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The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Thursday, April 28

Arriving for My Balkan Odyssey




The beginning of my Balkan Odyssey is uneventful.  It's a short hop from Skopje to Belgrade, but the flight attendants still manage to serve us a snack.  And it's free!  
Imagine being treated like a human by an airline.  Thank you Serbian Air.

Ivan, my host, greets me at the airport with a "Jud Dolphin" sign in bold letters.  It's not that I'm likely to miss him.  He's almost 7 feet and was a professional basketball player.  On our way into the old town of Belgrade, we pass through the Soviet section of mostly cement block buildings.  It's the same throughout Eastern Europe.  Ivan tells me, "they had no style."  I have to agree.   

I get settled in a lovely room with a bright balcony - made for morning coffees and afternoon blogging or maybe even a watercolor.  

Then it's off for a stroll and a traditional Serbian meal.  Ivan has made a suggestion.  As I walk into the place, the owner, greets me with a warm hello.  When she hears me speak, she knows I'm from a-way.  When I tell her Washington DC, she says, "Obama!" and asks me about Trump.  I say, ne ne ne and she smiles.

Dinner is a fresh tomato salad, home-made lamb soup and a plate filled with a meter of sausage.  If you're not familiar with metrics, you'll need to think about 36 inches.  That's like a yard of sausage!  I'm only able to eat about 20 inches leaving a nice amount for tomorrows lunch.  

My first day in Belgrade is a trek to the Fortress known as Kalemegdan. There has been a fortification here from before Roman times.  Every warring empire has claimed this land and they say the citadel was razed and rebuilt no fewer than 40 times.  

Much of what I see is from the 18th century.  I wander through the gate and follow the wind from one buttress to another looking out upon the convergence of the Sava and Danube Rivers.
 . 

The morning mist has given way to a sunny day as I approach the Fortress

Layers of iron scales on the door make for extra protection





A more ancient section.  The spiky purple flowers caught my attention.
Nebojsa Tower along the River's edge.  Here it is in honor of my colleague from Public with the same name.  
A maintenance man explains the writing on this stone.  It's ancient Serbian or so I think I understand.

Of course, before the fortress was a place for locals to stroll and tourists to see the sights, It was a place of war and blood.  Here's a reminder next to the military museum.  

I don't go inside.  I guess I prefer a walk in nature instead of imaging human carnage. 

A hot chocolate at the renowned Hotel Moscow ends my day.  It's so thick -like sipping melted Hersey Kisses.  

Soon I'll be back in my room relaxing before I'm off to a ballet tonight at the National Theater.  

Friday, March 11

Peace Corps Response and Organizational Change

"You don't know what you don't know" has become a slogan for my Peace Corps service.  It reminds me to be open and humble enough to admit a need to learn. 

Ten months ago, my host organization, Public, requested a Peace Corps Response Volunteer.  

In their application, they talked about growing as an organization and learning more about organizational development.  They were open to learn what they didn't know.  

That’s why I was excited when I arrive in Skopje.  With 40 years of NGO work, I had a lot of experience to share. But first, I would have to listen and learn more from my new colleagues.
 
I heard about their mission of educating the public about social issues especially those that impacted the marginalized.  They had ideas for issue campaigns to influence public policy.  Already they were conducting research into homelessness, social entrepreneurship and media bias.  I was impressed.
   
Early on, I asked if they had a database.  I was thinking that they needed some way to keep track of who, when, where and what they were communicating.  Especially as they increased their influence, there would be more relationships to manage.  They assured me that they had it covered.  So I went on to other projects.

But, "you don't know what you don't know." 

A few months later, I circled around and asked to see the database.  I was curious about the kind of information being collected and how it was being used.  
    
Surprise.  Surprise.  There wasn’t just one database.  There was a multitude. Every staff person had several spreadsheets and Word documents with lists of contacts.  There were even large stacks  of business cards.  All were created for a specific purpose and none were connected to one another. 
  
One staff member explained, “We shuffle through business cards, spreadsheets, documents and our memories to make new lists whenever needed.  Sure, it’s time consuming. But it works.”  
  
I tried to explain how this ad-hoc system might be a drag on their mission.  I got resistance.  I heard comments like, “we’ve always done it this way.”   Again, I tried to explain the waste of time making lists over and over again, but I wasn’t making much progress. 

Here’s where I came face to face with a hard truth.  Change, any change, is difficult.  Even when you say you want to learn, change requires a step into the unknown. 

Then one day, Zarmena on the staff asked me if I knew about CRM.  She had been struggling to manage business contacts.  Her spreadsheet was one of the many.  At a sales training, she heard about CRM and wanted to know more. 

“What’s CRM?” I asked her.  I too didn’t know what I didn’t know.  But a visit to "Google University" soon started my education. 

CRM is a software data base that businesses use to qualify contacts and build relationships with new customers.  It creates step-by-step opportunities for sales and follow-up.  CRM stands for Customer Relations Management. 

I could see how it would help Public.  Instead of selling a product, Public wanted to build  relationships.  Zarmena was focused on relationships with businesses.  She wanted to promote Corporate Social Responsibility.  CRM could help her keep track of progress.  

Other staff wanted to use our research and communications to inform people about long-neglected social issues. CRM could learn their interests and inform them of opportunities to make a difference.
   
We began an office buzz.   As I continued to learn, I sent out a few web-links.  Some staff, including the Director, were skeptical.  I continued the flow of information of how CRM could make work easier and create new opportunities. Progress was slow.   

And then as often happens when something good is waiting to happen, a tipping point changed everything.  

Klimentina, our Director became a supporter.  She realized how CRM could solve problems because it was a searchable database.  

She had wanted to get back in contact with someone she had met a year ago, but no one could remember his organization's name let alone a phone number or email.  This incident convinced her that CRM would make a difference.  
   
Support grew.  Lists of functionality and how it would benefit our work were discussed.  Staff became aware of what was in it for them.  Step-by-step even skeptics realized how CRM would help them.    

We entered a search phase for the right CRM.  There were scores of options, maybe even a hundred.  I began asking other volunteers if their organizations were using it.  I found none.  It looked like we would become trail blazers.  

Eventually, we settled on Insightly CRM.  It had the functions we needed without a lot of clutter.  Because of our non-profit status they gave us a 50% discount.  

We were able to install it on all of our computers.  Data entry began in earnest.  Soon those lists in spreadsheets and Word documents would be a thing of the past. 
  
Yes now, Public has one place for all its contacts.  Yes, Public can sort, track and build relationships like never before.  Yes, Public can manage projects and contact supporters with personalized email.  

Plans are underway to use CRM for fund-raising and the launching of social issue advocacy.  

Public has changed.  It knows what it didn't know before. 

Here is what the staff has to say about liking our new CRM...

Klimentina
"Because it will improve our networking with businesses, NGOs and international organizations.  We'll be able to engage more Macedonians in our mission."
Neshko

"Because it will help me stay organized.  Now I can keep track of all my contacts, projects and organizations." 


Zarmena

"Because I feel more organized.  I can manage our vendors and all our contacts with businesses."  

Aleksandra

"Because it will change attitudes and the values of our audiences as we deliver more targeted advocacy."
Aneta

"Because our team can collaborate more and become synchronized in our work."

Tiana

"Because our memories are short and CRM remembers all the details."

Monday, February 15

What About God's Justice?

Social justice is the topic for this month's issue of Лице в Лице, our street magazine.

Klimentina, our Director, invited me to write a guest column.  I was honored, but...I didn't know what to say.  For almost two weeks I procrastinated with the deadline looming ever closer.  Then late one night, I Mind Mapped this article. 
***
I have a habit of talking in my sleep.  Once as a young man, I woke up an entire household of friends yelling, “What about God's Justice?”   

It was a startling awakening for them and me too.  Ever since, it's become a question for my life. 

I started my career in 1972 after graduating from seminary.  Instead of church work, I soon began organizing social service and social change projects.  I remember going to work and seeing dozens of families waiting for some form of emergency help.  We paid for rent and utilities and gave out many bags of food thinking it was the least we could do. 

Once we discovered a homeless man sleeping in a crawl space under our front door.   A couple of old blankets and a half burnt candle on top of a cardboard box were home for him. That sight led to the creation of our community's first homeless shelter.  Nightly, we began giving warm meals and beds to people who had next to nothing thinking again it was the least we could do.  

I went on to promote social justice in Washington, DC.  I organized a national network of partner organizations to end childhood hunger.  Our research showed that 15 million children in America were at risk of hunger.  It was too much. 

Through my work, I became acutely aware of injustice, prejudice and the plight of marginalized people.  

Once I remember writing:
 "Poverty is a terrible thief.  More than depriving a neighbor of food or shelter or warmth, it steals away hope.  While other thieves may take things from the past, poverty steals a person's self-respect and future.”

Since coming to Macedonia, I’ve had conversations about social justice with my new friends.  I discovered that we share many of the same yearnings. 

Sometimes we look nostalgically to the past of what was or might have been.   For me it's remembering President John F Kennedy who among many things started the Peace Corps.  Maybe for Macedonians, it's Tito or another leader from another time.  Whatever the details, we remember the good old days.  Those were years filled with hope and promise or so we think. 

Unfortunately too often, we see the past through rose colored glasses.  We gloss over blemishes and ignore problems.  We make our leaders heroic and forget that they are imperfect humans, just like us. 

This year both Macedonia and America will have elections.  It seems that no matter from what political party, candidates make lots of promises. It can sound almost Utopian and we’re tempted to believe everything wholeheartedly. 

But I think we know better.  While some changes can move towards justice, others do not.  It seems that just when we rejoice over a new day dawning, another change comes along and moves us in the opposite direction.  
As Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Theologian and Ethicist famously said,

“Nothing worth doing is complete in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.  Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.  

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. 
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of friend or foe as from our own; therefore we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”  (Irony of American History, page 63)

So what are we to do? 

Meeting with two of our Vendors.  They're our sales force for our street magazine and receive fifty percent of the cover price. More importantly, they've become friends.  
I’ve learned to live in the tension between the ideals of justice and political reality that falls short.  While some may despair, I think it’s good to still have ideals and to work for social justice.  

But we need to be vigilant about Utopian agendas that promise too much.  I think Niebuhr is right when he reminds us that we live in a world of partial justice. What we do will have flaws, but we do the best we know how to do at the time. 

Like a Macedonian friend reminds me, “We don’t know…what we don’t know.”   So it's a good idea to remain open to new possibilities and humble enough to realize that we too are blind in many areas.  What we manage to do for others is not perfect, but we can hope that it's making a difference. 

So I say, be more positive and do not dwell on negativity.  
An old proverb asks a question.  Is a glass of water half-empty or half-full?  

It's always half-full when people care with act of kindness especially to the marginalized of every background, race and religion.  It’s filling up when neighbors welcome strangers from Syria and beyond.  

It's almost brimming over when leaders forsake self-interest and strike out for social justice in laws and policies.  The glass becomes full whenever people join together for the common good. 

I think this outlook counters modern pessimism and the paralysis of negativity.  It does not deny that life is hard and unfair at times because it certainly is.  But it does urge us to live a life where our actions, in whatever partial and halting way, can and do make a difference.     

I found these words from Robert F Kennedy, an American leader, who like his brother was assassinated. They still speak to our time.   

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped….

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” (Address in South Africa, June 1966)


What about God's justice?  It's a question each of us answer as we live lives that can make a difference or not.    

Wednesday, December 30

Vienna at Christmas

Vienna at Christmas. It’s a place of music and museums; architecture and history; churches and Christmas markets.  And Oh! I can't forget cafes.  

Viennese coffee house culture is world famous. As they say, people pay for the coffee, but it’s the friendship and conversations that are consumed.  I hunt for Café Landtmann. It’s the one that Freud frequented.  It still stands on a corner near the University.
I walk in. A formally attired waiter directs me to a table. I imagine Freud walking over to that cozy corner. The parent of psychoanalysis goes from couch to café and back again and here I am.   I scan the menu. It has pictures so there’s no problem in ordering. My treat is going to be hot coco with chocolate and pistachio swirls. Yum! Wish you were here.  

Learnmore about cafe culture. 


Three guys are so deep in conversation that
they don’t see me taking their picture.
















Tonight I go to my first concert. I've planned for two more in smaller churches - Trumpet and Organ Duo and Mozart and Beethoven String Quartets.  Also if I can get a ticket, I want to go to a Strauss and Mozart extravaganza at the Palace.  

But for now,  it’s a Christmas Mass at the huge Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  As I get off the Underground, a cacophony of sounds and sights smack my senses. Street musicians play. Men in seventeenth century dress hawk tickets for concerts. Families pause to gaze at lights as little one are filled with wonder. People scurry everywhere.

Outside of St. Stephen's Cathedral
I open the thick oak doors, pause at the holy water and then find a seat. A young woman next to me shares a program. I simile in appreciation, but, of course, it’s in German. I take a deep breath and listen to the organ prelude relaxing into the music. It’s Christmas in Vienna.
My days are filled with sight-seeing. So many buildings show off their baroque heritage. Others are more modern. Yet all seem to blend together harmoniously. It’s a pleasure to walk the streets.





I take time for a tour of the Parliament building. The style is Grecian with some Roman influence. Athena stands tall in front. I’m told that in a multi-religious country, it’s important not to publicly promote one faith over another. So you do not see Christian or Islamic or Jewish symbols here.


Front Of The Parliament
Interesting Details On Many Buildings
It was built during the long reign of Franz Joseph, Europe’s last great monarch. He allowed it to counter political instability, Limited democracy had a foothold. The modern era was beginning and a world war would soon unravel everything.
Inside the Parliament
Learn more about this interesting history of Austria. 
I’m off to Schonburnn Palace. It was the summer residence for successive monarchs of the Hapsburg dynasty. Imagine the accumulation of wealth that created this place. Such massive income inequality.  
No picture taking is allowed inside the Palace. But I did take plenty outside. Fortunately, today is bright, blue and breezy. I walk my feet off!
Summer Palace of the Hapsburg Dynasty

Summer Palace Gardens 
Warm Enough For A Beautiful Water Fountain
In Vienna Christmas markets are spread out across the city. I wander into one that’s in front of City Hall. A giant tree with lights sets the tone and gluehwein, a hot wine drink, warms the body and spirit. I’m on a mission to get a few gifts for my grand kids and my great nieces. What fun.
One Of Many Stalls At The Christmas Market

Giant Tree In Front Of Vienna's City Hall
One of the features of Vienna is a Tramway that encircles the center of the city. I hop on the “Yellow Tram” since it’s equipped with an audio travelogue in multiple languages. It’s a good way to get an overview and find places to explore more deeply.


Comfortable seating makes this museum even better
I return to Kunsthistorisches Museum. It was was built in 1891 near the Imperial Palace to house the extensive collections of the Hapsburg imperial family. It’s considered one of the most eminent museums in the world. I spend the afternoon wandering from salon to salon.
I take a break in a café that occupies the grand rotunda. The building itself is an impressive work of art.
Central Dome With Staircase On Either Side

I'm Introduced to Pieter Bruegel Work

Pieter Bruegel
It’s Christmas Eve. I return to the oldest church in Vienna. However, because of my lapse of judgment and knowledge of the Underground system, I arrive about 2 1/2 hours before mass. What to do? The streets are nearly deserted, cafes are closed and it’s cold.
Then I see an establishment and it’s open. I wonder why, but I’m grateful to walk inside. I order a coffee and I as I often do when traveling solo, I start a conversation with two young women at the table next to me.
St. Ruprecht Skirche (Church)
I tell them about the church I will be attending. It’s the oldest in Vienna dating back to about 775 CE. The first edifice was built in the 12th century. It’s small more like a chapel. Unlike so many other churches in Vienna, it’s plain, definitely not Baroque.
I discover that the church stood next to a large hotel that the Nazis commandeered for their HQs during WWII. Towards the end of the War, the Allies bombed the hell out of the HQs until only ruble remained. Amazingly, no bombs hit the Church. Only windows were shattered because of shock waves.
Now the church sits beside a park where a memorial has been constructed for those murdered by Nazi hate.
I say goodbye to my new friends and pay my bill. I ask my young waiter if the cafe is owned by Muslims. He doesn’t know for sure, but he says, “ like me, most (workers) are Muslim."
I smile and explain my gratitude for this place being opened and Muslims generally.  He smiles back and we shake hands.
I’m climbing a long flight of stairs. It feels like going on a pilgrimage. As I enter the Church, I see no Christmas tree up front. Instead, a soft  sculpture stands looking a bit like a make-shift tent -  the kind kids make in the backyard.   Except this one is not for fun times. 
A Tent Is No Home
It's entitled "A tent is no home."   I’m told the artist wants us to ponder the refugees fleeing wars in their homelands. I think about Mary and Joseph who were like refugees. After all a stable is not a home either.

The Christmas Eve service is a long one.  Starting with Genesis, a lot of sacred history is recounted.  Of course I understand nothing directly, but I try to feel the spirit of this place.  It's a good one.  

Afterward people are friendly. “Are you coming to the party,” I'm asked?  I think why not and go. 
I'm Introduced To An Older Menber
I'm curious about how the church managed through the Nazi period.
I'm introduced to some of the older members.  I think the subject would make a fascinating doctoral study

It's after 3:30 am before I unlock the door to my hotel room.  I'm tired, but elated. It's turned out to be an amazing Christmas Eve.

On my final day, I take a walk and discover the Einstein Cafe.  I have a lovely conversation with a Greek couple.  It's one of the joys of travel - meeting new and interesting people.  

They take my picture.  I'm very happy.  I'm thinking that because of the name of this place, I'm getting a bit smarter or maybe just more of a Smart Axx.  (Chuckle)
That's it from Vienna.  From me to you....Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Friday, December 18

Peace Corps Response and Chance Opportunities

If I tell you about my work week, you might ask, “Are you really in the Peace Corps?” 

Unlike popular images of trekking across barren lands to teach an English class or digging wells to provide safe drinking water for an entire village or saving the world in some other amazing way, my experience is more mundane.

You see, I spend much of my week in front of a computer. I'm searching for information, analyzing, thinking and writing. I might be working on a methodology for problem solving or a strategy for our Internet and Social Media presence or a presentation for a workshop.  Ordinary stuff. 

I'm always calling the staff together for strategy planning.  We use a lot of mind mapping and brain-storming.  Our white board gets used so much that it seems like we are always buying new markers. After meetings, I compile notes and try to keep us moving forward.  I guess I'm a nudge too.

Recently I've been learning about CRM or Customer Relations Management. It's a data base that can be used to build relationships with customers or in our case with our constituents. 

My organization is poised to use CRM.  We want to to deepen relationships with our contacts and engage them in our mission of positive social change. 

As a colleague often says, “We always had dreams, but we didn't know what we didn't know until we knew it."

But there's a problem. All the CRM software seems to be English based. It doesn't take or, more importantly, export Cyrillic letters. We're looking for a work around. If anyone has an idea, please let me know.

When I step away from my desk and computer, I'm likely to be meeting new people. Yesterday I repeated my workshops on Time Management and Mind Mapping for about 45 business, education and NGO leaders as well as some students and unemployed people.

It was part of Skopje's effort to equip citizens with new skills for personal development. It was well received and I'm even invited back in February.

That's about as pictorial as my work week gets. Mostly I'm at my desk.  I guess I could easily be mistaken for a bureaucrat whose office just happens to be in Skopje, Macedonia.

It's not that I'm complaining. I'm not. I believe Peace Corps work, like mine, has value even if it's not so flashy.

I'm part of the Peace Corps Response Program. It places returned Peace Corps Volunteers and other qualified professionals in assignments around the world. These opportunities are based on sharing professional experience and skills to help host country organizations grow in their reach and effectiveness. 

My organization in Macedonia, known as Public, has a mission of working for positive change in Society. They do it through social issue research, public education and calls to action. 

Sometimes my work week is interrupted by surprising opportunities.  As best as I can tell, it works like this... 

Someone who knows me tells another about me who passes it on to another and then to another. Finally, I'm asked, “Can you help us?”

Today, I'm making my way to the St. Kliment of Ohrid National and University Library. I know the way because a section of the Library houses the American Corner.

American Corner is a space where computers, English magazines and books are made available to the public compliments of the US Embassy. I few months ago Maja, one of the key staff, asked me to teach several of my Organizational Development workshops there. It was fun and a rewarding experience. I love teaching.

Now my trip to the Library is to meet with Maja's boss. It's about some grant they are submitting, but I'm fuzzy about details. I've been learning that I don't have to have it all figured out. All I need to do is show up and as they say, “Go with the flow.”

I lock my bike to a pole. I bike everywhere in Skopje unless it's raining. Maja greets me with a warm “good day” and takes me to her Director's office. 


Soon I'm confronted with a surprising opportunity.  I hear about an emergency of dire consequences.

“Our building is 45 years old. Inside, we have the irreplaceable cultural heritage of Macedonia - rare books and manuscripts, first editions of famed authors, icons, art works, and so much more.” She shows me list naming more than 30 different collections. I had no idea and now these collections are at risk.

“Our roof is leaking. It's getting so old. Every time we have a hard storm water leaks into the reading room and now into the stacks. We're trying to cope with buckets and plastic, but it's not working.”

Then she shows me a grant application. It's a US Embassy application for the “Protection of Cultural Heritage.” The director wants my help. She confides that she has little experience in writing grants and using English, especially for something so important. I gladly agree to help.

I'm thinking, “How fortunate to be here. Thank you Peace Corps Response. And how fortunate I am to have met Maja. And how fortunate I am to know about grant making.”  It's surprising how things can work out for the good.  

Together, the director, Maja and I settle in by a sunny window to work through the proposal. I make the director promise to let me know when she gets the grant and then to send lots picture of the new roof. She smiles broadly.

It's another one of those chance meetings that make a difference. With nearly 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers serving in 63 countries world wide, I'm wondering...

  • How many chance encounters are saving cultural heritage,
  • Restoring human dignity
  • And yes, improving human lives with safe drinking water?
Maybe one day we'll do even more when we stop preparing for war and invest our national treasure in peace making.