And now for the completion of my interview with Caitlin Kelley. If you haven’t read the first part, click here. (Or if you’re lazy read this: Caitlin Kelley is the co-founder of Africa Volunteer Corps, an organization which trains Tanzanian volunteers and pairs them volunteer opportunities. Her mission is to utilize the existing talent in Tanzania rather than perpetuating a culture of dependency on foreign volunteers and aid (which in her opinion, and mine) does more harm than good. This also makes more financial sense. When I volunteered in Africa for 7 months it cost $5,000 (Airfare, vaccinations, visas, insurance and food and housing while I was there), but it only costs a few hundred dollars to support a local volunteer. This Tuesday she will be hosting an event called Visualize the Change 2012, where you hear stories of how local volunteers in Tanzania are making a difference. This even is also raising money for her next group of Tanzanian volunteers). And now for the interview:
Caitlin with Desmond Tutu
Has AVC changed at all since you first came up with the idea for it?
Not much. The idea came to me in a flash, in a complete eureka moment, and it felt like the entire vision downloaded from the universe all at once that night. There are ways that we might expand how we implement the vision. For example, there is a huge need for teachers in Tanzania so we are planning how we might create a special program just for teachers. And there are some great possibilities in potentially working with for-profit companies. But the original vision–of incubating African leaders for African development, of unleashing the incredible potential lying dormant in Africa’s young people, in making sure Africans are the ones in charge of improving lives in their own societies–has remained unwavering.
I love what you said about downloading the idea from the universe. I’ve learned from The Artist’s Way that there are so many answers and ideas floating around us and we just need to be perceptive to them; willing to download them from the universe. But every great idea needs funding to become a reality. What are you looking forward to about your upcoming fundraiser on Oct. 9th?
I’m really excited to inspire people with stories of grassroots African activists and the incredible work they are doing to create positive change in their own communities. In this country we tend only to hear stories about the bad things that happen in Africa, and we are aware that there are people in need, but we never hear about the many amazing local people who are doing incredible things to make the world a better place. We as a global community will improve many, many more lives if we can put fire under the momentum of those local people who are already doing great things in their own societies.
When I was raising money for my work in Africa I met a lot of people who were angry that I wanted to help in Africa when there is already so much poverty in America. Why do you think people should care about Africa when there are so many local problems?
I believe that all human beings are our brothers and sisters. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We don’t need to have an either/or mentality about doing good. It’s wonderful to care about multiple causes. For example, obviously I am quite dedicated to Africa, but I also give a lot to causes in the U.S., especially education, the environment, and women’s health.
What changes are you looking forward to in the upcoming year?
We’re expanding! For our pilot year (this year), we placed 7 Tanzanian volunteers to work for a year at 7 development projects. Next year we want to place 20. Our model consists of investing in leaders, so for every volunteer who goes through our program, the ripple effects are huge. Earlier this year, when I saw what our volunteers had accomplished in such a short period of time, I thought, “These are only 7 people. There are 1 billion people in Africa. How many more like them are out there?” So I can’t wait to see what happens with a bigger group.
Also, most of our current volunteers have applied to extend another year, so I am really excited to see what they can accomplish with a second year and how they grow. They already inspire me so much, so I can’t wait to see what they can do with more time and experience.
How can people get involved?
By helping spread the word–to friends and on social media. And donating is a great way to make a difference for a cause you care about. Sign up to give a regular amount every month. Even a small amount is great because when nonprofits know exactly how much money is coming in every month, we can spend less time fundraising and more time doing good. We are also currently looking for people to help us with marketing and communications, grant writing, and event planning.
Wow, Caitlin, you have a long and exciting journey ahead of you, and you’ve already come so far. Was there ever a time when you wanted to give up? What made you keep going?
There haven’t (yet) been any times when I really wanted to throw my hands up and walk away, but there have been plenty of challenging moments, ones where it can be hard to see how we will move forward. But there is always a way. A few years ago, we spent a year preparing to register (i.e. incorporate), including 2 months of meeting for hours every week to hammer out 20 pages of by-laws, taking a 10 hour bus ride to the capital, only to show up at the ministry and be told that we couldn’t register the way we had planned because of a law no one (not even the lawyers we consulted) had told us about. It brought us almost completely back to square one. And it was another 2 years before we got registered. But, like many unexpected setbacks, it work out for the best because we ended up being able to register in a different way that gives us a lot more flexibility for future growth.
What keeps me going is having a sense of humor, embracing every challenge or failure as an opportunity to grow, and believing with every fiber of my being in our mission. Life is inevitably full of barriers, especially when you are trying to create change, so you just have to remember that impossibility is an illusion. If it’s possible within the realm of physics, it’s possible. You just have to figure it out.
When things are hard or frustrating I try to take some time to connect with the bigger vision, by meditating or writing, or even talking to myself. It reconnects me with my passion and excitement and that fire in my belly. It helps me come back to knowing that every boring task or frustrating problem are all steps up the mountain, all pieces of the bigger goal.
That should be a bumper sticker, “Impossibility is an illusion.” As you can see, Caitlin has a huge and challenging dream but she’s tackling it with perseverance and passion. I know she will succeed because her mission is truly good, and she has the drive. If you’re in the New York area, I’d love to see you at her event, Visualize Change, on Tuesday, Oct. 9 from 5:30-9:30. There aren’t enough people in the world like Caitlin Kelley, so when you find one, it’s important to give them as much support as possible!