One of the magical things about staying put, and living in proximity to where I grew up is the fact that most people who grew up here return to visit on occasion. One morning at the coffee shop, a few years back, I had the pleasure to stumble across James’ path. We reconnected and have stayed in touch since. He actually inspired this week’s theme with the work he will tell you about in our cyber interview. Noble Humble and Selfless – now read on:
Tell our readers a little about you, and your history, your passion, your work.
I grew up in the Berkshires and, although I have traveled all over the world, and live in California, it is still my favorite place…the place I go to really unwind. After graduating from Monument Mountain (Regional High School) in 1983, I received a BA from Bates College in Maine. I then worked for about 6 years in France, England, Germany, and Africa for companies including Louis Vuitton, Coca-Cola and Agfa-Gaevaert, before returning to the US to get my MBA at Columbia University in New York. At that time, I interned for, and later worked for, Bain Consulting in Paris, before changing the direction of my life and working in film. The first film I worked on was “Before and After” filmed in the Berkshires in 1995—and I still have three very good friends from that movie, who have played seminal roles in my current charitable work. After several years of working on film and in film production in New York and Los Angeles, I began working at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, in the MBA Career Center. After finishing my MA in Writing from USC in 2003, I transitioned to a full-time faculty position with the university and I have been teaching in the USC Marshall School of Business since that time. I am currently finishing my fourth (and definitely final) degree, a doctorate in education (Ed.D.) from USC.
In October of 2008, based upon a book I have been working on for more than 10 years, I launched a charity to promote children’s literacy through providing books, building libraries, and teaching educational programs in developing countries. The charity is called The World is Just a Book Away (WIJABA); you can visit our website at www.wijaba.org. We built our first library for children affected by the world’s worst mudflow disaster in Sidoarjo, Indonesia in June of 2009. And, thanks to the hard work and generosity of so many people, including our Board, Advisory Board, Ambassadors and donors, on August 25, 2014, we opened our 63rd library.
We have now reached more than 32,000 children in Indonesia and Mexico with more than 37,000 books. We have also facilitated five programs that have, thus far, reached more than 1,500 children.
I am truly passionate about WIJABA. As a professor of communication, as a writer, and as a bibliophile, teaching, writing, and books are cornerstones of my life. It breaks my heart to see children without books, because I cannot imagine my world without books. I have now traveled to more than 50 countries on 4 continents, but I didn’t take my first airplane until I was 14 (when my Aunt Claire took us to Disney World in Florida). However, long before that time, I traveled through time, space, and millennia through the pages of books. I have always been a dreamer, I have always believed that the impossible is only impossible until someone does it. My earliest childhood memory is of my mother reading to me and my mother always encouraged me to dream and work hard, because I could achieve whatever I wanted with those two ingredients.
This early childhood memory was continuously reinforced for me through books and now I see my life as forming a circle through which I am blessed to dedicate myself to providing hope for children who have so little and deserve so much in the form of books, libraries, and educational programs, which allow them to learn, dream, achieve their potential and—eventually—affect real change in their own communities.
- Tell a story, have we met? When? Where? Who introduced us? Oh, maybe you are my niece, well, just give a little history here. People love a setting.
I remember meeting, you, Crispina ffrench in middle school, when Stockbridge and Great Barrington schools merged. Although this was quite a while ago, I remember it clearly for several reasons. First of all, I had never met anyone named Crispina or even heard the name. Second, I had never met anyone whose name started with two lowercase letters. Third you were very creative—I even had that impression back then and you came from a family of artists, which intrigued me. And, finally, we both shared the connection to Ireland, you through your parents and me through my paternal grandmother (since that time, I have become a dual citizen, thanks to my grandmother’s birth in Ireland and this allowed me to work in the EU).
I also remember the feeling that you viewed the world differently from most people and, since I had always felt like a giraffe, this really resonated with me. I don’t mean that it’s bad to feel like a giraffe—in fact, I now consider it as a blessing. And, I don’t mean this as a judgment of myself or others—but, rather a statement that I, personally, never really felt like I completely fit in with the environment. Growing up, I didn’t seem to clearly fit any of the societal norms and expectations—real or perceived. I felt like I was watching a different movie from many other people (although I couldn’t have articulated it that way at the time). Perhaps most people feel this way, or perhaps many people do feel like they “belong.”
I still feel like a giraffe, but I now tend to have a wider circle of friends and acquaintances who also articulate that they feel this way. At any rate, this is how I felt growing up and, in meeting you, I recall feeling that—although we came from very different backgrounds and although no one would ever accuse me of being overburdened with artistic talent—you were a kindred spirit in viewing the world and dealing with the world as a bit of a maverick.
- Imagine a story. It is 2030 and we have brought the environment into balance. How did we do it?
WIJABA has recently partnered with Dr. Jane Goodall (Over the past decade I have developed a friendship with Dr. Jane that started with my interviewing her for my book) in opening a library in her honor for orphans in Indonesia. Dr. Jane, one of the world’s leading environmentalist and UN Messenger of Peace, is a true hero of mine. We have committed to launching her Roots & Shoots environmental program for children at 80 schools in Indonesia by the end of 2015. I am so honored and proud of our work with Dr. Jane and by the following statement she made on the occasion of launching the orphanage library:
“The WIJABA library is very obviously making a huge difference to hundreds of children. Just watching the way the children pick up the books and read them, and the expression in their eyes and their excitement, makes everything worthwhile.”
In answer to your question, I adhere to Dr. Jane’s philosophy of children planting roots that launch shoots. I really believe that we can only bring the environment back into balance through educating children (and we must keep in mind that there are nearly 1 billion illiterate or functionally illiterate people on the planet). I believe that children, in their own local environment—which can be viewed as one piece of a world map puzzle at a time—can initiate programs and take actions that will rescue our environment. This is why both WIJABA as an organization and I personally committed to partnering with Dr. Jane Goodall and her amazing programs.
- If you had the power to make one change in the world what would it be?
To ensure that all children have access to books and education. This should be a universal right and not a privilege. I will never forget the first library we opened. I asked my interpreter what a little boy had just said to me in Indonesian. He replied, “the boy said he had never seen a book.” I remember how puzzled I was and I said to him, “you mean he has never owned a book.” The interpreter is very fluent in both languages and asked for clarification from the little boy. Then, he said, “he has seen school books with a lot of text. But he has never seen or held an actual book for pleasure…a story book or a book with pictures.” I found it difficult to digest that I was with a children who had never held books they could enjoy and I knew, at that moment, that I was doing what I was meant to do.
At the most recent library opening I attended in Bali, a four-year old boy found a small book about a panda. He touched the book to his forehead in Bali (a sign of respect) and kissed it three times. He then held it up to me to kiss. I will forever treasure the picture taken at that moment.
People often wonder if they need a lot of money to make a difference and the answer is “no.” I believe that if each of us, from where we stand takes whatever action we can, we will change the world. In the case of WIJABA as little as $1 can buy a book, $5,000 builds an entire library at a school or orphanage in Indonesia and $10,000 builds a library in Mexico.
And, to summarize my answer to your question, I will continue to do my part from where I stand to promote the cause of children’s literacy, because I believe that all children deserve the right to dream, educate themselves, and craft their futures. Books, literacy, and education are the true fishing poles in breaking the cycle of poverty for mankind.
- What is your current passion?
I have many passions ranging from collecting tribal art, to travel, reading, writing, yoga, skiing (I love skiing and don’t do it enough) and learning to play the piano. However, I would say my driving passions are that of being the best father I can be, being the best teacher that I can be, and being of the most possible service to others from where I stand today and in the future.
- How did your passion come to be?
My mother was always surrounded by books. I will never forget that she read “Gone with the Wind” in a day. I was 9 when she died. She was studying to be a teacher at North Adams State College, which has since been renamed Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA. My earliest memory is of looking at a picture of the pyramids in Egypt with her and of my asking her if we could go there one day and she said that if we could dream it and if we were willing to work hard, we could do it. My mother never made it to Egypt, interestingly both my sister and I have. In 1994, I traveled for three weeks in Egypt. I arrived at the pyramids before dawn and received permission to climb to the top of the “smallest” of the three (which if I recall correctly, is still about 18 stories tall and I am petrified of heights). I climbed gingerly to the top and arrived in time for sunrise. And, almost as if a miracle unfolded in front of me a man on a camel approached from the distance, which is exactly what appeared in that photograph, in the book I had looked at in my mother’s lap as a child. It was as if the picture in my brain from early childhood had manifested in reality—it had. I looked out into the horizon—I gazed at the pyramids and at the vast Sahara beyond and I said out loud “I made it.” I think that story, better than any other, summarizes what has driven my passion to provide at-risk and disadvantaged children with access to books and educational programs.
- Who/What has been most influential in your work?
My mother, because she gave me my love of the written word and books. And, then there have been so many others who have helped me on my journey—WIJABA alone has 14 board members, 11 Advisory Board Members, 12 Ambassadors, our Presidents in Mexico and Indonesia, our Director, our team in Indonesia, and hundreds of friends and donors. Without the work of so many amazing people, WIJABA and I would not be able to carry out this work. It is truly a team effort. However, I would like to mention two people, one of whom some of your readers may know, because she was first my teacher when I was 14, then my mentor for so many years, then my friend, and now also a WIJABA Advisory Board Member. That person is Dr. Roselle Chartock, who taught at Monument, lives in Great Barrington, and who is a teacher, educator, author, and artist all rolled into one. Roselle has been (and continues to be) a true inspiration to me for 35 years. The second person is Emilio Diez Barroso, who is my dear friend and also the Founding Chariman of WIJABA. I feel very blessed to have Emilio’s friendship in my life and also for the role he plays for WIJABA as a visionary in business and as the person I lean on when I don’t know which direction to take when some new opportunity or challenge presents itself.
- Where do you find your inspiration/motivation?
In one way it is simple—in another way complicated. I think of the role books and education play in my life. I think of what my life would be without books. I think of my mother who dreamt of becoming a teacher and I think of my son, who is so passionate about reading that he sometimes walks and reads at the same time. Then, I think of all the children without access to books and education and I realize that books and education are not a choice to me, they are part of me. So, I set the intention to be the best role model and father I can be for my son, the best teacher I can be for my students, and the best possible CEO of the WIJABA to serve others.
- Aside from working, how do you spend your time?
If we were texting I could write “LOL.” I really don’t have a lot of free time, and that is, in large part, because of how I have structured my life. But, I am very blessed in that I truly love what I do. Other than spending time with my son, I enjoy yoga, going to the gym, reading, and spending time with family and friends. And, I am going to ski more this year.
- Do you have a prized possession? What is it?
I am extremely sentimental and I treasure many things, although I do not consider myself particularly materialistic. Most of what I treasure is linked in some way to my family. Beside my bed I keep two objects: one is a key, the other is a bell. The key is to my paternal grandmother’s ancestral 3-roomed cottage in Ireland, where 10 children were raised under very hard conditions. My grandmother, or “Nana” as we called her, came to America and worked as a maid and created an amazing life for herself. I often think of the incredibly bravery required to do what she did, and she was a wonderful grandmother. I wrote a story her journey that was published in a book titled “Leitrim Treasure” last year—both the book’s publication and giving a copy to Mason Library in Great Barrington were very proud moments for me. The bell belonged to my maternal great-grandmother, of whom I have vague memories. It is shaped like a maid in a large hoop skirt. My great-grandmother used this bell so often to summon the staff in her house that the face is worn down. These two objects—a key and a bell—remind me of different parts of myself and that we all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.
- Tell about a magical moment that comes to mind when you look back on your life experience.
There are many. But, there is nothing more magical than witnessing the birth of my son.
- If you were able to spend an afternoon with anyone – dead or alive, who would it be? What plans would you make for your outing?
There are so many people I have been blessed to meet and so many people I would like to meet. I would love to have a picnic with His Holiness the Dali Lama, whom I briefly met, but never had a conversation with. Since this is the realm of fantasy, I would also like to invite my children and my grandchildren to this picnic under a huge weeping willow tree.
- What is your favorite place and/or way to spend time?
I love spending time with my son. In terms of places—Paris, New York, Ireland, Bali, the Berkshires…there are many places I love. In particular, my favorite walk in the world is down the dirt road at the Old Covered Bridge in Sheffield, close to my step-mother’s house. I love dirt roads (and in my opinion we don’t have enough of them any more). I love walking on this road and I find it incredibly peaceful. When I am in the Berkshires, I walk there almost every day.
- What is your goal or main focus for your next 12 months?
It is my intention to continue to expand WIJABA’s reach to more children in Indonesia and Mexico, particularly through the expansion of our educational programs and mobile libraries. I also want to—finally—finish the book I began writing in 2003 that prompted me to launch the charity. The book is also called “The World is Just a Book Away.”
- Do you have an upcoming event or significant happening that you would like to promote with your blog posting? When? Where? Details and contact information please.
Yes, I would love to encourage your readers to visit our website, www.wijaba.org. Please consider liking us on Facebook (The World is Just a Book Away). And, if the cause speaks to you, please consider donating as little as $1, which truly makes a difference by buying a book in Indonesia, or as much as you can.
Finally, Crispina, thank you for asking me to participate in your blog—I am truly honored and also proud to call you my friend.