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The balanced life: Global citizenship

Posted by Chad O'Connor  December 13, 2012 11:00 AM

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This article is the first in a monthly, five-part series that advocates for living a balanced life in the areas of: Global Citizenship, Local Volunteering, Meaningful Careers, Strong Networks, and an Empowered Self.

As the New Year approaches, it’s fitting to ask oneself... “How can I positively impact the world in 2013?” But with problems in every corner of the globe, it’s easy to feel “compassion fatigue,” believing we’re powerless to affect any real change. However, as the historian Howard Zinn noted: "We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world."

Beauty pageant contestants are often credited for giving voice to society’s noble, yet somewhat ambiguous desires for “World Peace.” One practical approach toward achieving this goal is to first identify a region and/or theme you’re truly passionate about. For example, perhaps you became interested in Brazil, after being linked to a pen-pal in your High School class... and your concern for the environment was sparked by watching Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Great! So how can you actually begin?

Here are two concrete ways to start contributing toward world peace:

(1) Go Abroad!
(2) Support Others’ Projects!

Here are two examples of how to use regions and themes in your decision:

Going Abroad

Shannon O'Brien, center, in Aleppo, Syria, 2005

After 9/11, 2001, I committed to learning more about Arab Muslim populations in the Middle East - a people and region I knew very little about (aside from Hollywood films, which often provided shallow stereotypes). Within the next four years, I traveled to Kuwait, the UAE, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, expanded my perspectives, and engaged in dialogue with wonderful people. These exchanges are what United Planet’s Founder David Santulli calls "Relational Diplomacy” (the title of his 2011 book) which advocates for practical methods to build peace and improve intercultural relations, by "creating a vast and intricate web of interpersonal relationships and friendships." United Planet offers many opportunities for short and long term volunteer projects in over 30 countries. Yes, they even have a program where you can volunteer in Brazil to promote environmental preservation!

Supporting Others
In an effort to be closer to real-world solutions, I began volunteering for the MIT IDEAS / Global Challenge in 2010. IDEAS supports innovation and entrepreneurship as public service through an annual competition, where MIT students seek to improve the world by designing solutions to problems in themes including: Health, Education, Energy, and Agriculture. I met teams like Sanergy - a group building sustainable sanitation in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya; and Hydro Harvest - a rainwater harvesting systems in Rwanda. While I do not have the skills to help with engineering, I was able to provide feedback on the feasibility of project proposals; help facilitate dialogue at events; and film a 10th anniversary video. For more information on ways to use your skills to assist IDEAS/Global Challenge simply visit their site.

It may well be that you have interests that shift over time. However, if you are more specific at first, you will be better able to identify a specific country or project to commit to, and to then reflect on the impact your involvement has.

Let’s assume that ancient Mayan predictions are incorrect, and our world will indeed last beyond December 21st, 2012. We will have many more years to develop our global citizenship and to work toward world peace – with, or without a beauty pageant tiara.

Shannon O’Brien works at MIT, and is the founder of Whole U., LLC, advising clients on living balanced lives, and connecting with meaningful careers and service projects. She can be reached at

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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