What Goes Around, Comes Around. Member Spotlight: Anita Lewis

“Communicating with people, finding the right balance between getting them motivated and opening their minds to show them that it is realistic, that you can help, take responsibility for yourself and others. It is a popular idea but it is not a popular function. People do not want to give up their personal time, but it turns out to be my life.”

Anita’s Background 

Anita is a retired nurse based in Dayton, Ohio, US. She also owns a farm for 35 years, which she turned into a community center, where people can meet and have conversations about social issues. The problem addressed with that is the fact that most of the people are very isolated, very comfortable in their own homes, and do very little to reach out and meet their neighbors. “We just become more and more socially isolated,” Anita says. “I have been trying to be an outreach center, it is very difficult because in a nice middle-class neighborhood people do not feel like they need each other”. But connecting people is not the only goal in Anita’s life – her farm is also a place to promote clean energy. On top of that, Anita is a co-founder of Empathy Surplus Project, a foundation with the goal of promoting stronger Americans, progressive markets, better futures, the effective government of, by, and for people, and mutual responsibility by practicing Four Empathic Activities: Inwardly Digest, Invest, Implement and Invite. The foundation recently merged with Human Rights Network the US, and transformed into Empathy Surplus Network USA – they are a member of the UN Global Compact, every 2 year reporting to the UN about the progress made in the previous year. Anita was a member of a local Rotary club for 4 years and is currently involved in activities of a Rotary Action Group for Peace, based in San Diego. Seeking opportunities to make a visible impact, she finally joined Mediators Beyond Borders International. She is also an extensive traveler and already made an impact in countries like Saudi Arabia and Guyana.

Pay it Forward

One of the initiatives that Anita pays special attention to, is mentoring and investing in young people. “I am retired,” she says “and I am recruiting my own young people to engage, and expand the work that we are doing, working toward peace. The best part of this is that my daughter is also on board with this, and she will continue”. During the interview, she brought up a story of a young man from Malawi, and his family, whom she mentored and 1,5 years ago helped with traveling to the US, where they could start a new life. Everything started through a certain project by Empathy Surplus, exactly a small pocketbook of The Illustrated Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Our goal is to deliver this into the hands of every child on the planet. I had sent a box full of the books to Malawi, one young man there got hold of it and started corresponding with me” Anita recalls. She found out that he had been accepted to Boston University to pursue a Master’s Degree in Project Management but unfortunately could not afford to travel to the US. Anita, believing in the idea of paying it forward, agreed to pay transportation costs for him and his wife. When they finally made it to the US in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, she offered them to quarantine on her farm, and later covered all their living expenses, including a university tuition fee.

“Everything that we have done came out of our own pockets. Now I just have to stay home, apply for grants and we will see where we can go with that” Anita says, explaining her involvement on both local and international levels. Last month, for example, she sent her mentee to Guyana, on a fact-finding mission for a project that she is collaborating on, with a Seaside Fiber Arts based in Virginia, US. It is a waste-to-wealth endeavor, focused on using banana fiber, and Anita works on it along with her daughter. In 2019 she started the Guyana WASH Rotary Grants Working Group and donated water well pumps. When it comes to local initiatives, on top of the community center, Anita created workshops, just across her house, where people can come, and work together. “It started back in 2012. We want people to have empathy and take responsibility, not only for themselves but for other people too. That is where we are with that”. Anita admits, that what she and her foundation are doing, despite being very involved with the UN, is not very popular. “We take statements from other countries and analyze them. And we try to drive home the fact that the people who work for you are the real wealth creators,” she says. “The wealth creator is not Elon Musk, these are the people who work for him and buy his products, and these are the people that need to be taken care of. We try to reframe a lot of ideas to make them more about taking responsibility for yourself and others”. Taking responsibility for others is a key aspect of all Anita’s activities, and as she says, the most important thing about her travels to Saudi Arabia, Abud Dhabi, Guatemala, Scotland, and the Netherlands, was making new friends, and thanks to them, gathering a lot of knowledge.

Act locally and internationally

On top of her other activities, Anita also started a business called I am Clean Energy. “I had befriended an Arab gentleman who attended a mosque right across from my farm” she recalls. “One day he came over to say hello and introduce himself, and also asked if I would like to start a business with him. How about we sell solar panels – I thought. I started the business and he covered the expenses in the beginning”. Later, this gentleman funded Anita’s first trip to Saudi Arabia. She was able to line up some meetings with the Saudi electric company, at their headquarters. What she learned was that if you understand the culture, follow the rules, and present an interesting idea – people will love you.

Speaking about working with people from other countries, and their unique challenges, Anita brings up the notion of romantic distance. She says that in addition to the fact that people have different world views based on their style of moral upbringing, another confusing and confounding aspect of communication among people is the notion of romantic distance. You have got a great project locally, but nobody cares. You put that project in Nepal, and everybody loves it. Why? Because it is in Nepal. Romantic distance is the idea that you can talk about something of importance right in your own vicinity, but nobody cares because familiarity breeds contempt. However, if you speak of it, it has a more mysterious aspect because it is in Paris, or Toronto instead of Ohio, and people are more likely to listen.

Clean energy and sustainable environment

And speaking of I am Clean Energy itself, finally, a business turned it into a think-tank about clean energy. “I have been a nurse for 42 years, so when I see a problem I see it through the eyes of nursing. I am Clean Energy is a think-tank, we search and research for the best answers to long-neglected problems” Anita says. Using the nursing process, they formulate plans of action to deal with the problem. Her vision is a clean healthy life available to all people on earth, and her mission is to support human rights by working on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Due to actions by some governments and corporations, injustice occurs in living standards and living conditions resulting in unhealthy people and an unhealthy planet. I am Clean Energy works closely with Empathy Surplus, the team is traveling to Malawi, Guatemala, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Guiana, Turkey, Netherlands, France, Germany, and Scotland. In Malawi they supported the creation of Empathy Surplus Limited as a for-profit business, supporting water well installation and distribution of cleaning products and pit latrine remediation powder. In Guatemala financially and physically supported the construction of an earthquake-proof house in the mountain region. In addition, they finally supported two college-bound students, that were tutored and funded to go to Guatemala for a week. In Saudi Arabia, the opportunities were discussed regarding the trade of goods and services with engineers.

Anita is also working on a project of reducing costs of transport and importing moringa – an all-natural, sustainably grown plant, which every part of can be used for medical purposes: the roots, the stock, branches, and leaves. It is anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal. Another project they are working on is a urine-diverting dry composting toilet system. “Water sanitation and hygiene are still one of the biggest problems on this planet. Sometimes companies go to Africa and install toilets, regular porcelain toilets. But then there is no water to flush, so they cannot use them. A big problem with our planet is, that in mining we are running out of phosphate, which is integral to fertilizer and growing food crops. What we need to do, is to switch to a urine-diverting toilet. Urine contains enough micronutrients for a whole loaf of bread. If we can collect it and recycle it, to use as a fertilizer. It is very, very important”.

 Article by Maciej Witek, MBBI Writer