Living a life of purpose gives your name a wonderful mark in this world. Today, Dr. Diane Hamilton talks to Dr. Omékongo Dibinga who is an UPstander motivational speaker, trilingual poet, TV talk show host, rapper, and professor of cross-cultural communication at American University. Dr. Dibinga shares the ordeal he went through with bullying, being suicidal, and finding hope amidst all the circumstances. Reshaping the hip-hop world and focusing on helping people find common ground in these uncommon times, Dr. Dibinga notes that regardless of what generation we belong to, there are opportunities for change.
Whether people acknowledge it or not, the fact remains that there are a lot of misconceptions about AIDS. Dr. Diane Hamilton interviews Justin Miller, the Co-Founder and CEO of Care for AIDS on today’s show. Justin introduced a book he co-authored called Beyond Blood and explains some misconceptions about AIDS and what their non-profit organization is doing to help the people affected by it. With guidance from Bono’s words, Justin also talks about how his advocacy has given shape to his perseverance to get rid of AIDS.
We have Dr. Omékongo Dibinga and Justin Miller. Dr. Dibinga is a motivational speaker, trilingual poet, TV talk show host, rapper and professor. You name it, he does it. Justin Miller is the CEO at CARE for AIDS. He has such an inspiring story about what he’s done to develop his nonprofit. I’m looking forward to this show because we’re going to talk about all kinds of different areas of how people can be inspired.
Listen to the podcast here
Reshaping The HipHop World With Dr. Omékongo Dibinga
I am here with Dr. Omékongo Dibinga who is the UPstander. His life’s mission is to inspire all across the globe to take a stand when they witness an injustice, no matter how large or small. His list of things is impressive, a motivational speaker, trilingual poet, a TV talk show host, a rapper and a professor of cross-cultural communications. He has won more awards for everything. Your writings and everything have been at O Magazine. You’ve won all kinds of awards. The diversity of what you do is fascinating to me. I want to get a little background on you because from the start you’re studying at Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Georgetown. I was looking at where you studied and all your dissertation on the global hip hop phenomenon and Jay-Z, which is a little different than my dissertation. Can you give us a little bit of a background on where you ended up here and what you did to get here?
I appreciate you having me on as a guest to share a little bit about my story. For me, I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. My parents are from Congo, which is where my name comes from. Growing up in Boston, I was bullied a lot and heavily disrespected because of my culture. I don’t have a stereotypical accent but people would hear my name back in those days. It was like Tarzan. We were heavily disrespected and bullied, beaten up in school. That led me to not want to share a lot of myself. By the time I got around middle school, it got worse in terms of depression. I was suicidal. I heard somebody say at a conference that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Some family members intervened. I’ve started to change and growing my self-esteem to realize that things could get better. I realized that there were other kids coming after me who needed to hear that similar message.
That set me on my path as a youth speaker when I was still a teenager. The older I got, I kept reaching down to more and more audiences younger than me. I started working with teachers who would be with students longer than my school visit. As I started doing more work in education, I started to realize that across the country in different spaces, corporate groups, government groups, the challenge of people feeling that they are being tolerated and not celebrated is universal. That was what led to my creation of the organization UPstander International to be an upstander, not a bystander. Don’t watch things happen, help change things to make everybody feel accepted. That’s what led to my work. In my work as a university professor, it also relates because I’m working with the next generation to help them get the intercultural communication skills needed, the critical thinking skills needed as well so that they can go out in the world and be upstanders as well.
That’s inspirational. It’s interesting because it ties into some work. I work on a board for ALL4Life. Heiko Schmidt has been on my show. His daughter had suicidal thoughts and he created an app to connect all the mental health and professionals together to help people get everything all in one place. There’s definitely a need to get people to help who think that they get bullied or they have mental health issues that are organic. Your work is similar in some respects to some things I do because I work with developing critical thinking with all my teaching and everything. I focus on developing curiosity because if we develop curiosity, it helps us with emotional intelligence. You need to have empathy. You have to ask people questions about themselves to find out more. First of all, I love that you’ve received praise from Willie Jolley who has been on my show. Your book is The UPstanders Guide to an Outstanding Life. You’re talking about life balance for students. I’ve written books for students in the past. There’s much confusion about how to keep everything in balance. What are you trying to help people with in your book?
I primarily wrote that for high school and college students. I was speaking at a conference and I’ve quoted Mark Twain and said, “The most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you realize why you were born.” I had a student come up to me and she was crying. She was a junior and she said, “I haven’t figured out why I was born.” These students now, they’re going through all of this work to get the right internship, the class rank, to get all the grades and stuff but a lot of them have not found meaning in their lives. The goal of The UPstanders book is to help them give back to the importance of understanding how to make a meaningful life. Not just focus on your grades, which you don’t carry with you for the rest of your life but how do you find your purpose? How do you find your calling? As Zig Ziglar said, “Your career is what you’re paid for, but your calling is what you’re made for.” That is the goal of the book because these kids, they’re afraid to make mistakes. All of these universities I speak at, over 90% of the students have reported some stress, anything from feeling sad to being suicidal. I wanted them to see a little bit different side of life by creating this book.
How did you find meaning after being bullied? What changed for you?Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Click To Tweet
Everybody finds something that helps them keep going. Some people find religion, some people find a job, some people find a relationship. For me, it was starting to understand the knowledge of my history and where people throughout the African diaspora, the things we had to deal with as relates to the civil rights movement, going back further to slavery, Jim Crow. I started saying to myself, “If they can persevere to situations that were too much worse than what I have to deal with, I start to at least wanting to make them proud in my daily actions.” I’m sitting in spaces that they fought for me at the end. As I was starting to get better, I feel okay now. I’m doing outstanding work, but I wanted to go from outstanding to upstanding. It was prior to knowledge of my history that my parents taught to me and passed onto me that helped turn me around. A lot of kids who are walking around now of many different backgrounds have no historical knowledge of anything. The stuff that they do know is twisted in terms of a negative light. If we can let them see the beauty in their own stories, that could also be a tool for helping them understand and grow their own self-esteem.
You do many different things. You mentioned rapping and you have writing. Are you focused on poetry? You have a book from the limbs of my poetry. My father wrote prose and his books were a little different than what I write. That takes a lot of talent to get that rhythm. I don’t know if yours go in that direction. What is your focus when you’re writing that type of thing?
I do hip hop, actual songs, music as well as spoken word poetry. My goal was particularly speaking with young people when I go into some of the prisons or when I go to some of the underserved communities and kids in suburban backgrounds. Kids of all backgrounds love hip hop nowadays. It’s the most popular form of music. I like to reach people and audiences that I communicate with. I like to reach them in the languages that they speak. Rather than come in and doing a prepackaged presentation that they may have seen from another speaker, when I get on that stage and I’m bringing some hip hop in there, I’ll bring in some spoken word. It immediately connects with them even if they rarely hear what I’m saying, they hear what I’m saying. They’re like, “This guy can connect with me.” Hip hop and poetry is another language. It’s another way to reach another audience. I believe that as speakers, we need to stop focusing on bringing the audience to where we are. We need to go to where they are and be as effective as we can. I found that to be useful for younger audiences, college students, high school, even middle and elementary school students enjoy it.
Hip hop is a huge thing. I saw a picture of you with Jay-Z. Have you always been a huge Jay-Z fan or were you interested in why he was such a phenomenon? I’m curious what that was all about.
Jay-Z was the last person on my list of people I’d ever thought I’d be doing a dissertation on and writing a book on. It was interesting because as a rapper who raps about the importance of understanding that you’re beautiful and being positive or raps about historical things, I had problems with guys like Jay-Z who I saw as gangster rappers because I felt like I was going into schools and he wasn’t going into the schools. I was telling them, “You don’t have to do that. You should respect them and you shouldn’t sell drugs.” I always respected his ability to put lyrics together, but I wasn’t a big fan of the message. I heard one of his songs in 2003 that started having me look at him differently. I was like, “What if I was wrong about what Jay-Z was doing?”
I went back and listened to everything and I realized I was listening to a lot of things wrong. Even though he has some things that I did feel were disrespectful and misogynistic, he was also having songs in there that were about building a community and helping people out. The challenge was the promotional radio industry and TV industry had no interest in playing those songs. They didn’t get the same level of attention. I felt bad because I felt like I judged him in a way that I get judged as an artist as well. You do that rap stuff and you get put into a box. What I realized when I started studying at a deeper level, I felt like his life should be contextualized against an American backdrop.
This is a guy who was born on the same day Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader, was killed in 1969, the guy was born a year after the assassination of Dr. King. What did this man inherit at birth that would lead him down the path that he went on? Looking at him as a study of black youth post-civil rights era, looking at it through a hip hop lens because hip hop came to existence a few years after he was born. I used him as a point of departure. I also teach a class on him at American University, which is also popular, where I’m looking at his biography against the things that were happening in the United States in the ‘70s and the ‘80s when you get to the crack epidemic. Moving up to becoming hip hop’s first billionaire and helping to elect presidents going from where he started, I find that to be extremely remarkable.
You bring up many good things there. I’m writing about perception and your perception of what you thought he meant and what he focused on. Some of it is influenced by what radio stations play. Even if your idea of what his focus is, we come at things from our own unique perception of what we think people are, what we think they mean based on our own influences. You mentioned when he was born and the impact of that. A lot of companies are struggling with five generations in the workplace, but a lot of what impacts our perception was when we were born if we lived through 9/11. When I was a kid, we had to hide under our desks. We were worried the Russians were going to bomb us, if these two-inch desks are going to save us. Every generation, there’s something that you live through that influences you. You teach this class on Jay-Z. I’m curious about what he thinks of having a whole class about him. When you talk to him, what’s his impact? How did this impact him?
He appreciates it. I met him backstage at a concert and I told him that I was writing my dissertation on him at that time. At that time, I was a teaching assistant to Michael Eric Dyson, who was then teaching a course on Jay-Z for a few years. Jay-Z and other hip hop artists have been somewhat reluctant to their work being brought into academic spaces because they didn’t understand it but now, they see the value. Jay-Z has things like the scholarship funds where he’s helping sending kids to college. He has someone who dropped out of high school. They’re seeing the value of similar to what I was talking about and understanding what your audience wants. They see the value of how the academic world can help bring their message to audiences that may not necessarily consume their music. That’s been popular and this is my fourth year of teaching it. There are more kids on the waiting list than there are registered for the class. Something is working.
Your work has been impressive though. Your work has been alongside Sheryl Crow, Angelina Jolie, Norah Jones, Damien Rice, Don Cheadle, Mos Def, he’s the one from 16 Blocks. I recognize all these names, even if I’m not a huge hip hop fan. Those people obviously aren’t, but Mos Def is a rapper. I am curious where you have appeared alongside these people.
A lot of it has come out of the social justice work. When I talk about being an upstander, part of it is helping to raise awareness about challenges that are going on in the world. Whether it’s hunger, sex trafficking, a genocide that’s taking place in Congo, an area where Oprah called the worst place to be a woman because there are violations taking place in order for us to have the materials that are in our cell phones and our computers. A lot of them are coming from the war around in those places like that. This is activist work that I’ve been doing for decades. Many of these artists as they became aware of it, they would approach organizations that I was a part of and will say, “How can I use my voice to help get the word out?” Some of the actors who are mentioned there were part of a book called The Enough Moment where we’re talking about our awakening as activists and how other people need to get involved.
Sheryl Crow, Damien Rice, Mos Def and several others, we were part of an album called Raise Hope for Congo where we were all lending songs to an album that was raising awareness and also raising funds for projects in Congo. It’s been interesting to see many of the artists get engaged in things that I’ve been doing for so long. That was how I got involved with many of them. It’s usually related to some form of social justice cause. When I was out with Aaron Rodgers once who got down with our conflict mineral issue in the Congo, I went out to Wisconsin and I ended up performing with him to raise awareness and he spoke. They’re also searching for meaning and they want to make sure that their legacies are living something that’s helping to create change. That’s where those projects come from.
You’re a recipient, first-ever, of the CNN iReport Spirit Award. What award is that? Is it because you’ve received over one million views on CNN?
That was their citizen journalism platform. Before social media started to take off a few years ago, CNN was doing this thing where they were letting citizens post their own views on things going on in the world. I was like, “I’ve got a voice. I’ve got a camera.” I started posting it. What would happen is if they liked the clips, they would play it on the shows. I was shown on everybody show from Wolf Blitzer to Anderson Cooper to Fareed Zakaria. I started being interviewed live for some projects and then they would reach out to me to do some other projects for their written portion of their websites. Since my commentary was at the forefront of what they were doing, it led to that award.Everybody finds something that helps them keep going. Some people find religion, some find jobs, while others find relationships. Click To Tweet
You’ve been on TEDx, Harvard, all these places where you’ve been featured and lectured. What are you going to reinvent next?
My goal is I am going hard on getting this book on Jay-Z. All of my other books in the past have been self-published but I’m looking at linking with a major publisher. Going through the process and getting a literary agent to put that book forward is on my list of things to do. I’m looking at ways I can partner with more organizations and agencies to get this social justice message out. I feel the country is in a state of crisis and it’s going to get worst between now and the next election. It doesn’t matter who you support, it’s that everybody’s jumping into their silos and hunkering down. I’m trying to focus now on helping people find common ground in these uncommon times, whether it’s corporate audiences where they’re having trouble, whether it’s schools, whether it’s government groups. I’m looking to speak to as many people as possible to get people to understand that, “We share this country and there’s so much beauty.” If we can see that we have more things in common than we do that are different. I’m doing it now with more of a sense of urgency because I feel like if we don’t get it right in the next couple of years, I don’t know if our kids will be able to recover from what will be leftover.
I say that in a lot of talks about the more things in common because it’s important. A lot of things I talk about are the differences in generations and soft skills and some of these things that they’re working within organizations. I’m wondering what you think has caused this rift. Is it social media? Is it something else that’s caused us to be judgmental? I remember sitting in with Steve Forbes, we’re talking about this. He said, “You can talk about politics and nobody would freak out.” He goes, “If you go to a dinner party and you bring up politics, it’s over.”
This isn’t just social media, but news networks and so on and so forth. There are many more opportunities now not to have to hear an opposing viewpoint. Twenty-four hours a day, you can go into your own silo and hear whether it’s Sean Hannity, Wolf Blitzer, Rachel Maddow, whoever. People like them, you can listen to the same streams all day. People nowadays, they’re not going on television or social media looking for information, they’re going to look for affirmation. You get online and the algorithms will show you the same videos on YouTube that feed your thoughts and social media is going to put the Facebook ads that feed your thoughts and you don’t have to speak to anybody.
Walk down the street, everybody’s got their heads down. They’ve got the earbuds on and you don’t have to engage. You add to that a school system that particularly in our public schools, but in many school systems I see where critical thinking is no longer top. People are not taught how to look at different sources, how to play one argument against another argument and make their own decision. We can take it back to the ‘80s when they got rid of the fairness doctrine where it said that if you had one person who said one thing, you had to have the opposing side on. Once that got rid of, that made it rise for infotainment. People want to deliver news in an entertaining way. It’s like, “Who cares about facts?” Living in a world of facts don’t matter. You can go and find your own silo and look for affirmation. You don’t have to have a conversation with people until you have to, and then it turns into a debate and maybe even a fight.
It’s a different time. I watched that documentary about how they are able to get so much data and feed your Facebook. You can’t even say a news station. If I mentioned you’re on CNN then they think you’re this particularly to mention your thoughts and then they think you’re this thing. There’s no middle ground. Do you think we’re going to have a station that’s a middle ground? Is everybody just hoping for this edutainment?
I don’t think we’ll ever get middle ground. There are the C-SPANs of the world. There are some other online news outlets that need the news, no opinions. I forgot the one my mother watches, I think it’s called Zee News or something like that. Those things will start to rise again because we’ll get to a certain level of fatigue. Even if we don’t, I tell my students, “Watch them all. Watch Fox, MSNBC, CNN and the other networks. Make your own opinion, assemble the facts and the information and then decide for yourself.” Getting people to move from one station is a challenge now.
You hear people repeat what they’ve heard. It came right from that station, whatever it is. There’s another picture of you with Oprah. What’s the biggest thing you learned from your experience working either studying Jay-Z or working around Oprah or some of these big names? Is there some big thing you learned from each of them?
From what Willie Jolley, I’ve heard from him as well as Les Brown in Success Leaves Clues. Seeing people like those two, especially those who came from so little to rise to do what they have done and are doing. I’ve learned a lot about the importance of consistency. I’ve learned a lot about the importance of not making fear-based decisions. I’ve learned the importance of living in your own truth and letting the rest of the world deal with it as opposed to trying to conform yourself to the world. I wish I could say I got all of those things figured out, but being in their presence in space, short times, long periods of time. It’s been transformative when you see these people who operate at the highest levels in terms of their professions. You can’t walk away from them and not be touched in some way, shape or form.
Are the younger generations more open to being more receptive to new ideas? Is it getting worse as generations are getting younger? I’m curious about what you see.
I find that younger generations generally tend to be more accepting. I’m taking a look at things like sexual orientation or interracial dating or various things like that. You still have people within those groups who are against these things. Generally speaking, I’ve had many stories when people say that, who are like high school or whatever or middle school and say like, “I came out to my friends.” They were like, “Whatever.” “I’m afraid to tell my parents.” Generally speaking, they’re more accepting, but at the same time as they start to get more into their own silos as well, more problems can indeed start to happen. Unfortunately, they have more tools to express themselves negatively. You look at these school shootings. It’s not people our age going into the schools, it’s their peers. There’s a certain level of rage that is brewing up in them. There was a story that came out on ABC about how the increase in social media and screens is increasing to more depression and anxiety in these kids now. They are more accepting, but there are also more opportunities for them to be more frustrated and more depressed and lash out more violently than we did in earlier generations.
All of your work is inspiring. I hope that you’re able to get your message across to even more people because there are many people that could benefit from what you’ve done. I was hoping you would have a link or something you could share if people wanted to buy your books or hire you to speak or whatever, you’re looking to connect with people. Can you share that?
They can go to UPstanderInternational.com. Social media profiles, it’s my name, Omékongo, they can find me anywhere.
Thank you so much, Omékongo. This was interesting and it was nice to meet you.
No doubt. I appreciate this. Thank you so much.
Care For AIDS With Justin Miller
I am here with Justin Miller who is the Cofounder and CEO of CARE for AIDS. He has a degree from Vanderbilt and from Emory. He grew up in Fayetteville. He spent the past decade working to solve some of the world’s most complex social problems. He’s dedicated his life and leadership to empowering people throughout East Africa to live a life beyond AIDS. It’s nice to have you here, Justin.
Thank you, Diane. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I’m interested in what you’re doing. You also have a book Beyond Blood: Hope and Humanity in the Forgotten Fight against AIDS. I’m curious about that title. Do you think that we’ve forgotten about it? It was such a huge topic when everybody first found out about it. You don’t hear as much about it anymore. I want to know about that. Before you answer that, can you give a little background of what got you interested in helping people care for AIDS?
If you believe me, the answer to that question is Bono from U2. That was the catalyst for this whole journey as I was attending a conference in Chicago back in 2006. I was eighteen years old. I was completely oblivious to the epidemic of HIV and AIDS around the world. I heard Bono give a presentation to a group of about 8,000 leaders, primarily faith leaders saying, “The rest of the world is moving and responding to this issue that’s claiming millions of lives. It’s tearing apart families and communities and the church is nowhere to be found.” That was a challenge that struck me.
Having not known anything about it, it set me on this journey to understand more. I am proud of my faith and of the church. What the church can do when it’s operating well and doing what it’s supposed to be doing, which is caring for people who are hurting and suffering. That set me on this path to end up in Africa the following summer to produce a documentary about HIV and AIDS. I thought that was the end of my responsibility to do something with this challenge that I had been given. The next thing you know, I’m starting an organization with two Kenyans as my cofounders. Here we are a few years later still continuing on in the fight.
That’s an inspiring story. Are you the head of a church yourself? Did you just attend a church when you heard this?Speakers need to stop focusing on bringing the audience to where they are but go to where they are and be as effective as they can. Click To Tweet
I have always been a part of the church. I often get asked to preach in Kenya, which I gladly do, but I’ve never held a pastoral or spiritual leader role.
It’s interesting how much of an impact that one person, Bono, had on you. You think the tree that this starts all the branches from one person. The impact is amazing. I was lucky enough to have Scott Harrison on the show which started Charity Water. Some of these stories are people who’ve gone to these countries and a lot of times in Africa where they have poor conditions. What they’ve done to change people’s lives is staggering. Your book is co-written with the two other gentlemen. You came together to form this nonprofit to empower all these people in East Africa. You say you want to help them live lives beyond AIDS. What does that mean to you?
What we all need to realize quickly as we’re trying to solve these issues is that this is more than a medical condition. There are complex social and economic, in the case of Kenyan, tribal factors that contribute to how people would experience life with HIV. Stigma is still rampant. People either will not get tested or they will and they’ll be in denial about their status or they’ll be secretive about their status. It will keep them from engaging in the economy because they won’t go to work because of the fear of their status becoming known. Their kids will be separated from other kids and won’t be allowed to play with them if that parent is known to be HIV positive. As you start to look at the implications of a person who becomes disconnected socially, economically and familial, there are many repercussions there. For us, life beyond AIDS is there is a physical life beyond AIDS that we believe is achievable for every one of our clients. We can see our clients achieve an undetectable viral load and with proper care and adherence to their medication, can live a normal life expectancy. There’s also a life socially, economically, we believe spiritually beyond HIV and AIDS when many people see an HIV diagnosis as this is effectively the end of my life both physically, spiritually, economically. That’s our heart behind a life beyond this diagnosis.
It comes down to educating people of the realities of what they can contact, what they can’t contact. Doesn’t that have a lot to do with the perception of what people have avoided and how dangerous it is? Is there a lot of ignorance involved?
There is ignorance involved but I see evidence that people understand more and more about what HIV is and how it’s transmitted. We’ve made some progress in that area. The rest of it is a little bit of a human condition that this disease is attached to certain types of lifestyles and behaviors that people believe to be undesirable. Therefore, their feelings towards these people, their prejudices against them are more about that than it is the fact that they have a disease I might contract.
There are a lot of misconceptions about AIDS. Is that the biggest one? Is lifestyle the main contributor?
As far as misconceptions go, in the African context I would say, there are still people that believe, “I don’t want to touch this person. I don’t want to share a meal with this person.” There are beliefs about how people engage in what they would consider a promiscuous lifestyle. The culture is still conservative in the way they view these issues. People ultimately end up separating out those people. They say you must have done something that was a moral failure and therefore you’ve brought this onto yourself.
There’s a lot that you have to do when you’re helping people understand how to care for themselves in this situation. Part of that is what you do with your company. CARE for AIDS has been successful and has grown. I see a 30% growth year over year for a while there. How did you do that? Is this needed that it’s a typical growth? Is it your model? Can you share a little bit about why you think you were successful?
Let me first say that we have been successful. I have amazing partners in this, Cornel and Duncan. I hope I’m a little bit more culturally educated now than it was several years ago. Cornel and Duncan have navigated founding the organization in East Africa. They have built a team now that’s 194 full-time staff who are all African and who they lead that work day-to-day. In terms of scaling this operation, that would not have been possible apart from my amazing cofounders. Our funding model is all donor-based in the US. That’s the biggest barrier to scale for us because in East Africa, the number of people who need our care, who want our care, the number of churches now that want to host one of our programs in their church. We didn’t talk about yet but all of our programs, 67 now are all based inside local churches. It’s a place where people of all faith backgrounds in a Kenyan and Tanzanian context feel comfortable coming to receive services and care. On the US side, the way that we’ve continued to be able to grow and what we’ve talked about is educating people about the state of the affairs of HIV. It’s not an issue of the past. It’s a pressing issue in our world now. Our supporters have been largely from the faith community. We’ve had to share stories and help them understand that we can’t say we’re going to choose who we are going to show compassion to.
We can talk all day about who was a perpetrator of spreading HIV and who is the victim receiving it. That language is not important to us. These are people who are all looking for a second chance. They all need care. If you believe what the Bible says about what we’re supposed to do as a church, then we need to be indiscriminate in how we show care and compassion to people who are living with this disease. We tried several years to continue to preach this message. There’s much hope on the other side of HIV and AIDS in East Africa. Not only can we see these people’s lives transformed, but they’re going to raise now and educate their own kids. Ultimately, orphan prevention is one of the core parts of our model as well. These kids are going to grow up in the home with one or both of their parents there. I don’t know if we have any magic bullet for communicating all that. We continue to revisit it. How are we telling that story? Who are we telling it to? We’ve been blessed with some good growth in fundraising over the past several years.
Have you looked at doing any programs outside of the church arena? Is that going to be your main focus? Is that strictly your mission?
It’s core to our mission. We’re not married to the model per se. Life beyond AIDS is non-negotiable. That clientele is who we care about, who we want to serve. We believe that we want to always operate in a context where if people want to know more about what we believe or our faith. That’s not something they’re required to participate in, but we want to have the freedom to share that. In some context, if it’s not possible to work through a church and it makes us work through a community center or a clinic, we would definitely be open to that. To date, our first 67 programs are in a broad range of different denominations of churches in East Africa.People are becoming understanding more about what HIV is and how it's transmitted. Click To Tweet
You’re talking about this as a nonprofit. Have you ever run a regular for-profit before this?
I haven’t. I’ve worked in a couple, but that was pre-CARE for AIDS days. I went back to school in the middle of this whole CARE for AIDS journey to get my MBA, which is a little bit nontraditional for somebody that’s leading a nonprofit and intended to continue with a nonprofit. I spent my day a lot with entrepreneurs and business leaders because they make up a lot of our donors. I’ve always wanted to say, “What can we take? What’s the best of business that we can take and apply in the care for its context?”
How much did you take from what Bono said to you when you give your message? Is there still a core seed from all of that?
The line that continues to resound in my mind is this idea that the church cannot turn us back on what He claims. I believe it’s the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation because it’s difficult, it’s expensive, or it’s a moral hazard. That’s not the essence of the scripture that we believe or the God that we follow. We have a responsibility here and we’ve been sleeping on it. We’ve seen some notable partners in the last several years of churches both in the US and East Africa stepping up to the plate. We still have a long way to go.
Does Bono know that he had an impact? Did you ever meet him or talk to him about what you’ve done? Is he familiar with your story?
I’ve not talked to him. I believe that he has gotten a copy of the book through a number of different sources who have passed it along. I hope on some level he’s aware of us and knows the impact. I do hope at some point in the future, I get to thank him in person.
He does a lot of amazing work and you hear many great things about what he does. He touched your life and many others. Running a for-profit has got to be challenging. I am curious what you find is the biggest challenge of running one.
Anyone can invite their donors or you call them customers and one type of customer to give you money without any tangible return without a small financial benefit. That takes an amazing organization, storytelling, stewardship, and cultivation of those relationships. There are some things nonprofits do well that even for-profits could look to at times and learn from. The hardest part too is that there’s this gap that exists between this customer that you would say is your primary customer of those people that desperately need your services. There’s this other group that is oftentimes the ones that are paying for the organization to provide that work, but they’re not the ones that are receiving the services. I’ve heard it called this accountability gap. That’s something that has to be paid close attention to because that’s where a lot of mistrust has been formed in the nonprofits between donors and then not seeing the outcomes they want to on the other side.
It’s also hard as a leader to have your hand in both worlds where you’re trying to run these very different organizations. You have these two wildly different economic models with different goals in mind. That had some complexity. I find the fundraising work to be extremely fulfilling. It’s what I spend a lot of my time doing. I do think that is a challenge, whether it’s churches, corporations, individuals, foundations. Helping them to be able to understand your vision, to partner with you, that is in most cases, the biggest barrier to scale for a lot of organizations. We’re thankful that we’ve been able to go as far as we have.
It is challenging to get donors. I remember raising funds when I was running for the American Stroke Association. It’s hard because if you have money, everybody’s coming to you for money. I read one of your interviews about the importance of creating, as Ken Blanchard says, raving fans. To get people loyal to your cause has got to be challenging. I know that I had talked to Scott Harrison about his Charity Water. With his situation, he had set it up so that 100% of the money went to the Charity Water, but then he would get the funds for the overhead expenses and all that from Angel investor type of people that were billionaires. What model do you think is the best? Do you do think it’s good to separate it like that? Did you like it all under one umbrella?
To Scott’s credit, he has shaped much of the industry for the last several years. I love Charity Water. It brings great transparency to separate it like that. It’s almost because of Charity Water’s example. It’s become a little bit of the norm or expectation on massive donors that you do that. We do the same thing, but it’s not something that we were on our sleeve as much as Charity Water. It goes back to the idea of knowing who your donors are, who you’re trying to reach. Scott has done an amazing job of mobilizing the masses and made this incredibly personal giving experience for people that want to give $20 or $20,000. That’s important to that segment of donors, especially he was looking at donors who are oftentimes they weren’t giving to nonprofits because they had been burned in the past. They were skeptical. They want transparency. We have a group of donors who still value transparency, but we look at them and say, “What do you value as a donor of CARE for AIDS? We’re not going to treat you like one size fits all. We’re going to try to build experiences, communications, and relationships that serve the needs that you have as an individual or as a foundation.”
He struck a nerve with his audience that has catapulted them into this amazing place. For us, that’s something we do as well. Transparency regardless of if you separate or not is important. It’s hard to do that because a lot of nonprofits, it’s convoluted to understand like what’s the program expense? What’s the general admin expense? That’s the hard part about from a donor perspective. It’s hard to evaluate nonprofits because there’s no common measure of what makes an effective nonprofit and saying that you spend 80% of your money on programs is a poor proxy for impact on an organization.Orphan prevention is one of the core tasks of Care for AIDS. Click To Tweet
Is that the biggest difference between running a regular business versus a nonprofit, visualizing what it is their product?
The product itself is intangible and the benefits you’re offering to the value exchange, that value proposition is different from the donor. You promise the donor some impact in return for their contribution to your organization. Especially with social enterprises, people are starting to try to define what a socially or environmentally conscious business look is like? How do we measure that? Nonprofits have to continue to figure out how we help to communicate and to standardize a little bit for donors. We only spent 75% of our money on programs, but look at the impact that created. That’s what donors want, but there’s not a good way to standardize that.
Who would be the best person to read this book? Is this something that you’re hoping you’d get more donors? Is this something for AIDS awareness? Is this something to tell your story of how you three got together? Who should read your book?
They tell me that you should focus on a narrow audience. I would say that you could speak to people in a number of different ways. It’s written as this memoir. Most of the starting of this organization and each of us as co-authors trace the story back to our childhood and we write about some of the influences that led us to the point of starting this organization. If anybody is looking for an interesting story, especially that more than half the book is written in the voice of my two cofounders who are Kenyan. It’d be a great cultural exploration into what it was like growing up in Kenya and the realities around HIV.
There is an education component. For some people, if people read it and want to learn about CARE for AIDS, we would love that to be a good outcome of this project. The bigger message of the book, which we haven’t talked about yet, is my two cofounders are from wildly opposing tribes in Kenya. Their relationship is still largely taboo in their culture because of the Kikuyu and the Luo tribe and the conflict between those two. As we think about the two of them coming together many years ago to start this work. I joined them several years ago. The bigger message here is that there’s power in relationships with people who look, think, believe differently than you do. CARE for AIDS could not have been created, at least not to the level of the impact that it is now, where if not from the three of us bringing three different perspectives to the table. The bigger message is what are we doing in our own context here to pursue what I call redemptive relationships with people who are different than us. I hope that’s a challenge that anybody that reads it could resonate with.
There are many people I’ve met who’ve had their lives changed by your experiences in Africa. My next-door neighbor married Ken Carlson who created Heart of Nuba. I don’t know if you saw that movie but that was out of Africa. A doctor who took care of patients in the unbelievable war and torn part of Sudan. A lot of people I know who have gotten into some of these charities sometimes if you go over there and think, “I’m going to do a little bit of work,” and then come back, but then they never come back because they’re like this, “I’m tied in. I love it because I’m helping people.” I’m sure this has changed your life. It’s amazing work you’re doing. A lot of people would be interested in finding out how they can get your book, how they can find out more. Is there some link you’d like to share?
At the end of the day, before I share the link, I will say that’s where the biggest theme of this whole journey is that I went to Africa and met Cornel and Duncan and thought maybe there’s something I can do to help. I look back several years later and I realized that I had been impacted far more than any person I have helped on the other side, which is the power of pursuing these difficult relationships. I would love for people if they want to know more about CARE for AIDS, they can go to our website, CAREForAIDS.org. They can find us on any social platform with that same handle, CARE for AIDS. My personal website is JustinTMiller.com. On that site, you can find more information about the book Beyond Blood. You can also pick it up on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or anywhere that you get your books. That’s how they can connect with us if they want to know more.
I hope everybody takes some time to check it out. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
It was my pleasure.
I’d like to thank Omékongo and also Justin for being my guests. We get many great guests on the show. You probably haven’t had a chance to read all the blogs because we’re coming up on 800, 1,000 by now, people I’ve interviewed for this show. It’s amazing when you look at some of the backgrounds and some of the education and many experiences that these people have shared have been inspiring to me. In addition to reading them, all the shows are played in iTunes, iHeart and everything else. Anything that anybody talks about on the show is linked to.
If you’re looking to find out something we referred to on the show and that type of thing, it’s convenient to go to the site to find out more. You can also find out more about Cracking The Curiosity Code, my book, and Curiosity Code Index, which is the index assessment that determines the factors that keep people from being curious. That’s all there on the site as well. If you want to be an affiliate or become certified to give the CCI, you can find out how to do it there. I hope you enjoyed this episode. I hope you check out the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
- Dr. Omékongo Dibinga
- CARE for AIDS
- Heiko Schmidt – past episode
- Willie Jolley – past episode
- The UPstanders Guide to an Outstanding Life
- The Enough Moment
- Beyond Blood: Hope and Humanity in the Forgotten Fight against AIDS
- Scott Harrison – past episode
- CARE for AIDS on Facebook
- Amazon – Beyond Blood: Hope and Humanity in the Forgotten Fight against AIDS
- Barnes & Noble – Beyond Blood: Hope and Humanity in the Forgotten Fight against AIDS
- iTunes – Take The Lead
- iHeart – Take The Lead
- Cracking The Curiosity Code
- Curiosity Code Index
About Dr. Omékongo Dibinga
Dr. Omékongo Dibinga is the UPstander. His life’s mission is to inspire all across the globe to take a stand when they witness an injustice, no matter how small or large. He is a motivational speaker, trilingual poet, TV talk show host, rapper, and professor of cross-cultural communication at American University.
His Urban Music Award-winning work has best been described by Nikki Giovanni as “outstanding, exciting, and new while being very old.” His book, From the Limbs of My Poetree, was described by Essence Magazine as “a remarkable and insightful collection of exquisite poetry that touches sacred places within your spirit.” He was one of 5 international recipients out of 750,000 to win the first-ever “CNN iReport Spirit Award.” He has received over 1,000,000 views on CNN.com.
About Justin Miller
Justin Miller is the Co-Founder and CEO of Care for Aids. He received his degrees from Vanderbilt and Emory. Justin grew up in Fayetteville, GA, and has spent the past decade working to solve some of the world’s most complex social problems with the heart of an entrepreneur.
He has dedicated his life and leadership to empowering people throughout East Africa to live a life beyond AIDS. He is one of the authors of Beyond Blood: Hope and Humanity in the Forgotten Fight Against AIDS.
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