Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL)

accueil_biblio1 I was very fortunate to hear Elizabeth Pierre-Louis speak yesterday.

Elizabeth was on campus to accept the 2008 Young Humanitarian Award. As Director of the Library Program at Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (FOKAL) in Haiti, she helped to set up 45 community libraries across the country. She coordinates the training and management of these libraries, which are improving the quality of live for the people there. Elizabeth described a wide variety of programs of FOKAL, including projects on supplying running water, developing basic literacy, supporting the visual arts, dance and music, debate, and economic education.

Throughout these many programs, there is an emphasis on participatory democracy, including organization and responsibility of citizens, leadership, financial and technical management, resolving conflicts, and collective decision making. Elizabeth’s work is just part of an amazing organization helping people work together toward common purposes.

The photo, of the Monique Calixte Library in FOKAL’s Cultural Center, and this text below are from the FOKAL site.

The Fondation Connaissance et Liberté / Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (FOKAL) Cultural Center, built in 2003 in the center of Port-au-Prince thanks to funding from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and support from George Soros, is designed for meetings, training, reading, debates, recreation and discovery.

The center is comprised of a public library, with a membership of over 5,000 where children and youths from the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince have access to reading materials in optimal conditions, a small auditorium, a café-terrasse and a cybercafé. The UNESCO auditorium is a hall designed for conferences, debates, meetings, audio-visual presentations, films, concerts and theatre. The center also includes a large atrium where one can discover the works of both Haitian and foreign painters, writers, and sculptors; and a sound and video production studio, a training hall and gardens…

FOKAL’s cultural center offers a place, eminently rare in Haiti, where peasants, women, children and youths from poor neighborhoods have a chance to interact with each other and with representatives of all sectors of society on subjects which concern education, the environment, culture, and democracy…

Obama upholds discrimination

Equal rights are not special rightsBarack Obama is on track to become not just a good, but one of the great US Presidents. But yesterday he made a big mistake.

Obama let stand Bush’s executive order allowing religious organizations to discriminate in hiring on the basis of faith and still receive federal funding. Discrimination on the basis of religion is a direct violation of the First Amendment. And because many faith-based organizations are 100% of one race and one language, have prescribed roles for men and women, and often exclude homosexuals and others who don’t fit their doctrines, this order means that invidious discrimination supported by everyone’s tax dollars is now enshrined in Federal policy. The Constitution protects everyone’s right to associate with those they choose, but it also forbids unequal treatment under the law.

Obama had rightly questioned this policy during the campaign, saying “if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them–or against the people you hire–on the basis of their religion.”

He was right then and wrong yesterday.

See Obama upholds Bush faith policy – Los Angeles Times.

Powell asks, “What if he is?”

Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama for President was a powerful statement from a much-respected figure. It will certainly help Obama’s campaign. But at least as significant was his challenge of Islamophobia:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said. Such things as ‘Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well the correct answer is ‘He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian, he’s always been a Christian.’ But the really right answer is ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’ The answer is ‘No. That’s not America.’ Is there something wrong with some 7-year old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

gugart@msn.com">Photo courtesy of Tom Gugiluzza-Smith, August 2008</a>I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo-essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in you can see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American, he was born in New Jersey, he was 14 years old at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he can go serve his country and he gave his life. [Photo courtesy of Tom Gugiluzza-Smith, August 2008]

Powell is not the first to make this point, but it’s difficult to name another such prominent political leader who has done so. Others, including Obama himself, have focused on the fact that some statements about his ethnic or religious background have been false, not on the bigotry revealed by the very question itself. Ignoring the presupposition of those questions shows a lack of understanding and respect for the US Constitution, which should bring shame on Republican and Democratic leaders alike.

See Abed Z. Bhuyan, On Faith: Guest Voices: Powell Rejects Islamophobia

“The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun”

I walk by a wonderful video rental store, called That’s Rentertainment, on my way to and from work. It has an amazing collection of foreign and independent films, anime, TV, and documentaries, as well as knowledgeable staff. The prices are good, too, so it often makes sense to take a chance on a movie I’ve never heard about before. One of these was director Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s, The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun (Slottet, or The Castle in Danish).

The description won’t appeal to everyone, and at times it may seem slow or disjointed. But it’s an unexpectedly good movie.

The true story is about Jørgen Laursen Vig, who lives alone in the derelict Hesbjerg Castle near Odense. His lifelong dream has been to create a monastery. Nearing the end of his life he turns to Russia and invites the Russian Patriarchate to use his castle as the site. They send Nun Amvrosija and a few others to assess the situation and begin the process of creating the monastery. As anyone might suspect, there are good intentions in the beginning, but problems arise as it becomes more a reality.

Through these events the film explores friendship, and what Allan Berg Nielsen describes in an excellent essay as The Manifold Nature of Love. It’s about life dreams, loss, and the challenge of opening up to others. Grønkjær (see photo), the director, is the interviewer, and becomes entwined at times in these questions.

At one point, Vig becomes frustrated with Nun Amvrosija. They argue about trivial things, while not addressing the larger issues. Perhaps he feels he’s losing control of the project. Referring to her, he says:

Vig: It’s hard to argue with people who are always right. Who don’t …
Grønkjær (interviewing): What if she came here just as much for you as for the monastery?
Vig: For me? I don’t know how to react to that. It’s the project we’re talking about, not me. Because that’s not what is needed.

A little later he grows discouraged, and puzzled:

Vig: I can’t solve all the problems.
Grønkjær: It’s not a problem, Vig.
Vig: Perhaps they’re problems you women have.
Grønkjær: We haven’t any problems.
Vig: You have feelings, or whatever. Things like that are not my business. I stay out of it.

That excerpt suggests the movies is about gender. It is, but one could also say that it’s about age, religion, nationality, language, and more than anything, about people trying to come together about things they both want, but struggle to achieve.

Nun Amvrosija writes to Mr. Vig:

Dear Mr. Vig, We were together for almost five years. We were very different, yet we were doing the same thing. We often disagreed with each other. But the Lord directs everything in His wisdom. Our Lord laid this gift in your hands. A gift which I believe opened the gates of paradise to you. I wish for the kingdom of heaven and eternal peace. Dear Mr. Vig, servant of Our Lord.

Vig is not only a fascinating character in the movie, but must have been throughout his life as well. See his East-West Seminar at Hesbjerg, 1995.

Today the monastery is run by Nun Amvrosija. A Russian Orthodox priest comes from Copenhagen to carry out the services. The Russian Patriarchate and the Hesbjerg Foundation now set the future plans for the monastery.