01/17/2012 01:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

America Does Not Happen By Accident

"Neither peace nor war happen by accident."

Madeleine Albright said it at her lecture here in Bloomington, Indiana a few months ago. It was a succinct and eloquent nod to the power of intentionality, and she uttered it at the outset of election-campaign season in American politics, a time when I often feel like my America is being taken away from me. And to top that off, later that month former US State Department Policy Planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece in the Atlantic about collaborative power came out. "Instead of seeking to structure the preferences of others," she wrote, "those who would exercise collaborative power must be demonstrably willing to shift their own views enough to enter into meaningful dialogue with others."

The words of these powerful women made me think of foreign aid and Africa. Last year in Kenya I mobilized a performance group for Congolese refugee girls, survivors of severe gender-based violence from various tribes who didn't know one another before I began work with them. The Survival Girls, as they call themselves, kept meeting while I was gone. They assigned each other roles of public relations officer, secretary, treasurer, and president. They created and performed a theater piece for AIDS awareness. They started a website. They successfully applied for a loan of equipment from an aid organization to run a cyber cafe to gain revenue for the group and, they hope, be able to pay tuition for their own schooling.

Survival Girls confer

When I left in the summer, I gave each girl a goodie bag. One of the goodies was a little notepad. I asked them to write five things a day they loved about themselves or were grateful for. It was one of the ways I snuck what I knew about trauma recovery into our daily art doings: the mental discipline of replacing repetitive negative thoughts with hopeful ones.

For some reason I didn't consciously identify myself as someone "involved with youth issues" until the Survival Girls project. Then I returned from Kenya last fall and taught undergraduates composition to fund my studies. To demonstrate the idea of discourse, I thought perhaps a picture of a celebrity who did humanitarian work would be effective: a photo of George Clooney, for example, at once participates in the public discourse around Hollywood fame and that of the crisis in Darfur. I googled celebrities known for humanitarian work; I ended up reading an interview with Mia Farrow, and stumbled across this quote:

I think it's the role of parents and educators to say that evil is not some cartoon outside yourself. It's in your own make-up and in the human heart. Know it, identify it, and weed it out every single day. That was a metaphor given to me by my son Ronan at a young age. He said it's difficult to be a human being and you have to weed every single day. I thought that was perfect.

This kid Ronan gets it, I thought. He's in my generation, and even if I misconstrued the quote, he still retained enough of what I saw there to go into diplomacy and human rights work -- which is lucky for us, since he turned into some super kid prodigy who could have excelled in any field. He gets that earth can be a hard place to be and that goodness begins with a series of daily decisions tending to our own interior -- and for that reason alone, I'm in his camp for the long haul. Because when I looked for the component of the Survival Girls project that led to such success, I saw it was connected to the girls' working through trauma, which required a space that felt safe enough for them to begin to share their pain and address with mental discipline -- "weeding" -- the fear that they'd never get their own minds back. I gave my girls those notepads because neither peace, nor war, nor goodness, nor recovery happen by accident.

That success was also connected to the moment I wait for, a certain click and release I feel in my chest when I am running through exercises with the girls, ostensibly performance exercises into which I sneak the pressure-point exercise that counselors teach trauma victims. I returned in December to work with the girls again, and after warming up by forming a dancing conga line of follow-the-leader and shouting which color we would be and why (give me a break; I never studied theater) one of the girls had an idea for a choreography move, and began talking and gesturing excitedly with the other girls. That's the moment I smiled to myself and backed away, because it was theirs now. They had the ball. The ball, that day, after five minutes, looked like this:

Survival Girls Make Up A Routine

Nana, for a time the youngest Survival Girl, had less English than the other girls. She brought her little notepad to her one-on-one session with me, and over the intervening months had written a few entries she shared with me: in one, her mother had asked her why she didn't smile like she had when she was a child. "I told my mother," Nana said, crying a little, "that I would be smiling again soon."

Next was this one: "Once there was a man with happiness inside him," she read aloud to me, "but the world turns and he doesn't have happiness anymore." She looked at me with direct grief in her dark eyes. She had been saving the question for me: "What do I do when I don't have happiness?"

The odds are stacked against Nana. Both her parents went profoundly insane from the trauma that forced her family's flight from Congo. Neither can work. Nana is the oldest of six siblings, all of whom sleep in one room with chipped blue paint on the wall.

The beauty of her words, the smoldering seed of genius within her, rang like a bell. The world turns and he doesn't have happiness. Nana's a writer, I thought.

She blinked through her tears and I smiled and put my hands on hers. I pictured my heart like a slow wheel, a circle made of bits and parts of myself I might align with Nana's heart like a bridge to soothe her pain.

"You are a human girl with a human heart, and bad things have happened," I said. "You're supposed to feel down for a while after hardship. But your heart knows the truth, what you told your mother: you will smile again. And when you do, you will know how to make your dream come true. Remember yesterday when you drew your dream for the future, and it was a community center?" She nodded. "You will help other people because you will know pain, and you will help them the more for it. Your pain is a gift from God."

The girls' belief in God is unshakeable and gives them great strength. I am a staunch agnostic who began graduate school with undiagnosed PTSD, which made it hard to, you know, read -- or feel like a person. The girls don't know this. The particular events leading to my PTSD, my agnosticism, my omnisexuality and lady sweetheart back home -- I shelve all that. If my girls asked me, I'd always tell them the truth, but in that space it's their wounds that matter. And the part of my story that was the door to Nana? My pain itself. The lens PTSD gave me to the world, to the seared beings of anyone who has suffered shock, gave me a new understanding of the relationship between communal efforts and individual pain. A central focus of post-conflict zone community development work must be trauma recovery for the youth who need it, since the youth themselves constitute the majority demographic in the most at-risk societies -- those societies whose reformations depend on the functionality and health of their citizens. And neither peace, nor war, nor goodness, nor recovery happen by accident.

I don't feel like having my America taken from me today, so I will leave you with this: Nana began to cry in earnest when she told me, "You came back to see us again. That means you love us. You treat us like we're people."

The heartbreak and fury I felt at that statement echoes in how I interpret our Declaration of Independence, the greatest poem ever written: I endeavor to treat the Survival Girls like they have a birthright to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which to them is unprecedented, and I understand that to be the most American work I do. I enact my American-ness when I exercise the right to tell you about Nana. And last, but not least, I will only complete my American-ness with respect to Nana when I make sure you go from hearing about her to hearing from her. Simply put, America needs not to abandon foreign aid because if it did so, it would forfeit leadership. Leaders aren't willingly followed by those the leader does not acknowledge and actively, palpably, love.

And America, also, does not happen by accident.