entrepreneurship, travel

Entrepreneurship and Berlin


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Dear Fam,

Because I fail at contact across time zones, I want to write this one for all of you around the world who are wondering what’s going on. So, for those of you I would otherwise be calling at 2am (you’re welcome), here’s the update!

It’s been about 7 weeks since I landed in berlin, and it’s been wild. Though my touristing is sadly underdeveloped, I have done and learned so much. The DO School, which is hosting my fellowship, is a hybrid for profit/nonprofit that partners with major businesses and corporations to challenge and develop young entrepreneurs with a vision for social good. They’ve worked with corporations as big as H&M, BMW, and, the one my fellow group is working with, Axel Springer. We’re quite literally developing a “future of audio entertainment” product for one of the biggest digital publishing houses in Europe. It feels unbelievable some days.

What does a “future of audio entertainment” product even look like? Who knows. We’re working on it. But it does look like an unbelievably diverse group of the most inspiring entrepreneurs I’ve ever met from around the world coming together. And they are inspiring. I’m in awe every day I get to live, work, and talk with them. Just to name a few:

There’s a woman from Canada who fractured 27 bones, spent the last year recovering and healing her body and soul, and now is using her power and story to uplift Ghanaian women – by empowering their stories and connecting their conscious products with conscious buyers in Canada.

A woman from Pakistan starting an AI program/robot that talks to young Pakistani women about the most taboo topics in their communities, like sex and women’s health. Because she saw a woman harassed and killed because of her beliefs and stories online, and decided she needed to do something to stop the violence against women’s voices.

A filmmaker from Kenya who escaped a life of violence and crime because of his love for the camera, and now runs a media company in Nairobi that trains youth to escape crime and poverty through media skills.

I could go on and on, but the point is I’m so thankful to have all these incredible people in my life.

We’ve spent the last 7 weeks doing business planning, business coaching, market research, target analysis, public speaking, pitching… dreaming, focusing, and planning. In just 3 weeks, we begin to “DO.”

It is terrifying, but also so, so exciting. In part, because:  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked by men, but especially women, “Why do you need to start something new? Why you? Why not just work for someone else?”

I’ve realized in the last 7 weeks that the answer to their question is:

Because I’m an entrepreneur, and I need to build something that helps people.

It’s still in development, but I am starting a program that empowers artists to change lives through art. I intend for it to be big and life changing. I’m not afraid of falling, and thrilled at the possibility to fly. We’ll see what happens.

What you can do right now is let me know! If you have any experience with life changing art. If you have any ideas, examples, or opinions about how art can change lives or communities. Comment, message, post me! I want to identify those amazing creative changemakers out there already changing lives through art!

#jointhemovement #letmeknow

Thanks for all the love and support!

Jessica Ciccarelli, the recovery poet

mental health, peace, resilience

Resilience + the Power to Hope


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Negative and Positive Resilience – a Lens to Understand

Negative resilience  the ability to withstand
Positive resilience  the ability to overcome

The Terrible Cliché 

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
God won’t give you more than you can handle.
Everything happens for a reason.

Each is a cliché – something we’ve promised ourselves amid a terrible night, or another’s reassured while watching us undergo an unbearable pain. They’re meant to comfort and assuage… but they aren’t true. Sometimes what didn’t kill you, just didn’t kill you. God or life has given too many people more than they could handle. That’s why they’re gone. And for every terrible event we’ve made mean something, it’s never just happened for a reason – we’ve often made our own reason. I know that’s how it’s always worked for me.

I’ve watched too many loved ones, too many of the strongest people I know survive the hell in their lives, only to be told they’re weak for not surviving better. My mother spent most of her childhood abused by her mother and step-father. Now, she struggles every day with depression and panic disorder – waves of panic and terror beat at her ceaselessly. Most days even the choice to live is an incredible feat. My sister has lived a difficult life. She suffers from anxiety and depression. She’s had to fight every day of her life. Most days it’s hard for her to believe it will ever be better. Despite that, she fights anyway. She chooses to live, and because of her relentless hope, her life is getting better.

It’s in watching this happen again and again with so many loved ones that I’ve learned an undeniable truth: Resilience is not merely the power to overcome, sometimes it’s simply the ability to survive (to withstand). Too often, that’s a much greater achievement than overcoming.

Negative and Positive Resilience

Two concepts have been useful in helping me understand this idea: negative resilience and positive resilience. Usually, when people use the term negative resilience, they mean dark or bad resilience, i.e. using harmful action(s) or characteristic(s) to cope like masochism or drugs. I don’t mean that at all. If resilience is the ability to cope with losses, impacts, or circumstances, then negative resilience is the ability to withstand that impact or terrible event. The idea is something terrible or difficult happens (a loved one dies, a hurricane destroys an entire community, violence spreads across a region) and resilience is the ability to cope with that. If you have negative resilience, you withstand the event. This is different from positive resilience which is the ability to overcome or recover from this terrible event or impact. Positive resilience is a set of characteristics, ideas, skills, or circumstances that lead someone to deal with the terrible event in a way that improves (meaning to be better than the status quo) their life. With negative resilience, you’re lacking those characteristics, ideas, skills, or circumstances. Regardless of why, the result is you stay at your new, harder status quo. You survive, you withstand, but you don’t overcome.

To me, withstanding is sometimes far more significant than overcoming. This is the one we need to understand first. There were so many days of my life when choosing to live, to keep breathing each day was in itself an act of resilience. Life was hard. I had no reason to believe it would ever get better, and I didn’t. I wasn’t kidding myself. I honestly didn’t think my life would ever not hurt. So many days, I awoke wondering if that was the day I should stop, if today was the day I chose to stop hurting. Each of those days, I chose to live despite knowing each breathing second would be agony. That is negative resilience. Refusing to commit terrible violence against yourself. Refusing to give up. The absence of suicide. Choosing to breathe knowing each one for as far as you can see will hurt. Choosing to have hope when you’ve known light and happiness, when you’ve seen life can be without pain, is nothing compared to having hope when you don’t even know what light is. More than any person I’ve met, my mother embodies this idea.

Before I get into the story of my mother, though, I want to make an important statement. At no point am I implying that people who are depressed or feel hopeless have no reason to live. Far from it, I know things can get better. I’ve gone from a person living in negative resilience – hopeless and depressed and angry, clinging to my ember of belief – to a person with positive resilience – who has hope, has a purpose, and fights every day to help others find theirs. It’s because I can understand both sides that I know how significant it is to keep fighting when life looks hopeless. We have to try to understand that strength and decision.

My Hero and Her Struggle to Live

My mother is my hero. She has been for most of my life. She was my light and my greatest defender growing up. She was an artist, a writer, and an activist – everything I wanted to be. Now, she suffers from paralyzing panic disorder and depression. Having panic attacks daily for over five years has withered her body and forever hindered parts of her mind. She isn’t the same person I remember all those years ago, and because she doesn’t have enough money, resources, or support the likelihood is she will never get better. Every day she has attacks that make her feel like she’s dying, and every day she wakes up knowing she’ll have another tomorrow and the day after that and for as long as she can foresee. She has no reason to believe it will get better because it probably won’t, at least if you define better as being without panic disorder and depression. However, each day she chooses to keep breathing anyway. I won’t pretend on some of those days it’s not an impossible choice, or that she hasn’t often considered ending her life. Yet, given no possible hope for believing her life will get easier, she chooses to live, to endure, to withstand, and I think it makes her the strongest possible person I know. It makes her a kind of hero I never knew she’d be – the kind of hero that keeps fighting even if it hurts, even when breathing feels an act of god.

I believe we need to stop looking at people who withstand pain, trauma, and suffering like they’re deficient or lacking for taking a bullet and not running ten miles afterwards. That’s the equivalent of what we’re asking. They’ve been shot, they’re losing blood, their lungs are filling with fluid, the bullet has nicked essential arteries, but we say they should be happy they’re alive, ignore the pain, and keep walking. Finding hope amidst hopelessness is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. For some people, choosing to live is an act of resilience. Can we get better and improve our lives more? I believe we can, but I also have the privilege of believing in something I’ve already seen. Negative resilience is believing in something you’ve never seen at all, knowing you may never reach it, and fighting for it anyway.

When Breath is an Act of Self-Harm

A few years ago, I read a story about a dolphin. I can’t tell you whether it’s true, but I think the sentiment is beautiful. It goes something like this (obviously copyrights go to whoever wrote it)…

Once there was a dolphin so deeply in love with another that when his mate died he fell into a terrible depression. Each day was a terrible pain. Unlike humans who are wired to stay alive at all cost and breathe by default, dolphins choose to live, each breath is a choice to continue forward. One day this dolphin in his place of terrible pain and loss chose not to take the next breath. Just like that, he stopped because he couldn’t live without his love.

For people with negative resilience, I think their choice is a lot like that dolphins at the start. They choose to take the next breath despite all the suffering and pain they know it will bring. They choose to breathe knowing how much and how long it will hurt, and just like that dolphin, I think it’s incredible. I am in awe, and hopeful they’ll continue to make that choice because things can get better. I won’t for one second judge someone for wondering if it’s worth it because I can’t from a place of purpose and painlessness judge you for wanting to be without pain. But I can ask you to hope it will get better for one more day, and one more day after that, and one more after that, and promise that hoping is half the battle. If you take a leap, I’ll meet you half way. If you believe things can be better, then I promise to understand that your believing is the hardest, most courageous thing anyone will ever do, and maybe from there we really can make a change.

Don’t ever let anyone say negative resilience isn’t a real thing or is somehow less significant than overcoming or building a better life. I’ve seen people who have no reason to hope, hope anyway. That sort of resilience is the hardest part. After that, it’s just about support, characteristics, ideas, and skills. Those things can all be built or improved, but hoping when things are hopeless – that’s priceless. I’ll never stop being in awe of that sort of strength. As a person who found positive resilience, I can promise we have it easy in comparison.

Daily, I am reminded of the strength it takes to persevere, and daily I am humbled by the things I learn people choose to live through. Every story I hear about abuse, assault, loss, and trauma and find that person still surviving, I’m reassured negative resilience is real. From my mother, father, sisters, brother, and myself, I ask remember: living is sometimes the most courageous choice of all.

Yours,

The Recovery Poet

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I have a tattoo across my foot that says “live;”

honoring the truth that sometimes choosing not to end your sentence is the hardest thing in the world.”

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To Jackie, John, Sarah, and Desireé


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To my siblings Jackie, John, Sarah, and Desiree – I love you so much, this is for you.

For all the pain I couldn’t take away
For all the hard days no one else could see
Because I know too many times love has looked a lot like pain

I beg believe

There is always a sunrise on the other side.
Bask in it
Believe the rays are there to remind you warmth is your right,
Let it love your body

Even strong people could use a few more kisses
Don’t be afraid to ask

Rain is always a chance to dance,
so dance with your demons and know
i can be your rainbow on the other side.

Pain doesn’t always mean something,
but it can

i beg consider

let the lesson seep into you bones
write it across your rib cage
make it a password to your heart

you have a strength no one can imagine
despite the road, in spite of trample
you’ve chosen to live
make no mistake i know how hard that choice was
and i am in awe every day you awake to the same one

let your pain mean something
i hope you wake in the morning to a moment of silence
respect for the pain and the broken you’ve seen
Because it and you are amazing

i’ve written your pain across my heart and begged the universe to reconsider
begged it believe you can still be strong people with out bricks for raindrops

For all the pain I couldn’t take away
For all the hard days no one else could see
Because I know too many times love has looked a lot like pain

I beg remember
I see you
Don’t forget to see yourself

art and healing

3 Ways Art Saved My Life


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Picture by Dee Ashley (some rights reserved)

From the very first day I searched for freedom from my pain, art has been my salvation – it saved me. I can’t imagine my life without it. Who I’d be, what life would be like now. So in honor of that journey and for anyone out there looking for solace and understanding, looking for hope, here are the 3 ways are saved my life:

 

  1. ART SAVED ME FROM THE WORST PHYSICAL SELF-DESTRUCTIONS

Every moment I could have turned my broken and pain into violence against myself – excessive drinking, smoking, or drugs, into cutting or anything self-destructive – I turned to art. On all the hopeless days, where life felt more curse than blessing, among my closest family and friends, I also had my art. I used to it to escape. I used to to find understanding. When people I loved were struggling with mental illness, when I was at the hopeless bitter end of a toxic relationship, when the church decided my family struggled because we weren’t Christian enough I turned to drawing, photography, and always writing. I wrote myself into other worlds, and eventually I wrote my world into this one so that others would feel seen and understood in a way I rarely have.

  1. WHEN I FOUND OTHER SELF-DESTRUCTIONS, ART GAVE ME HEALING

For all the moments I was emotionally and psychologically self-destructive – for all the broken people I loved because I couldn’t love myself – art was my forgiveness and healing. I learned to forgive and love myself through the beautiful things I created out of my pain. It’s hard not to judge yourself when you turn to people who are toxic in your life and treat you terribly. I was really hard on myself for a long time because of it. But slowly, I wrote myself into understanding my choices and pains. When no one else would listen or couldn’t possibly understand, my art always did, and it even helped me find a few others who understood as well.

  1. A LIGHT & PURPOSE FOR MY TRAUMA

Through art, all the traumas in my life – past, present, and future – have purpose. That enlivens me, it gives my life meaning and purpose. That saves me again each and every day.  Because purpose is the enemy of hopelessness. Pain has to mean something. Trauma has to mean something. Going through something terrible without finding meaning, that’s how we get lost and stuck. Art gave my broken meaning. It wasn’t always easy, but it was way out – a way out that gave me purpose, hope, and the beginnings of self-worth.

Art has so much power – all forms of it. If we give it half a chance, I truly believe it can change the world one individual and community at a time. If one person can better understand and empathize with themselves through art, imagine what it can do for entire communities given the opportunity. It helped me find hope, kindness, compassion, strength, courage, and love for myself and my journey. Something for too long I never imagined having.

If you know at all what that’s like or know someone who might and could use the encouragement, then share my post.

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Catching up on Recovery


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Hey Everyone,

I know it’s been over a month since my last post. Not because I haven’t been working on anything, but because I’ve only recently written my way to love. I won’t post something unless I love it, and finally I do. So over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few new pieces with you, and intend to keep that momentum going.  I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have writing them. Here’s a little taste of themes to come in my poetry:

Sometimes
i think i’m too broken
to find someone broken-whole enough
to carry the weight of
my world
on their psyche

Also, I am really excited to be posting a piece on the nexus of art and inner peace in the next week. It should be an exciting essay addressing the theoretical and practical possibilities of using art to attain inner peace. I’ll be sharing pieces of my story to help illustrate how incredible a role art really can play in creating inner peace. 

That’s all for now. Stay amazing! And till the next post, I hope you’re well! In the mean time enjoy some photos of my journeys below.

Sincerely,

The recovery poet

taken by a friend of mine at the david sheldrick elephant orpahange
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Finding Kenya

Matatu ni Matata – The Terrible Matatus


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matatu stop

You may not know it, but I spent three glorious months in this beautiful country last summer. Like a child first understanding the world, these were among my first words. Somehow, they just made sense – they just fit. Find yourself in Nairobi and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Nothing describes the matatu experience like “matatu ni matata.” It’s like paying a very cheap fee to get on a carnival roller coaster knowing the standards are infinitely lower than going to an amusement park. It’s those three drops of adrenaline that replace your coffee buzz knowing it isn’t entirely or even mostly safe. And, like a carnival, it will give you some of the best memories you can get. All the amusement parks fade, and the memory of spending even five minutes with a few extra drops of adrenaline doing something unequivocally, unforgettably local, cultural, and communal will last.

We aren’t attending a carnival, so I’ll let the simile lie with this: just like those attending a carnival you have mostly two types of people, the veterans and the newbies. And as it always does, privilege comes into play. This is where the simile ends. Veterans are veterans for a reason – and it isn’t because they wanted the cultural experience of riding a matatu. While we newbies might want the exhilaration and photos that accompany an authentic Nairobi matatu ride, for hundreds of thousands of people this is life, this is normal, this is reality.

50 Camels and a Needle

Traveling down a Nairobi highway with at least a dozen matatus with complete disregard for road lines is nothing short of organized chaos. We’ve all heard the adage, “It’s easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than…” Well, driving down a Nairobi highway with at least a dozen, if not more, matatus, 10 to 20 cars, a couple of hand pulled carts, and at least 5 to 10 bodabodas (motorcycle taxis) is like 50 camels walking through the eye of a needle at the same time. They’re all a bit aggressive, irritated, and really loud. If you’re a matatu or a bodaboda you likely decide the needle is arbitrary and take whatever walkway or path will get you through. This is the Nairobi transportation system.

Matatu Culture

Matatus are like four row family minivans cleaned out, fitted for 10 to 15 people, and used for public transport. They vary in size, shape, and color. All have vamped up stereo systems, which you can hear blasting down the street at night, and multicolored lights that make each bus look like a rainbow disco party. Each matatu has a conductor and a driver. The conductor, or tout, is in charge of getting customers and collecting bus fees. Sometimes during rush hour when 10 to 15 seaters turn into 15 to 20 seaters you’ll find them hanging off the side or chasing after the bus until enough get out for them to fit. The driver is mostly in charge of making solid metal vehicles fit through unbelievable and mildly alarming spaces.

Before they were formalized with the Matatu Owners Association and registered under the Sacco Societies Regulatory Authority (SASRA), most were ran by a really prominent Nairobi gang called the Mungikis. Though matatu culture is changing today with many new conductors – even women – it wasn’t that long ago that most touts were part of the Mungikis, and their signature characteristic was wearing their hair in long braids.

As I’ve implied before, matatus do what they want on the road, and the reason for this is really good. Nearly everyday each matatu pays a bribe fee. The traffic cops on their rout ask for around 2000 Kenyan shillings, and as long as they pay they get to keep doing their job. If they refuse to pay, the bus is impounded and they are likely to be brought to jail (on often fabricated charges). This amounts to thousands of Kenyan shillings (easily equivalent to a couple hundred US dollars) lost in a missed days work and thousands more in paying bail, court, and impound fees. So the very short question is $20 now in bribes or several hundred dollars later? It’s a short question because obviously it’s one that goes unasked. Any economically rational actor pays $20 now and saves at least $200-$300.

I’ve heard many people, particularly expatriates and very privileged Kenyans, describe them as dumb and/or immoral, but the truth is they are neither. If morality was defined by a privileged person’s ability to pretend these things aren’t complex, then I could see why he/she may say they are immoral. Luckily, the privileged don’t have a monopoly on morality. These things are so much more complex. In fact, in many ways the question isn’t bribe or no bribe. It’s how big and do you want a receipt.

Matatu_01

Bringing It All Together

Matatus are a fact of life here in Nairobi. They aren’t going anywhere, and in my opinion they shouldn’t. They are an easy, pretty organized, cheap way to travel. Because of them transportation is an equal affair. Everyone has a way to get around and even more people have work and access to other means of work because of them. For locals they are a reality, and meet a very important need. For visitors and travelers, they are a very interesting piece of local culture. Even the music changes by the community you are matatuing through. This makes it a rich cultural experience to be had, and a really reasonable way to get around if you are one of those travelers with a few less dollars than your typical Nairobi visitor. That said, the next time you are newbie looking to ride a matatu I hope you remember that you are entering someone else’s domain, someone else’s life and reality, and you have a serious obligation to be respectful of that. So here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Enjoy the experience.
  • Be open to the lessons it can bring.
  • Don’t disrespect the people or their way of life (those riding the matatu or those running them).
  • Know that your first matatu ride can be a somewhat stressful experience if you are one of those people, who like to be in control, so bring someone that relaxes you.
  • Always have small change (you can have a 100 kenyan shilling, even a 200 or 500, but 20s and 50s are better)
  • If you’re riding one in the evening, the music can be really loud, so if you have sensitive ears you should bring earplugs
  • Don’t keep anything expensive in your pockets and if you ride near a window keep ahold of you bag or purse
  • Expect car exhaust, especially if it’s rush hour
  • Finally, they are a mode transportation, so have somewhere to go and know what matatus you need to take to get there. I wouldn’t just ride them around for fun.

If you open yourself up to people’s way of life instead of separating yourself from their reality, you’ll be surprised how many doors and people open up. This is as much a way of humbling yourself and connecting, as it is understanding local culture. So next time you are a newbie thinking about riding a matatu, keep that in mind and I bet you’ll have a blast! And maybe even make a few new friends.

Until next time, I hope you have a great week.

Sincerely,

The Recovery Poet

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Finding Kenya

Come Here, I Tell You


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IMG_5684Kuja nikuambie – come here, I tell you. I’m sure it’s not intended this way, but I find great humility in this simple phrase. Probably because I so often find that listening is essential to learning about a place or a people, and understanding who people are is so important to creating any sort of sustainable change. Thus, in this simple phrase, I am reminded to be open, to come, and to listen. It’s unsurprising then that kuja nikuambie is the first Swahili phrase, outside my list of common greetings, which I remember perfectly (although I had to get some help spelling it!)

If the first lesson is to listen, learn, and understand, then the second is that, as they so often do in Nairobi, plans change – last minute, out of nowhere, things happen just a little differently – and the best thing you can do is go with it.

Last Wednesday I sat down with a friend from Chemchemi Ya Ukweli and four youth doing art-based peace work in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Though the location was different (we had originally meant to meet in the youths’ community and now were meeting in a more upmarket part of Nairobi), the intention and passion were the same. These four youth, through three different organizations, use art like dancing, singing, and puppetry, to address community issues. They change the dances, songs, and subjects based on the needs and identity of the community. They reach people by speaking to the unique traditions and cultures of each group.

This is why grassroots, bottom-up peacebuilding is so important. I’m not saying you can’t reach people or transform structures of violence with other peacebuilding approaches, but imagine how many more you can reach and transform if you connect to who people are. Peacebuilding theory has some pretty commonsense principles that, I think, demand consideration for identity. First, let me tell you what these principles are, then I’ll show you how identity applies:

  1. Peacebuilding is a multi-dimensional enterprise
  2. Ownership
  3. Capacity Building
  4. Accountability: Do No Harm

Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are the four principles of peacebuilding most relevant to the discussion today.

First, peacebuilding is a multi-dimensional enterprise. It has many voices, actors, and agendas. None can be disregarded for peacebuilding to work. They all must be understood, heard, and considered seriously. Fully understanding a person’s identity is essential to knowing him or her as an actor and understanding his or her agenda.

Second, all peacebuilding programs and interventions must have local ownership. Though this can be a very contested subject, the fundamental truth is whether you are convincing a local audience to buy into your solution or creating a solution together, you’ll be remarkably more effective if you know your audience.

Third is capacity building, which, for me, is essentially the promise that you will eventually be irrelevant. Imperative to peacebuilding is the idea that we have a duty from the very beginning to build local capacities so they, in time, can run the projects and their country’s institutions themselves. To truly build local capacity, we must first have a full, objective understanding of what the local capacity is. It only makes sense that in working to understand this, we must also have a better understanding of the community’s identity (who they are, their culture, traditions, strengths, weaknesses, history).

Finally, identity is essential to perhaps one of the most important aspects of peacebuilding – accountability – and with accountability comes the fundamental principle of “Do No Harm.” We as peacebuilders, as external actors, must be responsible for our actions. We must ensure we are doing no harm in our journey to creating peace. Many things should be considered to accomplish this, and we would be remiss to forget this truth:

Without truly understanding who someone is and why and how they became who they are we are doomed to continuously harm the people we are so dedicated to helping.

This, indeed, is the worst case scenario. Still, without proper consideration for identity we are at best doomed to waste often large amounts of funding on ineffective interventions. This we must hold ourselves accountable for. What I love about working at the community level is that they already intrinsically know this. The youth I work with knew that if they were ever to work in communities with different tribal identities they absolutely had to cater their art to the traditions of that tribe. Otherwise, it would have been completely ineffective and a huge waste of their own savings.

The People Behind the Idea

I want to create something. I’ve wanted to since I first went to Liberia, and found so many people hungry to tell their stories, but lacking the resources and the platform to do it. What started off as a simple idea nearly three years ago has evolved into something of a dream and a craving. One which didn’t truly take form until I met the exceptional youth living in Nairobi’s poorest, most marginalized, often informal communities. They showed me their pains, struggles, dreams, and talents. They showed me that art, as it has in my own life, can create healing, change, and peace – individually, communally, and, if we dream big enough, even systemically. So, what started as an idea has very much become a project. We want to create something together. We all started this journey on our own paths. We’ve had very different struggles and use different artistic outlets. We are different, but I believe we can do something incredible together.

These youth have talent and a drive to create change in their communities, and what they need is a bit of support, a solid platform, and someone who believes in them.

I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I want to give them that. I know the power of having someone believe in you. I know how it changes you, and for all the people who gave that gift to me, I want to share it with the youth I’ve met in Nairobi’s poorest communities..

The Change Begins With You

This past Thursday I walked into the Ngei 1 meeting space in Huruma, Nairobi. It’s a rentable space created from the work and toils of youth who run garbage pickups, community bathrooms, showers, trainings, and counseling. I walked in and saw a room full of youth ages 18 to 26 waiting to meet with and talk to me. I watched girls from the Fahari Africa Youth Theater Group do a skit on HIV/Aids. Though I don’t speak Swahili very well yet, they were so good that I was able to pick up quite a bit before one of the youth translated for me.

They are actors.
They are actresses.
They are poets.
They are spoken word artists.
They are DJs.
They are peacebuilders.

I was moved by their talent, openness, and their hope. So moved, that I concluded my time with them by sharing a poem of mine called “Bones, Brokens, and Reasons,” (which you can find in the exerpt below). I did this so they would know I come in with nothing but empathy. That I know I haven’t been through what they’ve been through, but I understand and I’m there to help in the areas they need help and learn from them in all the ways they are rich in knowledge and experience.

I know what it’s like to feel like you’re nothing
It wasn’t so much done with intent
But a byproduct of a sacrosanct promise broken before them
One that said love shall never equal harm.
My parents molded me with two broken hands strengthened by the layer of thick that develops when the people you love kick you too many times
They tried to teach me love is more than a word 
it’s a thing you do

At the end of this poem, one of the youth leaders looked at me and said, “This is our story. I don’t think there is a person in this room who hasn’t been through exactly what you just shared with us.” When asked whether they disagreed, not one hand in the room went up.

It was at this moment of humility and heartbreak that I knew – these are the youth I’m meant to work with. This community I am meant to fall in love with. I want to sit down with the poets and have a conversation about poetry and spoken word for social change. I want to be taught to act by their incredible actors and actresses. I want to raise money for the drummers so they can bring real drums to their dance and music performances. This is what I’m meant to do. This is why I wake up every morning with hope and a drive. The young people in this amazing city move me every day.

IMG_2969Next week, I’ll be going back to Huruma via matatu (found to the left), so I’ll be sharing with you a bit about Nairobi culture and its very crazy mode of transportation. If you like these stories and want more like them, you can join my email list at http://www.therecoverypoet.com, look me up on twitter @jciccarelli09, or join the Facebook page therecoverypoet.

Until Next Week! I hope you have a great one!

Yours truly,
Jessica Ciccarelli, the recovery poet

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Finding Kenya

My Journey to Art & Peace


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Finding Art & Peace

I believe art has the power to save people. I believe this because it saved me.

I am an artist.
I am a poet.
I am a peacebuilder.
I am recovering.

Funny enough, art was not always something I believed in. At least not this strongly. I was a musician in high school. I did some journaling. And I even tried my hand at poetry when the season for poetry submissions came along in English class. I never saw art as something that changed anybody, even though I loved music. Band was my favorite time of day. I connected with music in a way I connected with nothing else. And on my worst days, it was how I managed to understand the world.

I’ve played my hand at drawing, music, writing, and poetry. Finally, I found my home in writing and poetry with a hint of music when I have the right instrumentation. Let’s be honest, trombones just don’t play parties alone.

I’ve always found solace in words, but I remember a time when I couldn’t even find words. Every time I started writing I spent more time scratching words out and doodling over them than I did creating anything. In retrospect, I wasn’t ready to start talking about what I knew. That is what the best writing is about – what you know – and what I knew was way too complicated to start talking about out loud. Just a few years ago, though, when I ran out of excuses to not deal with it and all other means of ignoring everything, I came face to face with a type of broken I can honestly say I hadn’t yet seen. It’s one thing for the people you love to break you accidentally. Because they don’t know any better. Because they are broken too. It’s an entirely different thing to be broken by someone you love intentionally, knowingly, and oh so blatantly. That’s what should have broken me. If I’m really honest, I’m not sure I should have made it this far today. Right when I should have been permanently, irreparably broken, I found my words.

It was finding my words that started to change the way I look at the world, healing, and eventually peace.

I started to see that art has a unique role in understanding pain, struggle, and conflict. That I could really uncover the causes of my own pain and conflict by exploring my art, and ultimately that exploring my experience through art could also help other people explore theirs at their own pace, in their own way.

My journey to seriously consider the role of art in peace began here. How can we do peace if we don’t take the time to understand the underlying, innermost causes of conflict – inner and interpersonal? And how can we possibly understand the underlying causes of conflict in a community if the people in the community haven’t had the chance to understand them themselves?

I didn’t understand what I was struggling with for a long time. Art helped me figure it out in a way that was comfortable for me. Sometimes sitting down with a traditional counselor isn’t enough, and often it’s not even an option. We have to find a way to better understand and identify the causes of conflict in individuals and communities, so that we all know better how to address them.

Art let’s you explore your life and experiences both directly and indirectly, and, for those who don’t do art, seeing and discussing art can help you uncover your own struggles.

What better way to promote agency in your own understanding and healing than art? Art helped me realize I was an agent in my own life, that I had the power to deal with my problems, and that I could do it through art, when so much else had failed. This was a pivotal moment in becoming the person I am today.

The Theory Behind the Journey

Peace is both the ending of violent conflict and the removal of structures that promote violence. It is creating structures that contribute to sustainable, lasting peace. There are many opinions about how that happens, but most agree it has political, social, economic, security, and legal dimensions. My degree program broke it down into conflict analysis and resolution, human rights, and development and human security.

If you look at peace theory, it’s so clear that art has a place amongst those dimensions. The basis of conflict analysis and resolution is that to end violent conflict and create peace we have to figure out the causes of conflict. As you’ve probably seen, art has the ability to uncover and explain the causes of conflict in new and more holistic ways. It can help people realize what their own struggles are, and also help people better understand the struggles of others.

Art can revitalize local economies and promote not only short-term relief, but long term, sustainable development. It can build up local artists and artisans while bringing in art lovers, collectors, philanthropists, and business people – thus boosting local, small business to meet the increased demand for housing, food, and transportation.

It has also helped record and remember lives lost to terrible human rights abuses. It’s often helped promote reconciliation. Things like storytelling are often used as traditional forms of forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. Art is so often used for social recovery that art therapy is now a widely used tool for helping children, youth, and adults overcome horrible traumas and abuses.

FullSizeRenderThe Missing Link – Why Nairobi?

Art has a role to play in each and very aspect of peacebuilding. Peace is often seen as a systemic goal, and art has a role to play in that too, but what art really does is make an intentional connection between the creation of inner, personal peace and systemic peace.

The youth I met in Kariobangi and Mathare believed so intrinsically that their everyday actions could contribute to personal and community peace. That they could build peace by saving money from their car washing business to teach children about social issues through football. That they could build peace by doing free concerts for community events and schools, so they could use their art to contribute to individual and community development, while also pushing for deeper conversations through the subject matter their art explores. That a couple of djs could contribute to peace and social awareness by creating a mixtape that also talks about social issues during traffic jams.

The coolest things about youth in Nairobi is they’re already on a journey to connect inner peace to systemic, and they want to do it in new, innovative ways. So in some ways, they taught me, at the end of the day, that art just makes sense. If we ever want to take youth seriously, and we should if we really take peace seriously, then we have to start speaking through mechanisms that youth speak through. Youth are not only the backbone of society, but also the backbone of peace. And I know from the youth I’ve met here that I would be completely lost to try to create peace with youth without including the very voice they speak through.

For me, the lesson at the end of the day is this:

For all those without the privilege, resources, and opportunity to be heard, art is the voice. For all those too broken, marginalized, and disenfranchised to speak, art is the platform.

I hope you’ll keep following as I begin interviewing Nairobi artists who use art for social awareness, change, and peace. Stay tuned next week as I tell you about my first meeting with artists in some of Nairobi’s informal communities who are using art for peace education. It’s already been an incredible journey, and I’m so excited to see where it goes next.

I hope you’re having a fun, fulfilled, purposeful week. Until next time!

Sincerely,

Jessica Ciccarelli, the Recovery Poet

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Finding Kenya

When Purpose Finds You


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I was standing in the visa line at Kenyatta National Airport, when I had one of the strangest experiences of my life. Waiting on the threshold of what I’ve really started to feel is my love and my purpose, I had the peculiar experience of feeling like I was leaving and coming home at the same time.

With all its cramped matatus and hectic roads, I missed this crazy place, and at the same moment I missed all those dear to me, who I left in the many homes before this one.

It’s hard to believe, but I made it. I’m officially on the other side of the world, and from the moment I touched down Nairobi has given me one crazy journey.

I came here because I believe my role in peace lies in the overworked hands of the Nairobi people. So apropos then that standing on the threshold of my new home clutching the one thing that stands to decide whether I stay or go, I come face to face with my first difficult peace decision.

After being in the visa line for what felt like hours surrounded by people with clothes of all types and origins from blue jeans to saris, I found a man standing beside me with deep brown eyes and stress lines. The people fidgeted back and forth, sighing just a little as they snuck glances at the man with brown, downcast eyes, who had been sent by a visa attendant to retrieve what was likely a missing document from the immigration office. He’d returned with the paper, and was now hoping to regain the attention of the visa attendant, daring only briefly to glance back at those looking at him.

Off to the right stood an older, white gentleman. Pressing his hands against his nice business suit, he didn’t bother listening before yelling at the brown-eyed man to go back to the end of the line, that he didn’t belong here, wasn’t aloud to be here, and just needed to leave.

We were all exhausted after anywhere from 4 to 24 hours of flying; most of us having undergone long journeys to get to this beautiful country. Nobody said anything. They all looked a little uncomfortable. Perhaps a little annoyed someone would cut them off, but not hostile. Uncomfortable with the man yelling, annoyed the line was taking so long. Nobody seemed to know what to say.

Then, if I’m honest, before what I was doing could really register at all, I had already made the decision to say something. So I looked at the man in the nice suit with tailored pants, and said, “There’s no reason to be an ass. You don’t have to be rude. He was asked to come back to this line.” Only a second later it registered that I had no idea who this man was, who he may be connected to, or what he may be capable of. He looked as flustered that I’d said it, as I probably looked that I’d said anything at all.

But, it wasn’t him that struck me the most. When I turned around to look at the man standing beside me, he said, “Thank you. People like you don’t often understand.”

That broke my heart.

Not that he’d assume I would say nothing, but that he had so often come face to face with those of privilege and wealth, who had either treated him poorly or failed to step in at all, that it surprised him I would even say a word, so much so that he would thank me for it. Thank me for something that should only ever be an act of common decency.

He thanked me, and I entered the visa line, got my visa stamped, and went to find my bags.

I entered Kenya having chosen to speak up; when I can imagine, by the response of my lineless friend, so many before me had chosen to say nothing. To me this doesn’t seem like an exceptional, unique act. It doesn’t seem like it should be special or overly valued that I chose to say something to a man mistreating another just because he had the privilege and power to do so.

But, that’s how I entered Kenya.

I entered that much more aware of the reality that comes with privilege, wealth, and the color of your skin. I entered realizing purpose is as much something you choose as something you find.

Following that, I found my taxi driver, loaded my bags, and took off for my new, yet old, apartment home. Nairobi’s roads were as crazy and hectic as they always are, and because it took about two hours to get through the airport, we entered them during rush hour.

Still, I won’t forget the man in the nice, tailored suit or the middle-aged man with deep brown eyes, who thanked me for saying words so many before me should have said. I’ll remember them as I go into Nairobi communities, coffee shops, teashops, and bars looking for peacemakers, changemakers, and artists – hoping to steal a glance at their incredible stories and share their lives with you.

I look forward to updating you as I continue to learn more and have new revelations about the role I should be playing everyday in creating greater equality, equity, and more sustainable peace. To be a voice and an advocate for those struggling and less fortunate. And, only ever more aware of the ignorance and silence that often accompany privilege.

I hope you’ll follow me as I begin exploring peace, culture, and art in Kenya. Next week, I’ll be posting a piece about art and peace. I want to share with you a bit about my story – where my passion for art and peace comes from – and give you some context on the relationship between art and peace in Kenya. Join me as I walk these beautiful streets looking for untold stories, dirty hands, and unlikely lessons.

Until next time, I hope you have a great week!

Sincerely,

The Recovery Poet

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For all those without the privilege, resources, and opportunity to be heard, art is the voice. I’ve found the best art often comes from the most broken places. So, what are you willing to hurt for? Because you must first struggle to find your greatest beauty.