Thursday, February 25, 2010

Looking For the Light - The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Walcott

In 1992, while browsing a bookstore in Washington, D.C., I picked up Looking for the Light. On the back cover was a black-and-white photograph, taken in 1933, of a beautiful 23-year-old woman with mesmerizing eyes and a tomboy style of dress. I developed an immediate crush on her, a photographer named Marion Post Wolcott and the subject of the book.

Wolcott was a photographer for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s, one of several photographers employed by the New Deal agency to document the impact of the Great Depression on the lives of Americans. Wolcott, along with Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and others, created some of our nation’s most iconic images. But Wolcott never became as famous as some of her contemporaries. That’s because, after taking several hundred thousand photographs over three years, she met a man, put her camera down to start a family, and did not pick that camera up again for almost 50 years.

Paul Hendrickson, the author of Looking for the Light, summarizes Wolcott’s life as “a story about an artist who stopped, who let go of that gifted magical thing inside her until it was too late and the gift was lost. And yet in spite of this fact she was able to make her survival a grace, not just a dour necessity.”

My work, as the founder of Share Our Strength, has focused on hunger and poverty, which is why I’ve always been interested in the era of documentary photography that did so much to bring those issues to public attention. The human drama that Hendrickson conveys about the choices and trade-offs that Wolcott made has universal relevance and was riveting, but what I really took away from the book was a new way to see.

 See my review of the book in Stanford Social Innovation Review @

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sharing our Strategy With the Nation's Governors

We had a great opportunity this morning to advance our strategy to end childhood hunger by presenting to a private session of Governors from about a dozen states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Colorado and Maryland. They were in town for the annual meetings of the National Governors Association (and the Democratic Governors Association) and were headed over to the White House to see President Obama just after the session in which I presented. So the timing was good – especially because our message was that while the President has set a bold goal for ending childhood hunger by 2015, it will require bold action on the part of Governors, working with partners like Share Our Strength, to achieve it.

Governor Martin O’Malley told his colleagues about the progress that has been made in Maryland and Governor Bill Ritter described what a great deal our new partnership has been for Colorado. Following his comments the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, Delaware’s Jack Markell said “I think we can all agree that this is a no brainer.” The aides to several Governors came up after and asked if we can bring our strategy to their state.

A brief summary of my comments to the governors follows below:

Thank all of you for this opportunity here this morning. I have enormous admiration for your leadership at a time when our nation needs its governors to lead as never before. I don’t have to tell you that that these are extraordinarily difficult times politically, times that require courage and risk and fortitude

Though we may face many challenges that we are not easy to solve , such as unemployment, health care, climate change, etc, there is an important issue that is solvable and it is particularly dependent on you. That is ending childhood hunger in the United States.

As you know, one in four children in the U.S. are now on food stamps, for the first time in our history. A survey that Share Our Strength commissioned from Celinda Lake shows that 62 % of public school teachers identify hunger as a problem in the classroom and are using their own money on a regular basis to buy food for those kids.

But kids in the U.S. aren’t hungry because we lack food, we know that is not the case, and they are not hungry because of a lack of food and nutrition programs. That is not the case either. They are hungry because they lack access to those programs. And every time we increase access- to school breakfast, to summer feeding, to SNAP / food stamps, we increase the flow of already authorized and appropriated federal dollars into your state. Even increasing school breakfast participation from the 45% rate it is at today to 60% would bring $561 million into the states. More than a billion dollars are at stake when you consider all of the food and nutrition programs for which kids are eligible but not enrolled.

We have been working closely with Governor O’Malley and more recently with Governor Ritter to increase the participation in school breakfast, summer feeding, and the SNAP / food stamp program. When I told Governor O’Malley that we had an excellent meeting with Governor Ritter and that Colorado should be able to draw down another $70 million he e-mailed and asked “doesn’t this beg the intellectual question as to why we are not already doing this?”
It is exactly the right question. And the answer is that these kids don’t have representation, lobbyists or associations. They need our leadership. And this is not only right for our kids, it is also a way of showing those skeptical of government, often for good reason, that there are programs that work.

President Obama has advanced this cause by setting the bold goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015, but his Administration’s strategy for achieving that is not as bold as the goal itself. That frankly will depend on you. If you are tired of cutting programs you ran for office to support, if you are tired of budget realities that have forced you to make the most vulnerable and voiceless in your state even more vulnerable and marginalized, then we at Share Our Strength, along with many partners including Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center, are eager to help.

The poet Nordahl Grieg once said: Rich is the earth, noble is man, where there is hunger or need there is betrayal. We know in our hearts and our bones that there is no excuse for hunger in America. Rich is the earth and there is nobility in those of you who have chosen to serve your state and country. We don’t need to betray children by leaving them hungry. That’s why we look forward to partnering in your state to increase participation in programs that have bipartisan support and that we know will work.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Moral Imagination - a post Haiti work in progress

I’ve been giving more thought to Bill Gate’s announcement, which I read about a few days after I returned from Haiti, of the largest philanthropic commitment in history: $10 billion over 10 years to develop and distribute vaccines for diseases like malaria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. The burden of those infectious diseases on the poorest people in the world is every bit as crushing as the concrete rubble that buried so many in Port au Prince. Gates’ effort will catalyze a greater mobilization of talented medical professionals than anything we saw with Partners in Health. The lives of 8 million children will be saved by 2020 as a result. The $10 billion was a one day story.

The crisis in Haiti naturally trumped Gates as it did so much other news. For the media, nothing held a candle to the horrors being reported from Port au Prince, some so graphically that they became known as “disaster porn.”

Unlike in Haiti, the 3000 African kids who die every day from malaria die quietly and invisibly. That’s because they die routinely, year in and year out, in numbers too large to fathom. They die in the pages of medical journals, not in our living rooms on high definition TV. They don’t reach the threshold for Anderson Cooper. Or the 82nd Airborne. No rock concerts on MTV.

In reality there is nothing quiet about their deaths at all. They are painful, protracted, often horrendous. Perhaps worst of all, they are preventable.

This tension between the immediate and the long-term, between the personal and the abstract exists in every effort to create meaningful change. You and I have come up against it in virtually everything we do. It is human nature to be deeply moved by the drama in front of us, rather than what might be imagined for another time and place. You may have seen the Washington Post magazine story on new research that tries to explain it. Shankar Vedantam, a Washington Post reporter, wrote a book called "The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives.” In it he says “The reason human beings seem to care so little about mass suffering and death is precisely because the suffering is happening on a mass scale. The brain is simply not very good at grasping the implications of mass suffering. Americans would be far more likely to step forward if only a few people were suffering or a single person were in pain…. Our hidden brain -- my term for a host of unconscious mental processes that subtly biases our judgment, perceptions and actions -- shapes our compassion into a telescope. We are best able to respond when we are focused on a single victim.”

Vedanta reviews the experiments of University of Oregon psychologist Paul SLovic who told volunteers given a certain amount of money, about a starving 7-year-old girl in Mali. On average, people gave half their money to help the girl. Slovic told another group of volunteers with the same amount of money about the problem of famine in Africa, and the millions of people in need. The volunteers gave half as much money as volunteers in the first group.

As with the model trains of our youth, only engines of a certain scale fit our mental tracks. They are very narrow gauge.

The consequence, while explainable as above, perhaps even understandable, is a spectacular failure of imagination. When we focus on the one rather than the many, on the symptom rather than cause, on what oneself can accomplish rather than on what needs to be accomplished by the broader community, we neglect our greatest opportunities to do the greatest good. It’s equivalent to suffering a massive stroke that leaves one seeing only what is in direct line of sight, with no peripheral vision or sense of relationship to the larger, surrounding world.

There is no recourse to such failure of imagination but to recognize it, confront it, and struggle to overcome it as one might a crippling stutter.

It would be nice if there were a more concrete and guaranteed prescription, perhaps a handy checklist to tick through like those Dr. Atul Gawande describes for hospitals, pilots and engineers. But overcoming failures of imagination has less to do with following procedure, or tapping external resources, and more with looking deeply and expansively within. It requires intentionally challenging one’s imagination, questioning whether we have engaged it to the fullest, and especially pushing to contemplate and react not only to what we see but also to what we don’t see.

A few years ago the commencement speaker at Wellesley College made exactly this point, telling the women in the class of 2006 about the ingredient essential to fighting for whatever may be their cause:
“Adam Hochschild writes beautifully about one such cause: the abolitionist movement, in his book, Bury the Chains. He states compellingly that ‘the abolitionists succeeded where others failed because they mastered one challenge that faces anyone who cares about social and economic justice: drawing connections between the near and the distant.’ Linking our own lives and fates with those we can’t see will, I believe, be the key to a decent and shared future….
“Imagination will allow you to make the link between the near of your lives with the distant others and will lead us to realize the plethora of connections between us and the rest of the world, between our lives and that of a Haitian peasant, between us and that of a homeless drug addict, between us and those living without access to clean water or vaccinations or education and this will surely lead to ways in which you can influence others and perhaps improve the world along the way.”

The commencement speaker was Ophelia Dahl. She explained how being the daughter of writer Roald Dahl meant learning a lot about imagination at an early age. She implied that it served her well in helping to envision and create Partners in Health. After all, PIH has succeeded where so many others have failed precisely because of a leap of imagination. The leap was not that highly educated docs in Boston would volunteer to provide health care to Haitians in Haiti – though it would be fair to call that a stretch in its own right - but rather that with the support of partners from Boston, Haitians could create and deliver their own health care. That is where imagination really triumphed.

The enormity of Gate’s $10 billion risks eclipsing the impressive feats of imagination that were its catalyst. Gates was able to see both sides of a distant coin: the needs of African children outside the small circumference of the telescope, and the transformative impact of vaccines notwithstanding a long roller-coaster history that has repeatedly dashed hopes and in the case of malaria for example has yet to produce a single licensed vaccine.

It’s the same imagination the cathedral builders had in persuading their community to invest fortunes and centuries in something that on paper had to look like the most improbable of visions.

It’s the imagination of Timberland’s Jeff Swartz who says a successful business can mean commerce and justice, the imagination that says childhood hunger can be eradicated, that says a malaria vaccine is not a matter of scientific discovery but biotech engineering.

Since returning from Haiti I’ve been determined, as many of us have, to try to make a difference there in the limited ways possible from here: tracking down needed supplies, working to find and connect resources, and engaging others to help. The trip did not fail to reignite and refuel commitment, as I knew it would.

But ironically, for me at least, having witnessed the suffering in Haiti makes it more important to look beyond Haiti, not through it or past it, but beyond it, to find and fulfill one’s purpose. Anything less would feel like some tragic Greek myth in which we’d been warned that gazing too deeply into the eyes of Cite de Soleil’s children surging toward the back of the Yele food truck could permanently constrict our vision.

Compassion is both blessing and balm. But unless hitched to the power of imagination it can leave us one step behind the next tragedy, and the next, always a day late and dollar short. We’ll likely end up doing a lot of good, but not nearly good enough.

Moral imagination is supposed to be what differentiates us from the other species. But our boast is bigger than our bite. We remain only partially evolved, a work in progress to be admired and resisted both at once, or as Bruce Springsteen sings, we are “halfway to heaven and just a mile outta hell.”

If we hope to truly change the world rather than just the bits and pieces of it that drift in front of us, we must reach for more than the traditional tools stored in those drawers we glibly label “social entrepreneur”, “business leader” or “policy maker.” Indeed we must reach inside, not out, must shape our own evolution, with faith that the greatest value we can deliver may lie not in what we know but in what we seek to know.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Jim Ansara returns to Haiti with Partners in Health

Our friend and supporter Jim Ansara just returned to Haiti to help renovate hospitals.  The link to his blog is and the following post from Jim can be found there:

Monday – Port Au Prince

February 15, 2010 by Jim

David Walton and I are heading to the PIH in St. Marc shortly with Patrice Nevil who is the Zanmi Lasante head of infrastructure and engineering. Patrice has been renovating the public hospital in St Marc for the last year working with the Haitian Ministry of Health who owns the hospital. ZL/PIH plays a major supporting role at the hospital which is well run but very antiquated for the last 18 months. The goal of our trip is to plan for a renovation of the operating room and add OR recovery rooms and a small isolation ward. The hospital has played a major supporting role to PAP since the quake as there is a good road between the cities and hundreds of badly injured people were brought to St Marc. For treatment. Tonight we will stay in Mirebalais and then Tuesday on to Cange. I will try to post pictures of St. Marc tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Doctor and His Camera Bear Witness in Haiti

Dr. David Walton has worked with Partners in Health for 12 years and was the person who took us through the general hospital when we were in Haiti at the end of January. He is also a photographer who took more than 2000 pictures documenting the medical aftermath of the earthquake.

I’m including a link to a 4 minute slide show he has prepared @ and which is included on Jim Ansara’s blog ( Dr. Walton was kind enough to share many of his other pictures with me on a thumb drive, some of which may be too graphic for general consumption. But the slide show is a good and representative selection. Besides, you only need to look at a few to see what to understand what Walton’s body of work is saying.

Not surprisingly, the pictures reveal a medical professional’s unflinching eye. Whether the lens is trained on a man with a bandaged head leaning against a car, or an exhausted mother lying on a cot, or the blood soaked bandaged stump of a just amputated leg, the view is clear, calm and centered.

In that sense the photos seem to model what will be required of us all. We cannot turn away. Not from the small Haitian girl on a stretcher clasping a helium balloon, or the tiny nursing baby blissfully unaware of the surrounding trauma, or the shirtless young man leaning on two others as he tries to walk after losing his left leg. We also cannot turn away from the reality that is Haiti. As the images begin to accumulate in our own mind’s eye, they tell us we can’t turn away even when the discomfort and pain become redundant, tiresome, almost numbing. Dr Walton didn’t stop looking. Neither can we.

There is a quiet stillness to these pictures that contrasts with the chaos the earthquake caused. Some of that is the result of a doctor’s steady hand. But some it reflects how time froze the day the ground shook. Not just time in the present as we know time, but also the future it stole from so many.

A large number of the photos show the hands of one person touching another. Sometimes the hands are carrying someone to safety. Some are doctor’s hands performing a procedure. Others show relief workers simply placing a comforting hand on arm or leg. It’s as if Walton is saying we must not only look, but also feel. We must be present with all of our senses.

There are no shortages of images from Haiti. But David Walton probably took more pictures than any other doctor on the scene. He made it his job to not only heal, but to bear witness.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Obama Administration Steps Up Effort to End Childhood Hunger

Yesterday Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was supposed to speak at the National Press Club to lay out President Obama’s priorities with regard to the Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation that plays such an important role in the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015.

The snowstorm caused Vilsack to cancel but he did release his remarks to news organizations, which included these comments:

"Ask any teacher how students who fail to eat a healthy breakfast or lunch perform in class," Vilsack said in excerpts obtained by Politics Daily. "Hungry kids don't learn as well. . . . If we want and need our children fully prepared for a competitive world we cannot afford for them to be hungry." Even classmates can be affected, he said, when undernourished kids fail to compete and challenge in classrooms and playgrounds.”

Share Our Strength did ask teachers about this, in the first and more comprehensive survey of how public school teachers deal with hunger in their classroom. The complete survey is posted on Share Our Strength website @

Vilsack also outlines 8 priority ingredients to their strategy including this first which closely parallels Share Our Strength’s strategy of state-based collaborations to improve access to food and nutrition programs for hungry children:

“Improving access to the school nutrition programs must be a priority. States and local communities need be fully engaged as partners in our efforts to identify innovative strategies to ending child hunger. We cannot rest while so many of our young children struggle with access to food, which is why I'm calling on Congress to provide tools to increase participation, streamline applications, and eliminate gap periods. Another strategy for getting more children into the programs should be simplifying the application process through increased direct certification. If a child already qualifies for other assistance programs there is no reason why the parents of that child need to be bothered filling out one more application to qualify for school breakfast or lunch. Bonus payments should be offered to schools that effectively reach out to children who currently qualify but who are not participation.”

All 8 points can be found in a press report at:


Monday, February 8, 2010

bearing witness to John Kennedy's first action on hunger

This weekend we took Nate to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester. It was a bitter cold day and we mostly had the place to ourselves. Nate’s been asking a lot of questions about the Kennedy family since the heavy press coverage in Boston of Senator Kennedy’s death. This seemed like a good way to combine an educational activity with the strategic imperative of getting out of the house for a few hours.

Many of the exhibits are about John Kennedy’s youth and early career. When we got to the section about his election as President, there was a wall of front pages from newspapers across the country, many reporting on Inauguration Day. Rosemary noticed that the Washington Examiner’s headline was the only one not to refer to his Inaugural Address but rather to his first act as president: signing his first executive order “providing for an expanded program of food distribution to needy families.” I asked Alice to track it down and the full text of the executive order follows below.

With Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, civil rights, the space program and other pressing matters waiting for him in the oval office, this was what John Kennedy chose to do first. It is a historical footnote of which I was unaware. But 50 years later let’s hope it has the power to inspire another idealistic president to match words with deeds, and to take every action necessary to ensure that America fulfills his pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015.

Executive Order 10914
January 21, 1961


Whereas one of the most important and urgent problems confronting this Nation today is the development of a positive food and nutrition program for all Americans;

Whereas I have received the report of the Task Force on Area Redevelopment under the chairmanship of Senator Douglas, in which special emphasis is placed upon the need for additional food to supplement the diets of needy persons in areas of chronic unemployment;

Whereas I am also advised that there are now almost 7 million persons receiving some form of public assistance, that 4.5 million persons are reported as being unemployed and that a substantial number of needy persons are not recipients in the present food distribution program;

Whereas the variety of foods currently being made available is limited and its nutritional content inadequate; and

Whereas despite an abundance of food, farm income has been in a period of decline, and a strengthening of farm prices is desirable.

NOW, THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, it is ordered as follows:

The Secretary of Agriculture shall take immediate steps to expand and improve the program of food distribution throughout the United States, utilizing funds and existing statutory authority available to him, including section 32 of the Act of August 24,1935, as amended (7 U.S.C. 612), so as to make available for distribution, through appropriate State and local agencies, to all needy families a greater variety and quantity of food out of our agricultural abundance.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Yesterday's post was about the Gate's Foundations investment in vaccines to save the lives of 8 million kids and how as a one day story compared to the crisis in Haiti it was an example of the drama of tragedy vs. the numbing of statistics.

In his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, President Obama more eloquently made the same point:

"Sadly, though, that spirit is too often absent when tackling the long-term, but no less profound issues facing our country and the world. Too often, that spirit is missing without the spectacular tragedy, the 9/11 or the Katrina, the earthquake or the tsunami, that can shake us out of complacency. We become numb to the day-to-day crises, the slow-moving tragedies of children without food and men without shelter and families without health care. We become absorbed with our abstract arguments, our ideological disputes, our contests for power. And in this Tower of Babel, we lose the sound of God's voice. "

Doctors Who Heal And Bear Witness

“We should not leave Haitians with unmet needs for prosthetics” write Partners in Health doctors in the current New England Journal of Medicine, calling attention to what may be one of the most profound legacies of the January earthquake.

After returning from visiting the general hospital in Haiti I called former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, who lost his leg in Vietnam, had nearly a dozen surgeries, and eventually returned there to help establish prosthetic clinics. I used to be his chief-of-staff and knew how well he understood the need. This is what he explained: “Making prosthetics is not complicated, but there is artistry involved. A five year old girl that needs to be fit for prosthesis will need to be fit for another when she’s seven, and again when she’s 12, and then every six months for awhile. She’ll need prosthetic services for the rest of her life.

“In the US that would cost at least $15,000 a person, but it can be done less expensively in Haiti and elsewhere. We wouldn’t have enough expertise here in the U.S. to ship to Haiti even if we wanted to. What we need to do is build training centers for prosthetic technicians so we can help kids but also employ Haitians” Kerrey offered to chair a national committee to bring such expertise and resources to Haiti.

For expert medical dispatches from doctors in Haiti, see New England Journal of Medicine @

Thursday, February 4, 2010

vaccinating against misery whether health, Haiti, hunger

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Bill Gates announced the largest philanthropic commitment in history: $10 billion over 10 years to support vaccine development for diseases like malaria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis that affect the poorest people in the world.

The lives of 8 million children will be saved by 2020 as a result.
It was a headline grabbing announcement. But only briefly. The New York Times reported it but not on page one. After that, there was barely another word in the press.

Haiti was the more riveting story about the health of poor people dominating the news. The Gates Foundation had responded to that as well. A few weeks before they’d quietly made two grants for earthquake relief which totaled $1.5 million, an amount so small compared to the scale of the disaster, or compared to the vaccine commitment, that it went all but unmentioned.

Taken together, these actions raise several considerations for our work.

First, there is the drama of tragedy versus the numbing of statistics. Saving 8 million lives over ten years is a one day story. The improbable rescue of one child a day from collapsed concrete in Port au Prince can lead the news for weeks. It’s tempting to be cynical or critical about such a paradox, but I’d argue that it deserves neither. Rather it is a challenge to our imaginations.

It is human nature to be deeply moved by drama we see in front of us, rather than in what might be imagined for another time and place. We relate more to flesh and blood people than to numbers on a page. As with model trains some of us had as kids, only engines of a certain scale fit our mental tracks. An engine of 8 million doesn’t. The result is a failure of imagination so spectacular that we potentially neglect our greatest opportunities.

Second, is the lack of markets for long-term solutions on behalf of the voiceless. The $10 billion vaccine commitment from Gates comes almost full circle from the Grand Challenges grants began more than five years ago to encourage high-risk but high-reward work on vaccines and other approaches to reducing inequities in global health. It affirms Gates’ conviction that nothing in the field of health except possibly breastfeeding has a higher return on investment than what he calls “the miracle of vaccines.”

Vaccines represent the preventive approach we wish we could deploy, and whose return on investment we wish we could measure, in the social sector. Good nutrition for children under the age of five is a type of long-lasting vaccine that impacts body and brain. So is quality education. But as Bill Gates wrote in his annual letter a few weeks ago, there is too little investment in areas such as education and preventive health services “because the poor can’t generate a market demand” and “there isn’t an agreed-upon measure of excellence to tell the market how to pick the best ideas.”
Finally, the Gates approach places a premium on strategy, discipline and focus, even if it means not acting to save lives in the short-term, as in Haiti. Even the world’s largest foundation has finite resources. A third of the Foundation’s total budget has been shifted toward vaccine development, not because of a lack of compassion for other needs, but because of the greater return on investment in the long-term.

In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Gates said of his focus on global health. “Being maniacal about something is very helpful.” He also refers to himself as an impatient optimist, knowing that in many cases the solution is not scientific discovery, but biotech engineering, e.g. scaling what works, as difficult and expensive as that may be. Like others I’m writing about in my new book on the race to develop a malaria vaccine, Bill Gates has the imagination of an unreasonable man.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

planned "surge" in Haiti food distribution and other notes from Share Our Strength conference call

We convened a conference call about Haiti this morning with 40 Share Our Strength champions from around the country including philanthropic leaders like Barbara Harman and Mario Morino, chefs like Gordon Hamersley and Mary Sue Milliken, and Taste and Dine Out organizers.

After I shared some context about our long support for and investment in Haiti, Jeff Swartz described our visit and “the power of bearing witness in which you bring your eyes and you bring your heart.” He made the case for setting up business systems and networks since no one person or organization can solve the problems on their own.

Laura Turner from the Washington DC office of the World Food Program explained that they have been able to turn around the food distribution challenges in the last few days and that they are laying the foundation for a food distribution “surge” that would reach 2 million people in the next two weeks and to help overwhelm the perception of insecure food delivery systems. The World Food Program is also delivering specialized food for hospitals and orphanages as well as powdered nutritional supplements. Even before the earthquake Haiti had 30% malnutrition in children under five.

In addition to learning all of this, perhaps the most important thing we learned, once again, was about the dedication and passion of the Share Our Strength network. More than a dozen of those on the phone e-mailed immediately after to say they wanted to join us on a future trip, help raise money, or find a way to share their strength. It was a good reminder that with all we’ve got going on, we sometimes need to stop for a moment and remember to share at least the headlines with those who have given so much to help us get where we are.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

powerful guest post from Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz Upon Return From Haiti

Last week, I visited Haiti, in the company of Bill Shore, the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, and a Timberland Board member, and chair of the Board's Corporate Social Responsibility Committee, and in the company of Wyclef Jean, a 12 time Grammy award winner, a Haitian musician and activist, Timberland’s partner in an effort to plant trees and reforest Haiti, as part of our global Earthkeeper efforts. The visit was in response to the earthquake that struck Haiti 3 weeks ago; our visit was an attempt to focus Timberland’s Earthkeeper resources temporarily on disaster relief. The trip was emotional and powerful; I left Saturday night and was back in the office Tuesday.
So, what’s so hard about a brief note that describes the heroism of the many doctors we saw, the heartbreak of the destruction we saw, the inspiration I felt with Bill and Wyclef, and the indignation I felt at the world’s well intended but inept efforts to cope with this disaster?
Maybe it is the scale of the disaster, in the context of a country already ravaged by history. Maybe it is the raw, emotional experience of being amidst death and destruction, and in the presence of the dying. Maybe it is the feeling of futility that waited for me at each stop we made in Haiti. Yes, we made a difference, but we did not even scratch the surface of the pain and agony.
For all these reasons and more, I have not done my job by you; I have not been able to bear witness to you from Haiti. So, below, I have tried to right that wrong. Call this note, “bearing witness” -- but “bear with me” also works -- it is a very long note. Long for the reasons I cite above, and long because it is hard even now for me to say simply why a bootmaker flew to Hell and how the experience of that Hell affirmed my belief in the mission of commerce and justice. So, here goes:
1.30am Saturday night in Manchester, NH. One backpack, with no change of clothes, just a camera, a notebook, malaria pills, and my Bible. Drove to Manchester with Billy Shore; not a lot of chit chat.
On the plane, Wyclef Jean was waiting, exhausted before the trip began. He was going back to Haiti for the 2nd time since the quake — many of you saw him on CNN two nights after the disaster, with his wife, telling stories about transporting 10s of dead bodies to temporary morgues. Wyclef is a man of many faces — we know him as a musician and a celebrity, for sure, but if I jump ahead and tell you about Wyclef by the end of this voyage, I would speak of an immensely gentle, noble, powerful man — one part dreamer, one part prophet, one part revolutionary.

And on the plane, strangers -- physicians from Partners in Health. When the earth shakes and the flimsy medical infrastructure disappears — PIH calls on physicians and nurses and medical students — and they drop what they are doing, like the doc from San Francisco on our plane, like the med student from New York…they pack their backpacks, grab whatever medical supplies they can round up…and we meet them, 1.30am, bound for Hispaniola.

(After arrival, a helicopter trip to Haiti.)

From the air, in a little over an hour or so, you flit across beautiful inspiring mountains and along magnificent beaches, from the Dominican Republic to Haiti. There is a large lake that demarcates between the two countries, on the route we flew, but you don’t need a map to know where one world ends and another begins. The lush agriculture on one side of the lake leads to a more hardscrabble agriculture on the other; the big (ok, functional) highway on the DR side leads to one lane each way winding on the other. We can see the aid trucks crawling along on the Haiti side. And in minutes, Port au Prince looms ahead, dense, destroyed, honestly not to be believed, from the air. A densely packed city, an up and down city of folded hills, and everywhere you can see…cataclysm. You have a city that started with basically no functioning infrastructure – and then the whole darn thing falls down. So what’s left? A world of pain, and human spirit.

First stop, Cite Soleil – the City of the Sun – which is the worst slum in Port au Prince. Clef says, not a lot of blanche (white people) in Cite Soleil ever; should be interesting. Just what I’m looking for — interesting. Because as the convoy weaves through the city, I am reduced to holding the video camera in my lap and filming my knee. I can’t believe the physical destruction. Nor the swarm of humans walking. People walking in the streets — this is one of the overwhelming images of this voyage. Where are they going? What are they seeking? Walking, everywhere. Streets choked with dust and detritus and despair, and folks out walking. Whole blocks just leveled.

Our convoy pulls to the curb under the bluest sky and with the blazing sun as witness. Within 30 seconds of Clef’s appearance on the sidewalk, there are ten thousand young people around us. On a retaining wall in front of us, clogging the wide street, everywhere the eye can see. Beatles en route to Shea Stadium; I’ve never seen a crowd like this, form this fast, be this close.

We are in the Cite to feed the hungry. We’ve already seen a UN convoy heading from the airport to distribute food and water—white armored personnel carriers, soldiers in body armor and combat gear, turret gunners manning loaded weapons, sirens blaring, trucks roaring through the clogged streets—to hand out 50 lb bags of rice. Clef reminds me that good intentions don’t feed people. 50 lbs of rice not all that helpful, when there is no pot, no cooking fire, and no clean water anywhere with which to cook the rice. The Yele model is a little different—we brought food from the DR, food that Yele purchased, and somehow, in this destroyed city, Clef’s team cooked 8,000 hot meals of Haitian cuisines (goat stew). Someone “found” 8,000 styrofoam take-out trays, from one of the destroyed restaurants somewhere in town. And found a truck. Here’s the truck, here’s the meals, here’s Clef with a bullhorn shouting in Creole, and here is a mighty river of the hungry, lining up to be fed. With sweat pouring off of everyone, we began to hand out the meals.

We are working hard in the sunny version of hell, but despite everyone’s best efforts, of a sudden, it starts to get tense. The Yele volunteers are shouting at the folks in line in Creole, "Don’t push, don’t push," but you could see in the eyes of the mothers and the fathers and the children, everyone watching the pile of cooked meals in the back of the truck get smaller and smaller and a sense of despair and maybe even panic begin — will I get a meal for my child before they run out? And so all of a sudden, the business of Sunday lunch heads in the wrong direction — the river of hungry humans becomes a raging river, pressing forward, starting to crush each other and us. And so the security guys – with good intentions – shove themselves in front of us, and everyone started taking out their weapons and I heard safeties being taken off and I knew we were not far from a really bad situation.

At this point I was crushed behind a wall of security people, up against the open back of the truck. In front of me, not 3 humans deep away, there was a little girl. And someone must have stepped on her or something – she started to cry. In the raging ocean of human suffering—her tears and her fear was too much for me. So I reached between 2 security guys and put my hand on her and shouted in French,”Its ok, I’m gonna get you.” I couldn’t lift her up; I was wedged too tightly -- but now I was back in CEO mode and so I said to the security guy in front of me, “Get me that little girl.” And he did -- lifted her up and passed her back to me and I held her tight, in my arms, and she was sobbing and so was I. I held onto her, maybe 8 years old, talking to her in French, and after about 30 seconds she stopped crying. Because the crushing that was hurting her — that’s gone now. I’m holding her and we’re behind a security guy and so she’s not going to get crushed. So she stopped crying.
My view of the world says, she should have still been crying. But her view of the world is, no. I may not have a home, I may be hungry, I may be living in hell – but that’s normal. That isn’t worth crying over. If someone is hurting me on top of all that, then I’ll cry. I handed her a meal and off she went – as if to say, I’m going back to the normal despair of my day and I can handle that, don’t need your help, thanks a million and have a good day.

We went back to handing out the food. The crush didn’t go away, but the fear of a bad scene did. I’m still kinda pinned against the truck; from under the truck, a little brown hand reaches out and grabs my cargo calf. I look down, and there is a little hand clutching my leg. Can’t see the child — he or she has crawled through the densest crush of people I’ve ever seen, wriggled under the truck, and grabbed me — signaling, "I beat the line, now give me a meal." I slipped one down to the hand; the hand grabbed it and vanished. My heart still has not come back — a child, figuring out how to get a meal.

From Cite Soleil we drove through destruction towards Bel Air, our next destination. Nothing belle about Bel Air; the sun is starting to wane in the sky, birds are chirping, but this neighborhood is destroyed, concrete smashed like you cannot imagine.
When we get there, Wyclef disappeared to talk to some of Bel Air’s residents and I was left standing there with Billy, and feeling the smell. One of the security guys said to me, “You know what that smell is, right?” And I’m thinking no, but I bet you’re gonna tell me and he said, “That’s dead people.”
When Clef came back he said, “Smells bad,” and I am quick to agree, but he says, “No – it smells really bad. No rescue teams have come here. No rescue teams will ever come here.” If there was some way someone was still alive amidst the rubble in this corner of this sad city, they were left to die. Clef led us here because he had work to do to try and negotiate with angry young men, no more violence. And while he worked at that, I kept an unwilling vigil with the dead.

We left Bel Air, but in my heart, I can still see it and hear it and smell it. Leaving them there, men, women and children entombed in rubble – it’s just not right.

Our convoy headed up into the hills. Billy asked me, "Where are we gonna sleep?" One of the guys who has been driving us around says, "Come to my house, you can sleep there." He has an undamaged house? He does, higher up in the hills. And so, Haitian rhythm — I got a little girl’s bed, with teenage movie stars taped to the wall, and Barney the purple dinosaur on little girl sheets, and Billy got the room that belonged to the older daughter. Security guys sleeping on the dining room table and living room chairs.

I sent my kids one last note, opened my Bible and studied for 15 minutes, and was asleep in my clothes with my boots on without even realizing it for 4 precious hours — no dreams, no thoughts, dark and silent and asleep.

Dawn was signaled by the roosters and a rosy sunrise. We headed downtown to University Hospital, the biggest hospital in Port au Prince.

We found a mixture of desperation and dignity like I’ve never encountered. In the sweltering sun, big strong young men and women from the 82nd Airborne, taking care of business — securing the hospital, and helping the PIH doctors. We watched a big blond trooper from somewhere shoulder his M4, and bend down to pick up an old woman who was too sick to walk any further, and carry her with dignity and caring to the triage station in the bright heat — a grey file cabinet resting on its side. We watched the medics triage the sick, and then we walked into the hospital itself.

How shall I tell you what we saw? Civil War technology, 21st century doctors, pain and suffering, grace and dignity. Post operative “wards,” nothing more than cots stacked in the open air, every single patient having experienced at least one amputation from the crush injuries that could not be treated otherwise. David Walton, a young PIH physician told me as we walked through, we have saved their lives to this point by amputation — but 100% of the patients you see are real mortality risks. When they are “discharged,” which they have to be — we have many many more behind them waiting for these cots — where will they go? How will they be kept free of infection?
A surgeon from New York showed us the “operating theater,” a medium sized storage room that hadn’t fallen down in the quake. Four army cots, propped up on blocks, so the surgeons wouldn’t have to bend un-naturally. IV’s hanging from the what looked like repurposed coat racks. Most of what they were still doing was amputations. Because after enough time has passed and wounds haven’t been treated, there’s just nothing else you can do.

They told us, when children came in hurt, they cast them as quickly as they can in order to immobilize the victim -- because in some of the crush injuries, if you move it you could take out blood vessels and someone could bleed out. So they immobilize with casts, but then when it comes time to deal with the actual injury, the cast needs to come off again. Do you know what you can’t take a fiberglass cast off with? Scissors. Scissors don’t cut through fiberglass — and so the docs can’t get to the wounds. Because you need a cast saw, and guess what? They didn’t have one at University Hospital.

Dr Dave said, “We’ve really got to find a cast saw,” and I said, what do you mean, find? And he said, “Well, we know they have cast saws at the airport, we’ve been sending SOS messages for 4 days and we can’t get them here.” Not 5 miles away. So now I’m all ready to go storm the airport and thankfully Billy Shore said he had a better idea … whipped out his iPhone – can you see the irony of standing in this place and Billy’s on his iPhone? And he sent a note on Twitter that said, “Anybody got a surgical cast saw I could use?” and the network goes whacko and an hour later there are 3 of them being Fed Exed to Yele Haiti people because they’ll do whatever they have to to get aid to those who need it.

Before I left for this hastily-planned trip, people – many of them rightfully disgruntled family members – demanded to know what I hoped to accomplish with my visit. I always replied, honestly, that I didn’t know and wouldn’t know until it happened ... but that I had faith that we would find a way to share strength. A week later, and plenty of tears later, I am still not sure.

Yele would have served the meals without me. University Hospital would have gotten a cast saw, eventually. Somehow, nothing I did would have gone undone. So CEO as disaster volunteer, not a good model. But, CEO as witness — that is a different story.

What my eyes have seen, my heart has felt. And so this voyage is just beginning.

The good that comes from this journey lies rather in what happens next.

It lies in the limitless kindness of Bill Shore — who worked his cell phone to reach Senator Bob Kerrey, the Congressional Medal of Honor winner from Nebraska, who lost his leg in combat in Vietnam, and who spent more than the last decade building a prosthetic “industry” in Vietnam, so his former enemies could have prosthetic care for their wounds. Billy used to work for Kerrey, and moved by what he saw — 70% of Haiti is young people, and so 70% of the amputees face a life long challenge of prosthesis — Billy persuaded Kerrey to begin to set up a prosthetic network in Haiti. Lives will be saved and destinies altered by this kindness.

We are working with Yele, to ensure that the pipeline from the DR to Haiti is open and working, so aid can go not to a UN depot, but to the people who need it so desperately.

And, Yele and Timberland are continuing to work together, more intimately than either imagined, to set up an operationally sound approach to helping our brothers and sisters in Haiti. I’ll be back in touch with more information as our partnership continues to evolve, and to share with you the ways in which we’re hoping to bring our vision of commerce and justice to bear for Haiti’s citizens and survivors.

Thank you for bearing witness to my experience by reading this far. I wish I could leave some of this out; I wish most of it hadn’t happened. Thank you for kind words you’ve shared; I needed your strength and I still do. Most of all, thank you for building a community at Timberland whose values give me license for such a journey -– not in an indulge-the-crazy-CEO way, but in a “of course you should go, why are you still standing here?” way.

No clever conclusion to write — because this voyage is hardly begun. Home from hell, changed and different, but unrelenting in my view that the path to heaven lies true north by commerce and justice.

Yours in service,


Monday, February 1, 2010

letter about the danger zone ahead in Haiti

Upon returning from Port au Prince, Jim Ansara, the founder and chairman of Shawmut Construction wrote diplomatically in his blog of the challenges and hardships facing Americans trying to help in Haiti: “Haiti is always great at giving you instant perspective about just how easy and secure a life most of us lead.” At dinner in Boston on Friday night he put it more bluntly: “Haiti just kicks your ass.”

Ansara is no stranger to challenge. He built Shawmut from scratch into one of the most successful construction companies in the country which builds restaurants and just about everything you can imagine. He climbs mountains and dives for lobsters which he catches with his hands. He and Karen are parents to four children.

The Ansara’s have been generous donors to Share Our Strength. Since selling the company to his employees three years ago, Jim has been exploring various options for deeper community engagement. He’d already been designing a new hospital in the Central Plateau region of Haiti for Partners in Health when the earthquake struck. He immediately flew some supplies to Miami and while there received a message from Walton saying “I need to you come help me in Port au Prince.”

Ansara spent the next 10 days restoring power, repairing generators, and building operating rooms. For half the time there, like everyone else, he had nowhere to stay. “At age 52 I just can’t sleep on the floor and the ground and go without sleep like I used to.” While he was doing that, Karen was in round-the-clock meetings back at the Boston Foundation to work out the details of a $1 million matching grant that she and Jim established to fund short and long-term Haiti rebuilding. They represent a rare combination of personal generosity and the literal sharing of strength.

Rosemary and I joined them for dinner at Turner Fisheries in Back Bay on Friday evening along with Partners in Health’s doctor David Walton and Heather Bedlion, a nurse, and Walton’s partner who went to Haiti for the first time for a week after the earthquake. It was a chance to step back and process what everyone had seen, and to brainstorm about how to help going forward. Jim wore a heavy fleece pullover, chilled from the contrast between Boston’s frigid weather and Haiti’s stifling heat.

As you’d imagine, our dinner discussion was all Haiti, all the time, including a 15 minute interlude when a Haitian man bussing tables overheard our conversation and proceeded to share his strongly held political opinions. Boston has the third largest Haitian community in the U.S. after Miami and New York. “Don’t give anything to the government. They take it all for themselves. I have property there but they have let six houses be built on it.” Embodying the complexity of the Haitian Diaspora, he’d only been back to Haiti once in 30 years.

“The real danger zone is the next month” explained Dr. Walton. “I’m worried about the complications caused by infection, homelessness, and poor nutrition. In the U.S. we often delay surgeries until nutritional status is improved. We’d never have done some of the operations here that we had to do in Haiti.”

“The amputees could number in the thousands. They will be incredibly marginalized. The unemployment rate in rural Haiti before the earthquake was 80%. Imagine trying to get a job as an amputee.” Heather told us of a mother who refused to let them amputate her daughter’s leg even though not doing so likely meant death. “Who would marry her then?” the mother asked?

We talked a lot about the challenges they encountered at the hospital of supporting Haitians but not being seen as taking. Haiti’s political and cultural history has made them acutely sensitive to such interference. There were times even during the height of the crisis when there was tension between the Haitian doctors and the many international docs who had come in and were used to doing things their way. “I have always sought to allow them to teach me before I teach them” explained David. The hospital seemed a microcosm for the even greater sensitivities and complexities that will be factors in going forward in building back better.

Dr. Walton is an amateur photographer and took more than 2000 photos, more than any other doctor there. We discussed how they might be used to help Haiti. Heather said “When you are invested in a place, when you’ve spent so much of your professional life there, and when you’ve lost so many people that you loved, that just comes out in the photographs. I really believe it makes the pictures different and people should see that. Even though David was involved as a doctor, he was still somewhat of a witness."