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Social Impact Authors: How & Why Pamela Logan of Kham Aid Foundation Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

I wanted to tell the stories of my projects, both those that were successful and those that weren’t so that people will see some of the pitfalls. Maybe somebody will read my book and avoid the mistakes we made. Maybe they will think of a better way to work with a population that’s accustomed to subsistence agriculture and encourage them to make the jump into growing crops for the market.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pamela Logan.

Seeking a path to the highest places, Pamela Logan studied aerospace at Caltech and Stanford, worked at a couple of NASA laboratories, and taught college-level aerospace engineering before setting aside her technical career to explore Asia. After joining the China Exploration & Research Society, she was chosen to lead a wall paintings conservation project at a Buddhist monastery in the Tibetan region of Kham. This gave her a desire to bring other types of humanitarian assistance to Tibet, so, in 1997, Logan launched Kham Aid Foundation, a California nonprofit. She went on to lead the NGO for fourteen years and operate programs in education, health care, job training, and other areas. The NGO’s work is the subject of her new book, Compassion Mandala: The Odyssey of an American Charity in Contemporary Tibet.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where everything was flat. I didn’t know anything about mountains or Asia. My father wanted me to be a scientist, so after high school, I enrolled at Caltech, which is a premier college for studying science and technology. Strangely, even while I was studying engineering at Caltech, the institute was doing its best to lead me away from my intended path. First, I joined the karate club and began studying Japanese martial arts, which awakened an interest in Asia. Then I took an anthropology class, which was taught by a very cool professor named Thayer Scudder who showed us slides of Africa; that gave me a bit of a travel bug and curiosity about other cultures. After I graduated, because I was an alumna of Caltech, I was eligible to apply for a grant to travel and explore China. After that, I didn’t want to stay home and do engineering anymore.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

During my first extended foray into Asia, I went on a three-week trek in Nepal, going around Mount Annapurna. The Himalayas are, of course, unlike anything in California or the U.S., in size and scope and just all-out WOW. Even though I was sick half the time, it was still a life-changing trip. After I got back to Kathmandu, I picked up a copy of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, which is a memoir about wildlife biologists going into a very remote part of Nepal in search of a rare wild cat. His search for the snow leopard is a metaphor for his pursuit of realization through the practice of Zen Buddhism. That perspective really spoke to me as a student of Japanese martial arts. It became a recurring theme of my first book, Among Warriors, which is about my one-year journey in search of the fabled Khampa warriors of the eastern Tibetan plateau.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

In one project we gave loans to a group of women to set up greenhouses to grow vegetables that they would sell in the marketplace at a nearby town. We had 100% support from the local Agriculture Bureau and Women’s Federation, and they even helped with the cost. Even so, that project had nothing but troubles!

First, the greenhouses seemed to be always too hot or too cold, which required us to figure out ventilation and purchase insulation. Then, after a couple of years, the greenhouses got knocked down by a hailstorm. We had to rebuild them. Then, the produce that the women grew didn’t do well in the market because it was organic, and the customers wanted perfect, pretty produce, not produce with blemishes.

Then our hired trainer’s contract ran out and he left, but the women still needed almost daily guidance, because that part of Tibet had no tradition of growing vegetables in greenhouses, and it turns out it takes a lot of technical knowledge and experience. At last, when a second hailstorm came and knocked the greenhouses down again, the women didn’t want to do it anymore.

We took a big chance on that project, and it didn’t end well. But other times, we took chances, and we were successful. In NGO work, there are always risks. Nothing is guaranteed, especially in the developing world, when you’re trying to think outside the box and do something innovative.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

For someone on the outside, it’s daunting to set up an NGO and do grass-roots fundraising from your friends and neighbors, get a bunch of small donations, and then go out and actually try to achieve something good for your target population, whoever they are. Helping people generate income for themselves — through job training or business loans — is the hardest kind of project to be successful with. It’s a lot harder than simply handing out free stuff, but it also has the most long-lasting impact. You need to understand the market economics of the region, and you need both donors and a target population who believe in you. You also need the local government to at least tolerate you, and preferably to actively cooperate.

I wanted to tell the stories of my projects, both those that were successful and those that weren’t so that people will see some of the pitfalls. Maybe somebody will read my book and avoid the mistakes we made. Maybe they will think of a better way to work with a population that’s accustomed to subsistence agriculture and encourage them to make the jump into growing crops for the market.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

The book is only partly about our projects. For me, the stories that make it all worthwhile are stories about people — Tibetans whose lives were changed by the work that we did. So that’s really where my heart is, and I hope that readers feel the same way. One story is about a young girl who was going to drop out of school at age 12 or so because her family couldn’t afford the fees for her to attend middle school. This family wasn’t just poor, they were about the most destitute people I ever knew in Tibet or anywhere. It was a single mother and her three kids, living in a mud hut in a small, remote village. But the girl was brilliant, truly a prodigy. Middle school was a critical on-ramp for a much larger world of education that she almost missed. But because of two Americans who sponsored her, she continued to university where she did some really amazing things. Now she is running an international business and is very successful, plus taking care of her family back in Tibet.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

There was no one “aha” moment, but about five thousand moments when five thousand different people who heard that I was doing NGO work in Tibet said to me: “That’s impossible. How on earth can you do that?” So, I knew I had a story that needed telling.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The above answer about the interesting story addresses this question.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I understand that Tibetans outside Tibet (and China) want to talk about freedom for their country, but I think that’s an unrealistic goal. One can see how powerful China is now, and I don’t think it’s realistic that Tibet can separate from China anytime soon. But there are opportunities to help Tibetans today who are facing very basic but easily-fixed problems like unsafe housing or inadequately trained healthcare providers or inability to afford school. In the last ten years, a lot of international NGOs in Tibet have shut down. I had to shut down mine for personal reasons, because I couldn’t keep working for such low pay, and because my family needed me at home.

There are a few American NGOs still operating, doing good work, helping Tibetans in various ways, and the Chinese government is tolerating them. China has gotten a lot richer, but Tibet is lagging way behind. The folks who care about the future of Tibet should know that political action is not the only possible way to support the people there.

More generally, there is still dire poverty in many parts of the world today, even in rich countries. My wish is for all of us who enjoy the privileges of wealth to share it with others less fortunate.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the ability to inspire others to share your goals and work beside you to achieve them. Everything I did in Tibet I was only able to do because I had a very large group of people working beside me: donors, staff, volunteers, government partners, and of course the beneficiaries of our projects, many of whom worked very hard to make the most of our assistance.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Make the investment to learn the language of whomever is in power, even if that’s not what draws you to the place. For me, Tibetan language is great to know, but there are many forms spoken across the plateau, and most are not mutually intelligible. Before beginning my early travels, I spent months learning Lhasa Tibetan only to find that few people in the Kham region, where I spent most of my time, understood it. Later, I spent more months studying Derge Tibetan, which is considered the “most standard” in Kham, but it is not really very standard at all outside of Derge County. To get things done in Tibet and China, you need Mandarin. The more Mandarin I knew, the more effective I was.
  2. If you take people to see the region first-hand and directly witness the conditions there, they can become your most generous and involved donors. Our projects that were most sustainable relied on “voluntourists” who came with me to Tibet to rehabilitate school buildings or teach English or conserve old Buddhist wall paintings. In our school remodeling program, people flew out to Tibet to get their hands dirty installing wiring, painting walls, and pouring concrete. We stayed in the school buildings and used the same awful pit toilets that the teachers and students used. The volunteers got to know teachers and kids; they got to experience waking up on a hard bed (or floor) in freezing weather and drinking tea around a dung-fueled stove. Those were experiences that they still carry with them today, and I am still in touch with quite a few of those people nearly two decades later.
  3. Network, network, network. I spent quite a few evenings in Tibet eating dinner with government officials, which definitely helped get my projects a warmer reception. One evening, an extra fellow showed up, a friend of a friend. He happened to know about a small, forgotten temple hidden in a mountain enclave that had extraordinary centuries-old Buddhist wall paintings. He knew about it, and of course, the local people knew, but nobody else, and they didn’t realize the significance of the place. So that became a wonderful opportunity for me to say I “discovered” something. We later did a project there to repair the crumbling roof so that the temple and its paintings could survive.
  4. In the developing world, haggling is absolutely necessary to make the best use of precious donor monies. You cannot be shy and passive! I developed a skill for negotiation, but even with my language ability, as a foreigner, I was always at a disadvantage. So, I named a local staff member to be in charge of procurement, and he turned out to be a premier haggler. He treated the NGO’s money as if it was his own, and he was absolutely relentless in his quest to secure bargains for us. Every NGO needs a guy like this.
  5. With traveler’s diarrhea, Ciprofloxin is the way to go, and don’t wait even one day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In martial arts, we say it’s most important to face yourself strictly, which means to face up to your weaknesses and errors. That’s the only way you can learn and get better. One example of this from my NGO work was when we were training village women to be midwives and rural health care providers. A few years into the program, after we had trained about forty women, we went back and did interviews so we could find out how they were doing and whether the program was successfully meeting its goals. It turned out that not all of our midwives were successful, for some very simple, mostly economic, reasons. So, we had to make some changes, of which the most important was ensuring that the midwives had paying jobs at government clinics. After that, the program was a lot more impactful in terms of saving the lives of mothers and babies.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I think I’d like to talk to Richard Gere about what it’s like living in Tibet.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

www.Pamela-Logan.com

I’m also on Facebook as BooksByPamelaLogan and Twitter as @pamkhamaid

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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