about who we were, where we came from, what brought us to Ashoka, what goals/projects we wanted to focus on during the summer, etc. etc. etc.  I have to say though, we played this game, and it changed my life. I can’t wait to export it to another chapter in my life…I would have cried it was so emotional…but then again…I didn’t want to be the “one who cried” on the first day. I’m emotional enough as it is.

So the game went like this:

Think of an image that incites a feeling within you and translate that image and feeling into why you have been brought to this place to do these things. 

For example (this is what I said):

I see a canyon. This canyon is so deep and so wide, deeper and wider than any canyon known in stories of mankind. On one side of the canyon is a child. This child holds a book. Next to the child stands his mother, who carries a cell phone and a day planner. Far across the distance of the canyon on the other side stands another child. Except this child holds an automatic weapon. Next to this child stands his mother; this woman carries a bucket of water on her head. In between these two pairs within the depths of the canyon is a history’s worth of hatred, violence, malice, death, harsh words, harsh actions, misunderstanding chains and shackles, religious warfare, planes flying into towers, and so on. These pairs of mother-son are so far away from each other that they cannot hear or speak to one another, they cannot cross this perilous canyon. This makes me feel desperately heartbroken and terribly saddened. While I feel discouraged and overwhelmed, I feel empowered by the fact that there are those who have made valiant journeys to build bridges across. I feel hopeful that we can recognize humanity on both sides of the canyon, and that perhaps we will be able to yell back and forth loud enough to hear and clearly understand what the other is trying to say. I am here at Ashoka, to build a bridge, to be a bridge. I wish to straddle this canyon, to be part of both sides, understand both sides, and help both sides cross and join hands. 

Yes cliche. Yes quite figurative. But I’m a bit dramatic sometimes. Anyway, that was my image. And it is nothing compared to those of my fellow interns. Some shared true images of men/women/boys/girls they have known, who have endured great struggles or undertaken great ventures. Others shared images from their own past, work they had done with those less fortunate, odds they had fought or realizations they had come to through observance. Some identified current images such as Obama speaking to Cairo or the the very circle of people we sat among in that room. While it may seem over-the-top or cliche, it was really quite a beautiful thing to witness. So much passion and hope and love. Everyone’s images were rather heavy and alarming, their feelings deep and thought-provoking; however never once did someone say “I feel hopeful” or “I feel lost.” Rather it was the opposite. We had all been reinforced, empowered even, by the horrible things that exist in the world. Nobody is resigned. Nobody has given up. We are stronger for these images we see and these feelings we feel. And that’s prettydamncool if I do say so myself.

So with that –> I can begin the wonderful adventure of the Ashoka interns together in Washington D.C.!

4) What a great weekend. I won’t go into much detail, I’ll let the pictures do the talking. But here are the basics:

Dance Africa Festival and Marketplace + Smoothies-in-a-Pineapple + Brad’s Awesome Dance Skills

Free RefillsWest African Dancing Meets Brad Milius









Next up: Drum Circle in Meridian Park + AcroYoga + Dancing to the Beat + Wonderfully Bohemian People = I finally found a place where I felt at home. It was so L.A. I can’t even tell you. KK…it wasn’t as good as our dear Venice Drum Circle…but almost! We did get some quality dance instruction by a wonderful little African woman passing on her moves!



















King Abdul Aziz Order of the Merit

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7, 2009 by racheltobias

The first article I read in the paper this morning was entitled “Here’s Your Gift  Mr. President. Please Stick Your Neck Out.”  The piece was on the front page of one of the Sunday sections of the Washington Post; beneath the author’s name, were the words “On Culture.” Isn’t it interesting that our most widely read publications and commentary on “culture” are written by the most cultureless of individuals. The article, which wasted too many minutes of my time, went on to make fun of the gift presented to President Obama by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Just to give you an idea of the feel of the article, here are some of this author’s classy vocabulary:

“dookie chain”

“Flavor Flav”


“things-not-to-wear list”

“theatrically large”


The author doesn’t blame President Obama for taking it off, pointing out how of course the President wouldn’t want to tarnish his reputation by donning any type of rapper bling. I understand, I guess, what the author is trying to say. But even as a small satiric piece on oversized jewelry, the author directly contradicts the message the President was attempting to convey by traveling to the Middle East, and reflects the American ignorance and intolerance that we as a nation are trying to leave behind.

The “bling” the author refers to is the King Abdul Aziz Order of the Merit which is awarded “for meritorious service while in government office, for extraordinary deeds of bravery, and for other deeds of service to the state.” It has been presented to numerous heads of state and well-deserving individuals since 1971, and is considered Saudi Arabia’s highest honor. Indeed, before I even read the article, I saw a picture of the medal, and was amazed by its incredible adorned and elaborate beauty. But of course, why respect something a country regards as its most prestigious offering when we can make fun of it?

Maybe it’s just me, maybe I don’t have a sense of humor. But I guess when it comes to respecting other cultures, I don’t. Part of Obama’s speech (whether you agree with it or not) points to the deep level of misunderstanding between the East and the West that has divided nations so deeply throughout so many years.

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace.” 

I like that quote. I think it’s spot on. 

And while we may agree or disagree with all the things President Obama had to say in his speech in Cairo, his presence and his words there are important. The President himself is the first to point out that “recognizing our humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people.” It was, of course, just a speech. But it is a good step, I think. 

So to the author of this Washington Post article, I have to say, shame on you. Shame on you for emphasizing our differences rather than embracing the honor bestowed upon President Obama by King Abdullah. Shame on you for diminishing the importance of two countries reaching out to each other with kind gifts rather than hostile weapons.

Shake the Chains

Posted in Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 by racheltobias


 Be Free

Yesterday I went to a West African dance class. It was holy-moly-fantastic.    I’m not a dancer, by any stretch of the word. But I figure, if you try, then you’re on the right track. So I tried.

The type of dancing we learned (it had a certain name, I feel awful for forgetting it) is supposed to be a manifestation of African people breaking the enslaving bonds of colonialism across the African continent. The movements, the rhythm, the gyrations, all have a violently emotional spirit. That is actually how I would describe African dance. with that one word.


Some of the women in this class danced with such spirit, were infused with so much emotion and expression in every throw of the arm stomp of the foot. When the instructor explained the dance, she emphasized that this was really a chance for us to break our own bonds, to physically and spiritually separate ourselves from those burdens weighing on our hearts, holding us back. She spoke of the incredible freedom one could feel following a “breakthrough,” and though it may take more than one class, it was indeed possible. All this talk of bonds and slavery, and it made me think

Am I bonded? What enslaves me? Can I break 


I can’t compare my hardships with those of colonial slaves in Africa. Nor can I expect that my burdens carry even a recognizable portion of the weight others have carried throughout their lives. I had dinner tonight with a group of older women, mostly divorced, who related to each other their horrible tales of marital destruction and abuse. Some of these women had  felt so much pain  and endured so much shit (sorry, there is no other way to say that…it is just shitty), it made my heart want to explode. (**Literally this was a scene from Wisteria Lane.) As I sit here warm and safe from the thunder and lightning outside my window, I have to really question the bonds I need to break and any freedom that I might be lacking.

But here’s what I think:

1) Thinking about the burdens often leads to self pity, at least in my own experience. Therefore, I would rather not.

2) It is difficult for me to identify issues/experiences/relationships in my life that are holding me back.

I feel so lucky at this moment. Lucky to be dry from the rain. Lucky to be surrounded by family and friends who love and support me and accept me for who I am. Lucky to have hope and love and idealism in my heart rather than hate and sadness and fear. Lucky to be educated and empowered to make my own intelligent decisions. Lucky to be listened to. Lucky to have dreams and aspirations. Lucky to have a job that enables and inspires me. Lucky to have others to pull me out of a dark place. Lucky to have an able body and mind. Lucky a millllllllllion other things. 

Sure, I could probably go on and on about things that make me unhappy, sour relationships, complaints, failures, disappointments. But why would I?

The joys and gifts of life are the things that break any bonds, unconsciously so. All those things I am lucky for push me forward, give me the courage and strength to be bigger and better and happier. 

So when my instructor asked me to think about the chains that inhibit my life and that I wanted to break, I silently thought of the opposite. Whether I broke any bonds or not that class, I don’t really know. What I do know is that I was able to be                 wild               and               free               because of all the things I love about my life, not the other way around. 

So my challenge to you is a “Mom-tells-you-to-write-all-the-things-you-are-grateful-for-on-Thanksgiving” Challenge. Man, I hated doing that as a kid. But do it anyway. Make a list of all the things that you are grateful for, all the joys and wonders that enable you, that get you through the day. Even if you’re pissed at Just write the list. Keep in a place where you can see it every day, even if you don’t read it every day. Let’s try the fridge.

I think this is how we shake our chains. Not by coming to terms with the things we dislike about life. But by embracing and leveraging the things we love with all our hearts.