interview

Behind the laptop

Sometimes you walk into a coffee shop and there are so many laptops it looks like a computer store. Have you ever wondered what all these people are working on? I always think, “Maybe my new favorite book is being written in this room right now!”

For the last few weeks, I’ve been going up to strangers in coffee shops and asking them what they are working on. It was pretty intimidating at first. I didn’t want to interrupt their work, I’m not used to starting conversations with strangers, and strangers don’t look very inviting when they’re staring at their computers. But it was a great experience. I learned that people really like talking about their work and that they are aching for a connection with other creative people.

Meet Tricia Alexandro

Below are her answers to the three questions I’ve been asking writers in coffee shops.

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Tricia Alexandra writing at The Queens Kickshaw.

Me: What are you working on?

Tricia: “A short film about a couple taking a trip to Paris. It’s one of those trips you take thinking it’s going to solidify your relationship but instead it reveals all the cracks.”

M: What’s your next stage and what do you need to get there?

T: “I want to be paid for my work. I want more exposure and a writing community. I find that kind of support is imperative for getting to the next level because those kinds of people inspire you and also hold you accountable. When you see the consistency of other people, and the fact that they’re making a go at it on a daily basis, that encourages me. And you also share resources when you have a community.”

M: What does a writer need?

T: “I think self-compassion is probably the best thing to have as a writer because most of your first drafts and even fifth drafts are going to be shitty. Also curiosity about what’s going on around you. Be gentle on yourself and persevere.”

This conversation was such a great affirmation of what I’m doing with my organization, Writers Work. I’m proud to be creating a supportive community to help writers develop their craft, career, and community. I’m hosting my FIFTH conference on Saturday, April 9 and it’s going to be a great place to find a community as well as get inspired and informed. I hope you can come and spread the word.

*** As a side note, I’m still working on the film. We’re in the audition process for cinematographers and actors. I will be writing about it soon, but in the meantime you can get more updates by liking the Lily and Mara facebook page.***

Are you waiting for permission?

I’m a huge fan of Amy Poehler’s videos on Smart GirlsIf you’ve ever wanted to start a large project, I suggest watching this video. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer met doing improv at Upright Citizens Brigade. They created a web series based on their unique friendship and sense of humor, and it took off, leading them to the hit show on Comedy Central. In this video, Amy interviews the writers and talent behind this zany comedy, Broad City.

I love it when they talk about finding your voice, and how to get started on a dream. Everything they said reminded me of starting Writers Work 🙂

Abbi Jacobson’s response when Amy asks how someone can copy their success says it all for me:

“A lot of people wait for someone else to tell them it’s okay to start doing something or they have to be allowed to do this. But, no, we create that. You just have to start. No one’s gonna give you permission.”

What are your ambitions? Are you waiting for permission to get started?

Interview with Sojourner

Check out my interview on Sojourner’s Sojourns, a wonderful blog that covers diverse topics from international travel with an infant to organic lotion recipes.

Writers Work! A Brand New Writer’s Conference is Coming to New York.

An Interview with Krista Giffin, Life Coach

KristaWhen I moved to New York City six years ago I lived with Krista Giffin right above Central Park. We only lived together for a short time but I still remember the great advice she gave me about dating. No wonder she’s a successful life coach now. You can check out her website, or follow her on Facebook. She is generously offering a FREE 60 minute life coaching session to the first thirty people who reach out to her! The beautiful and talented Krista is telling us about her journey. The field of life coaching seems to have exploded in the last few years. It seems like people are either really receptive or really skeptical  about it. What would you say to someone who’s skeptical of life coaching?

We all have patterns that we have created over time in order to succeed in this world. Much of it is from our childhood, where it suited us. Often a certain way of doing things is the very thing that keeps us stuck.  A life coach truly listens and reflects what they hear back to the client as well as posing dynamic questions to open up the client’s views on life.  If you’re skeptical, do your research.  Find people who have used coaches and see what they have to say, or try out different coaches. I often offer complimentary sessions as a way for people to get to know me and my coaching style.  I have been trained in ontological coaching, which is about how who you are being, affects the way things happen for you in the world.  It’s easier to grasp once you’ve tried it out.  Another great comparison is this: Many people work out on their own, but if you hire a great personal trainer, you are going to get results that much faster.  Coaching offers speed and velocity toward your dreams, but you still have to be committed to doing the work.

What got you interested in life coaching?

My step-mother passed away from cancer and I think it had to do with her stressful job, which made it harder for her to overcome her disease. We spend so much time at our jobs so they should be fulfilling. I have always been a HUGE believer in having a job you love. The important question is, “Does your job give you what you need?”  I had already been encouraging people to do what they love and to find a way to make things work for them in their lives and careers. At the same time, I was looking for a career that could blend my passion for acting with my background in teaching but could also be location independent because I’d like to see my family more often.  (They’re on the West Coast and I’m in New York).  This seemed like the perfect marriage.

Wow, you really created a career that blends your talents and gives you the lifestyle you want. Have you faced any challenges while coaching?
Getting people to believe in themselves is a challenge. Everyone has fears and doubts about themselves and their abilities, but we are far more powerful than we imagine. So much is possible, but it’s easy to shift back into our old ways of thinking and become dejected if we are not mindful. Once people understand their power they can truly create anything they want in life.  It’s a mind blower!
What is most rewarding about coaching?
Every step forward for my clients is rewarding for me. I love hearing about their lives, seeing all the different, cool, exciting things that people are doing, feeling their struggles, and recognizing we are all so similar. I love when they break through and really start to feel powerful on their own. I get so much from my clients.
Is there a particular area of life coaching that you’re drawn to?
I love working with people to get clear on what they want out of life.  Clients I’ve worked with have come to me with career issues, such as finding what they love to do or getting themselves organized and focused so they can run their businesses better. Clients have also come to me with relationship issues like getting married or getting the marriage they already have to the place where it truly supports and enriches their life.  My forte is getting people to make fun, relaxation and pleasure a priority, which helps them to achieve other things they want in life. 
In your opinion, what’s the difference between seeing a therapist and seeing a coach?

Coaching and therapy can work in conjunction with each other, but there is definitely a separation. Therapy works on healing trauma from the past.  It’s important to see a therapist and get yourself to the place that you feel well and whole. Coaching is future based. We take actions in the now with the future in mind. Occasionally we’ll look backward for a pattern, but we don’t stay there. Another great way to look at it is when you injure yourself, you may need to go to a physical therapist to heal that injury.  Once the injury is healed you can see a coach to move on to the Olympics.

What is your favorite piece of advice?
I have two. The first is meditate.  And I don’t follow it enough.  It’s very easy to become unfocused and distracted in today’s society, which leads to not listening to each other, break downs in relationships, and running around on our little hamster wheels.  It’s important to quiet our minds in some way in order to listen to our inner voice.  All of the answers are in there, but we need to slow down enough to listen.
The second is have fun!  So often we end up doing, doing, doing, work, work, work.  Take time out for yourself to have fun, play with your kids, watch a comedy, dance, spend time in nature, go on a date, get a massage, take a vacation.  These things fuel us and will make us more productive in the long-term, and just make life more enjoyable in general.  That in and of itself is worth it!
I could definitely benefit from some meditation. Thank you so much, Krista, for your wise words and your generous offer for a free 60 minute life coaching session. Anyone who would like to take Krista up on her offer should follow her on Facebook, and send her a private message.

Free Giveaway: Are You My Boyfriend?


C.B. Bryza is not only the author of the endearing and hilarious new book, Are You My Boyfriend?, she’s also a member of my writing group! This book is a modern parody of the classic children’s book Are You My Mother? It’s a must-read for anyone who has sought out a genuine connection in the world. It has been a tremendous boost to the spirit of our writer’s group’s to have a published author in our midst, and I hope her journey can inspire you too!

How long did you have the idea for Are You My Boyfriend?

I thought of the idea for #AYMBF in 2006, and I wrote the book in 2012, so, I had the idea for about six years.

 What made you finally put it down on paper?

I mentioned the idea to some friends at a children’s book–themed baby shower in the spring of 2012 and got really positive feedback, so that’s when I decided to write it, but I didn’t actually put it down on paper until June, after a particularly inspiring writing group meeting.

Go writer’s group! The main character is an adorable blonde with tons of pep, quite like yourself. How biographical is the main character?

CB with AYMBF

Author with book. Photo credit: Lydia Bittner-Baird

Aw, thanks! I wasn’t thinking of myself as the main character when I wrote the book, but I definitely relate to her a lot, and we have definitely dated a lot of the same guys. And the more I get to know the character, the more I see myself in her. She’s actually something of a role model!

What have you learned from the publishing process? 

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that even though writing is a solitary process, publishing is a team effort. And one of the most important players a writer wants on her team is an agent, aka a reliable advocate and guide.

Did you have any pleasant surprises during the process?

I didn’t expect that I would get to contribute ideas for the artwork, but I actually got to be very involved, which was exciting. Simon (the illustrator) also added some great details that took my vision to another level. He really nailed it!

And the artwork is absolutely adorable! What advice would you give an aspiring author?

Write every day. Share your work. Ask for feedback, and be willing to incorporate it. (Writing classes, in person or online, can be very helpful for all that.) Above all else, don’t give up on something you believe in.

And, lastly, do you believe in soul mates?

I do. I don’t necessarily think there is one “perfect match” per lifetime, but I absolutely believe that people come together for a purpose, and that compatibility at the soul level is a big part of that.

If you would like to win a free copy of this book, answer the question below in the comment section. I’ll be picking the winner on February 6. Of course, you can also buy your own copy by clicking on this link!

Do you think it’s necessary to seek out a partner, or do you believe he/she will come to you when it’s the right time?

Ooh La La! An Interview with Jamie Cat Callan

I’m so excited to read Jamie Cat Callan’s new book, Ooh La La!: French Women’s Secrets to Feeling Beautiful Every Day. I loved the lighthearted advice of her book, Bonjour, Happiness!, and the interesting cultural comparisons of  French Women Don’t Sleep Alone: Pleasurable Secrets to Finding Love. I also recommend The Writer’s Toolbox to any writer, or person who aspires to be more creative.

Jamie took some time out of her busy book tour to answer a few questions for us! Jouir de:

When did your love and admiration of all things French begin?

I grew up spending my summers with my French-American grandmother.  She lived simply, without a lot of material goods, but she knew how to enjoy life.  She was elegant, beautiful, and possessed a whole lot of joie de vivre.

What is the biggest difference you notice between American and French women?

The second wave feminist movement played out much differently in France than in America. As a result, Americans inherited a kind of divisiveness between men and women.  We interpreted equality as sameness.  France believes in the power of the difference between men and women. 

Also, France’s economy is dependent on the culture of women—beauty, fashion, and perfume supports so many people in France.  It can’t be taken lightly.  Women’s interest in fashion and beauty is serious business, because it supports hundreds of thousands of people.  In America, our industry is about finances, Wall Street and heavy industry.  So you see, we’re not as financially connected to beauty—but I wish we were!  

Jamie, in the middle, interviewing some French women.

In this day in age, when people are worried about the economy and international affairs, why should women concern themselves with their beauty and affect?

Okay, this may sound naive, but I believe that attention to beauty and elegance can actually save our economy and prevent wars.  First, if we understand where true beauty comes from—our hearts—there’s no need to spend a lot of money.  I can attest to this because my French grandmother lived through the Great Depression, sewing her own clothes, gardening and cutting back on luxuries.  She lived well with very little.  This is the French way. 

In terms of the threat of war—well, there will always be the threat of war.  That said, what is the point of protecting our countries, our lives, our way of living if not so that we can appreciate the tenderness of simple everyday pleasures, and yes beauty. 

I believe that beauty can actually prevent wars.  If we recognize the importance of beauty in our lives, then we will not want to destroy other beautiful things.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Always.  I wrote stories, poems and songs for my family when I was a little girl.  I loved to hear stories.  So, I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer!

What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

Write.  Write.  And write some more.  Write on a regular basis and try to create a space that is special to you and your writing practice.  I believe the muse likes to visit you when you show up regularly and honor the space with your words, your thoughts, and  your dreams.  And then aside from writing, I suggest, daydreaming.  Your inner life and your powers of observations are important tools of the trade.

Finally, believe in yourself.  Keep the faith.  No matter what you’re doing—from washing dishes to working at Kinko’s, don’t forget you’re a writer and all this is your material, your paint box, your brushes and your canvas.

Describe your perfect day in France.

Ah, is there such a thing as a less-than-perfect day in France?  Okay, well, if we’re talking about just one perfect day–I would spend much of it  sitting in a café in Paris, watching the world go by.  I would walk through the Tuileries, all the way from Concord to the Louvre.  I would walk along the Seine and cross the Pont des Arts, to see all the bicycle locks that the lovers have left.  Perhaps I’d even have a little picnic on the bridge.  Oh, but I’d want to walk along the Seine and up to Notre Dame.  And then I’d walk around the Left Bank and visit the places  Hemingway and Fitzgerald frequented—Café Deux Magots and Harry’s Bar on the Right Bank. 

 

Speaking of the Right Bank, I would stop by Chanel and pay homage to the Grand Dame of modern fashion.  From there, I would walk a few blocks to Ladurée and perhaps indulge in a macaron or two.  Later, I would go to the market in Belleville and buy some fresh flowers and do a bit of people-watching.  Finally, I would have dinner at Café de l’Homme, where I’d get a table on the terrace, so I could watch the Eiffel Tower lit up against the Paris sky and I would drink champagne! 

Sounds like a perfect day to me. Merci beaucoup! I can’t wait to read your new book, and start infusing my life with more beauty and joie de vivre.

An interview with Massoud Adibpour, founder of Make DC Smile

I’m so lucky to have amazing friends, like Sarah Shores, to introduce me to the amazing people in their lives. Sarah called me up and told me I had to tell my readers about Massoud Adibpour. I could not agree more. Massoud started Make DC Smile only a few months ago, and it’s already received lots of press coverage, and more and more people are joining.

What is Make DC smile?

Make DC Smile is a movement with hopes of getting people to smile. Whether it be holding up poster-size signs with positive messages during rush-hour traffic on Monday morning, or posting positive signs around town. We’re hoping people will stop and think a little differently about their day when seeing some of our positive messages, even if it’s just for five seconds.

 
When did you start it and what was the impetus?
The project started in February 2012.  I saw this sign on tumblr, which I thought was brilliant because it was completely different than any other tear-away post I had seen in the city.  I created my own copy to start off the project, posted it in my neighborhood and noticed that people were tearing away the words, which made me realize that maybe people needed more positivity in their lives than I imagined. I put them up every few days or weeks, but each time I would go out, I would include a new batch of different signs such as:
“Today is Awesome.”
“Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself”
“Make Today Count”
“Smile”
“When was the last time you did something for the first time”
 I started to make copies of the signs at work because I didn’t have a printer at home.  One day I accidentally left a copy of some signs on the copy machine and my co-worker found them and asked me why I was printing out so many positive signs, which led to my explanation on what the signs were all about.  She encouraged me to add an email address so people could contact me, but I was hesitant since I wanted the project to be anonymous.  I felt that posting these signs up anonymously would have a greater impact if people had no idea who created the signs. 
I gave in, and created a new email account and put the addresses on the back of a “Take What You Need” tear away sign.  I told myself that If I didn’t receive any feedback from that one post, then I would continue posting signs anonymously.  Late at night I placed the lone flyer at an intersection outside of my house. The next day I went to work and checked my email to see one message.  It was from a 13 year old girl who said that the tear away post made her day while walking to school and that the people in DC needed more signs like the one she saw.  I saw her email as a sign to continue the project, so I continued to include the email address on all the signs.  Before you know it I started getting lots of encouraging and positive emails from complete strangers.  
 
This was one of the things on your bucket list (which he carries in his wallet at all times). How long do you plan to do this, and will you move on after a certain point?
There isn’t a defined end for this project.  I’ll keep doing this as long as I have the opportunity to discuss and share the movement with students.  A teacher from Freedom High School in Woodbridge, Virginia reached out to me once The Washington Post article was published.  A few others who are involved with the project and myself held signs with the students in front of their school, discussed the movement, and in the end, they truly inspired me and made me realize that this project was much bigger than I ever imagined.  It was easily one of the most rewarding days in my entire life.  The icing on the cake was that the students have since committed themselves to holding up positive signs in front of their school during the first Monday of each month for the entire school year!
We’re currently building the website makeDCsmile.com.  The site will allow anyone to download signs from their home and to spread the positivity in their home, workspace, community and anywhere else others can benefit from the message.  Signs will be available in a number of different languages so we can reach people in all parts of the world. In addition, the site will explain how the movement started, ways that others can get involved  and allow photo submissions from users to be posted on our site. Just last night I started up a tumblr & twitter page so we can reach out to people using different social media platforms.
 
Is this your full-time job? How do you pay your bills?
The short answer is, no, but at times it feels like a full-time job.  Lots of time is spent on reaching out to people, responding to emails, updating the Facebook page and other social media, making new signs/posters and also dreaming big to come up with new ideas on how we can promote positivity in the area.  It’s something I’m passionate about, so I’ll spend as much time as needed to get this movement up and running in all parts of the nation, and eventually the world.
I work full-time as the director of contracts and as a concert promoter at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC.
 
What is the funniest reaction someone has had to Make DC smile?
My friend, Maggie, was holding the “HONK if you love someone” sign and a guy driving on the other side of the road slowed down and said “I love YOU“.  It definitely put a smile on everyone’s face that morning.
 
What do you get out of doing this?
Positivity is infectious. The joy of seeing people have a positive start to their work week undoubtedly brings a smile to my own face.  When you see commuters with a serious look on their face, then do a double take and slowly change their blank stare into a smile is evidence that something this simple can change the way people think.  I have no idea what they’re thinking inside, but if I can get someone who was having a bad morning take their mind off of something bad for a few seconds, then mission accomplished.  I used to hate getting up early during the first day of a work week, but for the first time in my life, I actually look forward to Monday mornings, which says a lot.
 
What were your friends and family’s reaction when you first told them your idea?
It wasn’t well received because the initial idea is crazy when you explain that you plan on holding up signs at a busy intersection on a Monday morning.   Asking my friends to help out wasn’t an easy task, but once we went out our first time to hold signs, we quickly realized that we’d be back the following week.
My friends and family are happy to see how far the project has progressed and that’s led to a big part of the success with this project because their support means more to me than they will ever imagine.
 
You do so much for strangers. What is one thing a stranger could do for you that would absolutely make your day?
I see too many blank stares everyday when I’m walking down the street, so a stranger who greets me with a smile would make my day!
 
You’ve gotten a lot of your friends involved. How important is it to do this as a team?
Having my friends involved in this project is a big reason why this project is where it is today.  Without their help or support, this project would be nothing.  I would have never gone out the first week of holding signs if my friends weren’t there by my side.
 
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I’ve received a lot of great advice from a number of people, but the one that sticks with me right now is, “Why not?”  It sounds cheesy, but whenever I have an inkling of doubt in my mind when making a decision, I just ask myself, why not?  By asking myself this I think things through instead of making a rash decision.
If you’re interested in spreading some joy in your community, don’t hesitate to contact Massoud at MakeDCSMile@gmail.com . How awesome would it be to have people championing happiness in every city. And don’t forget to connect to him through his  tumblrtwitter and  Facebook page!

An Interview with Caitlin Kelley, founder of Africa Volunteer Corps (Part 2)

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!

An interview with Caitlin Kelley, founder of Africa Volunteer Corps (Part 1)

I met the vivacious Caitlin Kelley over a year ago, and she left a great impact on me. She’s kind of like Lucille Ball meets Princess Diana. While eating tacos in Union Square, she told me about the Africa Volunteer Corps, an organization she started with Jafari Msaki. AVC trains and mentors Tanzanian volunteers, utilizing natural talent and knowledge rather than importing foreign volunteers who (even with good intentions) might not being making the best impact. I was so excited to hear that AVC existed because it addressed all the personal qualms that I had when I was a volunteer in Mozambique. She is currently preparing for her event, Visualize Change, which you can attend (Tuesday, Oct. 9 5:30-9:30), so I’m very grateful she was able to take some time to share her story with my amazing readers:

Caitlin on the left in Tanzania

You volunteered in Tanzania after college. What attracted you to international volunteer work, and why Tanzania?

I knew I wanted to work in development in Africa and I wanted to get my feet wet. From having majored in African history in college, I had a lot of problems with how many development projects are run because they often hurt more than they help by dis-empowering the very people they are aiming to help. I wanted to spend some time on the ground listening and exploring in order to see where I might fit, where I might be able to use my knowledge and passion to make the world a better place. I wanted to find where I could help without perpetuating the relationships of dependence that I had seen repeating themselves over and over again for 200-300 years.

I chose Tanzania because I wanted to learn Swahili. Swahili is very widely spoken in East and Central Africa, and I wanted to communicate with people on their own terms, so it had always been a professional goal to speak Swahili.

You had an amazing time while you were there, but I know that it was also troubling. Can you explain the negative side of volunteer work that you witnessed?

One of the negatives was seeing the chaos other foreign volunteers had created, mostly by not understanding the culture and staying for too short a time to make any real impact. It was also really frustrating to see foreigners coming in to do work for free that locals were qualified to do, which creates a disincentive to hire locals, which in turn harms the local economy, thus harming the very people the volunteers are there to help.

After this experience you came up with the idea for Africa Volunteer Corps, an NGO that unites passionate Tanzanian volunteers with local NGOs (non-governmental organization). How did your friends and family react when you first shared your mission?

I came home from my first trip to Tanzania right before Thanksgiving, so I made the announcement at the dinner table. Totally excited, I announced to everyone, “I am going to start an NGO in Africa!” Crickets. My family was really proud of me for having a bold vision, but they didn’t understand the vision so they were worried it wouldn’t work.

I realized very quickly that it didn’t matter whether my friends and family saw the vision. It only mattered that I did. One of my favorite quotes is from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” My vision was crystal clear and I believed very strongly in my ability to figure out how to make it a reality, so I just pushed forward, step by step, until I made it happen.

Did you meet resistance?

I can say I have faced a lot of challenges, but I wouldn’t say I’ve faced resistance. Most people tend to be very supportive, especially in Tanzania.

The main resistance that I face is inside myself, fear of making mistakes and the inevitable resistance of constantly pushing outside my comfort zone. I am constantly learning and growing and stepping into the unknown, which can be scary and intimidating and uncomfortable. I get resistance from my ego, which is afraid to be vulnerable or admit that I can’t do everything.

What helped you move forward?

I try every day to be the best version of myself. I embrace growth and am grateful for opportunities to learn and improve. I meditate every day and am a very spiritual person, which for me helps me keep things in perspective, learn from my mistakes, and accept the unknown and things I can’t control. I think positively and find the lesson and the gratitude in every experience. Every problem is just a challenge, and every challenge is an opportunity to learn and get better.


What has been the most rewarding part of running AVC?

Caitlin with her first group of Tanzanian volunteers (photo by  Tegra Stone Nuess)

Seeing the difference we are making in people’s lives. When one of our volunteers tells us that she always wanted to help orphans and street children, but she didn’t know how to go about it, and now she feels confident that she has the skills to start her own children’s center. When one of our volunteers tells me that she didn’t understand the realities of AIDS before working with HIV positive people, and now even though she sees things every day that make her want to cry, she loves her work because she I absolutely lives for those moments.

If someone has a dream for making the world better, what advice would you give them?


Take care of yourself. Nourish yourself. Don’t think that making the world better has to mean you run yourself ragged. If you don’t take care of your body and do things that you love and take time off, you will burn out.

Listen to your instincts. People may not get your vision, and that’s ok. Listen and welcome new ideas, especially from the population you are trying to help, but trust yourself.

Fall in love with fear. Pushing outside your comfort zone is scary, so feeling fear is a sign that you are doing something right, taking risks and growing. If you feel like you are about to jump out of an airplane, you know you’re in the exact right spot.

Great words to end on! Hold tight for Part 2! If you’re interested so far, make sure to bet tickets for Visualize the Change this Tuesday.