Three Thousand Ears in Cape Town


You’re probably thinking there is a typo in that headline. Nope. It’s correct. Not years. Ears.

This is a story about service. This is a story about choices and not enough choices. This is a story about experiential learning and tangible human impact, one small moment at a time.

Three thousand is an estimate of how many children’s ears were recently screened in Philippi Township, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa. At best count and two ears per young child, a volunteer team screened about 1500 children for otherwise undetected ear infections. If left untreated, this preventable and correctable condition could easily have left many of these children permanently deaf. About ten required immediate surgery. Six had cysts that could have resulted in meningitis or death.

A project of this scope had never been attempted. The average number of children screened by public health services in the township for ear care is 150-200 per year, largely based on referrals. The team we assembled, working hand in hand with local clinicians familiar with medical infrastructure in the township, took on more than that each day. Once this model partnership committed to the challenge, there was nothing stopping them from achieving a new record they can’t wait to break or see broken.

The ear clinic was only one of many innovative projects our group of volunteers tackled earlier this month near the far-away Cape of Good Hope. One team worked on AIDS prevention and education in a place where HIV remains epidemic, potentially impacting the vitality of an entire emerging generation. A construction team built bookshelves for public schools across the township. Another team focused on robotics learning, with young children lighting up as their minds opened to the basics of computer programming.

We also ran a dance program led by a former champion from television’s Dance Fever. We engaged a team of professional journalists to start a school newspaper. We organized a series of open discussions on women’s health and personal well-being. We developed a peer-to-peer math mentoring program for high school students.

My own team focused on business consulting with micro-entrepreneurs, working with an NGO called Business Activator to help bolster start-up companies. We were based in a unique business park created from the remnants of an old cement factory, with stacked shipping containers creating storefronts along a makeshift plaza.

So what’s the buzz? Why were we in Cape Town? Why take this on in lieu of a leisurely vacation?

It was all about service—an alumni project organized by my college. This time a hundred volunteers descended on Cape Town, a highly unusual metropolis of contrasts and contradictions. You may remember that I wrote about a similar project a year ago at the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation. Indeed, this is the tenth anniversary of the Yale Alumni Service Corps, harnessing the passion of individuals from all walks of life to immerse themselves in unfamiliar cultures and spend a week helping to ignite a spark in the lives of others that will be embraced, measurable, and lasting.

If you’ve ever dedicated any amount of time to volunteer service, you know the cliché is apt that you take away much more in your heart than you can ever give of your time. A visit to a place as complicated and torn as Cape Town can change your life if you let it. At the very least it can change your perspective on what you thought you knew about a subject as harrowing and sadly unresolved as apartheid.

I thought I understood the plague of apartheid from reading about it in newspapers and history books. I thought I understood the plight of institutionalized racial oppression from seeing the struggles on television and internet video. I thought I understood the meaning of healing through Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

The little I understood was academic. I didn’t know it until I was in Cape Town, but I needed to be in the townships to even start to internalize what apartheid was and what of it remains. Apartheid may officially be dead, but its pervasive toxins leave long, lingering trenches of decay.

Now I have seen this. I also see the corollaries to many of the deepest problems in our own backyards. A simple service project made this possible.

Service isn’t just about doing good deeds. Service is about cultural immersion. Service is about lifelong learning. Service is about coming to terms with empathy for distant problems that on closer examination are wildly close to home.

On the second day of our trip, my direct observations on an extended bus ride through the townships almost stopped my breathing. I had never before seen systemic, uncontrolled poverty on that scale. As much as I thought I knew what economic inequality meant, nothing prepared me for seeing the ruins brought on by apartheid sprawling without containment almost a quarter-century after the election of Nelson Mandela.

Service let me see this. Service opened my eyes to the impact of history and the seemingly immovable obstacles of current events.

There is no way words can adequately describe the inequality in Cape Town. The city center is picturesque and opulent, with cascading views of the gorgeous waterfront. Quaint streets reflecting British influence and signage wind past towering universities, luxury-car dealerships, and New World wine-tasting rooms.

Fifteen minutes down the road are the townships originally created by apartheid, still standing—expanding actually—with millions living in abject poverty. Many live ten or more in tiny corrugated metal shacks, if they have an overhead shelter at all. There is minimal plumbing, shared toilet structures, electricity pirated from public lines tempting common incidents of fire. School dropout rates approach 80%. Unemployment stands near 25% with utter confusion among the suffering how America is not stuck in the same recession.

It all seems apocalyptic. We aren’t talking a few blocks or a few streets of urban decay. We’re talking mile after mile of human beings on top of each other trying to survive, source decent food, tote clean water, find a way out.

Remember, this is more than 25 years after the end of apartheid, which astonishingly lasted as law into the early 1990s! I was shocked to hear several young people actually speak ill of Mandela. To some he has become more myth than legend, and they question why his promises haven’t panned out for their prosperity. Many have become cynical, wondering why his vision was never realized, whether he compromised too easily and sold out their future. It is common to hear the electorate speak openly of parliament as corrupt and self-serving. They ask if the ANC can once again become their champions.

In service we seek to offer hope, and while there were glimmers of resilience in each of our day’s work, the scale of oppression remains impossible to talk past. All of this is the long tail of apartheid, a system so vicious and deeply embedded in societal ills it is difficult to decipher how many generations it will take to overcome. I was left thinking of the United States after our Civil War, how long it took for any kind of normalcy to prevail, where even today we can’t seem to get past racial hatred. I wondered how in the embers of Nazi defeat at the end of World War II, with the Nuremberg Trials in the headlines, it was possible for apartheid come to power with the National Party in 1948. The irony of 1948 is impossible to escape. That was the founding of Israel.

Our work in Cape Town was facilitated by a dynamic NGO known as Amandla Development, whose mission is to “empower children to succeed from cradle to career.” One of the sheer joys of being in Cape Town was getting to know the local staff of Amandla, to spend time with people who grew up in the townships and are now determined to reverse the course of history by touching the lives of children one at a time. This is how hope becomes action—not with epic commitments of resources in attempts to shatter daunting obstructions, but in finding one or two individuals open to the idea of collaboration and helping them improve their lives.

Our volunteers in journalism reported that many of the students in their program seldom interact at all with white people. They simply don’t have the occasion or opportunity, another awful remnant of apartheid. One student wrote that she never thought she would develop a friendship with a white person. That friend became the person who encouraged her to publish her first story.

All that brings me back to the 3000 ears in Cape Town. Perhaps on equal footing with ensuring quality hearing for these 1500 children was the opportunity to let each one of them know that we care about them. Our volunteers didn’t just process them through a waiting line. These were very young children, most of whom don’t begin learning English until the third grade. Of course they wondered why we were there. Our loving colleagues went to their classrooms and explained through a translator what we were doing, that they would be in no discomfort, and that we truly were friends from abroad.

Raising awareness of the scourge of hearing related diseases was as important a part of the mission as the specific medical attention offered. Adroitly changing the perception of these maladies from endemic to treatable afforded our educators an enormous creative window. While the children were waiting to see the doctors, our volunteers played games, sang songs, and worked on art projects with them to reinforce this learning. I can’t help hoping that some of these children will remember these joyful moments of sharing as they become adults. I know our volunteers will never forget them.

Perhaps the Cape of Good Hope is well named. I won’t forget any of it. Not apartheid, not the townships, not the children, not the entrepreneurs in their offices anticipating a brighter future.

That is the nature of service. I’m pretty sure we can’t fix this rotten, broken, unjust world. I’m completely certain we can always help one or two strangers if we care to make that choice.

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Photo: Copyright Melanie Belman-Gross (shared with permission)

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And It’s One, Two, Three, What Are We Fighting For?

I know people are exhausted with the political dialogue. I am as well. Government is not meant to be this far forward in our lives. It is meant to be the structural framework behind the scenes so we can pursue the individual and shared goals of our lives. These are very unusual times.

Extraordinary times.

But let’s not forget what is at stake. This is not petty bickering or pointless head bashing over immovable viewpoints. I believe we have unveiled competing visions of American purpose and responsibility, and many of the values that separate us seem irreconcilable. Until the millennium I believed Americans had more in common than not when it came to the notion of purpose. Now I have a hard time seeing the glue binding us together.

That’s what I think we’re fighting over and what I think is at stake. That’s why our social media dialogue with each other is increasingly less civil, and that’s causing polar opposites to either stop talking with each other or openly despise each other. Unity for unity’s sake is an unholy compromise and not an option for me. We either have a treasure trove of shared values or we don’t. If we don’t, the divisiveness can’t be mended because morality is at the core of personal definition.

If we don’t agree then we don’t agree. I see little evidence that at the core of national purpose there is broad agreement. It is the purpose of leadership to build consensus out of difference to unite disparate elements in strength. Politics is a different game, and it can be a nasty one. If there are competing visions of America up for grabs, I see little choice but to listen closely and then stand firm on moral imperatives. If we find that we have irreconcilable differences, then there is a reason why.

I have already detailed a laundry list of apparently irreconcilable differences in a previous post. Our lack of consensus around civil rights, gender rights, a woman’s right to choose, economic inequality, healthcare, environmental justice, personal weapons, educational opportunity, and America’s international posture are ripping us apart with little healing on the horizon. Let me take a run at boiling it down to just three things I believe are at the core of our national impasse, sharing my own very personal beliefs:

  1. I believe we live in a global community. I believe that with immense prosperity comes immense responsibility and humility. To put our own national interest entirely first denies the leadership stake we have taken in the world as a result of disproportionate consumption of natural resources and stage time. None of this is incompatible with my love of country.
  2. I believe the highest purpose of government is peaceful prosperity, evidenced by a profound commitment to establishing and maintaining a level playing field. Government rises to admiration in the administration of justice and fairness. I don’t belive the highest purpose of government is a tax cut. I’m not even sure a tax cut makes my top ten, since most of the benefit will go to wealthy people whose lives won’t be changed by it. Tax reform focused on true fairness makes my top ten.
  3. I believe government leadership is about public service. It is selfless. It is in awe of its own responsibility and acts accordingly with intellectual rigor and behavioral reserve. It is not authoritarian or autocratic and does not seek to position itself as uniformly superlative. Exemplary leaders bring out the best in us, not the worst. I don’t believe a big job title is about self-aggrandizement, bullying, sloppy thinking, whim, or egomaniacal hubris.

We seem to be descending into a culture war. We’ve already proven we are capable of a Civil War. Is it absolutely unthinkable that could happen again? Try talking to some people who ardently disagree with you on your deepest convictions. Then you decide if we’ve all learned history’s most vital lessons.

I need to focus on my family and friends, my business, and my dreams, same as you, but I’m being emotionally battered by the scope of this attack on my values. This is where my head is at, and I feel a generational obligation to champion resistance. I admire journalists and the media when they take their job seriously. I am a writer so I am part of the media, and I choose words with discipline and scrutiny. Most professional writers I know do the same, despite the click bait and fake news that tempts hacks. To frame the media as our enemy is purely ignorant and dangerous. Close reading, observation, and listening saves lives and is the cornerstone of cultural achievement.

I’m not willing to cross my own lines for false harmony. I know the same is true for those who vehemently disagree with me and feel their convictions are being violated. This probably will end badly, but it’s always crucial to know what we’re fighting for. In these extraordinary times, it is the soul of our nation.

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Post Title: H/T Country Joe and the Fish

Image: Three Flags by Jasper Johns / Whitney Museum of American Art

Inequality or Invisibility?

My wife and I spent this past Saturday morning volunteering for a college service project where we read stories to elementary school children in downtown Los Angeles. We have done this several times before and it is always a rewarding experience, but this time our interaction felt especially poignant. I guess it’s the ceaselessly unpleasant political dialogue all around us, or maybe hearing one too many times why a tax cut for the wealthy is at the forefront of our national agenda.

The children, all under the age of eight, who listened to us read books to them aren’t a lot different from the children around us every day. They are curious. They know the stories of the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, and Cinderella. They laugh when you use funny voices to bring characters to life. They tell you they like to run at recess, play soccer, play video games, and learn about animals. Their eyes are bright. They draw pictures with the sun in the sky and use glue stick to make puffy clouds out of yarn. They are polite and thank you for visiting without being prompted. They are as authentic and hopeful as any children you will meet at this age.

Their teachers tell you how they are different. If you have blond hair they might ask to touch it because they don’t interact much with people who don’t have dark hair and have a hard time understanding why. Although most of them were born in Los Angeles, they have never been to the beach. Most of them never travel farther than a few blocks from where they were born. Many of their parents work two minimum-wage jobs and are gone from early morning to late evening six or seven days a week. Their families may encompass six people living in a one-bedroom apartment. Their closets are built out as bunk beds.

Almost all of them receive lunch provided by the school. Only 10% will graduate from high school. Of those who do, a smaller fraction will attend college, and an even smaller fraction will graduate from college. They are likely to stay in the same neighborhood where they went to elementary school forever.

I’ve been actively involved in our community throughout my adult life, so none of this comes as a surprise. I guess it just hit me hard this weekend that almost no one is talking about this injustice on the national level. Tax cuts aren’t going to help these kids, because their parents don’t make enough money where tax calculations matter. Sustained corporate profits aren’t going to help these kids, because their families are already working as many hours in a day as they can, and still they remain at poverty level.

Not a year ago, the crisis of economic inequality was part of our national dialogue. We acknowledged as a nation that the wider the gap grew between rich and poor, the less stable our economy would become. If we don’t make it a priority to give people a chance to succeed, how can we expect them to enter a shrinking middle class where even the most basic employment opportunities above minimum wage require advanced skills and training? Now instead of addressing the problem, we ignore it completely and let the disease advance out of sight.

Inequality.

Invisibility.

Unsustainability.

Impossibility.

Calamity.

That is the path we are on if the idea of leveling the playing field takes second place, third place, or no place in the order of our priorities. I like our capitalist economy. I am a beneficiary of all the good that can come of innovation, investment, hard work, and a little luck. Everyone deserves a chance at the same prosperity. Not a handout, a chance to pursue opportunity.

There is no fairness in a community where 90% of adults will live their lives without a high school diploma. Unless we create tools to break the cycle of poverty and make it a priority to provide economic justice where very little exists, we are on an unnaturally disastrous path to undermining the whole of our nation’s prosperity.

Don’t believe me? Please spend the morning in a neighborhood like we did last weekend. If that doesn’t change your mind, then we’ve already turned the corner on the beginning of the end.

Wake up, America. Our current obsession with tax cuts and rolling back regulations lacks imagination and empathy. Too many of us forgive our President his atrocious behavior because we see a bucket of bucks coming our way if only Congress will get onboard with his program. Where is the talk of growing inequality that threatens to undermine the foundation of our shared prosperity? What do you think happens when the vast majority of a population polarizes and abandons hope? Where is the allocation of resources that proves we are a nation that cares about fairness for all, not just for ourselves?

Programs like Reading to Kids, which organized our event and does so every month for volunteers in Los Angeles, is a great start at bridge building between communities and inspiring human connections. I have written before about the Learning Lab at Hathaway-Sycamores, which helps at-risk teens prepare for college and secure funding where possible. These organizations, while relatively modest in numbers, prove what is possible if we care enough to make those who are otherwise invisible a necessity in our priorities.

For transformative impact to occur at scale, our dialogue must dramatically improve. We need to talk consistently about inequality as an unacceptable condition that hinders our well-being. We need to allocate substantial resources where we know they will make a measurable difference in the lives of others. That’s more important than a tax cut. Way more important.

We need to lead by example. We need to be a kind, caring, helpful, generous people. The neighbors you don’t know matter, both for their well-being and your own. When we turn our backs on those who are trying but struggling, we take away hope. When we take away hope, we aren’t just part of the problem, we are the problem.

Volunteer to meet some kids this weekend who don’t live in your neighborhood. Count the years until they are adults and try to envision what their lives will be. Then decide if we are having the right dialogue about our nation’s future.

What’s Going On?

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On?We wake up to news that the prior night an innocent person was killed at point-blank range. We come back from lunch to news of a mass shooting in a public gathering place. We drive home from work but have to go around downtown because there’s a bomb scare. We sit down to dinner and try to dissect the political ramblings of where to plant the blame and why it’s someone else’s fault that nothing can be done about bloodshed. We go to bed trying to shut out the squabbling hysteria and another gunshot rings out. This time maybe it’s across the street.

Alton Sterling.

Philando Castile.

The slaughter of five police officers in Dallas.

That’s was in 72 hours, folks.

Last month we suffered Orlando. Last year it was San Bernardino. Two years ago it was Ferguson. Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Columbine might seem to some like ancient history. We can’t even keep an inventory or a timeline in our own minds —and that’s before we even toss in the endless acts of organized terrorism around the globe.

Some of the shooters are mentally ill, some are socially broken, sadly enough, some are cops. You try to tease them apart — it’s not the same thing when a psychopath fires into the crowd as it is when a jittery police officer kills a pleading African-American on the street — but under all of it you find the common theme: unrestrained hatred, reckless emotion taking power over determined action.

Violence, murder, death. Blame, finger-pointing, posturing. Every single day now. What vision of America is this? How did we get ourselves here? The victims fall pointlessly and then the rest of us argue to exhaustion. We have to be better than this. We just have to be better than this.

If the best minds speak out, will we hear them?

We are simultaneously irate and numb. How exactly can we be both of those at the same time?

Is it the 300 million cheap retail guns? The mass economic inequality? A sudden perceived freedom to express racist thoughts as “just saying candidly what’s on someone’s mind?” Too much pent-up anger in the institutions empowered to protect us from widespread chaos?

Marvin Gaye sang it the last time we rumbled nationally on the topic of civil rights. What’s Going On?

It’s more than we can see, hear, feel, or perceive. It’s not us and them. It’s not here and there. We are all in it all the time whether we want to be or not. Hello, Social Media, the untethered connectivity that weaves us together habitually and perpetually.

I am convinced the internet itself has to be at work here, although I see it as an equal plus and minus given the freedom it has already inspired in developing, previously autocratic countries. It’s not a coincidence that public violence and social media are exploding together.

Think about it. TV was the fuel of Vietnam protests and the Civil Rights Movement. We saw stuff everyday on analog television that we never saw before, and that made us mad, so we reacted. Now the internet lets us see and hear everything in realtime, it lasts a second in impact, and then a meme wipes that out with another. Nothing is edited, vicious words and horrific images fly around the globe at light speed. Regular folks like us gobble it up and talk about it like tallying statistics, while other “less regular” folks do who knows what because of it or maybe even try to make their own news for a few seconds.

Pretty soon we are on overload, frozen in inability to combat the madness.

Yes, the for-profit media is playing a role, but I don’t think it’s the big money professionals who are whipping up the frenzy as much as our addiction to social media. I don’t think any of us understands the impact the constant give-and-take-and-tackle-and-refute is having on us because we are devouring the scraps embedded in the platform simultaneously with its invention — without enough history, context, or perspective to make real sense of the role we are playing as nodes.

This is not a value judgment on our actions, mind you, it’s an observation. I am as guilty as anyone of living in the fray of exchange. I am more guilty because I am a writer and any good I try to do in getting you to think about this stuff can and will backfire and create more angst in its dismissal and rebuttal.

Sorry, I don’t have any brilliant answers. I’m a little frozen as well, a lot like you. I’m an observer and an interpreter, one voice trying to wrestle through the noise and rhetoric. I am convinced that it is not going to be a politician who leads us out of this muck. Martin Luther King wasn’t elected. He inspired his following. He paid the price, and he made a difference. We need that badly. I don’t have a clue what a Dr. King looks like in the 21st century or even if such a thing is possible anymore given our cynicism. I hope someone out there can figure out how to be one, the real deal.

Here’s one answer: Don’t let social media demoralize you. Don’t let the random ramblings of reactionary tirades spin you. Don’t be confused and don’t be manipulated by entrenched greed or opportunistic power grabs. Stay focused on ideas that resonate with your values, but listen thoughtfully when someone who looks or sounds different from you is making a compelling case for justice. Celebrate unsung heroes who are quietly making a difference. Catch someone in an act of compassion and sing their praises. The self-imposed noise around us can be divisive or unifying — it’s a rather important choice and always a choice.

Apathy and the status quo aren’t a solution. Terror can’t be a norm. We must find a way to unmake this mess. Don’t give up. Demand better. Demand sanity. Listen for the silenced voice in the room without an agenda. The better answers won’t be in obvious places. It is time to Think Different.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.