Operation Groundswell

Celebrating Literacy this Holiday Season from Canada to Kenya

The stockings have been hung and filled with goodies at the Operation Groundswell head office, our Early Bird prize is just waiting to be handed out, and two sets of teams are ready to start their winter adventure to Guatemala. So what else is there to do? Celebrate, of course!!

We've had a tremendously exciting and successful year and we are ending the year with style this Sunday, December 16 at Handlebar in Toronto's Kensington Market. We're bringing together our alumni from all years and all places to spread some holiday cheer while boogie-ing down to some electro-reggae jams (is there a better way to celebrate?!). And in the spirit of giving, we're asking everyone to bring a children's book (elementary school level) as a cover charge. We'll be donating these books to our partner, the Young County Change Makers, who recently opened up a community library in Kisumu, Kenya! You can RSVP here and don't forget to bring your friends and family too!

Painting YCCM's Community Library

This book drive is extra special to me as I was lucky enough to work directly with Mike, Brian, Winnie, Steve, and Zaq, the inspiring people behind YCCM. I traveled to East Africa with Operation Groundswell this summer where our team helped to paint and put the final touches on this community library. In the informal settlement of Nyalenda where there is little to no access to electricity, families must rely on paraffin candles to light up their homes at night. It's a pricey expense and many go without light. Children are unable to do their homework or continue their learning after school without this basic necessity. YCCM saw this gap and recognized the need for a safe and productive space where children can finish their homework and learn to read. Their development of the community library has allowed for this.

Reading at the YCCM community library

Our team was on the ground when the library was just bare bones and it's been amazing to receive updates from YCCM about the library's progress and see photos of the space full of children. "I share, with a lot of joy, that we host over 45 children every day since the library's opening in July," says Winnie. "It overwhelmed us since we didn't expect so many, but felt so satisfied when they kept coming back! We felt like we found an answer to a question that no one had been able to address in the area."

YCCM recently held their own fundraiser within the Nyalenda community for the purchase of primary and high school books.  Mike told me the other day, "We managed to raise the money for 100 text books for both children in primary and high schools, a very encouraging move!"

At Operation Groundswell, we're hoping to help continue this momentum for change and success in Nyalenda during our own holiday party. So this coming Sunday, come out and celebrate a year of incredible travels, solid partnerships, and literacy from Canada to Kenya!  

Grappling with the cliché of mzungu and African child

We started our community service projects this week here in Kisumu, Kenya with our partners, the Young County Change Makers, a community-based organization empowering youth in the area. As expected, it has been a struggle, mentally and emotionally.

We were at the Nyalenda informal settlement when we were surrounded by little school children. The scene was all too cliché. Hurray! Mzungus (Swahili word for Westerners) surrounded by happy African children! Haven't we seen too much of that already? Are we living and telling the same narratives? I found myself outside of the moment, just watching my friends hug and play with the kids. A part of me wanted to take pictures to capture the moment, but the other part of me couldn't help but feel uncomfortable and disdain for the whole situation. So what did I do? I became cold and distant to these children, vacantly giving polite high fives, but really wanting no part of this all too typical scene.

And I went home with all of these questions about the stories we tell of Africa, our impact as visitors to this regions..and just felt overwhelmed and actually paralyzed by my thinking. And I really hated myself because instead of enjoying these children's presence and playing with them as all children love to do, I spent the afternoon inside my own head. Instead of seeing and treating them as human beings, they became just abstractions in my academic lens. And in the end, isn't that worse? Isn't that more dehumanizing?

But today at Joyland, a school specifically for kids with physical disabilities, I put my thinking cap off and just allowed myself to be in the moment. I played soccer with one of the classes, exasperated by the heat but enlivened by how my ass was getting seriously kicked by these kids. We took photos of each other and many were fascinated by my Asian heritage. "Are you Chinese?", they'd ask. "I'm from the Philippines". Many Jackie Chan moves were exchanged nonetheless. I also got to spend time with my new friend Tabitha, this sassy little 12 year old, who told me about her everyday experiences at the school and even showed me how to do a proper catwalk. At the end of the day, she gave me her bracelet saying, "I want you to keep this so you don't forget me". I gave her my hair tie to remember me by. Cheesy and cliché, but her gesture really touched me and it was all real.

As my good friend, Saleema, wrote to me today, "it's not a cliché to bond with another human being, and it will never be a cliché to laugh with a child". And in the end, making those genuine connections is what we and what Operation Groundswell is all about...

Be here, be present: thoughts from Nairobi

Kewa hapo, kewa sasa, popote ulipo, kewa hapo

Be here, be present. wherever you are, be there.

Those are the words etched in the travel journals given to us by our trip leaders, Meg and Josh. And those are the words that opened up OG's first ever Gender and Human Rights program.

I've been with OG now for almost a year and as one of the very few staff who has never actually been on any of our programs, I'm filled with a sense of great anticipation, nervousness, and excitement. My journey with OG has been a constant unfolding throughout the year and I find myself with a number of questions: Will I be impacted in the same way our participants have been? What new things will I learn about development, travel and tourism, and ultimately, myself? How will this change my perspective of an organization I've come to love and admire so much? It's an odd position to be in: to know the inner workings of OG so well and to know what to expect from these programs and yet, to know nothing at all. You can't ever really predict what happens on the road anyway.

Three days in and I find myself viewing this experience from the point of view of a participant, a trip leader (from the bits of training I picked up during our trip leader retreat), and of course, as my usual OG role of Communications Coordinator. My mind is always on the go and it's going to be quite the ride to have all these perspectives floating around somewhere in the back on my head.

But as the lovely and always wise Jo Sorrentino emailed me this morning, "there are a million perspectives, but Justine is #1. Don't get caught in analysis paralysis".

After all...kewa hapo, kewa sasa, right? Be here, be present!

Fundraising for Gender and Human Rights in East Africa

On May 10 I start a new chapter in the masterpiece that is my life. I'm flying off to Nairobi, Kenya to participate in Operation Groundswell's East Africa: Gender and Human Rights program. In this unprecedented trip, we will work at gaining an in-depth perspective of gender, sexuality, and human rights issues and the very real challenges facing sexual minorities in East Africa. By working carefully alongside activists and human rights defenders in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, we will learn of their successes and challenges, arming us with knowledge and an appreciation that will allow us to raise awareness and spark further change in our own communities back home.

I'm aiming to raise $1000 to support our incredible partners on the ground and would be so grateful for your generosity. 

The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) is one such partner and is fearlessly promoting recognition, acceptance, and defending the interests and rights of LGBT organizations and their members.  GALCK is working in various ways to make Kenya a safer and more inclusive environment for sexual minorities. We'll also be working with the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA), an NGO helping to bring an end to the human rights violations perpetrated against sex workers and, to build in its place, an enabling human rights environment in which sex workers enjoy the full scale of their rights. 

You can learn more about my fundraising efforts and donate here.

A million thanks for your support! Asanate sana, rafikis!