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Grace Aneiza Ali

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Make it Personal: A Social Entrepreneur Finds Value in Her Personal Story

Posted: 08/04/11 09:00 AM ET

I haven't always known the value of my personal story.

Despite this, I started of note, an online magazine focused on people with remarkable stories to tell -- artists and activists from around the world who are using the arts for social change. For example, filmmakers like Osato Dixon who documented the experiences of orphaned albino children in Zimbabwe. It's a touching yet difficult film to watch as it captures what these children confront on a daily basis as they navigate poverty, discrimination and the harsh conditions of the sun. The film is very personal to Dixon. "I recognize that where I was born [in the United States] has made my experience of being an albino much easier," he said in a recent interview for of note. "I had to stare back at the reflection of who I was as an albino while making this film. As a filmmaker, I felt I needed to deal with it in a public way."

Dixon roots himself in his work with such candor and bravery. This, however, hasn't come so easily for me -- publicly that is. Instead, I chose to guard my story even as I wrote about others who transformed their life experiences into movements for change.

I was born and raised in Guyana, South America -- a land naturally rich with its abundant rainforests but deeply impoverished and oft-neglected. My family, like many families in the capital city Georgetown, lived without the basic amenities of running water, phones, or electricity. I spent many a nights doing homework by candlelight or under a flickering kerosene-lit lamp. Simple things like notebooks and paper were luxury items. I gathered scraps of paper wherever I could find them and sewed them together to make books. I was also surrounded by a culture of illiteracy. That many of the members of my extended family, especially the women, could not read was normal to me. I took on the role as reader and writer for my grandmother and aunts, which often meant reading personal letters for them and transcribing intimate details about their lives.

of note is very global in its scope. Its mission is to shed light on people who usually don't receive recognition for the impact they are making in communities around the world, discovering new and emerging voices and allowing our readers to connect with their work. My reluctance to publicly infuse my personal story into of note's mission began to soften after a trip last Fall to Chaffe Jenetta, a remote coffee farming community in the state of Harrar, in eastern Ethiopia. While in Chaffe Jenetta, I met a little girl who was a daughter of one of the coffee farmers. She was clutching these tattered and torn notebooks. Within them, her handwriting, written in the local Oromo language, filled up every free space. When I returned home to New York City, I couldn't shake the memory of this little girl. I wrote about her Ethiopia story and, for the first time publicly, my Guyana story. In the article, "The Girl with the Notebook," I wrote that like me, the Ethiopian girl's future began within the pages of her notebook. That she could one day become a powerful voice for Ethiopia, sharing with the world its multiple stories.

The article was featured in a special issue focused on how artists were using their work to empower and educate children around the world and the responses poured in. One reader remarked, "It had never occurred to me that a blank page can quite literally be the space to dream, or to imagine a tattered notebook holding so much value... I'll never look at a piece of paper the same again."

It was responses like this and countless others that helped me realize the value of the personal story to an organization's mission. Next up, of note will curate a special issue focused on Guyana, featuring artists using their work to celebrate the nation's rich culture and to shed light on its pressing social issues. I hope that the issue provides a more multi-dimensional view of this country, its culture and its people who continue to transcend and evolve.

Visit of note magazine at www.ofnotemagazine.org.

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