Sunday, December 13, 2009
While I was celebrating the 3rd night of Hanukkah tonight with family, I got to thinking, as I often do :), about I Live Here and how I got involved with ILH’s work. Incidentally, I found quite a few commonalities between the holiday of Hanukkah and I Live Here that I thought I might share with you.
As a woman, a writer, teacher and activist, I felt an affinity to the stories in the I Live Here Anthology when I first read it last October. And as a Jew, I was incredibly moved by Mia sharing about her family’s history; the theme of global suffering and recollection of Holocaust certainly resonated. Deuteronomy 4:9 states: "Take heed...lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and...teach them to your children and to your children's children." This little line in the Torah always stayed with me from the time I was very young- the notion of the importance of memory, of recalling what one has seen in order to teach it to future generations.
The holiday of Hanukkah is about this retelling of history. We are obligated to share the miracle of the Maccabbi’s triumph and commemorate the oil lasting 8 nights by lighting our own Menorah candles for 8 nights and having children play with dreidels marked with Hebrew letters "נ(Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin), which together form the acronym for "נס גדול היה שם" (Nes Gadol Haya Sham – "a great miracle happened there") . All of this is designed to remember and bear witness to what has befell us. Jews have survived through stories- generations to generations, passing on the traditions. Moreover, all great cultures and religions have their own stories as a means of sustaining their values.
Thus, I Live Here’s motto “Stories can change the world” has a deep meaning that I believe in. And because of my heritage, the memory of the Holocaust and how the Jewish people were silenced in Europe, as well as my father’s account of fleeing Romania with his parents as a little boy because the Communist and Anti-Semitic government, I feel a particular kinship in hearing the words and experiences of the displaced, the oppressed, the forgotten. For all those who are silenced, I will raise my voice and do everything in my power to help others raise theirs.
I love what ILH stands for. I appreciate the concept of not calling a group of people victims. I love the ideology of giving people who tragically have so little control of their lives- because of disease, poverty, war, etc- the power to tell their stories. In Malawi, we are taking that ideology even further- giving the inmates of Kachere Juvenille prison power through legal rights, education, and permaculture.
The world is often a scary, unjust, miserable place…but there's beauty and there's hope and I think we all would like to be a part of something that makes the world the tiniest bit better, brighter and more humane. That’s what these stories do- they empower, they raise up, they inspire action.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and a beautiful holiday season to all!
All My Best,
Director of Education
I Live Here
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Kachere juvenile prison, a rectangular sloped dustpan surrounded by a flimsy wire fence and somewhere - usually near the gate - a guard hangs out with a Uzi. With real bullets I’m told. Rows of vegetables look quite pretty from afar, with boys in sparkly white watering and weeding. It is hot out. Really blisteringly hot. The building bakes and falls apart too slow to see with the human eye, but the evidence is there in the cracks and holes.
How to interact with teenagers that have almost no interaction with strangers, nevermind, mzungu women (mzungu means ‘whitey’ – I often hear it from children, who love the oddity and will shout and come running for hugs and high fives, or in explanation to the littler ones that catch fright and start crying from the strange sight)? But the prisoners seem friendly, eager to communicate with the few English words they have. I don’t know what they are here for – some on remand for 3 years and counting for allegedly stealing a Nokia, some convicted of rape or assault.
Why I am here is simpler - to practice Permaculture at the prison. Mia wants to create a mini ecosystem inside the prison through education, art and permaculture. Her holistic approach inspired me. Not just a bleeding heart here to fix on some feel good factor, but willing to deal with basic nutrition and emergency hygienic issues. So nutrition is where the permaculture came in, but it ends up touching and incorporating all areas of the prison ecology.
The shortest definition of permaculture that I can give here is ‘a design method for creating sustainable human systems based on the relationships in nature’. Some genius some time ago worked out that if we need a more sustainable way of living we can look at existing systems that work (and nature works, could continue permanently, unlike our current set-ups) and take it from there.
The main focus of my job at Kachere involves diversifying the crops so that inmates can have a better diet to enable them to make use of the education that will be offered them, fight disease better, and hopefully take away some life skills in the balance. In a county where 70% of the population depends directly on the land, these skills can come in very handy. It has to be mentioned that the land is becoming increasingly denuded; erosion causes 25 metric tons of topsoil runs off per hectare per year (Landcare Practices of Malawi by Trent Bunderson – quoting a statistic from World Bank).
On closer inspection, the garden at Kachere is pest-ridden. The soil is degraded – leached and eroded. Wastewater festers in ditches. There is barely any diversity, and the compost pits are full of plastic waste and toxic looking stuff. In stead of just sticking more things in the ground, I will be looking at the entire prison site as an ecosystem that can be advanced into a healthy, diverse, resilient, and abundant one, and to do so will start only be facilitating the design process while the officers and possibly the inmates design a new system.
This is exciting, so much can be done here and so little is needed for big change!
Thursday, December 3, 2009
I heard a quote the other day, which has stayed with me: “it’s not what you do, it’s why you do it.”
As you can see from our last update about Kachere, we are now building a school for the boys. It’s terribly exciting to be part of something so special. I can’t wait to show you all the drawings of this school. We view this as a chance to make a sustainable model, using recycled materials and local innovative design techniques.
Since we remain grassroots, your help remains central to why we are here today. As we try to imagine what our ideal school would look like, one of the first things that we think about is the importance of books that had an impact on us growing up. Since many of the kids speak English and will be learning English, I hope all of you will consider donating some of your favorite books and help us in building a library in Kachere. Additionally, we are looking for art supplies for roughly 100 children to use.
Here is a basic list of what we are looking for:
colored construction paper, tape, glue, paintbrushes, paint, and pencils.
If anything else comes to mind, please feel free to send these to us. If you wish to send a message to the boys that we can hang in the classroom, I know that they would appreciate this very much. If you decide to donate, please make sure I have the materials before the 11th of December. I will take these donations with me when I leave for Malawi on the 13th of December.
I look forward to hearing your suggestions and seeing what we all can come up with before I leave.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and consider donating.
The address to send supplies:
Mia Kirshner and the ILH Team c/o Monica Guzman
1990 Bundy Drive #200
Los Angeles, CA 90025
My Very Best,
Mia and the ILH Team
Thursday, November 26, 2009
As the holidays are upon us, we realize that this is an important time to thank you deeply for your support. Thank you for buying the book, for joining our facebook pages and to those that donated, thank you for making our projects possible.
We launched our first project in Malawi on September 11, 2009. A date very important to me because of how it changed the way in which I see the world. September 11, 2009 marked the start of a long, but important process of transforming Kachere Juvenile Prison into a miniature eco-system. Our program is founded on the principal of permaculture – systems of agriculture designed to be self-sustainable. In practice, this means, building a community teaching garden using local seeds and compost. This garden is is intended to provide additional nutrition for the children of Kachere and intended to give them farming skills upon release. Permaculture makes you realize that you don’t need to reply on big seed companies to have a farm that flourishes. Most importantly, you don’t need to spend a lot to do a lot. We have a wonderful team of permaculturalists who are passing on the extremely valuable skills to the children and the officers of Kachere. When you are in presence of the permaculture teachers, it makes you realize that there are so many easy ways in which you can grow your own garden.
I am terribly excited about the humanure toilets that we are using. They are simple wooden boxes. After being used, the waste is covered with dirt, which kills the pathogens. This waste will then be composted and eventually used as a fertilizer. Additionally, we have installed clean drinking water stations in each cell, in addition to hand washing stations. I am told that the kids love them and find them easy to use. It’s a small but important milestone for us.
We work with a local group called PASI, whose job is to examine the case of each child in the prison and make sure that their legal and human rights are upheld. Additionally, twice a week, PASI will teach legal rights education.
Finally, the most difficult decision that we faced is where to put our school. After much deliberation, we have decided that we will build a very basic school on the grounds of the prison. This appears to be the best way to create an environment of stable learning.
The school will follow the Malawian Government curriculum and teach standards from 1-8. Our goal for this classroom is to emulate the school most of the children wanted to have when growing up. Warm, inviting, nurturing and creative. We want these kids to have dreams and see them through. Our goal is for as many of these kids as possible to attend University.
I am leaving for Malawi on Dec 13th to oversee the start of the building of the school. I am going to take very basic school supplies with me.
I hope so much you will consider donating to help us buy these school supplies and books. There has never been a juvenile prison with a school such as ours and we hope you will join us in the creation of this groundbreaking project.
We will be sending you a list of what is needed for the school and keep you updated on the progress of our work.
I look forward to sending you pictures and stories of what is to come. I know its not going to be easy and we will see many bumps along the way. That said, looking back at where we were and were we stand now, these bumps have made us stronger, better and more determined.
Please send us comments, questions and your thoughts..your support means so much!
Have a beautiful holiday.
Mia and Erica & Judy
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Permaculture begins to act as a metaphor. This idea becomes the foundation for how I Live Here will work in Kachere and beyond. Rather than giving material aid, we will supply Kachere with the tools to sustain themselves in the long run. I would like Kachere to be an environment where the inmates can help one another grow. I would like Kachere to be clean. I ask that it is healthy. I would like full time school to be put in place. I would like to use toilets that compost waste. I would like the Kachere garden to become a classroom of permaculture, in turn providing the kids with nourishment. I would like to re-open each case of every child within Kachere. And then, when the kids leave Kachere, they have the tools that might just make them future leaders. I believe in these kids.
I begin again at a furious pace. Natasha and I visit various NGO’s, - We can’t work in isolation anymore. Local partnership is key so that we can learn from one another. I begin to refer to our NGO visits as our “ambush”. Like a glee club representative, I jump up and down; talk a lot with my hands. I giggle inappropriately when I sound like a high-school cafeteria sermon. I realize I am off-putting with my enthusiasm and am met with a lot of stony faces. I don’t want to take no for an answer when I’m told that this or that NGO is too busy to help, they don’t return calls, or our program is not in their mandate, etc. When the organizations we meet with brush us off, Natasha and I move to the next ones on our list. The best help, by surprise, comes from the Malawian Government, who is willing to do the most and shows the most passion for this project. Not WHO, Not MSF, not UNICEF. We approach the Ministry of Environmental Health and ask for their help in cleaning the prison. We don’t know if it has ever been cleaned. The response is amazing. Within a day, two nurses are in the prison with an industrial sized bucket of chlorine, plastic aprons and masks. The prison is being scrubbed from top to bottom. The bedding is de-loused and washed. A barber comes to Kachere and cuts the hair of the children, in order to get rid of the lice. The children seem happier.
Eventually, I Live Here’s initial art and creative writing curriculum will be re-integrated back into the school curriculum. I still believe that art and prose can serve to make the world less lonely.
I Live Here has found its voice through what I have learned in Malawi. We found our voice through mistakes, which I am sure we will continue to make and hopefully learn from. Thank you Natasha, for reminding me to laugh. I now understand that humor is the only way to get through days that can hurt your heart. When we move to create our program in a brothel on the Thai-Burmese border, we will apply all that we learned at Kachere, working within the environment that we are in, rather than implementing a foreign agenda. The I Live Here website will continue to chronicle our work on our website. In tandem, I Live Here will launch an interactive website, in which global users submit their own stories about home, intimacy, loss, love and loneliness. Stories from your brother, sister, neighbor that might have remained hidden from view, much like the past of Kachere. Finally, we have created an Ambassador program, run by Erica Solomon, our Educational Director. It will centre around the I Live Here book anthology and the work of our programs. This is a student-run, yearlong curriculum that provides high school and college students, around the world, with the tools to be agents for change. Our deep hope is to build an I Live Here community of like-minded activists. Finally, we will continue the I Live Here anthology of books.
I Live Here was able to go to Malawi because of the generous support of those that attended our first fundraiser. And we will continue to be mostly volunteer run, headed by the unstoppable Judy Battaglia.
I still believe that stories will change the world. And through this change, we will surely find ourselves less alone.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
A city is a strange organism, a complex system of entangled roads and sidewalks where people have a tendency to crash against each other without apologizing or even looking at each other's faces.
As I leave the subway station early in the morning to go to another day at college where I don't really know what I'm doing, I walk by a man sleeping at the entry of a condo.
The city is still yawning, people are still waking up. Soon this man will have to move away from his "bedroom" so he won't upset anyone.
There are a lot of "sidewalk beds" in this city. In about an hour, the entries of banks, cafés and stores will be empty. But at night, when everyone heads home from work, these men and women take their cardboards and rest in some corner.
I leave college at dinner time. It seems I've been taken to a different place while I was in classes, to a dark, decadent city.
At the entry of the café where I had lunch today, there's something that looks like a pile of fabric. As I look closer, I see two pairs of feet sticking out from dirty blankets; this is someone's "bedroom". I curl up and walk by them slowly, feeling ashamed and nervous, as if I had just walked without permission inside someone's house and I sat down watching them sleeping.
I'm a very private person; I don't like when someone watches me sleeping so I'll just walk by these men and women who had taken the streets and called them their "homes" and respect the invisible walls that they have around them.
These sidewalk beds, these homeless people…
Can we say that they "live here"?
Can we accept that it's ok for someone to lay his head over a piece of cardboard and sleep?
How did they get here?
Did they lose their jobs and therefore their houses?
Did their families throw them out of the door?
Did drugs or alcohol or gambling get bigger than them?
I want to sit down with them in a café, buy them a hot cup of coffee and talk with them, ask them how and why they have nowhere else to be but the street. But can I do that? Can I assume that they want to talk about it? And if they want to talk, to share their stories with me, what gives me the right to take their words and put them down in a piece of paper or some blog?
I watch them from a distance. They sleep, peacefully, so calm that it actually becomes disturbing; I feel like a sick voyeur watching them.
I can't eat my dinner tonight. And in my bed, my blankets are heavy and cold as steel. I want to lie down on the floor and see how it feels. I want to sit down and write about the sick city that I saw today. I want to talk with them and hear what they have to tell me. Those people have stories to tell, those people have something to say.
How can I walk in the city again and see the same crowded "sidewalk beds"? Will I get used to them as everyone else? Will I start to walk by them as if they are not there and brush on someone on the street and not apologize too?
"I'm here, look at me! I haven't been on the street since ever. Look at me, I know that you can see me."
December 23rd. The city's covered in a blanket of green and red and people run around as lost dogs, carrying boxes wrapped in shinny paper.
I'm seated on the back of a car, shaking. Tonight I'm going to hand out food and clothes to the people that "live" on the street. My heart beats fast: fear, cold, fear, cold.
I have gloves, a warm jacket and two pairs of socks inside my Converse sneakers. Still, I feel that the tip of my nose is about to freeze and fall. My cheeks are red and my lips are chapped.
It's freezing, it's that Christmas warm-cold.
As we get outside the car, sad, cold, hungry faces meet us halfway. It's an every week ritual; we get here and hand out sandwiches and bowls of chicken soup and cups of warm milk and they take them, blowing the burning soup as they eat, with a smile across their faces. I've never heard "thank you" and "you're a beautiful girl" so much in my life as tonight.
After 5 hours, several miles and so many faces, I sit down on the side of the road, with my head between my knees, overwhelmed.
"I don't want any Christmas gifts this year…"
About two years ago, I worked for the first time with a generous group of people that deliver food and clothes weekly to homeless people in the city where I live and study, Porto, Portugal.
I must say that I wasn't aware of how hard and overwhelming the experience would be. I found myself among several homeless people, some of them clearly high on drugs, others starving because they didn't eat for days. And this was all happening two blocks away from my college, from the city's downtown, where the theaters and nightclubs fill up every weekend. And it was December 23rd, so thinking that I would be seated with all my family, celebrating Christmas in a day, while all those people didn't even have a bed to sleep, made me angry and sad but most of all, I felt powerless, selfish, empty and useless.
After reading "I Live Here" and seeing the work that Ms. Mia Kirshner had developed, I realized that I should do more than just watch people. I could actually become a more active part of their lives and try to help them in more ways than just providing them with food. I saw that they wanted and needed the food and the warm clothes that we gave them but most of all, they just wanted to talk with someone and tell them who they were and why they were on the streets.
We can't pretend that we don't see these people anymore; we must act. My goal is to talk and reach the people that live on the streets of my city, from the homeless to the women that walk around in the dark, to the volunteers that do the same work that I did and all the different kinds of people that we can meet on the streets at night.
Friday, August 28, 2009
Our first ever “I Live Here” Malawi Prison Project event was this past Saturday at the wonderful Causecast space in Santa Monica. And we are happy to report that it was an amazing success! Thank you so much for all of your warm wishes, kind messages and helping us to spread the word. We are truly humbled by the outpouring of love and support that has surrounded the I Live Here Project.
There were some small bumps along the way that we thought we would share with you about what not to do and what to do when planning an event.
Part One: July 22-Aug 22/09
The installation - This monster piece of art, which looked back at the material collected over the nine years of making ILH. We felt it was a crucial part of the event, as we hoped that if people came, they could briefly experience the journey that led to the Malawi project. For Mia, re-visiting the material was a very intimate experience. She had saved all her notes from the very beginning this odyssey. Putting the material in order made her realize how much has changed since she started. Mia noted that there have been a lot of miles, tears, relationships, houses, laughter, humility, sadness and joy that have brought her to this point with the project today.
Part Two: Friday, Aug 21/09
“The Kettle Incident”
Judy was supposed to feed Rainbow, Mia’s dog, before we all headed down to the venue to install the piece. Judy had been working ‘round the clock and had not slept in what appeared at least a week. She put her all into the event, which explains the exhaustion and perhaps the delirium that we were all feeling. As we are getting ready to leave, Judy whisper-yells … "Mia" and points out that the electric kettle is melting, due to the fact that she put it on the stove. One can only assume fatigue induduced this normally bright woman's attempt to burn down the house. Erica was shocked to see a mini Kettle explosion, which looked like a pile of tar and dismembered electrical wires, and worked hurriedly to clean it up. Oddly, it made us all laugh hysterically, which felt like a much needed relief.
(Needless to say, Judy will no longer be feeding Rainbow)
Part Three: Friday, Aug 21st 6pm-1:30am
“Are we Megadeath?”
We arrived at Causecast to install the piece. There is a time to be polite and a time to speak the truth.
The installation looked terrible in the space.
A cross between a haunted house and a cover band advertising a Megadeath concert in high-school auditorium. Our hearts dropped. You could see that these amazing volunteers were thinking “WTF”? about the piece.
We felt exposed and embarrassed, as though we had failed to covey all that we thought we were expressing in the month of putting this together.
Mia made the first rip, tearing the pages off the boards that they had been so carefully glued on by all that worked on this piece.
And we started again.
Here is the upside to the story: all these volunteers stayed so late building this piece of art from the ground up, just because they saw that we needed help. In a way, the spirit of building from fragments an act of faith, which represents the sprit of the book.
Part Three: Saturday, August 22nd: 6:55pm
“Running a Little Late”
A ton of volunteers showed up early that morning, working on the installation. Carla and Lovely from GBK, the killer event planning company, that came on board at the last minute and pulled this together for us, stayed until six am hanging lights the night before. If you need “wing women “ for your event, call these ladies.
Just before the doors opened, Mia realized the tent in the installation was not finished and started painting in her dress!!!
Part Four: Amazing Talent
You gotta have the music and the drink:
Tom Schnabel, Chris Douritas, Adrian Giovind all of KCRW and DJ Kid Lightning set the tone with music for the night. The sounds were like this smooth carpet ride that carried you from country to country. The totally cool and zen Richard Betts provided the wine. This guy makes such beautiful wine and is a super duper important sommelier. He is able to actually make wine sound accessible and not just something that fancy people can understand.
Part Five: Have a live auction
Through ticket sales, the silent auction and live auction, we reached our fundraising goal and are ready to launch the program in Malawi!!!!!!!!!
It’s an amazing thing to see that in just a few minutes we were able to hit our fundraising goal. Especially in this economy, to have people show up and support makes us all believe that we are on the road to doing something that resonates.
Part Six: Eat cold pizza
There is nothing better than cold pizza and cake at the end of an event. Enough said.
Here is a piece of music that explains the sprit of the evening and the project.
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.”
-Leonard Cohen “Anthem”
Just dive in and do your best, nothing will ever be perfect. It’s the imperfections that hold the best stuff of life.
Mia leaves for Malawi tomorrow because of all of you and will be writing, while she is over there.
Thank you for supporting this incredible labor of love.
Lots of Hugs,
Mia, Erica and Judy