MEET Clint and Sana: interfaith workers and medical supply crafters
Atlanta has a lot of diversity. With people from hundreds of different countries converging here every day, so the need for understanding is great. We sat down with Sana and Clint who are undertaking an interfaith program at MedShare to learn what it takes to bridge the divide religious differences can cause. They provided us a great tour of MedShare, an international organization that recycles medical supplies before we got down to interview business.
Tell us about your project:
Sana: MedShare is a health nonprofit organization based in Decatur. We take surplus medical supplies from hospitals and medical manufacturing companies and redistribute them to developing countries. When you get an operation at a hospital, they will use a specific kit for your procedure. There might be 30-80 instruments for your surgery but they will only uses some of them. The rest of the instruments, even if they are perfectly sterile, are still billed to you because they are part of the opened kit. They cannot use them on other patients so they are usually thrown away. We also get products from medical manufacturing companies. When they make a shipment and a load of boxes falls off a forklift, it is cosmetically damaged and not sellable. Usually they would throw it away. Instead we ask them to donate it here. We have volunteers that re-box those supplies. Once these supplies get entered into our inventory, hospitals and clinics in developing countries can go online and make a wish list of all the things they want. We will prepare a 40 foot container with all the requested supplies and ship it over. They get exactly what they want and need.
We are working with the Tony Blair Faith Acts Fellows Program to bring faith communities together to engage in service here at MedShare. We are also doing a large scale fundraising initiative to send over 2 containers of medical supplies to Sierra Leone.
How did you get started with all of this?
Sana: With the art auction, we noticed that there was an incredible amount of supplies we receive that we can’t use. It is amazing the amount of supplies we save and provide to clinics, but there are still things that might end up in the trash. Things that are expired or not in demand. We wanted to figure out how to reduce the amount of waste coming from that. Clint and I came up with an idea to give these supplies to artists to create works of art. We ended up watching the documentary Waste Land. An artist goes to one of the largest landfills in Rio de Janeiro to learn about people who hand-pick recyclables from landfills. He takes people who do this and draws out their portraits in giant sizes. The people fill in the outlines with the recyclables and then he photographs the images. He uses this art to fundraise for their workers union. It was really powerful.
We decided to do something similar. We have artists use our waste product to create images of our logo, our recipients. We have had many artists come forward to work on this. It has been really neat. Art has an interesting role to play in these issues. There is a very concrete and tangible outcome of this process and this auction.
What inspires you to do this work?
Sana: I just graduated from Northwestern. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do this year. I have always been interested in international development work. I spent two summers working in Turkey on women’s rights issues, I did a lot of global health volunteering in college. I have always been interested in interfaith work. Although I have never done much of it before, but as a Muslim in the US I can see the need for it. The 2008 presidential elections and the kind of vitriol that came out against Muslims. People were accusing him of being a Muslim and he was adamant that he wasn’t. I kept waiting for a voice of reason. For him to say “I am not a Muslim, but there is nothing wrong with being one”. And that never really happened. I think that makes interfaith work very important.
Clint: First I wanted to return to Atlanta and I knew it was possible through this program. I won’t lie about that! Two, I come from a family that has a very strong Christian program. My father is a Baptist minister, my grandfather was as well. And I tell everyone in a joking manner, even though it is kinda true, my mother raises money for preachers to go to school. There is a very strong tradition of faith background in my family. I have often struggled with religion myself. I was a philosophy major. My family has also been involved with marriages in other religions. My big brother married a Hindu woman. Going through that process, the 4 days of marriage, was quite something. It was an incredible thing to see families from different parts of the world come together. We had two weddings- a Hindu and a Christian wedding. Just seeing that and how it was possible was important for me. I saw people work together. I wanted to explore this idea of interfaith work as a way to bring people together around an issue. Also, I get a chance to work with artists through this program. I love it.
What challenges are you facing?
Sana: It is interesting to come to a new city and map out the communities. We are trying to bring together faith communities in Atlanta. Faith is a big thing here. Getting all of those people together at the same table has been a challenge. Although surprisingly there is a big interfaith community here. There is a rich diversity even though you might only think ‘this is the bible belt’. Actually, there is almost too much going on. There is a lot of interfaith programing and we have to find our own space.
Fundraising is also hard. There are so many worthy causes so convincing people to support you is hard. The economic climate is still tough for people. So for me our campaign isn’t just about fundraising, there are many ways to volunteer. You can donate, make some artwork, volunteer your time. Clint and I are passionate that contributing to a cause can be in any shape or form.
Clint: One of the biggest challenges is explaining the depth of the project to people. We are not just having people come together to pray or to hold hands. I think that is a very important element but we are also trying to get people to take action and show that people who have faith, people who don’t have faith, people who have different faiths, can come together and do something good. Explaining that in two or three sentences to people can be difficult. Our work can be controversial too. If you use platforms like surplus medical supplies going overseas or artists coming together to create a better world, I think you are able to explain it better and break down hesitations.
Sana: To add to that, I think interfaith is a scary word. People think “oh no, I have to talk about my religion”, but that isn’t true. It is more about being in a space and working towards a common goal with people of a different faith.
Clint: A good example is our interfaith (supply) sorting sessions. You have these people coming to MedShare all the time. There might be 4 or 5 different faiths represented at a given time but you might not speak to them about it. It is just a microcosm of what happens around the world. People of different backgrounds are working together all the time, it just isn’t acknowledged. What we do is allow people to have these experiences but allow them to learn from the experience of working together.
Are you guys collaborating with anyone?
Sana: We work a lot with the Southwest Art Center. They are making our big art pieces. They have really gotten the word out to artists about the auction and getting people involved. We have worked with many faith communities who have been on board with the initiative. Morehouse college and their leadership center are helping to spread the word and fundraise. We are also working with the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta- FAMA. They are helping to raise interest in the faith communities.
What impact are you hoping to have on Atlanta?
Sana: I think interfaith work gets stuck in a niche. “All we do is sit around and talk about what we have in common, how we can get along, how there is no need to fight.” Beyond that, once you have built that basic understanding, there is a need for a next step in those relationships. What I have been most struck by is the role of faith organizations in international work. There could be a tremendous outcome if faiths worked together. There are so many resources, so much talent and energy in each group, combined together it is super powerful. I hope to leave that behind. Here at MedShare faith communities are coming together to solve a problem. The impact could be incredible.
Would you like to see your work replicated?
Clint: That is the hope. Everything we do, we would like to see it be sustainable. We don’t want anything we do here to be just a “Clint’ or “Sana’” program. We want to engage people and tell them about our specific interfaith program, but we want them to stay engaged with MedShare. We don’t want people to come here, talk about our project and then never come back. It should be a long term relationship.
Sana: With this project, the first thing we did was ask “who in Atlanta is from Sierra Leone”. The country is very small so I didn’t think there would be many Sierra Leon people here but every week I get a new phone call from someone from there who is excited to help with our project. I hope that future projects can engage these communities as well.
That said, my favorite part of this project is bringing together so many parts of Atlanta. We have Emory, Morehouse and Georgia Tech fundraising on campus for this project. There are faith communities doing the sorting sessions of the supplies and also taking part in a roundtable talk. We will have faith leaders talk about their interest in this project. And then there are people of no particular faith who care about malaria or Sierra Leone. We really want that to be replicated.
What kind of help do you need to keep this going?
Clint: In the near future, for the interfaith panel coming up and also with the art auction and some smaller events, we need to engage the entire Atlanta community. We don’t want to just be in the MedShare community or just the artist communities that we already know. We want to expand. We really need promotion. We also need people to volunteer for a good cause. MedShare runs off of volunteer work.
Sana: We are still looking for donations. Artists who want to make or give pieces of art for the fundraiser. Or anyone who is looking to donate medical supplies.
What are some of the biggest issues you see in Atlanta?
Sana: Public transportation! It is really frustrating. The biggest way to feel like you are in a connected city is to leave your house and get on a train. Here, I leave my house, get in a car, Mapquest, drive and find parking. That is frustrating. I come from Chicago, which is one of the most segregated cities, but I still see that in Atlanta. It is something that needs to be discussed more. But generally I am impressed with how open that discussion is here compared to how hush-hush it is in Chicago. The food here is really good, so that makes up for a lot.
Clint: Public transport is really terrible. We work in Decatur but all of the interfaith networks we work with are in Atlanta near Downtown. That is a difficult commute. A strength and a weakness is that Atlanta has some people doing interfaith work, but there are not a lot of people doing it. When we first came here, it wasn’t like the experience our colleagues in DC or New York were having. There was not an explicit interfaith network that had been around for many years. While there are not many people working on it, it does mean that Atlanta is fertile ground for new interfaith projects.
What are some of your favorite organizations or things around town?
Clint: To start, MedShare is our favorite place. Also, FAMA has been so great to us. The people that we talk to have been very welcoming. We have been working with universities. Morehouse, Georgia State, Georgia Tech. Emory. And groups like Maynard Jackson Youth Foundation, Youth Universe. These people have really come out and supported us. For the art auction, the Southwest Arts Center has been fantastic.
Sana: The mosques here are the coolest mosques I have ever been to. I hadn’t been to Friday prayer yet so I went there and I was the only South Asian person. Everyone was African American. It was so awesome with a different style and culture. The Imam was giving a sermon but in a very Christian preaching style. It was really neat for me to see. People are really kind and warm here. I think the Clarkston scene is really cool. People should explore it more. I have been impressed with the NGO and nonprofits working there on refugee issues. RRISA and Fugees Family are really cool. There is a lot of cultural and ethnic diversity happening in Atlanta.
Where can interested readers find you?
Sana: I FEED my soul with Turkish cuisine.
Clint: I FEED my soul with origami.