9 min read

Philanthropy from the roots up.

Hello, all! Cristina here. I have a quick and fun interview for you this week. But first, some housekeeping. Last week, I received many messages from people who were worried, anxious, angry, whatever because they thought this newsletter wasn't going to be free anymore.

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This week I'm speaking with Ronald Kibirige, a 37-year-old music and dance practitioner from Uganda who holds numerous degrees from universities in France, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and Norway.

Ronald is also the co-founder of The Interoots Initiative, a philanthropic organization that encourages local communities to identify their needs and design their own development and social projects.

Before I went to grad school and started working in journalism, I had a brief career in international development. One of the significant problems in the industry that I (and anyone else who works in NGOs) noticed is that projects and priorities are often determined by large international donors that don't have a direct connection with the affected communities. That's why I was so intrigued by Ronald's roots-up approach.  

It turns out he also has a pretty fascinating life story and a unique perspective on the U.S. role in the world. I love Ronald's story because it shows how life-changing the connections made during international exchanges can be and how much creativity and connection they can foster (*tiny violins*). Here's the interview:

Cristina: So let's start from the beginning. Where are you from originally, and where are you based now?

Ronald: I'm Ugandan. I grew up in Uganda, in East Africa. I was raised in an orphanage, so I grew up with an understanding of how philanthropy works.

Starting in 1998, I began traveling once or twice a year to the United States as part of a delegation from my orphanage.

The orphanage had a music and dance program, and we would do frequent tours of the United States. I was able to travel to around 36 U.S. states that way.

But in the last nine years, I've been living and working in Norway. I went to Norway to complete my master's in 2012, and I've been living there ever since, so I travel back and forth between Uganda and Norway frequently.

Cristina: What was your impression of the United States when you were a young child traveling the country?

Ronald: I understood the United States to be a supportive country with supportive citizens. We were getting a lot of help from the United States.

We were performing there and talking to people, and people were supporting our lives and the lives of the over 600 children in the orphanage. But the support was also on an international level because USAID was supporting many projects in East Africa.

My perception of the U.S. was that it was a rich country.

I went to New York, I saw skyscrapers, and that was scary but also interesting to look at. I also went to Dallas, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston.

But I think California was great. I went back after I attended university and participated in cultural exchanges there, and that had a profound impact on my life and work.

It inspired me to support communities and make a difference because those communities made a difference in my life when I was still in the orphanage.  

Cristina: Tell me about Interoots. How did you decide to start the organization?

Ronald: I began brainstorming with my friend Scott who lives in Colorado. We first met at a performance at Stanford University in California. I was there as part of an artistic exchange program.

After that, we kept talking and brainstorming for a long time. Scott was an artistic director at Stanford University's choir, and we arranged to bring him on a trip to Africa. During our collaboration, we also recorded an album.

At the time, we were always talking about the challenges we faced, both in the world and personally. We talked about all of the work we do to change our lives, the world around us, and the communities we serve.

Scott came to visit Uganda, and we sat on top of my roof, and that was when we conceptualized Interoots. We thought about the different privileges that different communities have, the equities and inequities that exist.

Cristina: One of your goals is to redefine philanthropy and development work by having communities design their own projects. Can you tell me more about that approach?

Ronald: Scott and I talked about how to make philanthropy better and make the ways of giving and supporting communities better. That's how we came up with the roots-up strategy.

Communities come up with their own projects and identify their needs instead of others identifying their needs for them. Then they have to take charge of their projects and own in. We want there to be a lot of community ownership.

It's a type of philanthropy that doesn't impose anything. Everything comes from the communities and the community members. The community-based organizations that we deal with are sitting at the table and can express themselves. It's a genuine partnership. It's not hierarchical.

Cristina: Are the majority of your projects related to music and art and dance, or do they focus on other topics as well?

Ronald: Most of the work I am involved with relates to the performing arts and how it transforms and uplifts communities. But Interoots is much wider in scope. We do education, culture, environmental, and health projects.

In Uganda specifically, the projects we're focusing on are based on education, culture, and financial literacy. So performing arts is part and parcel of the whole package.

Cristina: Where does your funding come from?

Ronald: Interoots funds the grassroots projects, and our organization receives a mix of grant funding and individual donations.

Our interlocutor, attending an event in Norway last year. 

You can pitch me ideas for who or what to feature in this newsletter or send story tips: c.maza@protonmail.com or cmaza@nationaljournal.com

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