Monday, July 23, 2007

Tension, Confrontation and Resolution

We've made progress in the last few weeks, but not in ways we expected. There won't be any artwork, music or photography in this post but the reflections of a group struggling to understand where we are and where we've come from. Working and living in a foreign country has brought excitement into the smallest activity but has also presented us with difficult challenges and fundamental tensions.

This past week our entire group, recently joined by a social worker (Aura) and two art therapists (Sunny and Meg), traveled to Lyantonde to meet with the staff of PARDI, a community-based organization (CBO) established in 2001 to address the economic and social impact of HIV/AIDS on rural communities. PARDI (Participatory Action for Rural Development Initiative) supports a variety of community initiatives in Lyantonde, Rakai and Sembabule districts. Their activities range from providing school uniforms for children orphaned by AIDS to guidance and counseling for HIV positive parents. Similar to Project FOCUS, PARDI is composed of volunteers who offer their time, their professional skills and a sizable chunk of their salaries to support the organization and the communities it serves.

Our reasons for working with PARDI are two-fold. First, PARDI represents the community's response to a crisis that no one else seemed to care about, or knew how to address. Second, we have no desire to undermine the existing effort of community members who are committed and passionate to creating change in their their environment. We believe a collaboration with a CBO such as PARDI is our best option. Such a partnership will allow us to implement our programs with the guidance of community members who are best equipped to understand the needs and identify the assets of their community.


Every relationship faces challenges and undergoes tension. Unfortunately, our challenges over the last week have been extremely difficult and confusing to understand. Tension resulting from misunderstanding and mistrust have almost led our organization to cut ties with PARDI and move on. Not all relationships work, no matter how perfect they seem upon first impression. Some of these issues are difficult to write about, but we hope that others can learn from our mistakes and experiences. As an organization we have nothing to hide but much to learn. We welcome your comments and questions.

1) Misunderstanding

There was a lot of misunderstanding between Project FOCUS and PARDI concerning art therapy and it's role in the community. We prematurely assumed that the community would understand and embrace the concept of self-expression as a form of therapy without explanation or proof. Should they believe us just because we come from the United States? And what about language? How does their understanding of 'art', 'self-expression' and 'therapy' differ from our definitions informed by western culture and history? And how can we reasonably and ethically address psycho-social needs when survival is constantly challenged by absolute poverty and a lack of material support? What should we offer children orphaned by AIDS -- blankets and clothes or an opportunity to grieve the loss of their parents?

2) Mistrust

Misunderstanding often breeds mistrust. In our case, stereotypical assumptions and a lack of transparency resulted in problems. Foreigners from the United States and other developed countries are often perceived as wealthy donors when they're in Uganda. It's not uncommon for a child to walk up to you, to pull your shirt and ask you to sponsor her school fees. Though it's difficult to say, it's easy to see that in many way Uganda is a country suffering from financial dependency on international NGOs and development agencies. As a non-profit organization coming to work in Uganda, Project FOCUS was immediately targeted for its money. In dealing with an individual that represents PARDI, there's been a lot of confusion and dispute over finances, from 50 cents to $500. We were concerned that we had been taken advantage of and repeatedly lied to. It's important not to assume trust, but to build it. And in working with a community-based organization, it's also important to understand the accountability and decision-making structure of the organization. We've heard too many stories of well-intentioned organizations and victimized communities being robbed by individuals that participate in a culture of corruption. Who's responsible for the system that condones, even encourages, corruption? It may not be who you think it is. Over the last few decades developed countries have given lots of money to Africa, perhaps out of guilt, without following where it's gone. Support meant for millions has too often created millionaires.


In order to address the causes of these growing tensions, we organized a meeting between all of the members of Project FOCUS and the entire staff of PARDI. A total of 10 of us and 10 PARDI staff members met in the courtyard of a small hotel, seated in a large circle after dark. The meeting had two objectives -- to address our previous concerns and misunderstandings and to define the future partnership between PARDI and Project FOCUS.

The meeting was an open dialogue and both groups were encouraged to ask difficult questions and respond honestly. We wanted our relationship to be built on a stable foundation of transparency and accountability. Some moments of the meeting were extremely uncomfortable but afterwards provided us with a sense of relief and deeper understanding of each other's mistakes and intentions.


The process of building trust takes time. Not all of the tensions were resolved in the staff meeting. There are some challenges that may never be resolved, like the issue of finding a balance between meeting psycho-social needs and material needs. The past few week has been a struggle, but it's brought our group closer together. It's challenged us to rethink our philosophy and question our intentions and project ideas. We'll follow-up this post with a more complete discussion of the resolution as it evolves between our organizations. But we're hopeful for a supportive and successful collaboration between Project FOCUS and PARDI.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An Introduction to Lyantonde, Uganda

Three of us, Rhea, Lauren and I (Daniel), spent the last four days in Lyantonde, Uganda, a small town located three and half hours southwest of the capital Kampala. Until last year, when district boundaries were modified, Lyantonde was part of Rakai district, notoriously known as the birthplace of AIDS in Uganda.

Introduced by truck drivers from all across East Africa, HIV spread quickly into the surrounding rural community, brought home by young women forced into prostitution by the heavy demands of absolute poverty.

This is the town where Project FOCUS will be working for the next six months. No running water, no internet and unreliable electricity. A region of spectacular natural beauty juxtaposed to the suffering of a community devastated by AIDS.

Prince Primary School

A school of four classrooms constructed by the community in response to an orphan crisis without historical precedence. More than 200 children from the surrounding rural areas attend school daily at Prince Primary. Unfortunately, most of them have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Project FOCUS will be working with the headmaster and school teachers to implement an art curriculum that provides psychosocial therapy and empowers youth with an outlet for creative self-expression and story-telling through different media.

Vocational Training -- (a work in progress...)

Lauren, the photographer of the images in this post, is still in Lyantonde working on a series of photo stories that explore opportunities available for children orphaned by AIDS. The following photographs were taken at a carpentry shop that trains older students with practical skills they can use to support themselves and their families.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Meet the Family

U.S. / Midwest

Chicago, Illinois

Aura is currently a School Social Work
er at Chicago Public Schools but has a secret, yet financially implausible, dream of becoming a pilot. She enjoys working with Chicago’s youth and believes that a well-rounded and positive education is the key to a happy future. She is currently enrolled in Northwestern University’s Art Therapy Certificate Program in a personal attempt to tap into an undiscovered creative side and to have more skills to bring to those that she works with, in CPS as well as with Project FOCUS.

In Uganda, Grant worked as the country director of Project FOCUS for nearly two years. In addition to his work with Project Focus, he has recorded and produced two albums with Ugandan youth from the Bitone Children's Home. He is now in Chicago pursuing a degree in sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago and teaching digital music production through Enlace Chicago's after-school programing.

Rhea Vitalis holds a BS in Marketing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She works in the for-profit world as a marketing and sales coordinator in a shipping logistics company and also runs her own graphic design and marketing company, Idea Sprout Studio. As a member of Project FOCUS, she applies her professional skills in managing the business and marketing aspects of the organization. In the future, she would like to merge her vocation and avocation in the field of social entrepreneurship.

Daniel Yang holds a BS in Biological Sciences from UIC where he is continuing his studies as a medical student. His interests include public health, radio documentary, and anything else that sparks the imagination. Upon finishing his medical degree, he would like to pursue a career in international health, addressing both the physical and psychosocial health needs of vulnerable communities.

Florencia Rojo is a student at DePaul University studying Sociology with a concentration in Health and Human Services. In 2008, she traveled to Nicaragua where she volunteered with a local youth and woman’s advocacy center. Her experience abroad and her work with Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor has sparked an interest in international development and woman’s health issues. She was drawn to Project FOCUS because of its’ strong community in the United States and its’ commitment to community-driven development in Uganda.

Gloria Bernard holds an MA in Art Therapy from the Steinhart School of New York University. Creativity has always been an integral part of Gloria's life since childhood. She is a process-oriented artist who finds meaning in all mediums. She continues to pursue a life of creativity through music, drawing, painting, and photography.

Seva Gandhi recently graduated with her Masters of Social Work from the University of Michigan. Her focus was in management of human services and community organizing. She is currently working within the realm of international development with non-profit based in the US. Seva is interested in resource development within rural areas and is a big advocate of systems thinking.

U.S. / East Coast

Boston, Massachusets

Madelene Pario is an artist and credentialed Registered Art Therapist who received her BA in Visual Arts from Brown University and her MA in Art Therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She describes her art as a way to visually piece together the fragments of her identity. As an art therapist, she helps create an open and safe space for others to weave their stories and express difficult emotions through metaphor and imagination. Her current interests are in facilitating culturally sensitive art therapy in Uganda through coordination with local artists and professionals. She also promotes group art-making as a powerful tool for personal and social change.

U.S. / West Coast

Los Angeles, California

Mary Tims holds a B Arch from the Woodbury University School of Architecture and currently resides in the Los Angeles region where she is pursuing her liscensure in the state of California. Future plans include: graduate school to study Art History and develop an interdisciplinary architectural practice. Mary’s current interests include: feminist theory, minimalism, public art (serra, kapoor), french cuisine, your mom, reflective facades, carved apertures and theatrical cavities.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

About This Blog

Welcome to the Project FOCUS blog! Project FOCUS is a Chicago-based non-profit organization composed of young artists and students bound by a common purpose to educate, inspire and empower youth through art. This summer, members of Project FOCUS are working in Uganda from June to December planning and implementing art projects that serve disadvantaged youth affected by absolute poverty, disease, gender inequality and a lack of educational opportunities. But instead of focusing on what these children lack, we want emphasize their assets -- their skills and stories.

We conceive of this blog as a work of art in itself -- an outlet for creative expression, a space for dialogue and an avenue of exploration.

We also want this blog to be based on a variety of media, presenting a layered and complex view of life in Uganda. this requires patience and thought on our part. We'll try our best to upload images, to present work in progress. But some weeks may be slower than others. We don't know what's possible yet, given our limited access to the internet and our lack of formal expectations.

We'll have to be creative.

We want to ask you to stay involved in our project by offering comments, criticisms, contacts and ideas. We envision this blog to be interactive, a meeting point for a community of the like-minded. For this to work we need your buy in. The more you contribute, the greater motivation we'll have to share. and the more we share, the more you'll have to respond to. Let's keep it natural and informal. respectful, but never boring.

At this point there's no set structure to the blog. We want to keep it flexible, leaving room for growth and creativity. We value your support and we look forward to hearing from you.