Meet four Filipinos paying it forward for the country
MILLIONS OF PINOYS LEAVE HOME TO WORK ABROAD, REPRESENTING THE COUNTRY’S “BRAIN DRAIN”. BUT THESE FOUR FILIPINOS HAVE CHOSEN TO RETURN TO SERVE THE COUNTRY IN AMAZING WAYS. TEXT AND PHOTOS BY KATHERINE JACK
Gemma Bulos, a Filipino-American who grew up in the US, advocates the philosophy that “it takes a single drop of water to start a wave, and one person to initiate social change.”
In 2001, Gemma was a New Yorker, a pre-school teacher and professional singer. But on that fateful day when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11, she was not on her usual 8.50am train to what is now Ground Zero. The tragedy and the fact that she was saved gave Gemma a new perspective on life. She composed the uplifting song, We Rise, which celebrates water as a metaphor for peace and unity in the world.
“The core message of We Rise is how through every obstacle, we can rise together and that our every thought and action has an impact,” she says.
Gemma was inspired by the story of a Buddhist monk who journeyed for years without money – a lesson in humility and trust in the kindness of others. She decided to travel around the world to bring together a “million-voice choir” singing We Rise. She left everything. “I had no money and gave away my belongings,” she says. “I started traveling with just a backpack, guitar and one song and began
inviting people to join the choir.”
On September 21, 2004, groups from 100 cities in over 60 countries sang We Rise in unison. The United Nations called the song “the new human world anthem” and Gemma won an award from Queen Latifah and Cover Girl honoring women who change the world through music. She used the prize money as start-up capital for A Single Drop for Safe Water, a non-profit organization in the Philippines.
Today, as many as 12 million Filipinos have to walk more than one kilometer to fetch potable water, and they have less than five gallons of water a day to use for washing. An even greater number of people simply don’t have access to clean water.
A Single Drop conducts its work over the country, creating community-based water and sanitation service organizations and introduces appropriate technology that the locals can design, implement and maintain by themselves, in a financially sustainable way.
In 2009, Gemma was named the Ernst Young/Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year.
“Our catchphrase ended up being formed by the work that we were doing – ‘Uniting communities through water’,” says Gemma. For more on A Single Drop for Safe Water, go to www.asdforsafewater.org
Ami Evangelista Swanepoel
Ami Evangelista Swanepoel grew up in Manila, and moved to the US when she was 19 to study at Wellesley College. After graduating, she spent two years with Human Rights Watch doing challenging work that further inspired her to pursue her Masters in health and human rights.
Ami was working as a consultant in strategic planning for nonprofits, when one morning she received an unexpected email from her mother, Susan. The message tentatively suggested that they found an organization for women and children in Palawan.
Ami was excited at the prospect of moving back to the Philippines. “I wasn’t feeling fulfilled in New York and wanted a job that matched my work experience and training,” she says.
Her husband, Marcus, a schoolteacher from South Africa, was also keen to move. “I had been to Palawan before and could imagine us living there,” he recalls.
In 2009, they founded Roots of Health (Ugat ng Kalusugan) a non-profit organization focused on improving the health of women and children, and their communities in the city of Puerto Princesa.
Roots of Health aims to give people the information they need to make decisions about family planning, health and improved nutrition. “There is a need for organizations like ours as information about women’s health and pregnancy is lacking in the Philippines,” explains Ami.
“It is amazing to see the difference that a small program like ours can make,” she says.
Patricia Tumang — Patty to friends and family — grew up in California longing to understand more about her country and her heritage. “In Los Angeles, my sense of what being Filipino meant was very artificial,” she recalls.
While completing her MFA in English and Creative Writing at Mills College in Oakland, California, Patty edited Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time, an anthology of female American immigrants’ experiences of their country of ancestry. The stories of the writers resonated with Patty and she decided that she wanted to experience her own “homeland” for herself.
“Whenever I thought about what I wanted to do in my life, my heart and soul told me to write a novel about the Philippines,” she says. With dreams of going to the Philippines for an extended period of time to write, Patty applied for a Fulbright Scholarship, a research grant funded by the US State Department.
Patty arrived in the Philippines in
January 2009 for a nine-month Fulbright fellowship. Her aim was to research the historical representations of women during the Philippine Revolution, particularly the 20 Women of Malolos who fought for education and gender equality. The research serves as the backdrop for her novel-in-progress.
During the grant, Patty decided to become a dual citizen and made Manila her home, indefinitely, so as to be able to continue her research and writing. After a stint working for Contemporary Art Philippines, she is now managing editor of Adobo magazine, the leading publication of the Philippine advertising and marketing community.
“The perspective I offer is atypical,” says Patty. “I am a Filipina-American writer, who decided to move to her homeland as an adult while the large majority of the population seeks greener pastures abroad.”
Prior to returning home to the Philippines, Rina Malonzo was a New York-based creative director with experience in graphic design, creative direction, fashion advertising, fashion show production and corporate brand strategy.
At the age of 29, she was Creative Director at Lane Bryant and then moved on to Donna Karan to brand and launch City DKNY. In 2005, she set up her own brand consulting business with clients that included Nordstrom, Macy’s, Walmart and Eddie Bauer.
With such success achieved internationally, many people ask Rina why she came back. “My answer has two facets,” she says. “First, I grew up here and it feels like home. Second, I wanted to give something back – I see exceptional creative talent existing here in the Philippines.”
Together with her partner, Trina Dela Rama, Rina founded PortfolioMNL, a website that seeks to boost the country’s creative industry by building a bridge between Filipino artists and businesses seeking to hire them. “The website is a platform for creative people to build their professional careers and present their genius to the world,” she says.
Artists of all kinds can join PortfolioMNL by simply uploading their own portfolios to the website. For those seeking to hire creative talent — perhaps a person in advertising or someone needing a photographer — it is easy to browse the PortfolioMNL website and contact the people you might want to hire.
“We’ve designed PortfolioMNL to battle the brain drain problem,” explains Malonzo. “We want to keep and nurture talent in the country instead of forcing Pinoys in creative fields to seek employment elsewhere.” www.portfoliomnl.com