A Better Place

A Better Place

Graduates follow their ideals into the expanding world of organizations dedicated to helping others

By Ruani S. Freeman


Susan Ellsworth '03 is part of a trio of Colby alumni (with Elisabeth Maguire '05 and Lisa Reinhalter '05) who work at Food & Water Watch, an offshoot of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen. She knew she wanted to learn about social movements, work on practical issues, and have creative freedom, so after stints with Human Rights Watch and the Howard Dean presidential campaign she moved to Washington, D.C., in pursuit of those ideals.

Moving to an unknown city with neither job nor prospects might seem naïve to many, but not to those willing to go where the action is. Some will even endure physical discomfort. Emily Posner '03 drove to Hattiesburg, Miss., in September 2005 to work for a farming cooperative, then moved to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and, with the organization Common Ground, threw herself into the historically underserved and marginalized—and storm-devastated—Upper Ninth Ward, opening the first relief operation there.

David Spiro ‰98 discusses Indonesia‰s progress towards ,Education for AllŠ with President of the Republic of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, at right. Spiro heads Helen Keller International‰s Opportunities for Vulnerable Children program, which helps children in Indonesia with special needs. The program was singled out by Yudhoyono as an exemplary model, serving Indonesia‰s goal to strengthen education. At center is Ibu Agustiawati, head teacher of the Jakarta Early Intervention Center for Children with Visual Impairments.
Photo by Kristin Thompson
"I got there and discovered that the government was treating us like we were from a developing country, so we decided that we should look to the developing world to see how they managed their affairs," Posner said.

Posner, who recently returned to Montville, Maine, headed a Community Gardens project in Louisiana intended to increase food security for local residents. The project involved farming a half-acre plot to grow food for the community. Her group also worked on grassroots emergency preparedness plans to try to prevent food shortages and other crises from recurring in the event of another natural disaster. They connected—through the international solidarity component of Common Ground—with counterparts in the developing world to discuss how they go about addressing these two issues. Posner's group works by listening to the residents and addressing the most basic needs: "If they say they have no tarp to stop the rain, we get a tarp and put it on. We assess their needs and just do what is necessary. When their needs are met, they can more effectively participate in the political process."

For others, the path has been similarly determined. Steve Murphy '99 pursued his interest in international development with a stint in Cape Verde with the Peace Corps. "I wanted to learn more about international organizations involved in global health issues," he said. After more field work in East Timor, Murphy landed a position at Boston-based Management Sciences for Health. Despite three years of experience, he started at the bottom and worked his way up to a position as project support associate, managing logistics for three U.S. Agency for International Development-funded reproductive health projects in Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria. He recently left that job to enter a master's program at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

The list of graduates, the organizations for which they work, and the global reach of their efforts are impressive. But how do these idealistic alumni make sure they really are doing good?

Tennessee Watson ,03, right, coordinator of the Youth Noise Network, a project of Community Documentary Programs at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. Youth Noise Network is an after-school program that enables young Durham residents to produce audio, writing, and photographs that address current issues of concern to them.
Photo by Luis Velasco
In her international work for Oxfam, Young looks for sustainability and local participation. In Guatemala, Saucier has seen the importance of local participation firsthand.

"We oversee, rather than guide, because [local people] are our eyes and ears for what is going on and they are the ones with connections. The one time we tried to replace staff with a U.S.-based expert, it was a disaster," Saucier said.

Keys to success in this arena are simple, says David Spiro '98, program director of Opportunities for Vulnerable Children with Helen Keller International in Indonesia. "Being good stewards of (funds), being true to your missions, and keeping beneficiaries at the forefront—these are the basics," Spiro said.

For an example of how not to help effectively, he looks no further than the worst of the international responses to the 2004 tsunami. "Money, politics, publicity, and competition trumped program impact, collaboration, and mission," Spiro said, "with too many egos and too much money."

An abundance of funds isn't a common problem; nonprofits generally compete for grant money and work to do more with less. Alumni talk about the need for communications skills to sell programs to foundations and other financial backers and to navigate diverse and often complex cultures and bureaucracies.

Those challenges can be expected to grow in the future. A recent study by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation predicts increased pressure on nonprofits to plan for long-term sustainability. The same study describes a "new generation" of leaders who will need to create more overlap of business and social interests.

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