ted fellows

Fellows Friday with Rye Barcott

Posted by: Alana Herro

While training for the military, Rye Barcott took leave to study ethnic conflict by living in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. Inspired by community-led initiatives there, Rye co-founded the non-profit Carolina for Kibera to support the projects. His newly released book, It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace chronicles his journey and the ways two of his very different worlds — the military service and social entrepreneurship — mirrored, clashed, and at times enriched the other.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Rye asks:

Talent is universal, opportunity is not. Do you agree? What kinds of things have you done to identify talent and spark opportunity in your community?

Click here to respond

Why did you write this book?

I initially started writing It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace to document Kibera and our work there as an organization.  I hope the book helps spread the idea of participatory development, a concept rooted in the fundamental truth that talent is universal, but opportunity is not.

We’d like this book to bring more global awareness to our nongovernmental organization, Carolina for Kibera (CFK). We also have the larger hope that people will take the idea of participatory leadership and development and apply it to their own communities, whether that’s at home or abroad.

I hope one takeaway that young people in particular will have is to recognize that you can be as young as 19 or 20 years old and make an impact. You don’t have to wait. It’s easy to start to feel trapped in the crowd, especially for students in elite undergraduate schools. Folks see the herd trouncing off to consulting firms, banks, and hedge funds. They want to make a difference, but they think,  “I might just need to defer my impact until I can make a little bit of money.”

I hope this book will be one way of bringing the dialogue back to service: military service as well as civilian service, and social entrepreneurship.

It’s a very revealing tale, even touching on your own darker impulses while at war.

The book is basically a product of nine years. I initially wrote a manuscript in 2002 and was rejected across the board. I went back to it four years later, reworked it, and was rejected across the board again. The few people who gave me responses said, “Listen, you’ve got to pour your soul into this. You’ve got to personalize it. You’ve got to personalize it.”

So I listened to that. I was going through these military experiences at the same time as Carolina for Kibera was growing. The book became a memoir about those two different forms of service.

CFK co-founders Salim Mohamed and Rye Barcott at the commissioning ceremony of Marine Lieutenant and CFK volunteer Peter Dixon in Chapel Hill, NC, Spring 2006.

I hope that people can engage with it at multiple levels. At one level it can be read as an entertaining, heartwarming story. But hopefully for readers who are looking for this, it’s also a probing analysis of the impact of violence on the human spirit. It’s a perspective on what I believe is a thin line between good and evil, and how quickly our own actions can be influenced by our environment, no matter how good we might hope we are.

CFK is a champion of participatory development, but the idea has been around since 1970’s. What really makes CFK unique?

We’re certainly not the only organization out there that’s using participatory development, which is fundamentally about sparking change from within communities, by working in partnership with local leaders, over long periods of time.  But we’re one of the few that have been sustainable. Most non-profits, like most companies, don’t survive past two or three years. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary with the release of this book.

Another unique aspect of CFK is that we are working in a slum community that is not only deeply impoverished, but also has been stricken by ethnic violence. Our whole organization was started to use sports as a tool to bring different ethnic groups together and reconcile tensions, and break cycles of violence from within.

A third unique aspect of our organization is that while we’re a separate non-profit, we are also an affiliate of a large public university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC-Chapel Hill provides us with tremendous resources, from student volunteers, to cutting-edge research, office space, and medical volunteers. It’s a very special, long-term relationship that we have.

By the time readers finish It Happened on the Way to War, we feel personally invested in the lives of your friends and other young people in Kibera.

The book is dedicated to the my two co-founders, Salim and Tabitha. The only reason why this organization has been so effective is because it was a true partnership and a true friendship in the deepest sense of the word. We hope the book will deeply engage people, inspire them to get involved, and build the CFK community for the next ten years.

We’re also in the final stage of production of a documentary about life in Kibera, Chasing the Mad Lion. The documentary is especially important because the focus is not on me and the co-founders, but instead on the young, local heroes who are the beneficiaries of the organization right now. These young people are making change within their community with minimal resources.  They are breaking cycles of violence and poverty from within.

We also are launching the Power of 26. It’s a 26-item challenge that you can take, and Facebook is designing an app for it pro bono. Each challenge reflects something small but simple a person can do to connect with the way that residents in places like Kibera live. This is something that particularly students can do. It ranges from things like using one bucket of water to wash for the day, to things that are more communal in nature, such as cooking a meal for your neighbors and bringing them together.  This is another way of transitioning the story to action items.

There’s a fundraising component as well: the $26 fund. There’s a lot of symbolism around 26 in general, because that was the size of the grant that Tabitha took to start the medical clinic. She sold vegetables for six months but then started a medical clinic. The price of the book is $26, and there are 26 cities we’re going to on this book tour.

There are lots of impressive statistics about the number of people CFK’s Tabitha Clinic has helped, but the success of CFK’s leadership is harder to quantify.

Leadership is harder to quantify, but we measure where our members go, what high school and college graduation rates are, what the employment rates are, who is becoming a role model in the community. I think that’s the long-term view towards systemic change. Some of those leaders, working in collaboration with each other and others, will help change their communities. And hopefully eradicate conditions like Kibera in our lifetime.

Rye Barcott with a young friend in Kibera, Spring 2010.(Photo: Jason Arthurs)

One example of a story that really exemplifies the power of participatory leadership is one of a girl named Fatuma. When she started at CFK seven years ago, Fatuma was too shy to introduce herself to me.  She became a founding member of our girls’ center, Binti Pamoja, which creates safe spaces for young women, and invests in their education and their dreams.

Fatuma grew with our organization, and about four years ago presented to the United Nations in New York. She talked about some of the challenges she confronted growing up in Kibera. She’s gone on to serve as a paid reporter for UNICEF, and most recently started an organization in South Sudan to assist women affected by war. She’s a role model, because she’s giving back in other ways. She’s a powerful example of smart investment in talented people, regardless of where they happen to be born.

How has your TED Fellowship impacted you and your work?

TED is tremendously important because it embodies the spirit of collaboration and participatory leadership.

At the TED Conference it’s engaging to be around so many doers. When I think about the significant problems that we face as a world, I think that the majority of the solutions in our lifetime will really happen at the intersecting lines of disciplines and sectors — whether that’s for-profit, government, or nonprofit. So having that tradition that TED has of getting together in small groups of thoughtful individuals, with people from very different backgrounds, and working out tough problems, is important.

To a certain extent, that’s what made CFK possible, too. I go into depth in the book about the relationship between my two co-founders Salim, Tabitha, and me. We come from very different backgrounds, yet we shared some common values. I think at its core that’s what made Carolina for Kibera possible as a sustainable organization that helps break cycles of violence and poverty from within.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

You don’t have to wait until you’ve acquired wealth or status to make an impact. You can do it now.

In your book you talk about compartmentalizing the different areas of your life — the military, Carolina for Kibera, and friends and family — as a coping mechanism. Beyond that, how do you reconcile your every day life here in the US with the poverty you’ve seen in Kibera?

Somebody asked me the other day if I’m motivated by guilt. I think it’s very natural to feel guilt. Especially the first time you see extreme poverty. But guilt’s not sustainable.

Our work is truly propelled by — and renewed on almost a daily basis — a sense of inspiration. The fact that talent is universal, but opportunity is not, and the incredible things that people can do with very small amounts of resources.

You deal with a lot of weighty issues and an intense workload. What do you do for a break?

My biggest respite right now on the road comes through FaceTime and text messaging videos of our baby daughter with my wife. She’s just started to crawl, and it’s great fun to watch.