Sharing a Passion for Activism
In the small midwestern town of Richmond, Indiana, the idea of having to live on one dollar a day is just that — an idea. But when she was 13 years old, sophomore Sophie Ottoni-Wilhelm heard a lecture from David Radcliff, the director of the New Community Project (NCP), a small nonprofit organization focusing its resources on issues of global justice and sustainability. Afterward, she couldn’t get the idea out of her head.
So as she continued to go to classes and soccer practice, Ottoni-Wilhelm decided that it was “as good a time as any to get involved.” She fed herself on a dollar a day to understand what it was like; she made presentations to her classmates on women’s rights in developing countries; she even organized so many bake sales and bowl-a-thons that she was able to send a check for several thousand dollars straight to Radcliff himself, asking him to put the money toward a project that would help women.
Her work made quite the impression on the NCP, and two years after she first heard Radcliff speak, Ottoni-Wilhelm was asked to join the organization’s board as its youth representative. The politics major has remained an active member, attending twice-annual meetings and taking part in one of the organization’s learning tours to Nepal in January of 2012. Now, Ottoni-Wilhelm is bringing NCP closer to home by starting a chapter for students at Oberlin, hoping to provide her fellow activist-minded peers with the same kind of passion for a cause that she found seven years ago.
As it turns 10 years old this August, the NCP’s three main branches of focus remain more or less the same as when it started, according to Ottoni-Wilhelm: to educate, to care for the environment, and to care for each other. The organization accomplishes these goals through their learning tours, by pledging to live more simply, and through efforts to better the education of women in developing countries.
By partnering with small grassroots organizations around the world, the NCP is able to provide financial help to facilitate change from within a community itself. Donors and non-donors alike can join NCP leaders on two-week-long learning tours to these communities, visiting project sites around the world as varied as Ecuador, Sudan, and Alaska. By introducing their donor base to these cultures and communities, the NCP tries to “turn the world upside-down for a privileged, first-world donor base,” says Ottoni-Wilhelm.
“There’s a lot of discomfort going on in our learning tour experiences, and that’s part of why I got involved in the first place — I felt really uncomfortable with all the privilege that I have as a middle class white girl growing up in a small town in Indiana with professor parents,” says Ottoni-Wilhelm. “But I think it’s really important to recognize your privilege and move on from those guilty feelings to actually doing something good in the world.”
The NCP’s care for the environment challenges each and every person to live simply and sustainably on a day-to-day basis. Small adjustments to daily life, like riding a bike to work or class, or eating local vegetables, create a community of like-minded people, all of whom can push for larger environmental goals. The NCP also helps sponsor a carbon-neutral homestead in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and has begun buying up acreage in the Ecuadorian Amazon in an effort to protect the indigenous tribes who live on the currently 250-acre plot designated by oil companies.
“There are human elements along with the environmental side,” says Ottoni-Wilhelm, “which is important to us as we try to connect these bigger world issues.”
That focus makes up a large part of the NCP’s third goal — changing and caring about the lives of others through issues of social justice, particularly issues affecting women in developing countries. This is where Ottoni-Wilhelm’s passion and responsibility most heavily lies. With the initial donation she made to the NCP as a young teenager, Radcliff was able to further fund a special project called Give A Girl A Chance, an initiative for the education of young girls in developing countries.
In Nepal, where Ottoni-Wilhelm works, the NCP provides scholarships to preschool-aged girls and follows them through high school, additionally subsidizing the income of the family so that the girl is able to be at school during the day.
In a developing country like Nepal, a relatively small donation by American standards — $100 — is enough to send a girl to school for a year. The more education a girl has, the lower the odds that she will end up married at a young age, contract HIV/AIDS, or be trafficked into the sex trade in India — which, with 10,000 to 15,000 young girls and women lured by false promises or sold by their families and trafficked across the border every year, is one of the busiest slave trafficking routes in the world.
“A lot of political theorists and scholars have been saying that in order to help a country escape poverty, the best thing you can do is educate the women and invest in their futures,” says Ottoni-Wilhelm. The NCP has taken this to heart — along with funding education, the NCP considers business proposals and provides microloans for women’s groups.
During her first trip to Nepal, during winter term of 2012, Ottoni-Wilhelm met with a group called Women’s Empowerment, NCP’s first grassroots partner in the country. This summer, she will spend three months in Kathmandu visiting the site of a potential new partner called Shakti Samuka. Made up of women who were sex trafficked into India, rescued, and brought back to Nepal, the organization trains community volunteers to recognize the signs of girl trafficking in small villages and rural settings as well as the larger cities. The group has also set up emergency service centers for girls who have recently been rescued from the sex trade and brought back into the country.
Ottoni-Wilhelm will be reporting her observations and experiences from the organization’s headquarters, volunteer training sites, and emergency centers back to the NCP board and Radcliff. “If all goes well, I'll be able to get Shakti Samuka a grant by the end of the year to use toward the prevention of girl trafficking into the sex trade and micro loans for women who have survived and are planning business ventures,” says Ottoni-Wilhelm. She has also been asked to set up a summer internship program in Nepal for college students who are interested in social justice issues.
During her time in Nepal, Ottoni-Wilhelm has been struck by the passion, resilience, and empowerment of the Nepalese women she has met, especially in reference to future generations. “Something I hear a lot when I’m there is, ‘if I can’t go to college, if I couldn’t go to high school, I want my daughter to. I was in the sex trade for seven years and then rescued; I don’t want this for my daughters. I don’t want this for the daughters of Nepal.’”
Although they receive some outside grant money and an occasional matching donation from larger organization, the majority of the NCP’s $100,000 of annual donations come from their individual donor base, thanks to Radcliff’s near-constant traveling to speak at colleges, churches, and community groups across the country.
“Something like 80 percent of our donors give less than $100, so we have a huge amount of support,” says Ottoni-Wilhelm. “These donors are a lot of college students, a lot of young adults, which is very exciting because it’s a sustainable kind of group and people really believe in our ideas and what we stand for, and they’re willing to support in whatever ways they can.”
Soon, Oberlin students will be able to get involved with the NCP through an on-campus chapter, the organization’s second (the first is at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, where Radcliff is a teacher). The chapter’s first interest meeting was held in April; for now, Ottoni-Wilhelm is working with fellow students to find out where interests and possible goals for the group lie.
“We've heard from a lot of young people a yearning for encouragement to live more mindfully — a community of others concerned about the mess we've made of our world and the ways we've ignored the struggles of our neighbors,” she says.
As a 13-year-old student, Ottoni-Wilhelm never particularly planned to become so involved with the NCP. “It just kind of happened,” she says. “I’ve been growing up with it. My role in the nonprofit has been changing through the years, and it’s been interesting to reflect back on it now — from the initial fundraising money as a teenager to now, from bake sales to Kathmandu. And I’m excited to see the ways that it’ll change in the future. I can’t even imagine those ways right now.”
Looking past this summer and even after Oberlin, Ottoni-Wilhelm is unsure of where her involvement with the NCP will lead her, though it seems likely that she will stay within the realm of social justice for women and girls.
“I’m just a sophomore, and it’s hard to make decision about whether or not this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, but I see a calling in helping these women realize their own dreams or realize dreams for their daughters,” she says. “They have a saying in Nepal: ‘To be born a daughter is a lost life.’ There’s so much patriarchy ingrained in the culture, ingrained in the people, and that’s just starting to change now. I’m excited to be a part of that.”