Inspiration by the ton

4 Mar

Winona LaDuke and Sarah Chayes live and work on opposite sides of the globe, but they work for the same thing: human dignity and respect.

imagesMs. LaDuke, a member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg, lives on the White Earth Reservation in northern North Dakota. No, that’s not quite accurate. She does a lot more than live there. She leads there.

Unwilling to accept the government-dependent fate of so many Native tribes, LaDuke leads her people in doing for themselves. She has helped them foster and nurture the growth and sale of “heritage” crops. She has helped them install solar panels to reduce dependence on fossil fuels that must be brought in from outside the reservation. She has fought to keep the wild rice that grows in the reservation’s lakes from cross-polination with genetically modified and purposely grown “wild” rice.

“I don’t want to run a social welfare agency,” she told a group of us at UNL this morning. “I’m interested in changing the system,” the policies that underlie the Native American status and circumstance.

In Afghanistan, Sarah Chayes is doing the same thing — trying to change the system.

Sarah Chayes

Sarah Chayes

As a reporter for National Public Radio, Chayes was covering the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and 2002 when she decided to quit journalism and stay in Afghanistan to “help.” She worked with a non-governmental organization first, trying to change policy through the political process. Then she decided to take a huge step into practicality.

Looking at Afghanistan’s land and economy, Chayes thought it was foolish to try to impose new crops when the nation already produced an abundance of pomegranates, almonds, grapes, apricots and other fruits. But preserving and transporting those crops outside the country would be difficult.

So Chayes decided to turn those foods into soaps and other beauty products. With a grant from Oprah Winfrey, she bought a huge soap-making machine and got a book about making soap. And she and her Afghan colleagues started.

Today, they sell their products to about 16 outlets in the U.S. — and demand is exceeding their capacity to produce. And lives are changing in Afghanistan.

How amazing that these two awesome women were at UNL and in the journalism college on the same day! I feel as if I know a lot more about the world this afternoon than I did this morning — and that I’ve seen the way dedicated, determined people can change things for the better.

And I feel obigated to do something myself. I guess that’s what being inspired means.

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