This post was written with contributions from Erica Solomon and Judy Battaglia, both directors for the I Live Here foundation.
Mia Kirshner: The oil that turns the wheels of I Live Here Projects are women who volunteer for I Live Here. The projects are a series of book anthologies about human rights abuses all over the world. With each anthology, we provide programs to better the lives of the subjects that worked with us. Each of these women came to I Live Here for very different reasons. The ladies that work with us have full time jobs and, dare I say, struggle to make ends meet. In spite of that, they treat I Live Here like another full-time job. It's pretty amazing to watch I Live Here swell this little movement. I Live Here now belongs to all these amazing women who have propelled us forward. In honor of International Women's Day and the late nights of work, the heart and sometimes the frustration, I thought it was important to introduce you to some of the women who are the glue to I Live Here.
Erica Solomon: I remember meeting Mia at a café in Los Feliz. I told her that I felt an instant affinity with the stories in the I Live Here Anthology and that I was amazed by what she had accomplished. I was drawn to the powerful importance of hidden stories because of my own family's history. Like so many, my family survived the Holocaust. My father wears his experiences in his eyes. He fled a Communist and anti-Semitic government as a little boy. I feel a kinship for stories of the lost, oppressed and forgotten. As the Director of Education for I Live Here, I work on the creative writing curriculum for our Kachere Prison Project, a program designed to help the boys empower themselves through writing and art. I also work on the Ambassador Program, an ILH activist guide for high school and college students. I'm happy to report that the ambassador program is being used all over the world and that we are starting our creative writing program in Kachere.
Judy Battaglia: I have come to know a band of women so strong that I really feel like nothing can stop us when we put our minds together. I've done things with I Live Here that I never thought that I would do before. Just before Christmas, I organized a school supply drive for our program in Malawi. I was floored that people actually read our posts about this drive and sent packages from as far away as Australia. Especially in this economy, I know that when someone gives a little, it means a lot. This is why I handwrite our thank you notes. I want everyone who gives to ILH to feel special. I love that we bring people together from all walks of life, working for a common goal. I guess it makes me part of a community and feel less alone.
Mia again (on Malawi): Even though I Live Here works in a boys juvenile prison, the people that make the engine run with our local program are Mada Siebert and Hope Thorton. Mada runs our permaculture program in Kachere, a system of agriculture designed to be self-sustaining, Mada has an iron will. She is an innovator. She navigates the shark-infested waters of the prison authorities with grace and honesty. This grace inspires me on a daily basis. Mada oversaw the installation of composting toilets in each cell in Kachere. After ten years of defecating in plastic open buckets, the kids now have an actionable solution. We invested in roughly thirty dollars of seeds, which has transformed Kachere into a thriving garden. The direct result is that the kids have greens in their diet to help stabilize their immune systems. This, in turn, helps prevent sickness and enables the kids to be able to go to school. ILH will only work with low-impact, sustainable solutions; Mada built a rammed earth kitchen in the garden of Kachere. The walls are made from mud and then dried, causing no harm to the environment. Because of this, we are able to hold classes without the haze of smoke coming from the cauldrons in the kitchen. This smoke was toxic to breathe and would make your eyes water, sting and shut. I am proud to say, because of Mada's innovation, food will now be cooked in a more hygienic setting, preventing illness. Most importantly, she is teaching our boys in Kachere all about permaculture. Something that, once they are released, they can take back into their homes.
The women that wrote for the I Live Here anthologies are heroes. They are heroes because they spoke up. Women in brothels, domestic workers, refugees, victims of gang rape, wrote about conditions that they continue to work and live under and that few know about. I am sure they risked their lives for their stories to be heard. I Live Here exists because of them and we work in honor of their bravery. I like to think that I can learn from their bravery each day and put it into action in my day-to-day life.
Moving forward, I have a challenge for all of you who read this. What I would like to see is that men come and work with us on I Live Here Projects. Where are you? We believe that if someone is oppressed, hungry, unheard, these issues belong to us all. Today is the day that I ask men to come forward. We need you. My goal by the next International Women's Day is to have half the people that work with I Live Here be staffed men. What do you think? Can we do this together?