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 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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