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February 8, 2012

The Long Shadow of Childhood Trauma

We hear a lot about the healthcare crisis – generally framed in economic terms.  But often lost in the haggling over cost figures and acrimonious debate about whether healthcare is the province of the government or the free market is a much more important and frightening reality – the poor state of health among our nation’s children.

Scared-Sick book coverIn a recently published book Scared Sick, Robin Kaar-Morse and Meredith Wiley provide sobering statistics about the state of children’s health in the US.  Their research, compiled from government and private studies, paints a grim picture.  For example:

  • Among the seven largest industrialized nations in the world, the US ranks last on infant mortality rates and longevity.
  • The overall well-being of American children ranks twentieth among twenty-one wealth democracies, behind Hungary, Greece and Poland.
  • One in three children born five years ago will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
  • Child abuse death rates are far higher in the US than in all of the seven largest developed countries; three times higher than Canada and eleven times higher than Italy.
  • Five children die every day as the result of child abuse; three out of four of these are under the age of four.
  • 15.5 percent of all babies born in the US are low birth weight and / or preterm at delivery.
  • Just over 20 percent of children either currently or at some point have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.
  • An estimated 26 percent of all children in the US will witness a violent or traumatic event prior to age four.
  • One in one hundred infants is born with fetal alcohol syndrome, the leading preventable cause of mental retardation, birth defects and learning disabilities in the Western world.
  • Of children ages three to seventeen, 4.7 million have a learning disability.

(Page xv, Scared Sick, 2011.)

The scientific evidence is mounting that conflict and trauma can take a toll on our organs and biological regulatory systems during development and lead to serious health issues as adults. This should be reason enough to re-examine our nation’s healthcare priorities.  But work in a relatively new field of biology should provide an even stronger incentive.

frightened childResearch in the rapidly evolving area of epigenetics is hinting at biological mechanisms that link trauma experienced by one generation with diseases that develop in subsequent generations.  Epigenetics focuses on the way that cells facilitate or inhibit the expression of our genes.  Epigenetic functioning,unlike our genes, is more directly affected by environmental influences.  In some cases, it appears that epigenetic mechanisms damaged by environmental factors in one generation may be passed on to future generations.  This means there could be a generational echo to diseases provoked by conflict or trauma during childhood.  This is in addition to the psychological damage that often results in abused children turning into abusive parents.

As the rhetoric over healthcare in America ratchets up in this election year, we should look at the very real and long-term consequences of neglecting our children’s health.  As Herbert Ward observed, “Childhood abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.”  And now, we suspect, that shadow may be much longer.


February 7, 2012

Girl Up! – Closing the Gender Gap in Education

girls-in-schoolPicture this: your name is Fatuma, and you are a fourteen year old girl living in Todee, Liberia. Your brother is allowed to go to school and you aren’t, even though you desperately want to go to university and become a doctor. While American girls like me have the same dreams as Fatuma does, she simply does not have the resources to pursue her goals.

Even though Fatuma is a hypothetical example, her situation is very real.  In the world today there are four million fewer girls attending primary school than boys.1 Though the global community has made significant strides to eliminate the gender gap in education, much more progress is needed to achieve educational equality.

According to the World Bank, 35 million girls do not attend primary school.  Most of these girls live in developing countries.¹ Laws that discriminate against women and girls often play a role in the educational gender gap. In many developing countries, laws dictate that a larger portion of the family inheritance go to the male children, giving families like Fatuma’s a clear incentive to educate the boys rather than the girls.2

Additionally, Fatuma’s family is reluctant to spend money on her education, as they know that once she is married, she will live with her husband’s family. Any income that Fatuma’s education generates after her marriage will be enjoyed by her husband’s family.  Thus, Fatuma’s family believes that because their son-in-law’s family will receive the return on their investment in Fatuma’s education, her schooling is not worth the expense.

Girls Without Voices: Invest In Me

Even if Fatuma’s family was willing to send her to school, it could be so costly that they could not afford it. School fees can consume up to 30% of a family’s income and do not include costs for parent-teacher associations and teacher salary supplements. Fatuma’s family also must provide uniforms and transportation to and from school. Lastly, if Fatuma went to school, she would not have enough time to work to help support her family, denying her family a valuable source of income. In many areas, girls and women are expected to perform the majority of domestic tasks so if Fatuma went to school, there would be no one to help cook, clean, and take care of siblings.3

Girl Up logoFortunately for Fatuma and girls like her around the world, many wonderful organizations are striving to provide equal opportunities for education. I am a Teen Advisor for Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation campaign that supports UN programs that benefit girls in developing countries. With the support of Girl Up, girls receive school supplies or scholarships to decrease the economic burden on their families. They are given a second chance to go to school in cases where they were forced to drop out or never attended in the first place. Most importantly, they receive leadership training that teaches them to speak up for themselves and for all girls everywhere. Thanks to Girl Up, girls around the world are given the chance to achieve their dreams. Other organizations making a difference through emphasizing education for girls education include She’s the First, the Girl Effect, CARE, and SHARE.

With the help of these amazing organizations and campaigns, girls are able to not only help themselves, but also their families and communities. Educated girls and women typically make 10-25% more in wages, and they reinvest 90% of that money back into their families. Educated women generally get married later and have fewer children.4 These children will often be healthier and more educated themselves than children of uneducated mothers. By educating girls, we are not only able to solve today’s problems, but we are able to inspire the next generation of leaders who will solve the problems of tomorrow.


  1. Education – Girls’ Education.” The World Bank. The World Bank Group, 18 Aug. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.
  2. Roudi-Fahimi, Farzaneh, and Valentine Moghadam. “Empowering Women, Developing Society
  3. Society: Female Education in the Middle East and North Africa.” Population Reference Bureau. Population Reference Bureau, Nov. 2003. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.
  4. United States. Dept. of State. Educating Girls: What Works. IIP Digital. U.S. Dept. of State, 1 July 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.
  5. Girleffect.org. The Girl Effect. the Girl Effect, n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2012.
January 18, 2012

Is Good News Underrated?

bad-newsThe daily “News,” as it is reported on network and cable TV programs and in major print media outlets, focuses almost entirely on governmental crises, armed conflicts, violence in our cities, natural disasters, and heartbreaking stories of every kind. This barrage of “bad news” is often delivered with visceral intensity, leaving viewers and readers coping with a range of negative feelings from anger and cynicism to helplessness and despair.

A man I know was determined to stop watching or reading the news because he said it made him feel helpless and despondent. A friend of his challenged him saying, “There’s an invitation in the News asking for you to respond to an issue as a participant in repairing the world.” His friend’s challenge proved to be transformative.

Finding himself repeatedly drawn to stories about the lack of access to education for young girls around the world, he educated himself on the issue and ultimately joined with others building schools aimed at educating girls in Africa and Asia. He found his passion in this work and says, “I’ve become a proselytizer seizing every opportunity to talk with anyone I can about the need to educate girls. I tell stories of the amazing work people are doing!” Instead of just turning the channel to avoid the bad news he found overwhelming, he chose a proactive response. Thanks to his friend’s challenge, he found the “invitation” within the News coverage that sparked his passion, and turned a “bad news” story into “good news.”

arianna huffington

Arianna Huffington

All people have a natural, biological need for equilibrium. Without balance between the negative and positive experiences of life, we can slip into a state of mental paralysis in which our inspiration and creativity are dormant.  We cannot risk being without inspiration and creativity because these two uniquely human strengths are critical to solving problems, small and large. Hope for balance in the News has a champion in the well-respected print/online media outlet, The Huffington Post with their new segment aptly called Good News. In acknowledging the influential role of the News media in the lives of viewers and readers, founder Arianna Huffington says, “Those of us in the news media have provided too many autopsies of what went wrong and not enough biopsies.” She is raising the bar for others who report the News. One other hopeful example of more balanced coverage is the Cable News Network’s CNN Heroes awards and features that highlight positive, transformative stories of ordinary people putting compassion and hope to work.

The real crisis and heartbreaking stories we hear about daily on the News do invite us in, reminding us of our common humanity and need for one another. But to benefit from finding our “invitation” to participate in repairing the world among the news stories that we watch or read, those stories must come to us in the context of balance. The mantra of media executives is that news stories about the titillating, the scandalous, and even the invented crisis are what the public craves. That presumption, and the life-draining “News” that results from it, can only be changed by you and me. The courage, imagination, and voice of each of us have a cumulative energy that gives us the power to polish the world.


January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King Day—Celebrating A Day “On” Not “Off”

Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.


Martin Luther King

Today, January 16, 2012, is the third Monday in January—the designated day each year to celebrate the life of a great American and world leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year marks the 26th time millions of Americans and citizens in countries around the world pause to honor a man who gave his life in the cause of civil rights for African Americans, and by extension, in the cause of freedom for oppressed people everywhere. Dr. King demonstrated the power of nonviolent protest in the face of very violent opposition, joining the roster of other courageous global leaders and Nobel Peace Laureates that include the Dali Lama, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter, as well as Aung San Suu Kyi, Leymah Gbowee, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Tawakkol Karman.

The first observance of the Martin Luther King Day Federal holiday legislation, passed in 1983, was January 20, 1986. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the King Holiday and Service Act redefining the day of observance from “holiday” to “day of action.” Unlike on other Federal holidays, people are asked to observe MLK Day by volunteering time to a project of their choosing, and to reflect on this quote from Dr. King, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others today?”



January 12, 2012

Tawakkul Karman Brings The Arab Spring to Yemen


Tawakkul Karman

“We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
Nobel citation for 2011 Peace Prize

On October 7th, 2011, the Oslo-based Nobel Committee announced that the Nobel Peace Prize would be shared equally among three activists: Leyman Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen.  All three are Nobel Laureates in acknowledgement of  their leadership in nonviolent struggles advancing women’s rights and involving women in significant peace building roles within their countries. Tawakkul Karman’s Nobel Peace Prize award is especially timely considering the Arab Spring of 2011 and her involvement in the unprecedented participation of women in the revolutionary movements across the Middle East. While the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have successfully overthrown their leaders, in Karman’s eyes, Yemen has yet to achieve that same level of success for itself.

In November Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement to step down and transfer power to his Vice President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.  However, in exchange for stepping down there is a provision in the agreement that grants him immunity from prosecution for his 33-year dictatorial rule of Yemen.  Like thousands of Yemenis who continue to protest in spite of the agreement, Karman believes that it does not go far enough. The goal of the Yemeni revolution to win freedom, dignity, equality, democracy and justice cannot, Yemenis believe, be reached without Saleh’s prosecution.  Karman  is now calling for Saleh’s assets to be frozen, and for him to face trial for corruption under his rule and the brutal crackdown on protesters which left hundreds dead.

In Yemen, Tawakkul Karman is called the “Mother of the Yemeni Revolution” for her activism and determination for justice in her country.  Karman, only 32 years old, worked as a journalist but turned to human rights activism when the government began suppressing freedom of expression.  She founded the “Women’s Journalist Without Chains”, an organization that promotes government transparency by publishing reports on corruption and advocating for freedom of the press in the country.  Karman has been organizing protests since 2007, but gained the world’s attention when she urged protesters to march to the Presidential Palace in May 2011.  Despite the protest being peaceful and nonviolent, Saleh’s military killed 13 protesters that day in a brutal crackdown. They arrested Karman, who expected to be killed but was released two days later after a massive outpouring of support through letters and protests prompted her release.

The young activist took the fight to the international stage speaking to the United Nations Security Council in November. The Security Council unanimously voted to condemn Saleh and urged the President to step down.  She led chants of “Leave before you are made to leave!” in the protests against the Yemeni President, and is now urging Yemenis to demand that he be tried for his crimes.  Karman’s  fight for justice continues at the International Criminal Court where she represents Yemeni demands to indict Saleh.  So far Germany, France, the UK and the Netherlands have openly supported these demands to put Saleh to trial despite his immunity.  Now Karman must rally international support to prevent what she and others believe is Saleh’s plan to flee Yemen, possibly going to the United States, before justice can be done.

In a country where nearly half of the population lives on less than $2 a day, a third are chronically hungry, and women are still repressed, Tawakkul Karman’s fight for freedom and justice in Yemen is vital to the movement toward sustainable global peace for all people.  The work of activists like Karman inspire people who have only known ruthless oppression to find the voice of change–to celebrate the value of every human life and resolve to make their country a place for all to live healthy, meaningful lives.  Putting Ali Abdullah Saleh on trial and exposing the corruption and crimes for which he must be held accountable will send a clear message to the next president of the country that Yemenis will only accept a democratic government of the people, not a dictatorship.  A trial will also be healing to hundreds of families who lost loved ones in the year-long uprising.

As a woman, wife, and mother of three, Tawakkul Karman is crossing tribal lines and paving the way for women to be visible participants of the reconstruction of Yemen.  Indeed, they may have the biggest stake of all in the outcome of this revolution.

January 2, 2012

Bringing Children Books and a Room to Read Them In

Equal access to education for the world’s children remains a challenge, despite  initiatives by national and international governmental bodies to eliminate disparities due to gender and socioeconomic status.


John Wood

Room to Read is one organization that is making a difference in the education of children around the globe. It was founded in 1999 by John Wood, after a trek through Nepal where he visited several local schools. He was amazed by the warmth and enthusiasm of the students and teachers, but also saddened by the shocking lack of resources. Wanting to help, he quit his senior executive position with Microsoft and built a global team to work with rural villages to help solve their educational challenges.

In 2001, Room to Read co-founder and CEO Erin Ganju spearheaded Room to Read’s expansion into Vietnam.  Since then, the organization’s operations have expanded to include Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Zambia. From its founding, Room to Read Room has made a significant impact.  Here are some of the impressive statistics its programs have amassed during this 11 year period:

  • Schools – 1,450
  • Libraries – 12,522
  • Books published – 591
  • Books distributed – 10 million
  • Girls’ education participants – 13,667
  • Total number of children benefited – 6.0 million

TEDxBerkeley – Erin Ganju – Scaling Social Good

The key to its success, says Ganju, is “know what you do, and do it well.”  In an article for Bloomberg Businessweek, she identifies 5 key factors that have helped Room to Read to grow into the $30 million plus organization it is today, in a scalable and sustainable manner.

  1. Focus, measure, improve – Room to Read has kept its focus squarely on children’s education and literacy, avoiding the temptation to tackle too broad an agenda of social issues.  Acting in much the same manner as any successful business, the organization carefully monitors what is and isn’t working, making adjustments where necessary.
  2. Innovation – Room to Read has been an innovator is bringing books to children around the world.  Early on, it realized it wouldn’t be able to supply books in all the languages required to achieve its goals.  It teamed up with the Skoll Foundation and through a grant provided by them set up Local Language Publishing which hired local authors and illustrators to create the books it needed.  As a result, it has become one of the world’s largest publishers of children’s books in Asia.
  3. Empower local people – The organization works with local people on the development and implementation of its programs, knowing this is the only way to build in long-term sustainability.
  4. Think big – Room to Read is trying to tackle illiteracy for more than 759 million people around the globe, two-thirds of whom are women and girls.  The key to “achieving big” in this case is building models that governments and other non-profits can replicate around the world.
  5. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate – The organization has partnered with the likes of Republic of Tea, Twitter, Credit Suisse and the Financial Times to help build its global network of educational resources.

Through its passionate but business-like approach to global illiteracy, Room to Read has pioneered a new brand of social entrepreneurship that may well become the standard for other socially conscious not-for-profits to emulate.