Archive for the ‘Culture’ category

New TV program aims to change the way we see developing countries

May 13, 2009

You might recognize the face and name of Chris Bashinelli. (Hint: “The Sopranos.”) If, for some reason, he’s not ringing a bell to you, don’t worry – he soon will.

Chris recently asked young Americans what they were watching on TV. Their answers held no surprises. What was shocking, however, was what they were not seeing on their television screens:

This is where his new program “Bridge the Gap” comes in. “Bridge the Gap” is an in-depth TV series that looks at why understanding culture is crucial to the development of any nation. In the program, Chris travels to various developing nations where he spends 40 days immersing himself in the culture and observing firsthand the issues most affecting people’s lives. He then meets with leading experts from the countries he visits to further understand the issues at hand. The whole idea behind the TV series is to find ways for young Americans to “bridge the gap” between themselves and the developing world.

Check out this pilot episode to get a more intimate feel of the spirit behind the program:

I recently had a chance to discuss with Chris the story behind “Bridge the Gap” and his thoughts on how young people in particular can make a lasting difference in the world today.

Q: Your program is aimed at empowering a younger generation of Americans to care and take action, and it is also geared toward showing another side of developing countries other than the “poverty porn” we are usually bombarded with. Please tell me a bit about why you chose to target this segment of the population with your program.

A: So many of the young people I’ve spoken with are eager to change the world. They have a real burning desire, a fire in their hearts. They don’t know the meaning of “No” and have never heard of red tape. Many young people are also still trying to figure out where they’re at and what they’re going to be doing with the rest of their lives. They’re making important decisions as to what matters to them and what doesn’t. Often times these decisions follow through into adulthood.

Why not influence America’s youth in a positive way? Why not change the face of the developing world as America sees it? We are too often brainwashed by one-sided media that doesn’t show both sides of the equation. We’ll see images of horrible things happening in other parts of the world without a real understanding of why things are the way they are, or what we can do to help. On my journey through the developing world I learned so much more from people – more than they learned from me. I’d love to share this story with a larger audience so that we can all learn from each other.

Q: Tell me about the inspiration behind “Bridge the Gap.” You spent some time in Tanzania, I assume before you filmed the pilot episode over there. What brought you to Tanzania in the first place and can you pinpoint the moment you realized that America’s young people also needed to see what you were seeing in that country? Did a specific incident inspire you?

A: The idea for “Bridge the Gap” has been brewing my entire life. Changing the world is something that I always wanted to do, but I never knew how (I’m still figuring it out). I also always wanted to be a famous actor. I actually had the notion throughout high school and college that I would be a famous actor and use my fame to “change the world.” Ha! The realization for me that I needed to change course and take action toward my dream of “changing the world” came on November 29, 2007. I was sitting in a van with Robert Iler right after having spent the day filming “The Sopranos,” and I remember being pissed off. I was speaking with one of the other actors in the car about how frustrating show business was, how superficial and vain it could be. I knew it was significant that right after I had filmed an internationally recognized TV show, I was complaining!

That’s when I realized I was not happy and needed to change something fast. I did the math and realized I could graduate from college early so long as I could find 7 credits to complete over the summer. I started researching all of the possible options to study abroad. I filtered through about 200 programs and narrowed it down to two. It came down to Tanzania and South Africa. I brought the two options to my parents and was greeted with utter shock, profanity and denial. Eventually, my parents cooled down and my father suggested I’d have a richer cultural experience in Tanzania…he was right.

I realized around that time that America’s young people were (and still are) in dire need of new programming on TV. It was right around the culmination of “I Love New York,” “America’s Next Top Model,” and the 2,000 other programs doing nothing for the greater good of humanity. I really saw it in my younger sisters (now 20 and 18) who were constantly being drawn into this “train wreck” type of television programming. It provides a sort of temporary escape from reality and is nothing but pure entertainment.

After going to Tanzania and seeing the tremendous need for education and other basic services, I started to think. Who are we to be indulging in our wants, when so many people in developing countries are dying without the basic essentials they need? It’s very simple: America’s youth want to change the world, they need a program on TV that can outline what their role is in world change, and they need tangible ways to proceed.

Q: What do you consider to be the most important issues facing young people today, both in the U.S. and in the countries you visit for “Bridge the Gap”?

A: I’ll break this question down into two parts.

I hate to make vast assumptions that could sum up an entire population, but, if I had to, I’d say the greatest challenge young people in the United States face is combating a society that is geared toward individual advancement. We worship famous actors, athletes and idols. We are all about doing better, being the best, succeeding past all our peers.

The greatest lesson I learned in Tanzania was to be part of a world community, to put my wants on the back burner and to place other people’s needs on the front burner.  Stepping outside of yourself and seeing things from another’s shoes is one of the simplest and most difficult things to do. We live in a society that applauds the individual and individual achievement. Not enough recognition is given to selfless individuals. The challenge for young people in the States is to break the mold of materialism, wastefulness, and selfishness that is commonplace.

Young people need to know it’s OK to follow your dreams even if that means being poor and living in a shack. We need to know that it’s cool and necessary to help other people. We also need to know that it’s not OK for us to turn a blind eye to problems faced by other countries. In a nutshell, our greatest challenge is to make ourselves aware of issues that are not in mainstream media (poverty, AIDS, genocide) and do something about it!

I found that young people in the United Republic of Tanzania deal with many of the issues we deal with in the United States of America, such as trying to promote a hip-hop CD so you can find a sponsor, or a guy getting stressed out because the girl he likes is ‘playing games’ with him, getting yelled at for drinking with your friends, or even trying to figure out what to do when you grow up. However, young people in Tanzania didn’t deal with a lot of the issues we deal with here.

There are no arguments about who gets the front seat in the car, or hating your parents because they bought you a used car and not a new one. No one fights over the TV remote or deals with the stress of trying to decide which pair of sneakers to buy when it’s their 10th pair that year. Young people in Tanzania will be lucky to ever drive a car, most will never watch cable TV and many wear the same sandals for five years straight. So in one sense, many of our human needs and the daily challenges we face are universal, but wow are they different! Young people in Tanzania face incredibly difficult challenges from an early age. Many are deciding if they will stay in the rural areas or leave their families for the cities (where unemployment is in the double figures). Probably one of the greatest concerns for young people is education. They are scrambling to find money to pay school fees (with less than 30 percent of the population able to afford secondary school). If they are able to afford secondary school and can graduate, they may be the only one in their village to do so.

Q: In creating “Bridge the Gap,” what have been the lessons you have learned so far?

A: Creating “Bridge the Gap” has been a real personal journey for me. Each time I am transformed, the idea for the show transforms as well. I cannot separate my story from the show. I first went to Africa with the mindset of “I’m going to help you” and “How can I fix your problems?” Wow, was I wrong. This Western mentality that I had was very self-serving.

The transformation for me came while speaking with exiled Black Panther, Pete O’Neal, in Tanzania. I was sitting with Pete and wanted to know, “How can I help these people?” He said, “Firstly, change your focus from helping these people, to helping yourself. Learn to step outside of yourself. Learn to put what Chris wants not necessarily on the front burner, but put it aside a bit and look and see the bigger picture.” I wasn’t satisfied with this answer, so I kept on, “I don’t understand. That doesn’t tell me what I can do.” Pete said, “There is no way on God’s Earth I can tell you any set of instructions or rules that would make you go out and do great things. I don’t do great things, but I’m a good human being. Stop being so selfish. Stop thinking about what kind of shirt you wear, or if I get this money I’m going to do that. Put that all aside.” I kept on, I didn’t get it! He said, “How much money you got right now?” My response, “$800.” He said, “Take $100, and do something good with it. But do it now, you will have started a trend and if you continue, you’ll find a path, it will come to you.”

It was after that conversation I realized how selfishly I was living my life. I didn’t do something good with that $100 until over one year later. That is how long it took me to begin to step outside of myself. But Pete planted that seed in 2007. Now every day when I’m interacting with people, and I have a choice to act for myself or for others, I remember those words, “Step outside yourself.” I don’t always follow the right path, but I’m trying my best. The greatest lesson I’ve learned is that in order to live a happy life, we must move from a state of selfishness to a state of selflessness.

Q: What do you envision for the future of this program?

A: There is no limit to the success for “Bridge the Gap.” I believe that this model of informing people, immersing in another culture and finding ways for people to get involved can be applied to literally every country on earth. With about half of the world’s population living on less than $2 a day, the need for this show is tremendous. The ultimate goal will be to travel to every single developing country on earth and stay there for 40 days, immersing in the culture of the people, interviewing influential figures to find out what’s happening, and then finding tangible ways for privileged global citizens to help those in need.

My vision is that the show will air on MTV, where it could reach literally hundreds of millions of viewers, and many of those viewers would be inspired to take massive action. However, I want to make one thing clear: I want to do what is best for each developing country. During the course of filming, I may find that my role in helping one particular country may be to mind my own business. What is true for one country may not be true for another. This isn’t about a young American changing the world. It is about a young American understanding his role in world change so we can do what is best for each developing country.

Q: When can we expect to see “Bridge the Gap” air on television?

A: We plan to shoot the first few episodes of “Bridge the Gap” in Tanzania later this year. It is just a matter of securing the right company sponsorship and network deals, which is all in the works. Right now we’re looking at MTV, Discovery, the Africa Channel and Current TV. Dates and times will always be listed on our website,

Q: I’m sure many young people who will watch your program will want to know how they can do more from their hometowns. Many probably aren’t able to fly to Tanzania or other developing countries and most do not  have the money to make any sizable donation to relevant organizations. Also, they probably will want to do more than simply give money. What realistic advice can you give them as to how to become involved and actually feel like they made a difference?

A: This is a fantastic question and probably the most important.

There are numerous ways people can make a difference without traveling to Tanzania.

First and foremost, we should approach world change with an open mindset. The most powerful way I’ve found is to look at it as a partnership. Our goal should be to assist people in creating their own futures, not doing it for them. The change has to be sustainable.

Also, uur government is not playing its part in aiding the developing world. While we have promised 0.7% of the GDP to foreign aid, the number is nowhere near that and probably closer to 0.2%. I was speaking with the ambassador from Tanzania a few months ago and he says one of the best ways we can contribute is to encourage Congress to provide bi-lateral assistance to Tanzania. Viewers can organize protests at their local congressman’s office to pressure the government to contribute its fair share to foreign aid. Viewers can call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224 3121, provide their zip code, and they’ll be transferred to their congressman’s office.

If people can’t actually make it to Tanzania themselves, that’s no problem. There are already tremendous organizations working to support sustainable development in the country. A great way for people to help from their hometowns is to spread the word about these different volunteer opportunities to their classmates. A complete list of organizations can be found on The Peace Corps is one example: You can volunteer overseas for two years, all expenses paid.

In addition, The Millennium Promise is responsible for securing funding for the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). MVP is based on the idea that impoverished villages can be transformed if they are empowered with proven, practical technologies. Many villages throughout Africa have been transformed as a result. Students can organize fundraisers or parties at their schools to support MVP in reaching the UN’s goal of eliminating poverty by 2015.

There are 2 excellent MVP opportunities for students to work on from their hometowns:

Table for 2 is a Tokyo based non-profit working with the UN. They serve healthy meals in corporate cafeterias and charge a little extra to do so. A percentage of each purchase goes toward school meals programs in Africa. The school meals program in Africa means students are provided a healthy, locally grown meal in school, which increases attendance as well. By charging a little extra for a healthy meal, Table for 2 combats obesity in the developed world and malnutrition in the developing world. People can sign up local restaurants to become part of this amazing program.

Also, students can contact Millennium Promise to set up a school-to-school program which connects children in Uganda with children in the United States. This is a tremendous learning experience. Contact


Note: Chris invites readers of this blog and the public to a premier screening of “Bridge the Gap” on Monday, May 18, at Marymount Manhattan College (221 E. 71st St. NY, NY) in the Regina Peruggi Room, 2nd floor, main building. Refreshments will be served at 6:40 p.m. with the screening to take place at 7 p.m. Speakers will follow. Guests include: The Peace Corps, Peace House Africa, The Bahati Foundation and others.

Space is limited so interested parties should RSVP to


International Women’s Day Weekend Celebrations Around the World

March 6, 2009

Sunday, March 6, is International Women’s Day.

Here’s a look at how countries around the world are celebrating:

Ethiopia: The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa recognized in a ceremony today, female students who have excelled in the fight against HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence. The event was hosted by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The United States and Ethiopia have formed a partnership in addressing needs and combatting the tragedies that result from both HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence.

India: Local men’s organizations are participating in joint celebrations with women’s groups. NGO groups such as Naari Samata Manch, Purush Uvach, Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), Masoom, Maaher, Miloon Saryajani, Samyak and Stree Mukti Sanghatna are among them. “There are quite a few men’s organisations which have been supporting the cause of women’s rights. We want to bring these groups to the fore through this unique programme,” Anand Pawar, executive director, Samyak, said.

Turkemistan: The country will host a women’s arts festival which will include “paintings, traditional carpet ornaments, sculptures, jewelry, ceramics, and metal works from more than 70 female artists.” Their works will be on display at various museums in Ashgabat on March 8.

Poland: Tradtionally, Women’s Day in Poland has been marked by giving flowers, chocolates and gifts to women, however, over time the holiday has morphed into a day of women’s rights dialogue.For 10 years now, the International Women’s Day has been an opportunity for women to voice their opinions and persuade people that women share common interests and promote the idea that they should be more active and independent: do business, get into politics, demand equality within the family and in the workplace. For 10 years, the Polish organization called Porozumienie Kobiet 8 Marca (March 8 Women’s Alliance), supported by many women’s groups, has been organizing the biggest demonstration of women’s rights supporters, widely known as Manifa (march of protesters). It has become a grassroots democratic movement. The Manifas are being organized in many Polish cities, by local committees, comprised of NGOs, university gender studies programs, scientific associations, and informal groups or individuals.”

Italy: And in Rome, people will be rocking out to a sold-out Women’s Day concert which will include a tribute to South African civil rights activist Miriam Makeba who passed away in Italy last year.

How are you celebrating in your part of the world?

Pennies for Peace

February 18, 2009

There was a time when the region of Central Asia was virtually unknown to the rest of the world. Then 9/11 happened and suddenly all attention was focused on Afghanistan and the region as a whole.

But before the events related to 9/11 even took place, Greg Mortenson was working in the region and had founded the Central Asia Institute which continues its work of building schools for girls in a part of the world where education for girls has not always been possible.

Yesterday I received a packet from the Central Asia Institute (of Three Cups of Tea fame), which included a beautifully written and photographed report on the institute’s work in Central Asia. But while paging through the material the CAI sent me, another project also caught my eye — Pennies for Peace:

Pennies for Peace educates children about the world beyond their experience and shows them that they can make a positive impact on a global scale, one penny at a time.

Our best hope for a peaceful and prosperous world lies in the education of all the world’s children. Through cross-cultural understanding and a solution-oriented approach, Pennies for Peace encourages children, ultimately our future leaders, to be active participants in the creation of global peace.

The Pennies for Peace Web site offers some fantastic resources for teachers interested in participating in the program, including some facts about the areas where the CAI operates. It also lists suggested books for school kids in relation to the program’s mission and a themed curriculum for teachers, among the other materials found in the program’s “toolkit.”

Teachers interested in having their classes participate in the program are encouraged to register on the Pennies for Peace Web site.

Below is a video summarizing the CAI’s work as well as the Pennies for Peace project. [Note: Some of the people interviewed in this clip have inserted their own political philosophies into the video, but what is important is the larger message about the importance of education.]

Editor’s Pick: palabras sin fronteras

February 13, 2009

Every once in a while we’ll showcase a blog that has caught our interest in the hopes that it will catch our readers’ interest as well.

While getting wonderfully lost in the World Wide Peace Corps Blog Directory (seen on the sidebar), I stumbled across this gem from the Dominican Republic: palabras sin fronteras (also added to our sidebar).

Warning: Do not start to read this blog unless you have time to spare because if you’re like me, once you start, you may not stop.

Written by a self-described “non returnable Peace Corps volunteer,” the unique thing about “palabras” is that it goes beyond the simple recording of a typical day-in-the-life-of a PCV. It’s written in a romanticized and magical style reminiscent of great writers such as Salmon Rushdie.

In fact, this blogger can make a mention of “explosive diarrhea” (an unfortunate reality all former and current Peace Corps volunteers are familiar with), sound like an excerpt from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel – or at least artfully and humorously connect the two:

When the viajita died, her children commenced to cry a flood of tears, inundating the only bridge out of town, leaving them isolated in their mourning, from the velorio to the funeral 9 days later. It was like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. I wish I had so eloquent a way to describe having 9 days of explosive diarrhea while the latrine’s flooded.

Written in small, but very poetic paragraphs, each dedicated to its own story about life in the Dominican Republic through the eyes of one Peace Corps volunteer, “palabras” makes for an addicting read.

A Suggested Reading List for Cabin Fever

February 6, 2009

You know that really cold period just before spring – yes, you know the time – it’s like, right now – well, now is the perfect time to curl up with a good book, get inspired or escape to another part of the world.

Recognizing the symptoms of cabin fever, here’s a suggested reading list (listed in no particular order) for those of you looking for inspiration from ordinary people doing extraordinary things internationally or for readers searching for a good book filled with travel, adventure, cross-cultural interactions or new ideas. Many titles may be familiar, some may be new and of course, the list could stand to be expanded with suggestions of your own so feel free to add to it:

1. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World

2. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

3. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time

4. Capitalism at the Crossroads: Aligning Business, Earth and Humanity

5. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey

6. Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village

7. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

8. Chai Budesh? Anyone for Tea?: A Peace Corps Memoir of Turkmenistan

9. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It

10. And being a strong supporter of the Peace Corps, it would be an incomplete list if we didn’t encourage people to read books written from Peace Corps writers. To see a complete list, click here.