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The first Give to the Max Day is today! GiveMN.org will be matching donations made to Minnesota nonprofits today, November 17, until tomorrow at 8 am CST. Let’s stand up and show everyone the tremendous caring that Minnesotans are capable of! Thanks to The Bush Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation and The Saint Paul Foundation who are sponsoring Give to the Max Day by committing funds to match contributions. Every donation big or small helps.

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Students unite for documentary activism

In 1999, Courtney Spence was a sophomore in Duke University. After doing research and getting involved in a documentary media program at Duke, Courtney was particularly struck by social activism and implementing change through documentary media. In combining the two ideas, she founded Students of the World. The organization, based in Austin, Texas, sends university students around the world to document the work of nonprofit groups and global initiatives making change in developing countries.

Through the online media outlet See Change, students immerse themselves in a community for one month and produce documentary-style media for partnering organizations. This past summer, students from Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of North Carolina, Columbia University, New York University, the University of Michigan and Brown University kept blogs, shot photos and edited video from countries in Asia, South America and Africa.

Ten years into this endeavor, Courtney and Students of the World are working to make their projects more collaborative between the university students and the communities they document. The organization mostly works in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America, and Courtney would like to expand to the Middle East.

Courtney shared with me a little about how Students of the World has progressed.

Q: What is your mission at Students of the World?

A: The idea came out of wanting to find a new way for young people to engage in the world in meaningful ways, particularly with a focus on developing countries. The goal of Students of the World is to do what students do already and that’s to go out and to learn and to transcribe that learning into something with more impact, more meaning. The way we translate what we learn in the field is through multimedia, which consequently nonprofit organizations are in great need of. We empower young people to partner with innovative problem-solvers around the world to produce and leverage documentary-style media — films, photography, audio documentary pieces, and magazine and journal articles. Then they return to campus and do advocacy events in the community for that organization as well.

Young student in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo | Verneva Ziga, Columbia University


Finding Freedom

This photo essay was submitted by Brennan O'Connor / NOMAD Photos.

Brennan O'Connor is the Southeast Asian adviser for The Peoples of the World and president of NOMAD Photos agency, a Canadian cooperative of photojournalists dedicated to using the economic efficiencies and social power of a collective to highlight under-reported social, political, health and environmental issues worldwide.

In 2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began resettling thousands of Burmese ethnic minorities from Thai refugee camps to locations across the world. The UN referred to it in a report as "the world's largest resettlement operation." By the time it's completed in 2010, over 30 thousand people will be resettled across the world.


Multiple Sclerosis in Palestine

This photo essay was submitted by Rajiv Kapoor.
Profiles of Safyya, Tariq and Shadi courtesy of MSPF.

Health care in Palestine does not meet the needs of its population. In addition to receiving sometimes inadequate health care, multiple sclerosis (MS) patients are often isolated. Multiple Sclerosis Patients’ Friends is an organization that supports MS patients in Palestine. It holds community events where people with MS can find current information, mutual support and advocate for themselves and their families and friends. It is also raising money to buy wheelchairs for patients who cannot afford them and holds other events such as yoga classes. These photos show Safyya, Tareq and Shadi, who have been diagnosed with secondary-progressive MS, and who are involved with Multiple Sclerosis Patients’ Friends.

Safyya Barakat Salem Ahmad

Safyya is a single 31-year-old who lives with her family of six in Al-Sawya. Her health has deteriorated since she became affected by MS ten years ago. Safyya’s legs are paralyzed and she has difficulty moving her hands, as a result of which she cannot eat alone or carry heavy things. She stopped taking medication for MS because of its complications and side effects which affected her kidney function and her speech. An ambitious woman, Safyya strongly hopes to recover and work in business administration.


the virtuous brew that kicks back

CityKid Java is a savvy business with a keen understanding of how to channel the profits from exceptional coffee to benefit an entire community of kids. Its comprehension of how to build and sustain a successful business is only surpassed by its commitment to the community in the Central and Phillips neighborhoods in the south side of Minneapolis.

Buying coffee is a much more complicated endeavor than it used to be due to its exponential growth in popularity in recent years. Grocery stores stock entire aisles with an array of flavors and roasts. The other day I was browsing the coffee section in a grocery store when a bag of CityKid Java caught my attention. I took a closer look at the package and read, "the virtuous brew that kicks back to kids in the Twin Cities."

Curious to learn more, I set up an interview with CityKid Java's general manager Jennifer Siegle and Mark-Peter Lundquist, founder of CityKid Java and vice president of Urban Ventures Leadership Foundation. As I sat down with these two, their compassion for their community and passion for coffee were apparent. Mark-Peter, who brings a background as team leader at Caribou, explained that CityKid Java was started as a for-profit subsidiary of Urban Ventures "to bring about an infusion of operating dollars." 100 percent of profits go back into Urban Ventures.

In 2002 CityKid set out to combat an economic downturn and spur the important programs of Urban Ventures. The programs are extensive and offer mentoring opportunities for at-risk kids at the Urban Hub, where kids can also skateboard at an indoor skate park, or record music at a state-of-the-art recording studio. There is also a family center where parenting classes are offered and a learning lab where kids can come after school. These are just a few programs that CityKid Java helps fund at Urban Ventures, which stretches over a conflicted area like a blanket offering refuge and support.


The Elephant in the Room

This multimedia essay was submitted by Brent Lewin.

The Elephant In The Room from Brent Lewin on Vimeo.

Since 2007 I have been documenting the plight of the Asian elephant in Thailand. Elephants, revered symbols of Thailand's glorified past, have long walked side by side with the monarchy and common farmers alike. The indispensable role of elephants in Thai society has been captured in countless tales and works of art along temple walls. One would be hard pressed to look in any direction in the capital and not find an elephant motif somewhere. But for all the iconic representations of elephants as symbols of strength and prosperity, in reality the only elephants seen in Bangkok are those being led by their mahouts, wandering the congested streets begging.

Groups of mahouts from farming villages in Surin province come to Bangkok to squat in fields and walk the streets, offering tourists the opportunity to feed their pet elephants sugarcane for a couple of dollars. With no income beyond a short farming season, the mahouts claim that traveling to urban centers with their elephants is a matter of survival.

Although it is illegal to bring elephants into Bangkok, the poverty in Thailand's rural areas, the loss of the elephants' natural habitat and the resulting threat of starvation evoke sympathy among Thais. Most police, politicians and citizens continue to turn a blind eye to the urban elephants, failing to address the underlying issues and allowing the situation to remain "the elephant in the room."

Brent Lewin


Taste of Success: Cookie Company Builds Capacity

Ingenuity, determination and a little bit of luck has marked Alicia Polak's trajectory from a business student to founder and CEO of a for-profit, community-enriching enterprise in South Africa, Khaya Cookie Company. Simply put, the company was founded to "create opportunity one bite at a time," teaching the skill of baking gourmet cookies while providing gainful employment to the impoverished residents.

While pursuing a MPH/MBA at New York University, Alicia's dream of holding a leadership position at an international aid organization prompted her to pursue an internship at the UN. There she worked with Gay Rosenblum-Kumar, who specialized in conflict resolution and had helped prepare South Africa for its first democratic election. Her exposure to South Africa intrigued and excited Alicia to create and enroll in an exchange program with University of Cape Town, where she interned at Freeplay Foundation. Working on the issues while traveling within the country exposed and endeared her to the people, and to the dark history of South Africa, a country she began to call her own. After working for an investment bank in New York and a year as an employee of Freeplay Foundation, she was ready to start something new.

In 2004, inspired by the mission of Ben & Jerry's ice cream company to create and redistribute wealth, she founded Khaya Cookie Company in the town of Khayelitsha, with one Xhosa-speaking worker and a single recipe for chocolate chip cookies. In two years, the company grew to employ 10 workers and as a successful supplier of gourmet cookies to high-end establishments throughout South Africa. The cookies are made using unique South African ingredients such as rooibos extract with recipes for a variety of fruit flavors. In keeping with her community-building mission, the company was sold to the locals in 2005 and Alicia stayed on as the CEO. In 2006, working with the Wharton Societal Wealth Program, a University of Pennsylvania business school initiative, she founded the US-based Khaya Cookie Company, and has focused her efforts on setting up the US distribution center and expanding marketing efforts.

Today Khaya Cookie Company employs over 500 South Africans (95 percent of whom are women), is a major supplier within South Africa and is sold worldwide through its website and the gourmet retailer Zingerman's. In 2007, it was recognized by the Food Network as the Edible Entrepreneur of the Year. But the company does not measure its successes through commercial profits alone. One of its more tangible successes' is the positive changes it has brought to the lives of its employees. One way they have enpowered lives has been through the comprehensive life skills training that its production facility offers every employee.

Vanesca, a 25-year-old single mother solely responsible for her daughter and disabled mother, joined the team with little prior experience. In addition to baking cookies, she enrolled in the first-aid course offered by the Life Skills Training Program, where she discovered her love for nursing.

In addition to the first aid course, the program teaches health and safety (including AIDS education), business skills including management training, and personal finances management; and the younger staff members are strongly encouraged to pursue higher education. Andiswa, the youngest employee at the company, is now in her third year at university with Alicia's encouragement.