Welcome to the Forty Over 40 blog. We frequently spotlight one of our honorees and their thoughts on reinvention, mentorship and momentum…plus a peek into what makes them tick.
This Q&A is with Christine Garde the founder and CEO of CouldYou?, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to supporting African solutions to African problems focused on ending poverty in Africa. http://www.couldyou.org
CoulYou? catalyzes change by connecting people of influence in the West with African businesses and charities. CouldYou? approaches development uniquely, putting partnership with Africans at the core — with them leading — creating African solutions to African problems.
1) What was a pivotal momentum of reinvention for you?
Mothering. I’ve never been married (though each year I remain hopeful that this is the year that will change!) and yet, since my late 20’s I’ve wanted to have a child and “mother”. Sometimes though, life doesn’t turn out exactly as you envisioned and you find yourself in circumstances beyond your control. I was in my late 20’s running a gang diversion program at the border of Tijuana/San Diego and so I began exploring and being open to ways I could reinvent “mothering”. A young girl in my program was pregnant and I took her to the hospital to deliver the baby and the moment I cut the umbilical chord, I fell in love and received the greatest gift of my life…to help mother that little girl.
That little girl is now 17 years old and living with me in San Diego until she graduates High School. I’ve had the privilege of watching her mother finish high school, receive her LVN license and continue to work on her nursing degree and get married to an incredible man who is a Marine. I got the gift of being in Leilani’s life full time from birth to 4, 12-13 and now16-19 and remained close the other years. It is difficult to put into words the bond we have as there actually isn’t a word to describe it…it transcends words and is the deepest love I’ve ever experienced. There are countless moments when I think life doesn’t get better than this. One of those moments was at her quinceanera (15 year old birthday party). Her mom was dancing the mother-daughter dance and half way through asked me to come out and finish the song. In those 45 seconds ( the speaker actually blew and the song ended pre-maturely) I was overfilled with pride and joy and love and gratitude. Perhaps it is a mother’s love … Though I think it is slightly different as there isn’t room to take it for granted as I am not her “mother”.
Mothering Leilani has been complicated and hard and at times heart-breaking and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. She is not my daughter and I may never get a card on Mother’s Day but I get to love her, mother her and treasure each day with her as she grows into an incredible young woman. I’m glad I didn’t miss this opportunity to “mother” simply because it wasn’t what I had imagined…sometimes the unimaginable is even better.
2) Who has been a valuable mentor or sponsor?
In different seasons of life, there have been different people who have helped shape who I am. Ray Smith at Triple Crown, a gang diversion agency, taught me what it meant to have “white privilege” and about systemic injustice. The gang kids I worked with taught me about loyalty and community and how making a difference in the life of “one” is worth whatever sacrifices it takes. Leon Tompkins at Young Life probably had the greatest impact of anyone on me. He modeled authenticity, vulnerability, servant leadership, a balanced life and deep faith. He believed I could do anything I put my mind to. He challenged me to break patterns and seek emotional wholeness so I wasn’t trying to “fix” anyone because of my own brokenness. He called me the “lamb that roared” and believed I could change the world! Most recently the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellows have shaped the way I think about and approach work in Africa. These remarkable men and women of integrity (under the age of 45) hold influential positions in some of the highest levels of business, government and civil society throughout the continent. One is currently running for the President of Tanzania and another was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. This network of 200 leaders represent the hope of Africa and embody African led solutions to African problems.
3) What is your biggest goal right now?
I want to see the next generation in Mozambique living in a nation that has taken itself out of poverty. I believe full transformation can happen in partnership with the west as we focus on the areas of education, food security and investment opportunities.
4) How did you get your first job? How did you jump to your second job?
When I graduated college with an International Business degree I moved out to San Diego. NAFTA had just opened up and I decided I wanted to work with Mayor Susan Golding. I looked into it and there were no jobs available (with my lack of experience). I then decided to think through what my “ideal job” would be and decided it was working for Katy McDonald in the office of Economic Development and so I contacted her and set up a meeting and asked for an internship. She said there was none available and so I told her I would work for her for free for 40 hours a week, just to learn from her. She said if she gave me the opportunity that I’d have to receive it as a serious position (even if there was no pay) and so for 12 months that is what I did. I took a waitressing job at Ruby’s Moto Diner on nights and weekends so I could survive financially. Katy gave me the responsibility of representing the Mayor on the STAR committee (Strategic Alliance for Redevelopment for the City of San Diego). At the end of the year when a position opened up Katy was able to offer me that job. I ended up not pursuing the job because I realized I wanted first hand experience in the neighborhoods we were serving. That is when I took the job at Triple Crown, which I was told I got because of my experience at the mayor’s office.
5) How did you feel on your 30th birthday? What were you doing at that time?
I felt great on my 30th birthday. I woke up in San Ysidro (the border of Tijuana and San Diego) where I was living in Public Housing (I didn’t qualify for section 8 but I worked out a deal to live there for free and work to reduce/eliminate the gang problem they had been experiencing). I was running a gang diversion program for 100 teens and families. Some moms in the neighborhood sent over homemade Mexican food and some of the young girls I worked with came over to wish me a happy birthday and some friends drove down with bagels and I was able to celebrate with all of them and Leilani and her mother, Adriana. That next night I met one of my best friends in NYC where we celebrated with a great glass of wine and orchestra seats to the musical Aida. There was a point during the musical that I had tears streaming down my face as I watched Heather Headly perform with such power and passion and I realized they were tears of joy because I felt that I too was living the life I was supposed to be living. I decided I wanted to have coffee with Heather and tell her how powerful a moment that was for me. It has not yet happened, but I still have time!
6) What challenge / achievement are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the young woman Leilani has become…so full of compassion and kindness and a zest for life and I am grateful I was able to play a role in nurturing her. I think the greatest challenge though that I am most proud of is the creating and sustaining of CouldYou? I have had the privilege of journeying with incredible African men and women who are sacrificing and breaking paradigms in truly historic ways. I’ve also had the privilege of walking alongside amazing men and women from the west who are asking deep questions about moving from success to significance in an African context. I’ve been able to facilitate successful investments in business and charity ( in both small and large-scale arenas) but even more importantly I’ve gained lifelong deep friendships that make life truly rich.
7) What cause do you most want to advance?
I want to continue to introduce westerners of integrity to African leaders of integrity so together they can do business or charity. We all can’t do everything, but what if each of us did the hard work of discovering our “one thing”? What if we knew what we are passionate about, what we are skilled at and what we love doing? What if we then harnessed that passion, skill and love, and paid attention to one need in the world that makes us mad… and did something about it? In today’s world, opportunities abound for giving time and money to counteract the effects of poverty. In parallel with this, a rise in voluntourism has highlighted people’s desires to do something meaningful. However, while volunteering at a local soup kitchen, building a school or spending time with orphans can be meaningful, there is often a poor match between skills and needs. When the focus is more on creating experiences for volunteers than on responding to the needs of local communities, serious damage can be done.
I was deeply impacted after watching the TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story. In it, she warns about perpetuating the old story of Africa as a “place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and Aids, unable to speak for themselves, waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.” This state of affairs will not change if well- meaning foreigners continue to think in terms of providing aid and help to the poor. Instead, what is needed today is for people with generous hearts to partner with trusted local leadership and to fill in any gaps they determine. Sustainable change for people living in poverty comes not from the outside in, but from the inside out.
CouldYou? was started out of a desire to help people live life at the interface where, as the American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says, “your deepest gladness and the world’s deep need meet.” When people find that place, they not only make the world a better place, but they experience abundant life, deep joy and satisfaction. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” I want to advance that reality.
8) What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Bob Goff once told me to hold loosely to my organization and each new year ask the question “Is this what I’m supposed to commit to for the next 12 months and if so, go after it with everything you have but if not, be willing to let it go”. This has been so freeing because I don’t get lost in the building of an organization but rather focus on the work itself and the people I have the privilege of working alongside. Another piece of advice came from a dear friend in Mozambique who asked if I would be “willing to work the next 40 years towards the transformation of Mozambique if in my lifetime I never saw the fruit?” My gut honest answer was no…to which he said “than it was never about the transformation of my nation but about you”. Those words have stayed with me and drive me to not give up when the task at hand is hard and progress seems slow and no one is patting me on the back saying “good job”.
9) What is your “keep me going” quote?
My life quote is one by Frederick Buechner that says True self “happens when your deepest gladness and the world’s deep need, meet”. I want to live in the middle of that intersection and help people do the same because that is when you experience abundant life. Lately though, when I look at the task of seeing the nation of Mozambique fully transformed, my “keep me going” quote is by Nelson Mandela, “It is always impossible until it is done.”
10) Who on the list of prior Honorees would you like to meet?
I love meeting new and interesting people and so I’d be honored to meet anyone of the 40 women on last years 40Over40 list. Particularly anyone who might have a heart/interest in Africa to see where there might be some natural synergies in our work. Dr. Alissa Johnson and Elizabeth Clarkson for example would be great to talk with, as we are working with an American entrepreneur and investors to help Mozambique with cyber-security.
Check out Christine Garde’s full 40 Over 40 profile here!