Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, “The Questions” in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
James Woller: I work in a community in Swaziland, Africa called Bulembu where we help those who are suffering from disease, have very little food and can’t find jobs. We try to give opportunities for people to go to work, and provide for their families; opportunities for kids to get a good education so that they can have access to jobs; opportunities to receive medical treatment for those who have diseases. But one of the most important things we do is look for ways to teach those we help, how to learn how to do many things on their own. The idea is that after years of helping those in our community, they can begin to not only care for themselves, but can also begin to help others in surrounding communities. This is the type of transformation we aim to provide. In many ways it reminds me of when I was a kid, I would build Lego cities filled with schools, hospitals, farms, churches, police stations and all the essentials for people to be safe and cared for. Similar to that, in Bulembu we are concerned with every area of the community—the hospital, school, homes for orphaned children, the creation of jobs, staff training, management and leadership, sale and delivery of products and even bringing out volunteers.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
JW: I remember a missionary coming to my church when I was just a young child and showing pictures from his work in Africa. My heart swelled with compassion for children that were so much less fortunate than I was. I was actually stunned to know that others lived in such deep poverty. Since then I have worn a pendant around my neck of the continent of Africa to remind me of that experience. Now the motivation is much more than the compassion I feel for the marginalized, it is also about justice. I do not want my generation to allow entire people groups to collapse because of diseases and famines which we could have prevented but just stood by and watched. After extensive travels around various parts of the world, I realized there was so much that could be done to make a difference. It was then that I really committed myself to bringing holistic transformation to the marginalized. I believe history can be changed easier than we think. For instance, in 2004 Stephen Lewis mentioned that by the year 2050, if something wasn’t done to stem the tide of AIDS, the people of Swaziland would be extinct. When I heard that, I asked myself, “How could I not do something to make a difference?” After three years of working in Swaziland, I am convinced that together NGOs there are changing the outcomes of history. That is amazing.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
JW: I will never forget the moment I was elected student body president my fourth year of university. The frightening part was that I had just transferred to Trinity Western and had only been there four months. On top of that, I had never been involved with student council in the past. My experience base was very limited, especially in light of the task and responsibilities I was about to undertake. At twenty-three years of age, overseeing a $300,000 budget and a counsel and staff of over fifty individuals, I felt completely inadequate. The impact that feeling had on me though is something that I feel almost every day in my current role with Bulembu. I feel like a novice every day. But the beauty is that both now and while president of student council, God’s grace was sufficient and my faith constantly grew as I relied on Him to be my adequacy.
Comment: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
JW: Growing up, my dad would always tell me that it is your character that makes you who you are instead of what you do. He told me that the world lacked leaders who lived with integrity and always encouraged me to be a man who “did what he said he was going to do.” God cares more about our character than what we do. Every day serves as a reminder of this advice as I try with all that I am, to live with integrity and ensure that my “word” carries currency. Working in Africa, a land of broken promises, this is not just essential, it is critical.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
JW: As a child I witnessed countless occasions where my parents were the defenders of the “underdog.” On so many occasions both would fight for justice. Even today, I gather great inspiration from their value of justice. Also, the lives of both Mother Teresa and Rich Mullins have probably made impact on me more than any others. Both lived selflessly, as if their lives were not their own. They constantly inspire me to surrender more for the sake of others. Probably the thing I most take though, from both of their lives, is to see each individual person. Sometimes projects can become so large, they lose their focus, of what it is really about. Mother Teresa and Rich Mullins taught me that lives are changed one at a time, that rarely is it we who change lives—instead, we are just vehicles that God uses.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
JW: I had to laugh about this question because I don’t think there is any consistent structure to any day, week, or month in my role. It seems each day or project brings new challenges, failures, and successes. The only thing that is constant is my morning “quiet time.” For the amount of complexity, speed, uncertainty and noise of each day, my mornings alone are a refuge where I get to escape to be alone and silent.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
JW: If I ever met the person who invented the Post-it note, I would buy him a five-star dinner. My desk, laptop and wall are covered with the sticky little yellow pads. It is certainly one way to keep track of 200 different tasks each day. I also use a white board in my office, which I call my “parking space.” It allows me to park creative ideas and thoughts for another day, without losing them. But overall, my favorite tool is my journal. The frequency with which I am able to journal key “learnings” and experiences is the measure of the balance I am getting in life. In seasons where I seldom journal, I know I am overworking, which has its own consequences. My journal is by far the best tool I have as it is a record of all the lessons from the past.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
JW: It is actually a project that I am working on. In December this year we expect nearly 1,000 South African students to come to the Bulembu community to volunteer for two weeks. I have been thrilled at the sheer challenge of assisting the coordination of the logistics and overall strategy for such an event. The challenges we are exposed to in order to make this event a success are tremendous. But the joy comes in knowing that as 1000 young adults descend on the village, the transformation not only in the lives of those living in Bulembu, but also in the lives of the students, will be incredible. I still struggle to grasp what 80,000 person-hours of volunteerism will do to our community.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
JW: I think the biggest challenge in planning work is assembling plans or strategies here in North America—whether it is for a macro-business, clinic expansion or community project—and then to have it filtered through numerous phases before being implemented on the ground in the community. The planning in the initial stages must take into account the many cultural phenomena, the long-term sustainability of the community, the resources we have on the ground, and the leadership available to drive it forward. One thing I have learned through multiple work plans is to step back, take a 30,000-foot view of everything all working together, and see the big picture. Since I am a visual learner, sometimes I lay out images and drawings to see the inner working connectedness of each plan in relation to the overall strategic plan. This is an ever increasing reality for us since we are concerned with every area of the community—the economics, the medical clinic, education system, orphan care program, job creation, training, management and leadership, product logistics, and distribution and international funding.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
JW: Being an integral part of an emerging NGO draws on every area of your life. When it stems from a foundational outcry or conviction you have, it becomes holistic to all that you do. In many ways my value and passion for transformation is what serves as the basis for each area of my life. I have been blessed to have so much support from my friends and family who have partnered with me in the journey. Taking my mother out to Africa for the first time a few years ago was a true blessing. I find so much fulfillment in sharing my passion with those close to me. I honestly don’t see how every area of my life could not feel the impact of the work I do.