How to make a friend in Uganda. business consultant, NGO worker, former Peace Corps volunteer, activist: searching for sustainable solutions to eradicate extreme poverty

September 18, 2009

Faith, Justice, and Fair Trade (a personal journey leads to organizational change)

For many years, I struggled to connect my faith with my passion for social justice. The two worlds felt distinct and separate. I would talk to my classmates at business school about innovative new ways to solve complex social issues such as poverty in the developing world and then talk to followers of Jesus about how to deepen my spiritual understanding and live a life more connected with the God I read about in the Bible. At times, I felt that I was straddling an ever-expanding chasm between a world of reason and intellect and another of mysticism and emotion. Then about a year ago, I found a group of people who were also seeking to find a connection between faith and justice at the Boston Faith & Justice Network . BFJN took the “least of these” Biblical passages from thought to action. I finally felt my esoteric and grandiose business school ideas could find real-world purchase.

After attending a Lazurus at the Gate small group study last fall, I joined my church’s BFJN chapter and began involving myself in the Fair Trade Boston campaign. In this capacity, I worked with a team from my church to educate our community about the connection between gratitude and consumption. I also began meeting monthly with other church, business, and community leaders to plan and execute initiatives such as Action Charlie and  Fair Trade Boston (the event). At Action Charlie, we gave away 25,000 coupons for Fair Trade Ceritified™ coffee, and at the spring Fair Trade Boston event, we provided visibility for local socially-conscious businesses in a bazaar-like setting. Both actions were big, fun, and introduced Fair Trade to a multitude of people.

However, my largest effort to date has been advocating for a switch to Fair Trade Certified™ products at the Greater Boston Vineyard’s Sunday morning cafe. It is with great pride and excitement that I can announce that Sunday, September 13, 2009 marked the first day that the Greater Boston Vineyard served Fair Trade Certified™ coffee and sugar to an estimated 800 adult attendees. How can you convince your organization to embrace the same commitment? I’m not going to pretend that there is an easy blueprint. However, I can share the story of how, with the help of two other committed advocates, I pulled, pushed, and prodded my church to its decision to make the switch.

Last February, at one of the very first meetings of my church’s BFJN chapter, we discussed how to build a foundation to begin advocating for greater availability of Fair Trade Certified™ products in our neighborhoods. We decided that we needed to first develop support and momentum within our own church before we could affect the larger community. Some of the groundwork had already been laid by our chapter’s founder over the course of the previous year as she developed a relationship with Danny, our church’s director of Community Development. However, to make real change in how our church operates and functions, we knew that we would need to talk to those who actually make purchasing decisions. I initially thought the process would be quick and painless. While there was little pain, the process took several more months and many more meetings than I had originally envisioned.

To begin, I set up my first meeting with Adam, the assistant pastor who orders all the food and beverage for Vineyard’s Sunday morning cafe. Adam and I spent most of the hour in early February talking about the foundational principles of Fair Trade and how it differs from direct trade. In the remaining time, I talked about how the use of Fair Trade Certified™ commodities could tie into and enhance our church’s mission. Adam asked many difficult questions, to some of which I knew no answers. I left the meeting with no commitment and no clear direction on how to continue our conversation. Adam remained unconvinced that the certification process added any real value to coffee trade.

The first meeting lead to a series of conversations – some formal and some not so much. My commitment was tested as little visible progress was being made. By the time June rolled around, Adam warmed to further exploring the issue but was still hung up on his current supplier relationship. To add some momentum to our effort, I began to reach out to local roasters that I found listed on TransfairUSA’s website. Several responded, and I asked Adam if we could set up meetings with each of them. My intention was to give Adam additional perspective on the issue of Fair Trade certification. In addition, meeting the roasters might allow him to consider switching from his current supplier relationship since it would put a face on “the competition.” It worked! After our second vendor meeting, Adam and I began organizing a coffee cupping for the Vineyard staff.

Getting the rest of the staff involved in the choice of our new coffee accelerated the momentum. Adam did a great job of promoting the coffee cupping. The executive pastor, an associate pastor, a couple of assistant pastors and much of the community development department participated in a blind taste test of five FTC blends from three local roasters. They were all very vocal about their choices throughout the tasting and took studious notes on the flavor and strength of each cup. To save paper, everyone used his or her mug and then threw any waste into a hastily arranged spittoon. Our lead pastor stopped by to lend his support, but we didn’t have enough coffee to offer a cup! As the tasting concluded, I had the chance to ask the staff if they had any questions regarding a potential switch to a Fair Trade Certified™ coffee. I felt more at ease explaining the basic tenants of Fair Trade than ever before. The questions were challenging, but I was a bit more prepared for the skepticism after initial meetings with Adam and provided answers that were hopefully at least as thoughtful and sincere as the questions. When asked to differentiate between direct trade and Fair Trade, I offered comparisons to familiar certification programs such as USDA Organic. The direct Q&A format allowed for more focus and interaction between everyone involved.

I cornered Adam in the kitchen as we cleaned up and uttered what we were both contemplating: “What’s the next step?” To my surprise, he said that he was ready to switch to a coffee from one of the companies we had just sampled. Step by step, I had answered each one of his questions and concerns throughout the process, provided security and support, and it was apparent that the staff tasting had provided the necessary organizational momentum. With the bus full, we were rolling down the hill at full speed. Adam and I quickly discussed which company and blend might be the best choice for our church based on our meetings with the company owners and the cupping that we just hosted. Adam chose one and said he’d make that contact, and we picked a launch date for the new coffee so that my team and I could plan a proper launch promotion. Below are a few photos of that launch on Sunday, September, 13, 2009.

Jeff Purser has a real passion to find sustainable solutions to eliminate extreme poverty. He recently completed his MBA at Northeastern University and lives near Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

September 11, 2009

a pilgrimage to visit Philip Johnson’s Glass House

I have studied the work of Philip Johnson extensively. So it was with much anticipation and excitement that a few weeks ago, on the way back from my eco-adventure, I stopped in New Caanan, Connecticut to visit his Glass House. I love Johnson’s modern approach to space and light. To many his greatest legacy is indeed the glass house, which takes the concept of connection between indoor and outdoor space to the extreme. Every exterior wall is made of glass. No partition walls exist; the only visual obstructions inside the rectangular structure are a brick cylinder — that houses the fireplace and 3/4 bath — and a large wardrobe, which doubles as the headboard for the bed.
The simple kitchen functions well for a man who didn’t have to contend with storing groceries for a large family. Indeed, the house saw its use mainly as a weekend party retreat for most of Johnson’s life. Note that the countertop folds over the stove top and sink to transform into a wet bar.
The brickhouse which stands opposite the glass house is remarkable mainly as a foil for the glass house. The three round windows on the back side are invisible to the casual observer, leaving the solid brick walls to reflect off the gleam of the glass that oppose it. It was originally constructed to house weekend guests, but was later remodeled to eliminate all but one of the bedrooms and replace the other two with a library. The story is that Johnson preferred to shuttle his guests on the train back to the city rather than have them stay overnight. A collapsed three foot-wide tunnel connects the two buildings to provide water, electricity, and heat to the glass house.
I was most excited to visit the underground painting gallery and the sculture gallery. Inside, a handful of large paintings still hang on the rotating panels. Our tour guide coyly moved one so that we could slip behind and see a priceless original portrait of Johnson painted by Andy Warhol. The entire tour group crowded in, stood motionless and stared. What a rare chance to see the likeness of one great modern artist painted by another!
painting gallerywarhol
If you are interested in architecture to any degree, I urge you to make a pilgrimage to New Caanan. You’ll have to book your visit months in advance but all the planning will be worth it as you walk the grounds of a master architect’s residential retreat, hear inside stories of his life and work, and discover the details of his buildings that are never seen on the web — be it my ecletic blog or even a more robust travelog.

(photos of painting gallery courtesy Habitually Chic)

September 4, 2009

a stone and thatch cottage in Maine

Several years ago I built a small stone and thatch cottage in Saco, Maine. Now that the landscaping has had a chance to grow in, I would like to share some photos of the home with you. Mixed in you will notice some older interior shots as well as a few of my favorites from the construction of the home.

September 2, 2009

A Journey to End Poverty

laceOn Friday August 14th, I left Boston to travel to New York City with my sister Jessica. The purpose of the road trip was to participate in a foot race, have a bit of fun in the Big Apple, and help bring an end to what many now consider “stupid” poverty in the developing world. Why NYC? We had so much fun running the Great Urban Race in Boston earlier this year that we decided to do it all over again – this time for a worthy cause. Ask my sister, and she’ll tell you that we’re pretty idealistic. Kids shouldn’t go to bed hungry, and they should have a clean bed to sleep in and clean water to drink while their parents make living wages. . . . the kind of stuff that we take for granted.

Our trip was the culmination of a month-long online promotion to spread the word about Fair Trade Certified™ fashion. Partnering with Autonomie Project made sense since, like us, they want to save the world – and have fun doing it. The company carries a full line of organic, sweatshop-free footwear, clothing, and accessories. The cotton pickers, the weavers, and the rubber tappers who supply the materials for the sneakers are all protected by Fair Trade standards and treated ethically. I love that all of these suppliers are either certified by Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO), but perhaps what I love most is that no kids are hired to stitch the sneakers. The fair wage that their parents are paid may make it possible for these kids to receive an education rather than sweating for long hours in a shop. Many companies say that they are doing good, but Autonomie Project is actually certified, which brings a level of accountability and transparency.

Just hours before I was to leave to pick up Jessica at the bus station, I stopped at a local art supply shop to purchase letters for the rear window of my car. On a whim I spelled out the address for the Twitter account that my sister and I had set up for the trip, hoping that we might be able to catch a few eyeballs as we traveled through Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. We thought for sure that people must have been getting curious as we were stuck in traffic both on the Mass Pike and later on I-95 just outside NYC. Sure enough when I checked our account that night we had a few more followers. One, a @mrgunz, was the most intriguing. As we followed his exploits, we couldn’t be sure who was having the greater adventure.

Once we found our hotel, we checked in, ate a late dinner, and went to bed early to rest up for what was sure to be an exhausting day.

Maybe I should stop and explain that the Great Urban Race is a fast-paced scavenger hunt race, akin to the Amazing Race, which Jessica and I avidly watch. In Boston we finished a respectable 97th. We were determined to do better in the Big Apple. For the NYC leg of the race, we took a slightly different tack than in Boston. Since part of our promotion with Autonomie Project was to develop an online presence, we decided to travel light (with just an iPhone and a subway map) and depend on our new friends on the web to help us out with the clues we couldn’t solve on our own. [I’ll write more on our online promotion and our efforts at crowdsourcing in a separate blog post.]

The next morning, Jessica and I literally ran straight into a street fair once we stepped out of the subway at 23rd and 6th but figured we should get to the starting line first. We arrived at Slate with plenty of time to spare. Everything looked familiar – the same great GUR staff, the balloon arch, and hundreds of eager racers. After checking in, we hurried back out to look at the booths and talk to some of the street vendors. As we strolled down the street, Jessica noticed a lady selling handbags and totes made by women in Cambodia. Laura Hinde explained to me that she created her company, Beyond Beads and Bags, to rescue women from a life of extreme poverty and prostitution. The items she sells are made by and for those at risk. I immediately posted her web address to our twitter account (@jeffandjessica) and we returned to the starting line to begin our race.

proposeAs Jessica and I waited just inside the doors of Slate, we strained to hear the announcer as he reviewed the rules and promotions. Once the race started, I grabbed our clue packet and we shoved our way through the one narrow door opening. Jessica googled one of the clues on her phone, and it was fairly close by so we headed to the Equinox gym where everyone worked with his or her partner to complete a fitness obstacle course. The setup included wheelbarrow racing, jumping jacks, and medicine ball push-ups. We completed the tasks with a little bit of effort and walked out to the lobby where we solved the rest of our clues and mapped out a race course. Jessica figured out addresses, I circled general locations, and we decided to venture out to Central Park to complete a few clues.

It was great to get out among the people. After a man helped me out with directions to Tiffany’s while Jessica headed straight there, I donated a couple bucks to his particular cause to ease homelessness. Jessica fake-proposed to me by the Tiffany’s sign, we donated five dollars as our next clue to The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, and we finished the Central Park circuit by taking a picture by a sculpture named the Ego and the Id, attempting to jump in unison.

After nearly being run over by an emergency vehicle in Times Square – inches from serious injury – it was down to Battery Park, once again, Jessica with the addresses and me with a circled location. Unlike the Boston race, we always had other racers around us, so we figured we weren’t getting lost.

feetJessica had fed me a slice of pizza at Christy’s Place during the Boston leg, so it was her turn to be fed the local cuisine, a tapa at Pan Latin. Then we bared our feet at “The Real World,” a group of several bronze sculptures, including the one of a foot that we needed, displaying our Ethletic shoes, and ran over to the slide at Teardrop Park. On the way to our next clue, we literally ran into the one clue we were going to skip: a picture clue of the Fat Black Pussycat, a jazz club. Twas a stroke of luck that let us skip one of our final clues that would have required much more running… err, walking.

From there, it was a mad dash with some bubble hiccups to the finish line. Since there were teams we’d talked with that still had clues to finish at our last stop, and we thought we made good time, Jessica and I were a little surprised to find out we’d been running for four and a half hours. We were humbled to eventually find out we were still in the middle of the pack but happy to have completed such a great race for such a good cause.

Afterward, it was back out to the street fair, where Jessica bought some purses from Laura, and then to the hotel for a refreshing dip in the pool, dinner, and bed. Jessica headed out to DC in the morning on Amtrak (she starts her MPH in Global Health this week, hoping to work with hunger and nutrition), and I came back to Boston (to continue my work on the Fair Trade Boston campaign and look for permanent employment).

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