Inspired in Africa: Making a difference in lives of women by empowering them

July 10, 2009 Leave a comment

LET’S FACE it. Sometimes life can feel fairly mundane. As we move from one moment to the next, much of our focus is on dealing with the seemingly insignificant minutiae. Then, we get a wake-up call of sorts. Something happens that forces an epiphany: Those few, precious moments in life when we gain a genuine insight into the reality or essential meaning of something important. It requires us to take stock of what’s truly important and, really, what we’re doing here in the first place.

These moments of clarity might be precipitated by an acute event like the birth of a child or the death of a friend. For me, it all began with a few simple but poignant moments on a recent trip to Africa.

I spent seven days in Mozambique with CARE, a leading global humanitarian organization. I was there to observe their work and to meet the people who benefit from it. Just when I thought I knew so much, I realized I know so little.

Mozambique is on the southeast corner of the continent. Like most African nations, it has a remarkable and painful history. In the 1990s after a 16-year civil war broke the back of the country and the hearts of the people, Mozambique became known as the poorest country in the world.

While the Mozambicans have made a heroic and breathtaking comeback, some wounds of the war remain. One in four children dies before his fifth birthday; 70 percent of women cannot read or write; and roughly six out of 10 people do not have access to clean water. Cogitate on those numbers for a moment.

In spite of all this, the Mozambicans have a radiant optimism and an indomitable spirit.

In Mozambique, CARE focuses on preventing poverty by addressing its root causes, not merely its consequences, just as it does in more than 60 countries. To do that, the poverty-fighting experts at CARE pursue a three-pronged strategy.

First, it embraces a rights-based approach. Take water, for example. CARE doesn’t stop once the well is dug (the necessary front end); it advocates for the right of all people to have access to clean water (the necessary back end). Second, it forges partnerships with the local people, allowing them to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. And third, CARE strategically focuses on empowering women who, incidentally, suffer disproportionately from the ravages of poverty. And, rather than regard these women as victims desperate for help, CARE works to tap into women’s innate power to help them change their own world. For good.

Two events led me to CARE in the first place. The first occurred in December 2003 during the 36 hours that my wife, Alexandra, gave birth to our daughter Vivienne. In the most splendid moment of my life, I couldn’t help but think that millions of women have lost their lives simply trying to give it — and more die every day.

The day I met my daughter was the day I committed to fight for women and girls in poverty worldwide.

Then, several months ago while in New York, I saw the CARE “I am Powerful” public service announcement. I was struck by the image: a strong, dignified, graceful woman and next to her the words: “She has the power to change her world. You have the power to help her do it.” I connected with that uplifting message, and it moved me to think that I had the power to make a tangible difference in the lives of women and their families.

So, I called CARE, we forged an alliance, and within a couple of months, I was on my way to Mozambique. The beauty of serendipity.

On the first day there, I met one of the most powerful women in the world. To some, the word “powerful” might connote a wealthy or widely influential figure. This woman is neither. In fact, she is among the poorest of the world’s poor in terms of money. But, she is among the richest of the rich in terms of authentic power.

Her name is Albertina Francisco – a stalwart, stunning 44-year-old woman who leads a community water project in Kongolote, which is on the outskirts of the capital city of Maputo. Albertina has taken on the critical job of ensuring that her community, composed of roughly 100 families, has regular access to clean water via nine “access points.”

This is a woman with little money or education, living in a culture where most women are not permitted to hold positions of authority. But, she has risen up against all odds to perform a job that nobody else would do, a job that is saving lives.

As I strolled the dusty roads of Kongolote with Albertina, and observed how people reacted to her, I realized I was in the presence of true, authentic power. It was humbling.

That is the moment I gained an authentic insight into the essential meaning of the word “power.” Albertina’s power stood in stark contrast to the kind of power usually derived from money, influence – or sheer force. According to Sweden’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, there are 15 active armed conflicts raging in the world now.

In contrast, Albertina’s power has been bestowed on her as a result of worthy, courageously noble acts. It was not demanded, wrested or seized. It comes from what she does, not who she is. And, Albertina exercises her authentic power with humility, compassion, fierce dedication – and grace.

Albertina Francisco is empowered, and she is using that authentic power to change her world every day.

My time with Albertina gave rise to the first of many lessons while in Mozambique:

I learned that empowering women can break the complex, downward cycle of poverty and create an upward spiral of positive change that lights up entire communities. I learned that the empowerment of women and the well-being of children go hand in hand. When you nurture a mother, her children flourish.

And, I came to understand that, worldwide, women are the most untapped treasure-trove of power that history has ever seen – and that when women are supported with even the most basic tools and training, a fire of hope and optimism for a better life lights in their eyes. Then, that fire spreads as others join in strong solidarity to improve the health and well-being of their communities. Once this happens, there is no stopping it.

I saw all of this firsthand, and I can tell you that the progress these women are making in Mozambique, with the assistance of CARE, feels like the inexorable juggernaut of the civil rights movement. It can be resisted, but it cannot be stopped.

Further, I discovered that despite having so little, the people of Mozambique give so much. They are the most generous, gracious and dignified people I’ve ever met. They respond to the smallest acts of kindness with the biggest displays of gratitude. And finally, I realized that as an American, I have been granted the privilege and the capacity to bring about great, positive change – and it’s incumbent upon me to do just that.

I believe it’s important to empower people near and far. At home, we become empowered when we exercise and live healthier. Farther away, in a place like Mozambique – where a woman’s life expectancy is a little over 40 years – we can help empower women to improve their health and well-being and that of their families. I also believe we need to be inspired by a greater purpose to confront life’s hardest challenges head on.

That is why CARE and I have come together to launch the “I am Powerful Workout” campaign. I am training for the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championships in October in order to raise money and awareness to fight global poverty through CARE. I’ve asked everyone I know – and some complete strangers! – to donate money on my behalf directly to CARE, and the response has been overwhelming.

Here’s what I’m asking you to do: Challenge yourself and set an ambitious fitness goal – you know, the one that has been burning inside you.

Maybe you want to lose a few pounds, climb a mountain or train for your first marathon. Get inspired. Get moving. Get your friends and family behind you, and ask them to support you however they can. Maybe they’ll give money. Maybe they’ll give time. Maybe they’ll join you! Then, channel all of your new energy to live your best life — as you help others live theirs. You can set up your own free fundraising page, in minutes, at FirstGiving. The moment you commit to this, everything will shift in how you look, feel and live. Do it. You need the exercise…and the world needs you.

Join me on this mission-driven journey. Together we can motivate each other to achieve something truly meaningful — and lasting. Every step you take toward a better life for yourself will be a step on behalf of marginalized women and girls worldwide.

Speaking of steps, I have a few thousand to log right now with a fire in my eyes — and women like Albertina in my heart.

Here is more information about CARE and Eric’s unprecedented quest, The Million Dollar Ironman in which he is striving to break the 9-hour barrier at the Hawaii Ironman World Championships in order to raise $1 million for CARE.

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Taking Part, Taking a Stand and Taking Action in Washington

November 2, 2008 Leave a comment

My four-year-old daughter is a lobbyist. A bonafide Washington lobbyist. And, I could not be prouder of her.

In her first visit to “the hill,” Vivienne joined over 400 people from 39 states in Washington, D.C. for the national conference of CARE — a leading global humanitarian organization — to discuss poverty, hunger and the climate crisis with members of Congress.

In this election year, lobbying carries a heavy stigma. The candidates are systematically purging their campaigns of anyone who even peripherally lobbied in their lifetimes. Lobbying conjures up images of unctuous tobacco, gun and insurance agents in surreptitious, back-slapping meetings over scotch-rocks with members of Congress, as they carve out more for the powerful at the expense of the marginalized.

But, when it comes to lobbying, it’s not the what that matters; it’s the who and why. As Bill Clinton said in defense of Hillary’s reception of lobbyist money: “What gives the lobbyists influence is the people who hire them to work for them. It’s all the people they represent.” Lobbying is merely the act of meeting with our elected officials to ask them to support something in which we believe.

Vivienne believes in Disneyland princesses, the violin and lemon sorbet. She also believes in feeding the hungry, keeping girls safe and protecting our planet.

Vivienne is only four years old, but she does not like that 850 million people are chronically hungry in the world — and that many of those people are children. She does not like that violence against women and girls is on the rise. And, she does not like that our planet is heating up and that that is hurting poor people the most.

So, Vivienne proudly took her place in history alongside hundreds of thousands of intrepid, compassionate souls who, over a span of six decades, have forged CARE into a global superpower for change — defending dignity and fighting poverty.

CARE was founded in 1945 and helped rebuild an embattled Europe by rushing over 100 million “care packages” to the survivors of World War II. Today, CARE gives special focus to working alongside poor women because CARE has found that when women are equipped with the proper resources, they have special power to lift whole families and entire communities out of poverty. CARE allocates 91% of the money it receives directly to people in need on the ground. This is one of the highest percentages in the industry.

To do my part to support CARE, I collaborated with them in creating the I am Powerful Workout, a campaign to empower Americans with better health as they empower women and girls worldwide. For every hour people exercise, and record on, I donate $5 to CARE. I believe that when we have an emotional reason to exercise, we will do it more — and we will get more out of it. And, I believe that when we empower ourselves with better health, we have more power to change our world – and we have a greater inclination to do so.

The people who work with CARE are precisely the role models I want my daughter to be around. They embody Mahatma Gandhi‘s idea to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

So, Vivienne joined us and CARE in Washington, as its youngest participant, to discuss three urgent issues with members of Congress:

The Global Hunger Crisis

A new hunger crisis is upon us. According to the World Food Program, food prices have increased 55 percent since June 2007. And, the situation is likely to worsen in the coming months. When food riots occur — as they have in Haiti, Africa, Asia and parts of Europe — it means people have reached a breaking point.

There are many reasons for the increase in food prices. Among them: rising oil prices, increased demand for food and a record number of food crops being converted for use as biofuel.

“Food crises are not isolated events that happen unexpectedly,” says Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE. “People are plunged into crisis due to a number of interrelated factors, including poverty, poor access to markets, insufficient agricultural production, and social marginalization. A disaster only makes a systematic problem worse. Unless we address the reasons why people are vulnerable to hunger in the first place, we will not succeed in overcoming widespread food insecurity over the long term.”

Most Americans can cope with fluctuations in food prices; we have adequate buffers. But, imagine for a moment that you are one of the billion people on Earth who live on one dollar a day. How would you budget for rising food prices? What would you tell your children?

We conveyed to members of Congress that traditional food aid does not work the way it should. The strategy thus far has been to ship huge amounts of food overseas to be given to needy people or sold in open markers. This is emblematic of American goodwill, but it does not prevent hunger and its underlying causes.

The key is to provide short-term emergency food aid in such places as Myanmar, as we help communities build better systems to protect themselves against food insecurity over the long-term.

So, we asked members of Congress to support provisions in the FY08-09 Supplemental Appropriations Bill to provide increased funding for emergency food programs and to bring reform to the U.S. approach to hunger by supporting a regional and local purchase program.

Violence Against Women and Girls Worldwide

Violence against women and girls is at epidemic proportions in many of the world’s poorest countries. According to CARE, at least one out of three women globally will be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, with rates reaching 70 percent in some countries.

Reading that is one thing. Bringing it home is another. For me, it’s a thing of beauty to watch my wife and daughter delight in one another’s company in a safe, enriching environment full of love. I cannot imagine these two women being abused and held back from thriving. Repressing the majestic and beautiful power of a woman is a crime against humanity.

It also cripples humanity. Violence against women is inextricably linked to poverty, because a woman who has been the victim of abuse is limited in her ability to work and provide for her family. It also reduces women’s educational opportunities, and it tears at the very fabric of society — because women play a central role in strengthening communities everywhere in the world.

Fortunately, like any societal scourge, violence against women can be prevented — if enough people care.

There is landmark legislation in the works to do just that.

On October 31, 2007, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) introduced The International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) in the U.S. Senate.

We asked members of Congress for their support on IVAWA. If passed, it would mark the first time in U.S. history that ending violence against women would be a diplomatic priority. That means the U.S. government would be required to respond to outbreaks of gender-based violence in armed conflicts — such as the mass rapes now occurring in the Democratic Republic of Congo — within six months. (It is befuddling and ludicrous to me that we don’t already do that).

Women are the biggest catalyst for change in communities around the world. We cannot possibly move forward as a civilization until women and girls are protected. This is a non-negotiable point. And, we can’t go part of the way on it. This is an all-the-way issue.

We found solid support for IVAWA, particularly among Senators Boxer and Feinstein. At the conclusion of our meetings, Vivienne gave their staffers big, warm hugs and heartfelt “thank you’s.” It was the perfect close.

Climate Change

We have heard so much about climate change that we have grown slightly desensitized to it. But, we had better get re-sensitized to it. And, quick.

Just last week, James Hansen, a top NASA scientist – known as “the godfather of global warming science” — told a U.S. congressional panel that the world would be “toast” if we didn’t take drastic action on global warming. Hansen said the world has long passed the “dangerous level” for greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

This is no longer an “environmental issue”; it’s a people issue. As the planet grows hotter, people in the poorest countries suffer the most, because farmers there are already operating at razor-thin margins. A little less rainfall can transform a life-sustaining harvest into loss of life.

And, if left unchecked, global warming will affect us all — in ways that we can hardly imagine. The parable of the frog in hot water applies: it is said that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but the frog can be boiled alive if the water is heated slowly enough. The lesson is that whether it comes to our personal health or our planet’s health, we must wake up to gradual change or we may suffer catastrophic loss.

We asked members of Congress to support initiatives to reduce poor people’s vulnerability, to give them the resources and tools to adapt to a warmer climate – and to support a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions, as voluntary measures do not go nearly far enough.

We pressed hard on this issue as the time for talk has long passed. The time for action is now.

Lessons Learned

Four things struck me about this illuminating foray into the world of political advocacy:

First, I went to the hill with absurdly low expectations. Over the course of the current Administration, I have become fatalistic. I presumed, like many, that these politicians would be cynical, partisan robots who would nod approvingly, but not hear a word we said.

In fact, the opposite was true. For the most part, these are good people intent on doing the right things. They merely differ on how to do it. If you are willing to take the time to meet with them, they will take the time to listen. The system may be slow and ceremonial, but the system works.

Next, the “one person/one vote/one voice can’t make a difference” excuse is not remotely valid. If a four-year-old with zero political experience can travel to Washington, D.C. and make a difference, then each of us can make a difference in our own way. Put aside your excuses, doubts and suspicions about politics and take part, take a stand and take action. One person can tip the balance and make all the difference.

Third, CARE has clout. Striding into these offices wearing CARE badges commanded respect among members of Congress. CARE is a serious organization with a serious history, led by serious people who produce serious results. And, members of Congress knew it.

Finally, I was moved that over 400 CARE volunteer advocates traveled to Washington D.C. on their own dime to push for issues that do not directly affect them. These people were not lobbying Congress to bring down the price of gasoline or to lower the cost of their health insurance. They were putting in 14-hour days on behalf of people a world away.

At the conclusion of our hill visits, a worn-out Vivienne said: “Papa, did I do a good job as a loppyist? I’m tired. Can we be done now?”

I said, “Yes, honey, you helped people who you will never meet — and who cannot help you back. That is the best kind of help to give. I could not be prouder of you. Now, let’s get some lemon sorbet.”

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CBS Early Show Appearance

January 2, 2007 Leave a comment

[On January 1st, fitness expert ERIC HARR appeared on the CBS Early Show with four simple exercises you can do in the comfort of your own home that promise to give your metabolism the jump-start it needs to kick-off the new year on a good note.]

SO MANY OF US MADE the resolution to get fit in 2006, but found it difficult to actually get started with an exercise regime. For our fitness, this is the toughest time of year! Our metabolism is in winter hibernation, our bodies are turning every spare calorie into lovehandles (not fair!) — and we’ve just eaten more than any other of time of year.

But now, there are no more excuses. Here are five moves to fire up your metabolism moving in 2007:

1. The “Jumpstart” Jumping Rope: Rocky 6 is in theaters, so jumping rope is back in style — and it’s for all ages! It’s trendy, shapes a fab physique and burns the calories like no other single exercise.
Demo: You want to start low to the ground and keep your elbows close to your sides…by flexing your biceps, you’re working your arms as well as your legs. This is a phenomenal total body workout.
Benefits: It shapes your shoulders, calves arms and abs, while rocking your heart rate — all on par with running. You can burn up to 1000 calories per hour. Even though this is a weight-bearing exercise, it doesn’t jar your joints, since the impact of each jump is absorbed by both legs. Overall, jumping rope works wonders on your agility, posture, balance, reflexes and coordination.
Goal: If you’re just starting out, try to jump without stopping for one minute. Then, take an active recovery period for about 30 seconds. Your goal is to build up to ten minutes of jumping rope at one time—which is the equivalent of running an eight-minute mile!
Gear: A hot number is the “
Valeo Digital” that counts calories as you jump ($10). I’m not — nor will I ever be — a fan of counting calories, but I do believe in the value of “tracking progress.” So, don’t obsess with the calories, but do monitor your progress!
For a better upper body workout, choose the
RopeSport Premium 4-in-1 ($15) that includes a “weighted” rope.

2. The Go-To Gadget: Reebok Core Board: This is a fun and fresh spin on strength training. This exercise integrates two of the “top 10 fitness trends for 2007” according to the American College of Sports Medicine: core training (#5) and strength work (#6).
Demo: This is sort of like a surf – or snow – board…this platform provides instability. That’s good because it fires every muscle in your body just to balance on it.
Benefits: Instead of spending thousands on machines, here’s a great alternative. Millions of Americans suffer from back pain. It prevents us from living our best lives –- a lot of that is due to poor core strength. In this case, instability is a good thing! When you are forced to balance on this unstable platform, every muscle in your body is “activated.”

– “Simple Stand” Just balancing on the board is a great workout for beginners. Loosen the stability setting as you progress.
– “Balance Lunge” hits your entire lower body…two “trouble spots”: hips and backside. You want to lunge right onto the board. The balance involved as you land on the board boosts the benefit of the move. (Watch Eric do the move on the CBS Early Show. Link at end of post.)
Exercise bands provide a double boost to your metabolism: it revs up your heart rate and it builds strength. For a more aerobic workout, loosen the resistance and do more repetitions, more quickly. For strength, up the resistance and do fewer repetitions, more slowly.
Goal: Use this instead of weights to get a total body workout two to three times a week. You can do it while you’re watching TV!
Reebok Core Board. $170. Includes a workout DVD with directions of how to do all these exercises.

3. “Band Camp”: Functional fitness training — i.e. using strength training to improve performance for activities of daily living — again, this combines two of the hottest fitness trends for 2007: “functional training” (#4) and strength work (#6). Exercise bands are the most efficient and effective way to strengthen and tone your entire body. They are completely adjustable (to the millimeter). And, they are a terrific “portable gym,” ideal for travel and “anywhere” workouts.
Benefits: Exercises that mimic actual job tasks or other activities help improve balance, coordination, strength, and endurance. Many of the activities we do in life are performed across multiple planes of movement, but most traditional “strength training” in the gym doesn’t really strengthen us for everyday life. Functional training embraces that fact and allows strength training to be more applicable to the everyday movements of the human body as well as sports specific training. In addition to building strength, significant improvements in balance and coordination are principle benefits of the unrestricted motion of functional training. The bands can burn up to 500 calories an hour — and revs your metabolism all day long.
Goal: You can use bands every day for strength training or to help you stretch. Go entirely on feel and strive to “comfortably challenge” yourself each time you do a session with exercise bands. That level of subjective effort will ensure that you get fit without fatigue.
Gear: Bodylastics – Basic Tension. $40.

4. Body Bar Workout: The Body Bar is a classic, timeless fitness tool; a simple, one-piece solid, weighted fitness bar encased in easy grip rubber. But, here’s the fresh, new spin on it: the new “flex” version allows for an array of super strength and toning moves.
Demo: Two basic moves:

– “Waist Twist”: develops core strength and flexibility simultaneously and improves performance in any “rotational sport” such as golf, tennis or swimming.
– “Flex Squat”: A better variation of the traditional squat (which puts too much pressure on the knees.) This more elegant and effective move strengthens the lower body, while toning the upper body in safe way.
Benefits: This workout tones and stretches all major muscle groups. Perfect for people just starting to exercise or for people wanting to get past a fitness plateau. Builds flexibility, balance and strength. Using controlled movement strengthens core muscles, back and abs to stabilize the body and develop functional range of motion and balance needed for everyday movement. Also targets the midsection which weren’t not feeling particularly thrilled about this time of year!
Goal: Like the core board, you can use this instead of weights to get a total body workout two to three times a week. You can do it while you’re watching this show.
Power Body Bar Flex 4’ ($40).

5. GAIAM Balance Ball: Balance training is a red hot trend in the fitness world now — and for good reason. Here’s a simple balance ball move to rev up your metabolism and reshape your body.
Demo: Sit with your hands on the floor behind you, your fingertips pointing toward your body. Place your feet on the ball (if you’re feeling wobbly, try it without the ball at first or come down onto your forearms). Keeping your abdominals tight, press your hips up toward the ceiling (think of making a diagonal line from your shoulders to your feet). Hold for 3–5 breaths, then return to starting position.
Benefits: The Reverse Plank tones and strengthens shoulders, arms, low back and abdominals..
Goal: Complete 5–8 reps; build to 3 sets a day.
Gear: Brighten up your workout with the GAIAM BalanceBall in Tie Dye. $30. Includes air pump and DVD with three complete workouts.

(A note from Eric on his Early Show appearance: “I felt compelled to make a comment about CBS Early Show anchor Hannah Storm. There are countless stories about network personalities being demanding or difficult to work with. Hannah Storm is anything but. She is an absolute delight. I’ve been doing TV for almost 8 years — and in that time, I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about an on-air personality on either end of the actual on-camera segment, i.e. when the camera is off. Hannah was sweet at all times, to everyone on set. The sweetness you see on the air is genuine; it’s who she is. Nice to know, because I admire her work professionally.”)

To view Eric’s segment on the CBS Early Show, vist:
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