Oct. 21, 2010

PopTech Day 1

by Milbry Polk

TalkingScience is delighted to have recruited Milbry Polk as our PopTech correspondent. Over the next few days, she'll be reporting from the annual PopTech conference in Camden, Maine. You also can hear the amazing talks firsthand through the livestream at http://poptech.org/live

Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

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I made the long drive from NYC to Camden Maine with my friends Dan Bennett, entrepreneur and former President of the Explorers Club, and Tashi Rabten, a Tibetan Doctor, who co founded Tibetan Home of Hope and the Taska Foundation, to attend the legendary PopTech conference. I was lucky to attend last year so I know this one of the most exciting events on the planet.

PopTech, I like to think, is the TED Conferences on steroids -- a more open and accessible place for scientists, innovators, and social entrepreneurs who are finding solutions to some of the greatest challenges we have today. For more information about the event and especially to WATCH IT LIVE check out http://www.poptech.org

I know this going to be four days of non stop conversations. Every person you sit next to, stand in line with, or see on stage is just amazing and engaged in some of the most cutting edge projects, programs, research, and actions anywhere.

One of the first events I attended was a sail out of the Camden Harbor with other PopTech attendees to listen to David de Rothschild talk about Plastiki, the plastic boat he sailed across the Pacific to call attention to the incredible problem of plastic trash now swirling around in immense gyres in the middle of the ocean.

Waiting for the talk, I was lucky enough to sit next to Rajesh Panjabi. He told me about his work. Raj was nine when he fled the war in his native Liberia. His family first took refuge in camps in a neighboring country and then was relocated to America where they landed in North Carolina. Because of what he experienced, he decided to become a doctor. He realized how lucky his family was to safely escape the terrible civil war and he was determined to go back to Liberia and make things better for those who were not so fortunate. His past experiences and dreams for the future led Raj to co-Found and direct Tiyatien Health (which means “Justice in Health” in Liberian Kwa-speaking dialect) based in Zwerdru, Liberia. Because of this successful and visionary program, Raj was chosen as a 2010 PopTech Fellow. Raj’s vision is actually quite simple, rooted in custom, and practical -- something that has eluded many NGO’s working around the world. He works in partnership with the Liberian government. They too, he says, are incredible heroes, by believing in and funding his program.

The area where Raj is working has been destroyed by war, has no infrastructure to speak of, and the people there are traumatized by what they have experienced. They are coping with the new horrors of AIDS and other life shattering diseases. To top it all off, there are very few resources to call on. One of the things the people desperately need is doctors. But the entire country has very few doctors, and the few that are there are in the larger cities. NGO’s occasionally send in doctors to treat specific problems, but then they leave. Nothing is sustainable. Raj realized the rural communities had to have solutions they could control.

Because Raj understood the medical issues Liberia faces and had the heart and time to listen to what the people themselves were concerned with, he was able to create a program that earns the support and cooperation of the people it is meant to help.Tiyatien Health is a pioneer system of community health workers, many patients themselves, who are employed by Tiyatien Health to create networks reinforcing local solutions to complex issues. Raj and his team find capable local people, provide them with training and what supplies they can, then act in a long term mentoring capacity. So, for example, one woman who was a rape victim opened a small center to teach crafts to other rape victims, helping them both to make a small amount of money and -- more importantly -- giving them back a sense of self worth by working through their traumas. Another man, an AIDS patient works in the community helping others with AIDS. Because he suffers too and understands the issues, he is trusted and is able to effectively medically help others.

Raj hopes his program can become a model for other places that have suffered complete social and systems breakdown. He hopes to encourage other countries to give direct budgetary support to build the capacity of public health sectors in poor countries. Meeting Raj is one reason PopTech is an exciting place to be. Tune into to PopTech Live to hear him speak this Saturday and visit his website www.tiyatienhealth.org

After the talks, we all gathered for a welcome party. Every person in that crowded room was fascinating. I had the opportunity to speak briefly to Jeremy Heimans the CEO of PURPOSE; James Koch, Professor of Management and Director of an amazing think tank at Santa Clara University called the Global Social Benefit Incubator; Nigel Waller, CEO of Movirtu who is working on “mobile phones for the next billion”; William Gordon, CEO of Tetragenetics; Joseph Callanan, President of Osprey Advisors who are creating new technologies for building; and Milenko Matanovic, Director of the Pomegranate Center, who is also a mentor for the Fellows program. Milenko uses art to design spaces that foster community building.

I am so ready for tomorrow.

Milbry Polk is the Founder and Director Emeritus of Wings WorldQuest, the preeminent organization supporting women explorers throughout the world. She is the author/editor of a dozen books including Women of Discovery, The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and Egyptian Mummies; and she is the book reviews editor for The Explorers Journal.

About Milbry Polk

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