Staying Proximate: Fighting Longer, Harder, and Smarter
Last year I had the opportunity to hear the brilliant lawyer, writer, and activist, Bryan Stevenson, speak at the NAFSA conference for International Educators. Bryan is an extremely gifted speaker and a thoughtful, humble human. He took to the podium and his message was clear: the only way to stay inspired in the work, the only way to ensure that the work you are doing is truly good, is to be proximate. He encouraged us to be physically close to the people we are trying to help, and to be close to their problems as well. We fight longer, harder, and smarter for the people and problems we are close to. You will know when you are winning, and you will know when it’s simply not working.
This past summer, I was sent on my first official site visit to Southeast Asia as Executive Director of Operation Groundswell, and Bryan’s lesson became abundantly clear.
Into the Cambodian Countryside
I wasn’t alone for this trip — OG’s Regional Director, Sid, was my program leader for the next couple of weeks. Sid lives in Thailand running the show for OG: hiring and training new leaders, scouting and developing new programs, and forging deeper bonds with our partners, who are truly his friends.
After spending a couple days in Bangkok, going through my very own scavenger hunt (shout out to every OG team ever), eating delicious food in Chinatown, and spending time with the Reclining Buddha, Sid and I crossed the border into Cambodia. We were picked up by one of the members of Banteay Chhmar’s Community Based Tourism initiative (CBT), one of OG’s partners on the ground.
As we drove through the Cambodian countryside, I couldn’t help but notice how it differs from rural Thailand. Red hues in the soil, and a flatness that stretches out beyond my sight. No mountains, no hills, and unfortunately, not very many trees. Cambodia’s deforestation was something I had read about in books, but to be confronted by it viscerally was a very different experience.
After an hour’s ride, we arrived at the commune, a network of villages with a relatively mysterious 800-year-old temple at its core. Years ago, members of the community came together to form a cooperative that would train locals to host tours of the temple and homestays in the village. Unlike Angkor Wat (and most large tourist attractions), all of the money from the guided tours and homestays are invested directly back into the cooperative and the community at large. When you walk into the organization’s meeting room, right up on the wall you can clearly see their organizational chart, outlining each member’s responsibility. They see the work as both personal and community livelihood, and they take these responsibilities seriously.
As I walked into the meeting room for dinner, I was greeted by the friendly smiles of Becca, Jim, and their 2016 Cities & Sanctuaries team. I joined the group for a few meals over the course of the next couple days and had a chance to get to know some of our participants. They were extremely thoughtful and articulate. I was struck by their inclusivity. Not just to me, but to each other.
Over lunch one day, I had a meeting with Sopheng Klout, then president of CBT. We spoke for over an hour. We talked about the future of CBT and where they plan to grow. We spoke about OG’s vision for the future and together, we dreamed of ways those futures could intertwine and support each other. We shared our challenges and our opportunities. We also talked about our families. Sopheng told me what his family had to go through during the Cambodian genocide. We talked about reclamation — how the spaces and places that were once known for their atrocities have now become serene landscapes for reflection. We ate delicious food. He taught me how to eat the seeds of a lotus flower. Then I ate 100 of them.
I left that conversation feeling inspired and optimistic for the people of Banteay Chhmar. I also understood that this was just one conversation. To create strong, healthy partnerships requires time. I realized that the more important relationship here was between Sid and the people of CBT. They greet Sid like he’s one of the family. Seeing that, I couldn’t help but feel like we’re on the right track. That evening, CBT threw a party attended by the OG group and CBT staff. There were many toasts (chôl muŏy!), delicious food, karaoke, and lots of dancing. Joy was in the air and looking at our two organizations dancing hand-in-hand left me feeling all warm and fuzzy.
Leading by Example
After my time with CBT and the Cities & Sanctuaries crew, we began to make our way to another partner, Ockenden. Ockenden Cambodia is an NGO that aims to improve rural self-reliance, working with small farmers on sustainable agriculture systems and techniques. In many ways, Ockenden is a mirror of OG. Perhaps not in our exact mission, but our vision and values are cut from the same cloth. They are avid believers in combining education, activism, and action. They lead by example.
Ockenden runs a permaculture farm in northern Cambodia that operates as a learning centre as well. Cambodians come from all over the country to learn permaculture practices from seeing it in action. Nobody preaches, nobody pushes. They simply just show them how they’re doing it and if farmers want to emulate, Ockenden will teach them how.
I spent about half a day with the Executive Director of Ockenden, a man named Nharn Nhov. For those who know him, he is straight up awesome. Quick to laugh, thoughtful, filled with ambition for Ockenden and humility for the part he plays.
Together we walked through the Ockenden offices, meeting the staff that makes it go, looking at maps of their project sites, and running through a slideshow of Ockenden’s history and future. Sid and Nharn spent some time joking together about mishaps of the past, while sharing learnings for upcoming programs. Nharn did a fantastic job connecting the vision and mission of the organization to their plans for the future. Ockenden is ambitious in their vision for social change. They are ready to fight for what’s right.
While we talked, we received word that an anti-government journalist and activist was assassinated. I knew the position it might put Ockenden in. They are natural advocates for justice and human rights in a country where those ideals are often disregarded. Taking a stand, however, would put the organization in peril, and the thousands of Cambodians who rely on them for support. It’s a dilemma that OG never has to face in Canada — at least not yet. It’s easy to reduce problems into basic categories back home. When you are there on the ground, confronted by the complexity, it’s easier to feel helpless. Nharn doesn’t feel helpless though. He and his crew adapt and fight.
After our meeting, Nharn drove me around the province to look at the projects OG groups have been working on over the past year. We stopped at the farm of an elder Cambodian woman, where our groups planted black rice paddies in the shape of Angkor Wat, and constructed straw bale gardens that grew flood resistant companion crops. Seeing the fruits (and vegetables) of that labour was a powerful experience. More powerful though, was seeing Nharn interact with the farm owner. He was humble and modest. They laughed together like friends. She literally made all of us eat her cucumbers, Nharn included. They were delicious.
After our site visits, we met up with the Animal Conservation group, led by Maija and Mike. I spent the next two days with the group sleeping on bamboo mats, eating the delicious vegetarian food that our homestay mother cooked, playing games, and working on other projects with Ockenden. I also met Sokha, OG’s main project liaison from Ockenden. Sid told me that when we first started working with Ockenden, Sokha was pretty quiet and a little bit suspicious of OG. After spending his first summer working with Sid and Amanda, getting more comfortable with his English and with OG’s culture, he became one of our closest allies and friends.
Watching Sid and Sokha together, it was clear that they loved each other like brothers. They knew when to laugh together and when to work together. They solved problems as a team, and listened to each other’s needs. I saw real partnership. The kind that only time and adversity can build.
Working Together to Become Better Leaders
After saying goodbyes to Ockenden and the Animal Conservation team, we made our way south to Phnom Penh. After a delightful dinner with two past program leaders, Amanda and Samnang, we were taken on a moto tour of the city. After a perilous/hilarious round of go-karting, we stopped for a nightcap at the Cool Lounge. Fresh, colourful graffiti line the walls. The place feels new, the walls waiting to soak up the memories of its patrons. This bar is actually a social enterprise run by the members of Tiny Toones, another organization that’s been part of the OG family for a long time.
Tiny Toones is a drop-in breakdancing centre for Cambodian street youth. Many of the centre’s leaders were once Cambodian refugees in the US. After the war, many of them were deported back to Cambodia on trumped up charges. The United States had been their home for most of their lives, and 20 years later, they were abruptly thrown back into Cambodian society, separated from their family and friends. While many of them fell to drugs, alcoholism, and gang violence, a small crew formed around KK, a badass breakdancer who wanted to see a better life for the street kids of Cambodia.
OG has partnered with TT for years. Inspired by the tireless staff who give their time to the centre, OG/TT came up with idea to host an annual staff retreat. The retreat would be a space for the staff to unwind, spend time hanging out with our OG crew, and think about how we can all be better leaders.
The stories of the retreat and the stories of the deportees have trickled up to OGHQ in years past. But having the chance to sit down with Short and the crew, hearing their personal stories and talking about Cambodia now, was incredible. It became so obvious to me why our participants and program leaders rave about their time with Tiny Toones. These dudes have been through some real shit and they still manage to be cool as hell. They shared their stories and their hardships freely. We laughed, we geeked out to 90s west coast rap, we talked about the future of the hip hop scene in Cambodia, and stayed up well past my bedtime. 100% worth it.
Trying to wrap up this entire trip into a blog just isn’t possible. So much of the beauty was right there in front of me. I could touch it, I could see it, I could hear it, and smell it. I grew a little closer to it. But I also understood that it’s not my job to own each individual relationship that OG has with its partners. It’s my job to convey the importance of those relationships at every level of the organization. It’s my job to keep OG feeling like a more human organization and to make sure that we all have space to feel close to the people and problems that feed OG’s engine. The work continues.