You must be very proud of the Amy Biehl Foundation (ABF) and the work going on in and around Cape Town. Looking back on 2010 - what are you most proud of?
I will start answering the questions with a quote from Nelson Mandela: "After climbing a great hill, one only finds there are many more hills to climb." This quote and many discussions with people like Desmond Tutu and Ahmed Kathrada have taught me that there is no "pride" or "satisfaction" for me in the work that stems from Amy's death. The work that is done by the foundation is endless and must be put in a collective African context. Also, I really do not look back other than to learn how to go forward. I am amazed at times that I have (with help and inspiration from others) kept the foundation in SA going in spite of many difficult and scary obstacles.
Recent numbers show that the Foundation now reaches over 1500 children. How many full/part time staff and volunteers does it require to operate an organization of this scale?
The foundation reaches many more than 1500 children. Currently that may be the number of kids that we can count in the after school care programs, etc. However, every child in our program has families and extended families that have directly or indirectly been impacted by our programs. The employment of staff and their families are also a big part of our work. When we had USAID money and Peter and I directly ran the programs, we had over 3000 kids in programs daily. Kevin and staff are rebuilding numbers. Currently we have around 20 full time staff members and 60 part time facilitators. Volunteers and interns vary. We have long term, short term, international and South African volunteers and interns. You really should ask Kevin for specific numbers now that the office is reopening for 2011. People come to us in mysterious ways. I speak around the US and often interns come from these events. Media exposure brings many others and personal networking in South Africa by Kevin and others has really grown. One intern often leads to others, as they share their experiences. European interns have been growing in numbers, which I find fascinating. I try to interact with as many US interns as possible, both before and after their time in Cape Town.
How do people apply for volunteering positions and what can they expect for an experience?
Those interested can contact the foundation. Currently Joanna Barry (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the foundation contact for possible interns/volunteers. We try to be flexible with different personal scenarios, it actually is a BIG job to deal with all the requests as we have had hundreds of people at the foundation over time and many hundreds seeking information. Their personal experiences vary greatly. Flexibility is key to successful experiences. They must be comfortable to expect the unexpected. They must respect other cultures and non-western thinking. They must realize that they will learn more than they give and embrace their opportunity.
In August, US Ambassador Donald Gips joined you in unveiling a new Amy Biehl Memorial in Gugulehu. Can you talk about that day, and what it meant to be a part of such an amazing dedication?
The Fulbright program is a US State Department program. Early on we had a lot of interaction with the State Department and Fulbright program. The 2 leading Fulbright scholars from the US and SA were named Amy Biehl Fulbright Scholars. We as a family and an organization have never been into monuments. Working with the youth in Guguletu was our way of honoring Amy. The community of Guguletu put up different forms of recognition at the spot, which we thought was appropriate as it is their community. If you remember Amy wanted to be a "number and not a name" if something happened to her. These words have always led us to our decision making regarding certain things. We were and are not South Africans! However, there are 30 to 40 tourist vehicles who stop at the site daily according to the gas station owner which is "the spot". State Department people offered to pay for the stone marker. That's how it came about. Also remember that Madeleine Albright launced our programs in December 1997 at St. Gabriels in Guguletu. We have worked with many ambassadors and consulates in SA since 1993. Ambassador Gipps is very nice, and he has been supportive of the foundation as has his predecessors. However, that day was actually a REAL South African day, as it started with the funeral of one of our lovely and excellent staff members, Melanie (our 37 year old music coordinator) who died of ovarian cancer a few days before. Our staff, choir, and myself were a big part of the service. I had to leave the service early after I spoke and was rushed out to the dedication knowing that the Ambassador and security were anxious. I got there along with staff and choir, but we were devasted by Melanie's loss. So we did the dedication then returned for the burial and the reception following the burial. That is often a typical day for me unfortunately. People have no idea of what really goes on day to day at the foundation and in my life.
Can you share a little about Melanie and what she brought to the organization?
Melanie was an incredible asset to the foundation, and our newer staff members who haven't experienced as much as those who have been with us since the beginning probably were more affected. The Xhosa people experience so much death, there is a more fatalistic acceptance of the finality and reality of death in their culture. So many people that worked at the foundation have passed away. Solomon Makosana, my managing director before Kevin, was an amazing educated, Xhosa man who died as a result of complications from diabetes at the age of 57. He was the first black man to be president of the Western Province Cricket Association. We had a bakery truck driver shot to death. We had other employees die from tuberculosis. We have had kids in our programs killed at the beach in gang wars. I speak at many funerals.
You have been honored many times for your work. You were awarded the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo (presented by President Mbeki), recognized by the Restorative Justice Centre, and honored with the Aline and Norman Felton Humanitarian Award to name a few. With such a busy schedule, do you ever get a chance to stop and appreciate your accomplishments?
Whenever we (you must remember there was a time before and after Peter's death and we and I have received countless awards) made sure that we understood what was behind the award and decided to accept or not. If we accepted, we tried to understand the organization that was giving the award, and if we could be involved in some way we did accept. Sometimes it meant speaking at the event and sometimes we brought interns to participate, etc.. I was very humbled by the OR Tambo Award and it was an amazing experience...meeting so many amazing people at the grace roots level and at the "celebrity" level. Harry Belafonte received an award that day (April 22nd, 2008) which was the day after my 65th birthday. The formal dinner was on my birthday (April 21st) and Harry sang Happy Birthday to me. When I was in high school, I saw him perform with the great Miriam Mekeba. I was very influenced by those great young singers in the '60's and it seemed liked a "circle of life" experience that Amy had a hand in making happen. I think that award gave me real inspiration to continue working in SA. It was very energizing and getting awards is not a sense of accomplishment.
People familiar with the Foundation know of Desmond Tutu's involvement and support over the years. What has it been like to work with Desmond, and so many other influential people?
[Desmond] Tutu has been the only real South African mentor I have had. I think that he appreciates the way we approached the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and carried the process out to a very personal reconciliation. He also has taught me how to be yourself, to enjoy life with an incredible sense of humor. When I had breakfast with him in August, he asked me if I had a "man in my life" and after a lot of bantering, I said that men were "baggage" in my life. Well, we really had fun with that. He always pinches my checks. I really love him and respect him. Amy heard him speak at Stanford probably around 1987. She called me at home after the talk and was so excited about him. I always think about that call when I think of "the Arch". His love and support when Peter was dying of colon cancer (thru faxes and flowers and phone calls) was unbelievable. I couldn't believe that this busy, busy man would take time to think of us. As for famous people...everyone has their own agenda, but people are people... Tutu is beyond fame and although short in physical stature he is a giant among men. He is a real human being.
The Friends of Amy Biehl website is just one of many social media outlets trying to help bring awareness to the foundation? How do you feel about the progression of technology as it relates to promoting the foundation?
My time in New Mexico next week for example, meeting kids and teachers, will clarify and enhance things that they have read and interpreted from media of all kinds which is often inaccurate or shallow. It is kind of like reading a good novel that you have enjoyed and developed your personal images of the characters then you go to the movie of that novel only to find the story changed and the casting of characters is not at all like you perceived and developed in your own imagination. This brings me to understanding the most important thing in "the story" and, of course, the relationship that has grown thru the years. I thank the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is an institutionalized process, for providing a platform (the amnesty) hearing) for personal reconciliation. This, indeed, was an unexpected outcome but the most meaningful and also a very private outcome for me. I thank Desmond Tutu for his help in organizing our thoughts before attending the amnesty hearing in July 1997. This whole process is somewhat involved, but when Tutu said "to talk about Amy and speak from the heart" it was clear and simplified message for us and that clarity and simplicity helped us work our way thru a complicated process in a complicated country and a very complicated time in that country.
How are Easy and Ntobeko? What roles do they currently hold with the organization?
When I think of Easy and Ntobeko today and how our indidvidual relationships have evolved it is both naturally simple and an unbelievable impossibility. Just think, when they were young boys they did not have the childhood that Amy had. They were not much younger than Amy so I often draw a time line sharing Amy's life and their life from the time they were born to the day she died. The relationship would not have happened if we had not been in the same room (at the TRC) with them and their families. Technology cannot define "chemistry". They actually thought that Peter and I were "propaganda" and not Amy's biological parents because our support of the reconciliation process in SA was unnatural to them. They saw us on TV and in the media while in prison and couldn't understand (to put it simply" where we were coming from). I am very reluctant to talk in depth about Easy and Ntobeko as the relationship is complicated and very few people have the depth of understanding to describe it.
One very important thing to remember is that Easy and Ntobeko are 2 individuals and are not to be lumped together. They look different, they act different, and most of all think differently. They both work at the foundation and have different strengths and talents.
Are you able to share some of the plans for the organizations future, and are you confident in the direction things are heading?
I am amazed and for the most part delighted with the current status of the South African Amy Biehl Foundation. When the people living in the community where Amy was killed asked us (the family) to "come help", I never would have imagined that the foundation would still viable and growing. I really can't go back to all the pain and agony that is part of the Foundation's history in short answers, but I think the foundation is resilient much like the grass roots people of South Africa. Personally, as I look back to the beginnings in late 1997-1998 I am amazed but exhausted.
Amy was a researcher, academic, and human rights activist and did not run a foundation so when people tell me that I am doing Amy's work, I say that is not true. So as the foundation becomes "sustainable" as a true South African organization, I am hoping to lead the US foundation back to Amy's work. The programs that are up and running in SA will reflect the needs of South Africa today. They will evolve and change in that culture and with South Africans in charge. The foundation may live on without Amy's name as she wanted to be "a number and not a name if something happened" to her while working in SA. I also have a hard time with the idea of "branding".
Amy is not a brand. I hope that her story will give insights and clues to help find ways to negotiate and resolve current global issues. If I can develop the US foundation to help facilitate and support positive (global) change in some small way, I will continue to share the story.