In "Citizen You," Jonathan Tisch and Karl Weber share inspiring stories of individuals that stood up to make a difference in their community, state or country and discuss the power of a single motivated person to change the world for the better.
Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the www.CitizenYou.org to find out how you can become an active citizen
The story of Scott Harrison offers a vivid example of the power of active citizenship to transform lives— the lives of those who find new meaning in service to others, as well as the lives of the less fortunate who are benefiting from today's new spirit of civic engagement.
Next to the air we breathe, water is surely the most basic of human necessities. In the developed world, we take for granted the availability of clean, safe water for drinking, cooking, and washing. But more than 1.1 billion people in the global south—one- sixth of the world's population— lack access to clean water. The result is epidemics of disease, tens of thousands of deaths every week (many from conditions that may seem trivial yet are often deadly, like severe diarrhea), and the destruction of countless lives from the ancillary effects of water shortages. Those effects range from warfare over water supplies to the inability of millions of children to attend school because they must spend their days gathering water for their families instead— for example, hiking up to three hours to get to the nearest well or, in some cases, a dirty riverbed where they fill a bucket with water swirling with mud and raw sewage.
Solving this global problem is obviously an enormous challenge, far too big for one person or even one organization. But three years ago, a young man named Scott Harrison decided to find out what kind of impact a single individual could have on the lives of millions of thirsty people around the world. The answer has amazed even him.
Harrison's organization, known as charity: water, has become one of the fastest- growing nonprofit groups in the world. In its short lifetime, it has attracted fifty thousand donors from two hundred countries who have contributed over $10 million, which has gone to fund more than thirteen hundred water projects in fourteen developing nations. These projects, managed by local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with proven track records of integrity and efficiency, like the International Rescue Committee and Living Water International, are modest and human scaled. Rather than massive dams or desalinization plants, charity: water funds wells, village clinics, and filtration systems for local ponds in countries like the Central African Republic, Bangladesh, and the Ivory Coast. The individual projects are small, but taken together, their impact is huge. So far, almost a million people have been provided with potable water through the efforts of charity: water . . . and if Scott Harrison has anything to say about it, this is just the beginning.
Yet almost as remarkable as the humanitarian impact of Harrison's work is Harrison's own story. The creation of charity: water represents not the first but the second personal transformation this thirty- three- year- old New Yorker with the shy smile and the hipster style— jeans, black sweater, scraggly beard— has experienced in his young life.
"I was raised in a very religious home," Harrison recalls, "and my mom was severely disabled due to an autoimmune disorder. She had to wear a face mask, stay in rooms where the windows were shielded with tin foil, and couldn't even take a ride in a car. Everything from air conditioning to the electromagnetic field created by a TV set might make her sick. My dad and I spent years caring for her. Because of her illness, her life was incredibly restricted— and so was mine."
When Harrison turned eighteen, he decided to change his lifestyle— not a little, but by 180 degrees. He moved from the New Jersey suburbs to New York City, enrolled in film classes at NYU, began spending his evenings checking out the downtown music scene, and wound up creating a career as a nightclub promoter and party planner. Harrison remembers: I was throwing events for some of the hottest magazines, hosting parties in the trendy clubs in the city, and traveling around the world for fashion week celebrations. I was selling drinks for sixteen dollars and bottles of Absolut for three hundred and fifty dollars, and watching bankers dancing on tables with pretty girls and spraying champagne around the room. It was fun, going to work at ten o'clock and coming home at five in the morning. But it was also a radically unhealthy lifestyle, not just physically but psychologically and spiritually.
For ten years, Harrison worked his way up the social food chain, rising in jet- set circles, dating a string of models, and amassing a personal Rolodex with the private phone numbers and e-mail addresses of fifteen thousand of the most beautiful and pampered young people in the country. He stayed in touch with his parents mainly through brief messages bragging about his glitzy new lifestyle: "Hey, I'm in Paris for the weekend, flying down to Rio next week . . ."
But all the while, an inner voice from his boyhood was whispering a message that he couldn't completely ignore— a message that this life of luxurious selfishness wouldn't satisfy him forever.
That simmering inner conflict bubbled to the surface during a three- week getaway in South America. One morning, hungover after a night of partying with fireworks and champagne, Harrison pulled out the book he'd brought along for the trip— an inspirational tome titled The Pursuit of God by pastor and self- taught theologian A. W. Tozer. Harrison started to read, and got hooked. The next thing he knew, he'd decided to start rereading the Bible he'd abandoned ten years earlier. For the first time in his life, he began thinking about issues like faith, community, and ser vice from the perspective, not of a child, but of an adult. Harrison became convinced that it was time to change his life again. And once again, he decided to take a 180- degree turn. Eager to shift from a life of self- indulgence to one of ser vice, and remembering stories from his boyhood about the good works of religious missionaries in places like Africa, he began researching charitable organizations that sought to help the poor in the developing world.
Harrison lacked any skills that would be of obvious use to such a group; he wasn't a doctor, a nurse, an engineer, or a schoolteacher, and there's not much call for party planners at organizations like CARE or Oxfam. His first attempts to find a useful role were fruitless. But then he learned that Mercy Ships, a global charity that sends floating hospitals staffed by medical volunteers to serve poor people in the developing world, was looking for a photographer to record and publicize their work. Although Harrison had never done any professional camera work, he talked them into giving him the assignment. As for salary, Harrison paid them $500 per month from his savings to cover his own expenses.
His stint with Mercy Ships was eye- opening. In war- torn Benin, he saw a crowd of seven thousand poor, desperate people lined up outside a stadium, hoping to be among the fifteen hundred lucky people selected to receive free surgery to treat life- threatening tumors and horrendous deformities. He visited a leper colony in Liberia and accompanied doctors on their rounds in villages with no electricity, no sanitary facilities, no drinking water. All the while, he was snapping photos and sending some of them home, via e-mail, to his party- loving friends back in the States. Some were repulsed and asked to be taken off Harrison's e-mail list. But others were moved and asked, "How can we help?"
When Harrison returned home to New York, an old friend from the nightclub business told him, "Scott, these photos you've been taking are important. Our group needs to see them." The friend helped to organize an exhibition at a gallery on Eighteenth Street called the Metropolitan Pavilion. Within nine days, visitors drawn largely from Harrison's personal trove of names and addresses donated $96,000 to benefit the work of Mercy Ships. Harrison had found his calling. He couldn't help the suffering the way a doctor or a nurse could, but he was a gifted marketer— the years he'd spent luring New York's beautiful people to visit the clubs and parties he promoted had demonstrated that. Now he would apply those same skills to a more vital mission. After several months of research to determine where the greatest need and opportunity existed, Harrison founded charity: water, and his life's work truly began.
Although Harrison claims not to be much of a manager— he recently hired a chief operating officer to manage the dozen employees and assorted unpaid interns who now work at charity: water— he has used his communications skills and his instinctive creativity to build the organization into a highly effective outreach tool. He travels constantly, visiting sites in Africa and Asia where water projects are under way so that their stories can be vividly, compellingly told on the organization's website. He has introduced innovative ways of connecting donors to their beneficiaries— for example, granting naming rights to wells and providing links to Google Earth's satellite images that allow donors to actually see their projects being constructed. And he devised what he calls the "100 percent model," under which a separate group of donors agrees to cover all of charity: water's operating expenses, so that everyone else can be assured that every penny they give will provide direct benefits to the poor people of the world.
Obviously, the nearly one million people in the developing world who are gaining access to the life- giving water they need through the work of charity: water have seen their world transformed by Scott Harrison. Harrison's personal transformation has been just as great. When he left behind the party scene, he quit smoking (something he'd tried and failed to do twenty times previously), quit using drugs, and got his drinking under control. He's married to a young colleague from charity: water with whom he expects to work on humanitarian causes for decades to come. And in an amazing and happy confluence of events— whether you choose to call it a miracle, as Harrison does, or just a wonderful turnaround— even Harrison's disabled mom has recovered after twenty- eight years of suffering. They recently had dinner together in a restaurant for the first time in their lives. And although Scott has not returned to the traditional, conservative religion of his boyhood, he definitely sees his new life of service as a response to a spiritual calling.
Scott Harrison's journey is an extreme example. He went from a life of total self- indulgence to one of complete dedication to the needs of the least fortunate. But his actions have also engaged the lives of thousands of others whose devotion is less extreme. Through his photographs, the videos on his website, his newspaper and TV interviews, and the speeches he gives in schools and churches, Harrison has helped educate countless Americans about the problems faced by the "bottom billion" in Africa and Asia. And through the work of charity: water, he has enabled thousands to help shoulder the responsibility for alleviating that suffering, giving ordinary citizens, most of modest means, the opportunity to make the world a better place, one village well at a time.