Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Founders of Atsika: Julia Nelson & Christi Turner

Learn about what drives the founders of Atsika, Julia Nelson & Christi Turner.

Name: Julia Nelson, Executive Director
Age: 35
Live: Bozeman, MT, USA

Name: Christi Turner, Vice President
Age:  31
Live: Denver, CO

Career: Tell me a bit about your career or the career you hope to have.

Julia Nelson: I work for an international non-profit organization that creates educational materials about water and trains educators on effective teaching methodology. Much of my work focuses on creating water, sanitation and hygiene educational materials for developing countries or urban slums. I work with local educators, governments and NGOs in the respective communities to develop a water education program.

Christi Turner: I spent several years working in sustainable development and conservation in Madagascar and East Africa – Kenya and Tanzania – focusing on using media as a “tool” to foster change and create impact in that field.  I spent over 6 years in Madagascar, first in the Peace Corps, and then working for a number of NGOs using media for development.  As a Peace Corps Volunteer I helped my community to establish its own solar-powered community radio station, and from there I ended up working for a non-profit called the Education Development Center to produce radio programs to provide classroom support and teacher training in Madagascar’s most rural and isolated school districts.  I ended up specializing in radio for development, and worked for a few other NGOs to help them develop community radio feasibility studies and action plans; later I worked for one of these NGOs, Blue Ventures, as their education program manager – teaching kids and teens to use radio and film to promote conservation and sustainable natural resource management in their coastal Malagasy community.  Over the course of that work, I became a freelance photographer, learned video production, and began writing more and more about the work I was doing – until last year, when I decided to pursue an MA in environmental reporting, and step away from development program management to become a journalist focused on environmental issues.  I’ve been reporting in print, photo and film since 2012, while working with Julia to manage Atsika, the non-profit that we created in order to continue to support the projects that we helped to initiate in northwest Madagascar, where she followed me as a PCV.

Are you philanthropic? Why?

JN: Certainly. My career is built around helping others to better their health and environmental situation as it relates to water. I also run a small grassroots non-profit that benefits the community I lived in as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar. As a human with the means to help others better their own lives through financial or technical support, I feel I have the responsibility (and empathy) to do so.

CT: Absolutely.  In every consumer decision that I make, I try to support worthy causes – for example, purchasing goods from small cooperatives, supporting companies that donate a percentage of their proceeds to causes that I support, being a contributing member of my local public radio stations (my inspiration for my work in Madagascar!), using a “working assets” credit card that donates a portion of profits to charitable causes, subscribing to reader-supported non-profit journalism like Mother Jones, and making whatever small donation I can to causes that I support – such as the Nature Conservancy and most all of the NGOs that I’ve worked for.  As a photographer, although I don’t focus on selling my work, whenever I do I donate a portion of my profits to a charitable cause.  Atsika included. 

What does philanthropy mean to you? 

JN: Contributing resources to solve specific humanitarian problems.

CT: Philanthropy means recognizing that not all communities, causes, and individuals are on equal footing in this world, and moreover that the global economy is not designed to support the types of causes and organizations that will provide benefits to society but cannot compete in the capitalist system.  It is similar to when our government subsidizes important public programs and social services – libraries, public parks, wastewater treatment, healthcare, etc. – except that it empowers the individual to support causes she or he believes will benefit society, no matter how limited one’s financial ability to contribute.

What organization(s) do you donate time and/or money to? 

JN: Heifer International, JDRF

a.    What do you do? Contribute Money and do walks sometimes
b.    Why do you support this (these) cause(s)? I believe in what they do and trust how they spend their money
c.    How did you find these opportunities? Can’t remember but my brother is juvenile diabetic
d.    Do you enjoy it? Yes
e.    How would you improve your experience, if possible? Make it more personal by raising money through drives or walks (sort of like the break out of campaign that the MS Foundation has)

CT: These days I donate my time to Atsika more than any other organization.  But I also volunteer my time and professional services to Wildlands Restoration Volunteers (an awesome non-profit here in Colorado where I worked previously), and when I’m visiting my hometown in Rhode Island I often volunteer with the local chapter of the Nature Conservancy.  I also still support school children through the Blue Ventures education program, where I previously worked.  In Boulder and Denver, I’ve donated my time and photography to B-Cycle, a local bike-share program; I’ve also photographed WaterWheel - the non-profit arm of the band Phish – free of charge at a number of Phish shows.  I mentioned some of the places I support financially as well – but often times a donation of time as a volunteer or as a professional are just as valuable.  I only wish I could do more – but these days it’s certainly difficult, as I’m back to being a student!

If you had a million dollars to donate, what organization(s) would you give to? International or domestic? Why?

JN: Both international and domestic-- I would find the organizations that are working directly with the target populations and understand the cultural and local context of the beneficiaries. Grass root organizations often can create real change as they are embedded in communities but lack the resources to carry our holistic projects. I would support these organizations that align with my ideals.

CT: That is a hard one to answer.  I think that instead I would create a fund that only small non-profit organizations and local community organizations could apply for, through an application process that recognizes that they wouldn’t have the grant management capacity of large NGOs and IGOs (which I have found too often is a barrier to small organizations accessing seed money for their programs).  I would want the funds to benefit organizations supporting small scale sustainable development, local biodiversity conservation, girls’ education, universal education, and of course media for local development.

Is there a philanthropist you admire?

JN: Bill and Melinda Gates.  They are dedicated to helping people better their lives through innovative approaches. And they are not afraid to think completely outside the box.

CT: Paul Farmer has been an inspiration to me.  I read Mountains Beyond Mountains and learned about his non-profit, Partners In Health, and his quest to bring modern health care to impoverished communities just as I began my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I continue to admire his tireless devotion to his cause and incredible ingenuity in achieving his goals.

What advice would you give to a young adult wanting to embark on a career in public or non-profit services?

JN: Find a balance between idealism and realism. Understanding the realities of development work and it associated challenges is an important asset in creating sustainable projects and lasting change while the enthusiasm of hope allows projects to move forward with passion and drive.

CT: It was hard for me to truly believe this when I was younger, but now that I’m in my 30s I have come to understand how important it is to make sure that in the course of your philanthropic or non-profit work for a given cause, you do not neglect to plan for your own future.  Sometimes in grassroots community development, public service or a similar field, you will be immersed in the lives of people who have had to endure far more hardship than you have, and it is easy to let your own wellbeing become secondary.  Remember that your ability to make a positive contribution in the lives of others depends in large part on your own health, happiness and sense of security – and that the current state of the global economy does not always make it easy to attain and maintain these things!

Just as important, know that if you embark on a career in public or non-profit service, your life will be enriched immensely by the people you meet, the communities you connect with, and the enormous breadth of experiences you will have.  And despite the fact that you may be addressing some of the biggest problems facing the planet and our society, you are sure to be inspired by our human resiliency, our Earth’s natural beauty, and our potential to create positive change in the world.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

ATSIKA: Improving lives together.

Worlds collide in the Ankarana region of Madagascar.  Christi Tuner and Julia Nelson are an unstoppable duo, changing the lives of those living in the region.

Atsika's mission is to improve the lives of the people of the Ankarana region of northwest Madagascar by increasing access to education, developing alternative livelihoods, and building local capacity while promoting environmental conservation and cultural preservation.  

In the language of northern Madagascar, Atsika means we or us.  It is a word often used to invoke a sense of community, unity, and collective experience.  Atsika’s vision is to bring together diverse people on a global scale, and through our partnerships, to improve individual lives and community well-being in the Ankarana region of northwest Madagascar. 

The founders, Julia Nelson and Christi Turner, both served as Peace Corps volunteers on the Antsaravibe area in the Ankarana region. Christi served 2004 to 2008, and Julia continued until 2009 when the political coup forced Peace Corps out of the country and put all development projects on hold. Both stayed in contact with the Antsaravibe community and their needs. During Julia’s visit to the area in 2011, a friend told her how happy she was to receive a donation from a visitor to send her kids to school in Antsaravibe. She hoped they would grow up to be smart enough to work in the local tourism lodge.  The cost to send a child to school for the year is approximate US$25. Other members of the community expressed how they want to rebuild the local community-managed nature park and eco-tourism activities into a source of livelihood for the community, but they did not known how.

Peace Corps can serve as a fantastic incubator for community development projects; however because Peace Corps volunteers only stay for a few years, ensuring project continuity and sustainability is a challenge.  After Julia’s visit back to the Ankarana region in 2011, she and Christi began talking about ways to continue to build capacity in the region by formally starting a non-profit. By 2012 Atsika was born, a non-profit that supports and builds on the projects that the two women started during their Peace Corps service.  Atsika aims to bring long term continuity to the development projects in the region by promoting education and working with local tourism industries to create opportunities for growth.