Last week, we celebrated the opening of Connie Nielsen’s new movie, All Relative. Connie took so much introspective time to answer my questions that I must include her complete answers to every item. So in our first two-part segment for Mind Your Body, enjoy more from Connie now.
I’m so respectful of her generosity and philanthropy. Thanksgiving seems like a perfect time to share the wisdom and grace of her additional thoughts with you and I hope you find them as meaningful as I did. Maybe she’ll inspire you to help others this holiday season and in the coming year…
First, what can All Relative teach us about relationships we have at “a certain age”? The dating game seems to get harder as we get older, doesn’t it?
The dating game: Hmmm. Actually, I am European. We don’t date. We fall in love or not. At this age I guess I am better at guessing if someone is a dud, though. Whomever I don’t ‘click’ with when on a potentially romantic journey is usually awesome enough to become my new best friend. I am happy to be spared the frogs of my youth.
Would you make a good attorney, as in The Good Wife?
My assistant, Kirsten, says: Yes! And now that I think of it, an ex once called me ‘the lawyer’ because during arguments I become very methodical in my selection of proof!
Tell us about the Human Needs Project and the Road to Freedom Scholarship. Why is this so important to you? How are you measuring accomplishments there?
In 2010 I went to Nairobi, Kenya to shoot a movie called Lost in Africa. On a movie set you get to know people kinda’ well, and half the cast and crew on this film lived in a giant slum called Kibera. Kiberia is the largest urban slum in Africa.
On Sundays I would tour Kibera with my security detail, and I got to see the houses and know about the lives of my fellow crew members. While walking through the most desperate form of poverty I had ever seen, I encountered wonderful, funny kids, and met up with many young, smart people.
While talking to them, I realized—with a knot in my stomach—that these bright women and men were condemned to never escape the garbage and feces-strewn alleyways of Kibera. I realized that the mud huts and the rusting corrugated iron roofs of this sprawling settlement in the middle of Nairobi’s modern metropolis would entomb them and the world would never even know it. I read that one in five babies there dies before the age of 5, and that broke my heart. I saw that access to all the normal services we take for granted every day here was not granted to my friends. People who could do anything would be unable to overcome the colossal difficulties stacked against ever making a decent living. Stigma is one of them, but lack of adequate training and professional skills is another.
That sounds heart-wrenching. There you were, living a wonderful, fulfilling and ‘privileged’ life compared to your co-workers, and yet you must have felt so helpless. But you’re not one to stand by. Tell us what you did next.
I was approached by the elders of one of the villages in Kibera who inquired if I would build a well for them. I accepted the challenge and went on a fact-finding mission, discovering the very short life spans of wells—and most other development projects. I also discovered it’s necessary to help people without feeling pity, and to do so by believing in their potential and by providing the training and access to services they need to create the lives they want.
Together with my partner, David Warner, I set about creating an environmentally and financially sustainable solution. We built a clean-technology, autonomous building that provides all water and sanitation services, energy, high speed Internet, education and access to information. It also has the world’s best cappuccino—La Marzocco donated a machine and barista training to our center!
You certainly took action, Connie, and a lot of it. What else is behind your motivation for and success with the project?
Our concept at the Human Needs Project also includes important relationships with scientists and academic institutions. For example at UC Berkeley, I am so proud that we collaborate with Professor Daniel M. Kammen. I am so proud of all our collaborators—what a list. Among his achievements, he is founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL), co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, and Director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center.
We also work with Procter & Gamble that donated their time, know-how and business skills to our business plan, as well as funds and a modern laundry for the residents of Kibera. Our amazing partners in all branches of academe, design and technology continue to contribute to our center.
What are your plans now?
The next two years are about impact measurement, and creating even more ways to connect people through our platform. We’ll do it, for example ,with widgets for the website and events so people can interact from across the world and meet with the coders, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs living in the slum. Next up, we will tally up our mistakes, correct them, and scale up to slums around the world.
Now, about your Road to Freedom Scholarship: You call it part of HNP’s community investment:
I started Road to Freedom Scholarships when I met a group of little girls in an after-school program in Kibera. From the oldest at age 17 to the youngest at age 3 they all were desperate to go to school. I was puzzled again. Kenya actually has a great education system, which is free up to a certain point in a child’s life. But many children living in marginalized communities cannot hope to go beyond primary school, and even when it’s free, they have expenses such as uniforms and examination fees that make education impossible for the poorest.
I took a deep breath and promised the children I would grant their biggest wish. Not one of them had eaten since the day before, yet each declared that going to boarding school was in fact their greatest wish. So there it was.
You seized the opportunity, but it was a big one. How difficult was this to accomplish?
Boarding school turned out to be more difficult than I expected. Even though I was willing to pay full tuition, many schools would not take ‘my’ kids. The stigma of the slum stood in the way of their being accepted, so it took some work. But finally we found a top-performing boarding school in Nairobi. There I know the girls are safe from the dangers of the slum: sexual violence, malnourishment and stunted growth, waterborne illnesses and early marriage. At RFS we don’t choose kids on the basis of testing or grades.
One of our boys, Yema, was a 25-year-old youth in the slum, an extra on the movie, but he was desperate to get an education. He had mediocre grades in high school, but it is hard, after all, to be a good student in the slum: No one studies well when hungry.
And what did you do for him?
I lobbied my friends and the president of Dominican University of California, an amazing private college here in NorCal, stepped in and offered a four-year, full tuition for Yema. Almost four years later, Yema has fully repaid the favor: He has scored straight A’s in all subjects during every one of his six semesters and is on his way to his fourth Presidential Award (no pressure, Yema!). It is clear to me that Dominican feels he was worth their investment: He is the first foreign student to be appointed as a student ambassador, he plays on the club soccer team and is student body vice president. There is no doubt that for kids from places like his, when given an opportunity, they will not let it pass them by.
Thank you, Connie. Remarkable.
By Stephanie Stephens of PARADE MAGAZINE November 25th, 2014