Global action starts at home

Local humanitarians come together for a forum on local and international human services

Sydney Sukuta, co-owner of Bantu Spirit, and Anne Cory (right), president of the United Way of Northern Nevada, are two who’ve joined forces to promote social activism.<br>

Sydney Sukuta, co-owner of Bantu Spirit, and Anne Cory (right), president of the United Way of Northern Nevada, are two who’ve joined forces to promote social activism.

Photo by David Robert

The first humanitarian panel discussion is 2 p.m. July 26 at Sierra Arts, 17 N. Virginia St., 337-1717.

Johnson Makoba’s office doesn’t reveal much about this UNR Sociology Department chairman. Floor-to-ceiling shelves contain tomes of academic research, bundles of papers, manila envelopes. There’s a biography of Che Guevara but no hint that Makoba came from a poor, seven-child family in Uganda or that he started the Foundation for Credit and Community Assistance, a nonprofit organization geared toward the entrepreneurial empowerment of women in Uganda.

“FOCCAS is kind of a self-help effort,” Makoba says. “It’s aimed at improving opportunities in terms of credit and education services for economically active but poor women in the eastern part of Uganda.”

The program distributes loans to women interested in starting cottage industries, such as farming or basket-weaving. This helps women take care of their families by themselves, without having to depend on charity. The program requires women to form groups of 30 to 40 members, or “credit associations,” who attend weekly training in bookkeeping, nutrition and disease prevention.

Makoba in one of several local activists who keep low profiles while being catalysts for change. Raising awareness of the work these inconspicuous leaders do is important to Sydney Sukuta, co-owner of Bantu Spirit. Sukuta has a doctorate in chemical engineering from UNR. He’s part of a plan to bring people like Makoba into contact with the public, to make locals more aware of what issues need to be addressed overseas and at home. Makoba and like-minded people have organized a series of public discussions at Sierra Arts to this purpose. The first is set for July 26.

Working in the street-level retail store of the Riverside Artists Lofts, Sukuta has overheard people talking about humanitarian work being done in Reno and in areas of African—Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya.

“Many of these people were going to Africa, picking up products, bringing them [to Reno] and selling them on the streets, and they were having difficulty,” Sukuta says. “So they would come to us and say, ‘Could you sell this for us?’ People started coming and meeting each other. I saw that there was a parallel theme in what we were trying to do. I said, ‘You guys need to come together and share what you’re doing, and maybe, in the process, there might be a cross-fertilization of ideas, and it will become something better.’ “

Sukuta and his wife, Sandra Adams, have organized a series of humanitarian panels intended to encourage a dialogue among the public and activists. Through such discussion, citizens may learn how to become involved in the panelists’ causes, which don’t always attract much positive attention.

“The media in most cases do not focus on ongoing events or activities, especially international,” says Makoba. “The only time people read or hear about [issues] on the networks is when there is a tragedy, when there is a problem, there is a crisis, there is a famine, there is a civil war, there is genocide … and they have no context for that tragedy. [The media] are a disservice to the average person who does not have all the time and the luxury to know about things.”

FOCCAS tries to deal with poverty and war in Uganda by educating women who can then pass that knowledge to their children. The process starts with the FOCCAS field staff—70 college-educated employees who are familiar with the language and culture of the regions they penetrate. The staffers ride their bikes over eastern Uganda, directing weekly meetings for more than 17,000 Ugandan women.

Instead of lecturing, staffers lead a process of self-discovery.

Makoba talks about the severe diarrhea that toddlers in Uganda often get as a result of putting things in their mouths. In one of the weekly meetings, diarrhea was the topic of discussion, and every woman thought diarrhea came from teething. By asking questions and facilitating discussion, the group leader helped the women come to the conclusion that it was not teething that was the root of their children’s problems, but putting dirty objects into their mouths.

“When you’re dealing with adults, telling them not to do something doesn’t make much difference,” Makoba says. “But if they themselves realize it, using their own experience and knowledge, you have a much better chance of success.”

Makoba and the Rev. Bill Chrystal, moderator for the July 26 panel, believe that things happening outside this state and the country appear remote and disconnected to things that happen on a local level.

Advances in technology, however, have made the world smaller.

“Communication is so omnipresent,” Chrystal says. “Places that we thought we had little interest in have become very important. … There is a great deal of instability in Africa, and we really need to be concerned about that. And where people are starving, we need to come up with solutions. I think it’s very difficult. The United States has to work with the United Nations.

“Based on what the United States did in terms of Iraq and the overwhelming support that was behind the president’s position, I’d say we’re not too sensitive to globalization. We’re nationalistic.”

Attracted by the store’s Zimbabwean and Ghanaian jewelry, Anne Cory, the president of United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra, wandered into Bantu Spirit. Cory herself makes bead necklaces. She caught a conversation about the panel. Sukuta thought she would be a great addition.

United Way allows donors to give money to one recognized organization, knowing that the contribution will be dispersed throughout the community as volunteer workers, not staff, see fit.

“By having a volunteer-driven process, it’s more effective at creating community change because you’re creating this system that brings people in where they become knowledgeable about what the needs are … it makes a bigger difference in the long run to bring all those folks on board, people who work in the casinos and deliver newspapers … just regular folks.”

Cory has been in the human-services field for about 20 years, and much of her most recent efforts are directed toward homelessness. She facilitates the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless, a coalition of homeless services providers, government, nonprofit and private entities.

“As United Way, we thought we could step in and provide a neutral table to bring all the parties together and try to make some progress,” Cory says.

Panel talks will be a valuable resource for the public to find out about human services and how an individual may help. This message is important because Nevadans have a “strong tradition of personal independence,” Cory says, and many feel that it’s up to each person to make it on his own.

But panel attendees may learn that humanitarian work is about helping needy people help themselves, about moving toward autonomy and not about handouts.

Sukuta, Makoba and Cory agree that empowering others is the greatest thing a humanitarian worker can do. Positive life skills run far; money runs out.

“If we can provide information to the general public," Cory says, "we can increase awareness. We can talk to corporations about their role as good corporate citizens, and we can help galvanize our response. That’s a lot of what we do. These are value-laden issues. We have to communicate them in ways that don’t offend people."