Saturday, June 26, 2010

An Interview with Caitlin Carlson - Mercy Corps, Park 2

Here is part 2 of my interview with Caitlin at Mercy Corps

Jessica: How do you feel that working at Mercy Corps has personally changed your world outlook?

Caitlin: It’s made me look much more globally. I grew up in Portland and had the great advantage of being able to travel to a few places outside of the United States growing up and that initially started to expand my view of what the world is to me. Then after college and coming to Mercy Corps and starting to learn about places that I had never heard of like Tajikistan, it started me along the path to becoming more of a global citizen instead of just a citizen of Portland Oregon or a citizen of the United States.

Jessica: And to be a ”global citizen-“ what does that mean to you in terms of your day-to-day activities?

Caitlin: It means that I consider a broader context to my actions. Take environmental practices, I try to do my best - I walk or bike to work and it’s not just because those two things are enjoyable but it’s also because I know that the United States has a big responsibility to the world to be better stewards of our environment. So I think more about the people in Niger, whose crops are being affected by what the global powers are doing to the environment. It’s something I probably wouldn’t have thought of ten years ago. Now that I am more engaged in the issues of communities around the world that are struggling, it makes me think about how I approach my life in a way that I don’t make it worse for them.

Jessica: In starting this project, we’ve heard that a lot of people believe that the average person cannot create real and lasting change – that you have to be the head of the UN or the president of the United States to be effective. How would you respond to that?

Caitlin: It’s easy to feel small when considering some of the large global issues. Things like hunger and poverty are massive global problems that if you think of yourself as one individual person, it’s hard to see the impact that you can have. But there are so many avenues out there where you can make a difference. Giving five dollars to charitable organizations like Mercy Corps has a huge impact for somebody who’s living in poverty. Writing your congressperson has an impact. Having been a political science major in college, I know that if your representative keeps getting email messages, or letters in the mail, or phone calls about a particular issue, they are going to start paying attention to it. If their constituency is telling them that it is important to them, they will take notice. So it can be simple as a letter to your congressperson about something that you feel needs to be changed that can have an impact. When you start thinking on a micro level about the different things that you can do to make a difference it becomes clearer to see that you can affect something. If everybody starts thinking in that way and acting in that way, it becomes a massive movement to improve hunger, poverty or whatever you feel really strongly about.

Jessica: And in your opinion do you feel that if this ”micro movement” started and everyone got involved that some of these issues could be solvable?

Caitlin: Absolutely! For Mercy Corps, hunger and poverty are our big focuses. Historically, traditional humanitarian aid was centered around band-aid approaches. But now that we have organizations like Mercy Corps and our other colleague agencies, that have had years of on the ground experience, we’ve begun to see what the true root causes of these issues are. It’s that kind of understanding that can truly make more than just a band-aid fix and it’s how we’re going to change things for the better. This was part of the reason why we created the Action Centers because there are little actions that you can do to address those root causes which will then make a ripple effect. So absolutely! One person certainly can make a difference.

Jessica: Lastly do you have an issue that is particularly close to you?

Caitlin: Yes, I do. I had the opportunity to travel to Indonesia with Mercy Corps and I visited one of our programs, a program that educates and supports women with breastfeeding. There is a big problem in Indonesia of formula companies systematically pushing their product to mothers without giving them proper information about formula feeding. This has been going on for so many years that a lot of women, particularly in the slum areas who don’t have great access to education or health services, don’t even know that breastfeeding is an option and often a better option. They’ve been told that you formula feed because it makes your child healthy and it quiets your child from crying, it’s just what you do. But because these women are often very poor, they can’t afford formula as it can cost half of their monthly income which means they try to stretch it by diluting it with water which is generally unsanitary so not only are you cutting the nutritional value for your child, the children are constantly getting sick from the dirty water mixed into the formula. I got to meet with one couple who had been living with grandparents and they were encouraging her to formula feed her child because she cried a lot and they thought formula would make her stop crying so much. But because she had taken part in breastfeeding counseling sessions with Mercy Corps, and had worked with a midwife who was part of this Mercy Corps program, she knew that wasn’t true. They actually ended up running away and living on their own, just so they could breastfeed their child. All of their neighbors and community members would comment, “My God, your daughter, Efa is so big and so healthy looking,” and she would tell them it’s because she breastfed and no one would believe her. So having seen one of these programs in person brings these issues to the forefront for me. Before this experience I couldn’t imagine that women globally would simply not know they could breastfeed. So it’s very moving and an emotional experience to see some of the ways that people live in some pretty dire situations. Without proper healthcare, without proper education it can really be a detriment to a whole generation of Indonesians because when you are malnourished at a young age, it can have serious consequences for your development as a person.

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