09 February 2012

TEDx San Juan: Andrea Pérez

What do you say when you meet someone you think is extraordinary?

You should say "Hi!" and then start a conversation.

Discuss the weather, or a movie recently premiered, or what your favorite pastime is. Maybe bring up what the person does and how it's going, but talking about recent events or shopping or sports or even TV shows is not a bad idea. For in that conversation, you will see the person, and you will discover that what makes them extraordinary is not their mere presence on the planet: it is their decisions. And if you're honest, you will realize that you too can make similarly extraordinary decisions…

Like Andrea Pérez made. A single young woman, with a college degree, living comfortably in Miami and doing part-time community work who decided to sell her possessions and do real community work in the Sudan. At the height of the Darfur genocide.

With that experience behind her, the Haiti earthquake launched Andrea to another goal, sustainable development, where she focused the efforts of her Silent Grace Foundation.

Andrea Pérez
When Andrea went to the Sudan in 2007, the Darfur genocide was headline news. The general image of the country was one of extreme violence and starvation. But Andrea's arrival in Sudan was anything but. She described her surprise at finding that the country was comparatively peaceful (outside of the Darfur region), more so than Miami or Puerto Rico. She spoke about "fresh the air was," and upon looking at the panorama around her, how she felt she had arrived at a very special place.

A huge difference she discovered was in the people, how amazingly resilient they are. In her words, none of Us could expect to go through what they go through and be as energetic and determined to meet the challenges day after day. Andrea met some of the happiest people in Sudan, folks who had gone through horrible tragedy, murders, starvation, chaos, and yet somehow still managed their often life/death struggles with smiles and kindness.

Andrea had to come to grips with contrasts, not only cultural, but personal. She acknowledges her background is privileged, certainly when compared to what she was experiencing in the Sudan. In response to whether she wondered "Why me?," she said she was aware of the possible unfairness between her life and that of others, but that she didn't dwell on that, for it would render her "useless" to help. She simply accepted the difference and sought ways to "level the playing field," for although no one take credit for their background, they can certainly take credit for what the actions and decisions they make.

Andrea doesn't see herself as idealistic, at least not in the total sense of the term: she sees herself as "feet on the ground" realistic with the desire to make things better as much as possible.  Her actions bear her out.

In Haiti--and as Andrea mentioned in her TEDx San Juan talk--most of the help is in the form of "charity," the giving of goods, needed or not, that solve (maybe) an immediate problem, but do nothing to deal with the underlying problems of the community. To Andrea, this kind of giving has limited results, that it in fact creates dependency where dependency is neither needed nor wanted. For that reason, Silent Grace was geared to work with the community, beginning with a Needs Study in Dessources to determine what the community needed and wanted to tackle.

The upshot is that the Haitian community Andrea and her organization work with feels empowered, and though that may be a word that has been smothered in maudlin frippery, its value is still undeniable. One of the empowering aspects Andrea feels most proud about is that the community now negotiates its assistance, taking responsibility for its present and future and not merely accepting what "the outsiders" bring in, no matter how generous they may be. Charity eventually undermines dignity: Silent Grace is building dignity and a prosperous community.

Other organizations are taking notice, as Silent Grace's results are casting longer shadows. It isn't idealism that is making the changes, it is motivation, the desire to take action and put time and energy into making changes happen. None of that is extraordinary; everyone can do it...if they choose to.

As in her personal life, Andrea begins with the end in mind, the goal, then breaks it down into shorter-term objectives. Silent Grace (descriptive name, isn't it?) does the same, beginning with the Needs Study and developing a plan. The organization works with Haitians, many of them smart, hard-working professionals with enormous potential, to amplify the "can-do spirit" and create positive results. Andrea notes that in a badly-ravaged country like Haiti, often what is needed is for someone to believe that changes can and will happen. Silent Grace and similar organizations are providing that belief and support system; it isn't a case of "Yes, we can do it for you," but "Yes, you can do it and we will help."

Are there dreams in Haiti? Do people dream about their future, like We have "the American dream"? Yes, says Andrea. There are two types of dreams: the freedom from want, to have enough food and resources, including education, to live without fear or desperate need, and the bigger dreams, like that of "becoming President of Haiti." Andrea has learned that cultures differ, but people are more similar than different, and that dreams in Haiti are just as important as anywhere else.

Although material support (clothing, food items, etc.) are important, Andrea is focusing on economic support: dollars. Money is vital as energy, and where a shirt or a pair of shoes can make a difference, the money to build a pump or patch a clinic's roof has long-term benefits that material goods can't match.

And the planning goes on. Whenever she returns to Haiti, Andrea gets updates and progress news, including how plans may have changed foe the community's benefit. Among current objectives, Andrea would like to start providing check-ups and creating health records for the community, but that is beyond the current expertise of Silent Grace. The assistance for that effort will have to come from the rest of Us. That aspect illustrates the true need and value of what any person can bring to this effort: themselves. Their knowledge, skills, talent or simple desire to make a difference. As Andrea acknowledges, "I am different because of what I do, but any of us can do what I do."

Andrea is right. For Silent Grace to expand and help more communities, in Haiti and around the world, the number of people who make a decision to help--in any way possible--must increase. Not extraordinary people, but ordinary people with motivation, who decide to do something that is outside the norm, which is all extraordinary means. People who see themselves leaving a legacy beyond family and neighborhood, leveraging themselves to achieve more than they ever thought possible (and discovering it is easier than they thought.)

Andrea's norm is Our extraordinary, an "other-normal" well within Our reach every day. Andrea doesn't do what she does for fame or glory, for then she'd be ineffective, an obstacle rather than a boon. She got her Masters in Public Health Administration, and is aiming at a Doctorate in the same, in order to enhance what she can offer in support. That's something many of Us already do: improve Ourselves to help others. Andrea's scope is simply a little larger than yours or Mine...until We choose to match or exceed it.

Down the road a bit, Andrea sees herself teaching a subject We would all accept as being useful and currently-untouched: humanitarianism. Sad to admit, Our educational system does nothing to teach Us how to be humanitarians, to see and recognize "Us" in "Them." It ignores social awareness completely, or points to it only as something "one should have," with no attempt to guide how one goes about that. Social awareness makes winners of Us all, and like every great teacher or coach, Andrea knows winners exist in all of Us. It is safe to say she wants to make more winners along her way.

Andrea is the daughter, sister, friend and success story We can all feel proud about. But note the order: before her work in Silent Grace, beyond and above that work, Andrea is one of Us. Just one of Us. Her success story could have been written by you, or you, or you, or even Me.

Andrea is writing hers. All of Us can write Ours, too.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

No comments: