29 June 2009

Beyond Bizlex: Ceasefire Liberia

I'm back in the office - and it seems quite a lot has happened since I placed the blog on auto-pilot. Hopefully I'll have some time to get to all of it.

While I was away my latest column in Business Lexington ran - it's a feature on Ceasefire Liberia, an innovative new project led by a journalist named Ruthie Ackerman and supported by my friends at Global Voices Online.

It turns out there's a rather interesting link between Liberia and Kentucky. The Bluegrass Region is actually the birthplace of two Liberian Presidents. I think this is the kind of column my editors had in mind when they brought me aboard - find a local link to a global issue.

I had the chance to do a quick email Q&A with Ruthie Ackerman - as always, here's the complete back-and-forth.


What is Ceasefire Liberia and its mission?

Ceasefire Liberia is a blog bridge between the Liberian community in Liberia and the rest of the Diaspora. Its mission is to create a dialogue between Liberians who remained in the country during and after the war and those who fled. You can see the blog at www.ceasefireliberia.com

How did you learn about this project and get involved?

I started the project with the help of a grant from Global Voices, a non-profit organization of bloggers. I am a journalist who is writing a book about Liberian youth in Staten Island. As the project developed over the last few years it became more multi-media focused. I decided that instead of just documenting the experience of Liberian youth living in this one community in America after they fled their country's 14-year civil war, I wanted to give the youth the chance to document their own experiences. Thus, Ceasefire Liberia was born. Now instead of just a book, there are several short films, and a blog, which includes video and photography.

What's your impression of how the project participants have benefited?

The project is just getting off the ground now, but already I can see the impact it has made. Young people who never would have interacted previously are now planning and making short video pieces together. Liberian youth who were dealing drugs and told me they felt they had no way out of their situation are now saying that they feel they can really make a difference in their community through blogging and video. Young Liberians in Staten Island are communicating with young Liberians in Liberia telling each other about their lives. This is the power of technology to bring people together and bring about social change.

Why should people in Kentucky (or anywhere else for that matter) care about this project?

I love this question. People in Kentucky or anywhere else should care about this project because the world is not just about what's happening my my backyard anymore -- it's about a global backyard. With globalization the entire world is interconnected. This means that what I do impacts people in Africa and vice versa. Liberia is a perfect example of this. Liberia was created by the American Colonization Society to send freed black slaves back to Africa where they were meant to live in racial harmony. That one action led to over a century and a half of tension and turmoil in Liberia between the Liberians who originally lived on the land and the new settlers. Eventually when tensions bubbled over a gruesome civil war broke out, which led Liberians to flee back to America, coming full circle. Now these Liberian refugees are literally in our backyard. We didn't intervene in their civil war in the 1990's and now the fallout is a large number of Liberian refugees that are falling through the cracks here in our very own cities and suburbs.

What's your understanding of the perspective Liberians have of the way they're treated in the US and the other countries they've relocated?

My understanding is that Liberians have always looked to America as their big brother. The Liberian flag is similar to our flag and Liberia's capital of Monrovia was named after our president James Monroe. But from what I understand Liberians are bitterly disappointed about the way they've been treated by America. They feel let down by America's handling of their civil war when America could have stepped in and ended it quickly, saving thousands of lives. They are hurt that Pres. Reagan continued to support former Pres. Samuel Doe financially despite his record of human rights abuses. Then when Liberians arrive in the U.S. they are left to struggle and many fall through the cracks. Liberians expected more from the U.S.

Is there anything you've gleaned from the struggle between acclimating to a new home and maintaining your cultural identity and customs?

There is always a struggle between the old and the new. It is important for Liberians, like any immigrant or refugee community, to hold onto their cultural identities and not forget where they came from. But it is also important if they want to integrate into American society to assimilate and acclimate and integrate. Thus the tensions between both worlds. The more the communities around Liberians reach out to them and provide much-needed services the better off they'll be and the more integrated they'll feel.

What do Americans gain by supporting projects like this?

Americans gain an understanding -- a glimpse -- of what the world beyond their four walls looks like. I believe that all boats rise with the tide so when one family or individual in a community is doing better than everyone benefits.

You and others can find out more by going to the ceasefire website and reading what the youth -- and I-- have written. You can also look at some of my earlier work on this project at : http://pulitzercenter.typepad.com/liberia/

That link is for the blog but you can also see more information about the project here: http://www.pulitzercenter.org/showproject.cfm?id=40

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