In "The Blue Sweater", which comes out today (February 16) in paperback, I share the story that gives the book its title as an example of the interconnectedness of people around the world:
It all started with the blue sweater, the one my uncle Ed gave me. I loved that soft wool sweater with its striped sleeves and African motif -- two zebras in front of a snow-capped mountain -- across the front. I wrote my name on the tag to ensure it would be mine forever, and I wore it for years. At least, until freshman year, when my high school nemesis -- in one of those humiliating adolescent moments -- mocked my blossoming figure in the sweater. Mortified, I donated it to the local Goodwill, glad never to have to see it again.
Fast forward eleven years. I am jogging in Kigali, Rwanda, where I'm working to establish a microfinance institution for poor women. Several yards ahead of me, I see a young boy wearing the sweater -- my blue sweater. I run over to the child and turn down the collar. There, thousands of miles and more than a decade from where I last saw the sweater, my name is still visible on the tag.
The story of the blue sweater has always served to remind me of how we are all connected, and how our actions -- and inaction -- touch people every day, people we may never know and never meet. The story is also my personal story in understanding better what stands between poverty and wealth.
My experience with the book club in Kibera was a similar reminder of how fundamentally alike we all are in seeking the dignity and opportunity to shape our own lives.
We are in the Kibera slum, on our way to a meeting of the Blue Sweater Book Club. We turn through a gate and see Mama Hamza's community center, a building made of corrugated metal sheets for the walls and roof that glistens in the afternoon sun. The young men who have organized the event are outside, and everything looks beautiful.
Suraj, the lanky, boyish looking Acumen Fellow who works with our team in Nairobi, met a guy named Kevin last year, and began talking about his work with patient capital and development. Recently unemployed and living in the slums, Kevin was interested in the ideas, so Suraj gave him my book, "The Blue Sweater", on the condition that Kevin would read it and send him a review. Kevin kept his promise and wrote me a thoughtful e-mail that I will keep forever.
That first exchange encouraged Suraj to give the book to two more young men, including Alex Sunguti, the 22-year-old with the beautiful unedited smile who cleans the Acumen Fund office. After writing a moving, honest, open review, Alex decided to start a book club.
Now, there are seven organizers and book clubs in five slums around Nairobi. The seven organizers -- Alex and Kevin, along with Jeremiah, Dennis, Chris, Herbert, and Dickson -- are increasingly committed to being leaders in their community despite the challenges of being unemployed and of little education. Indeed, the talents of this group alone should convince the world of just how much potential the human spirit holds if only we would get rid of the structures that bind and oppress.
We pull into the community center at 4 o'clock. By 4:30, more than 90 people are seated in the room. Many are carrying "Blue Sweater" books: Jeremiah tells me that they'd asked each reader to come with at least one question about the book. For tonight is to be a conversation and not just a speech.
Alex takes the stage to introduce me. Beaming radiantly, he is most powerful when he speaks of his own experiences and provokes the audience to think about theirs:
I may not share the same experience with Jacqueline, but her story inspires me a lot. I didn't make it to advanced education after O Level. I was told to join one of the various arms of the government - like Kenya Army, Police, Navy, Security, media, banking sector among others - but I haven't gone through. It's not that I don't qualify, but I don't have money to bribe. People bribe to get a well paying job. What about the poor who have no money to bribe but have huge potential to transform the world?
He doesn't feel sorry for himself, but rather challenges the room to remember how powerful each of them can be. I sit in the front row listening, transfixed by the beauty and generosity of his words. I've never been given a more meaningful introduction.
After my talk, Kevin opens the room to questions. Mama Hamza, the woman who runs the community center asks about balance. "I want to be a leader on a better level like you are," she says. "But I am a grandmother and have so many children to care for in this community. What can I do?" I look at the petite woman with a rust-colored scarf wrapped around her head, and imagine the challenges she's overcome and the leader she must be. I start by saying we aren't talking about "better" levels, just different kinds of leadership, and go on to answer as honestly as I can.
A young woman named Khadija stands and in a voice filled with anger, lashes out, "I'm a teenager, a single mother and I don't know who the father of my child is. I have no money. I have no job. How can you say we can all be leaders? Who will follow me?"
To my right, sits Jane in her red dress with her hair pulled back. In 2001, Jane was a prostitute, HIV-positive, had no money, three children, and no prospects. By taking tiny loans from Jamii Bora, Kenya's fastest-growing microfinance institution, she was able to start a tailoring business, repay and invest again, until she had reached the point where she was a thriving business woman, a community leader consulting people with HIV, and a home owner. Jane stands, "If you would have known me ten years ago, you would never believe that I am here today, telling you that every one of you can do it. Don't give excuses. Don't blame others. Places like Jamii Bora can help you, but you have to do this for yourselves."
The questions continue for nearly two hours. I am humbled by the many that start by thanking me for writing about my failures. They say the fact that I kept failing gives them hope that they can fall down and try again and maybe succeed. These words cause a choking feeling -- how can they see me as someone with challenges similar to their own? I live in a loft apartment in New York City. I am privileged, yet here I am standing in front of a group of people who are seeing themselves in my stories, connecting to the human spirit that persists, to a determination to make things better, no matter our starting point.
Our human bonds make me feel I am standing on sacred ground: I'm not sure whether I can bear this gift, this truth somehow that is hovering right there in the hot little metal box of a room. I have a deep urge to weep, but know that if I start, I might cry until I float away. Still, I know that in those tears is also a searing hopefulness that we can and do connect, that we can see ourselves in one another. I think of Ubuntu -- I am because you are.
We can choose to feel overwhelmed with sadness or we can choose to be inspired by possibility. The challenge is to be tough and focused and to hold people accountable in concrete ways while showing up without the posturing and masks that keep us distant from one another. This night, maybe more than any single evening, reminded me how possible this is. Indeed, it convinced me it is the only way.
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