Recently, I ( Anaam, OEP Junior Fellow) had the special opportunity to speak with OEP Alum Ambassador, Gemma Bulos. She continues to inspire us all. Here is a snippet of her fascinating journey:
Anaam: Can you tell us about your journey and how you came to finding your non-profit organization A Single Drop?
The story begins in 1989, when I was living in NYC and was a professional singer. From then until the turn of the century, I worked singing at nightclubs, weddings, recording and teaching music to preschoolers (and of course waiting on tables and bartending). After years of pursuing a wearying career in music, in the summer 2001,I was prepared for a major change in my life and found myself in India. I spent the summer in Dharamasala, India the home to HH Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. Spending time sitting in the presence of the Dalai Lama and volunteering at the Tibetan Children’s Village teaching music to refugee kids, I came back to NYC with renewed sense of possibility, completely open to making a big change. These experiences helped me gravitate to a place where I was prepared to take a huge leap of faith.
In 2001, the day of September 11th, I was supposed to be in the World Trade Center when the planes hit but had actually called in sick from my preschool. I know this sounds odd, but New York was such an incredible place to be after the tragic events. At least that’s how I chose to see the world. The shared grief of the tragedy September 11th tapped into the best part of people and unified people in solidarity and support. This was a far cry from the week before September 11th when on your usual subway ride to work you would have people’s armpits in your face yet in this very ‘intimate’ setting, you would know nothing about nor care about the person you were standing alongside. To me, I chose to see the world as a global family coming together through their grief and sadness. These events made a lot of us realize that we are all the same things for ourselves and our family – opportunities, security, shelter. So based on that belief, I wanted to rebuild this feeling of unity again only this time in celebration of our shared needs and desires.
I wrote a song called ‘We Rise’ and had this crazy idea that I wanted to build a Million Voice Choir to sing it around the globe. I left my life, gave away all my belongings, took what very little money I had and, with just my guitar and back pack started to travel around the world inviting people to join this world peace movement. Remember, this is 2001/2002. This was way before Facebook and Twitter. I sent out an email to my friends, family and fan base and asked them to share the song and the mission with their friends. I started to get invited to gatherings and conferences around the globe that focused on social justice, peace and environmental issues. Before I knew it, friends and strangers were buying me airline tickets, handing me money and housing and feeding me so I could speak about peace and perform ‘We Rise’.
Despite the magic that was happening of wonderful people contributing and taking care of me so I could get to my next destination, of course, I had plenty of moments of debilitating doubt when I thought “Oh for goodness sake, go home and get a job”. One Saturday evening when I was in a particularly low point, I sang ‘We Rise’ in front of a group of people in Idaho. I was ready to toss it all in and go home when three days later on the following Monday my friend called and left a message on my machine and said “Gemma, I’m at United Nations. They just called your song the ‘New Human World Anthem’. Listen!” and she put the phone up and you could hear my song playing in the background. That was the moment when I crossed over from ‘hope’ into ‘faith’. Hope has that element of ‘doubt’, but ‘faith’ is unwavering. I had always thought that I was the one who had to drive the mission, but at that point, the song sort of took a life of its own. I started fancying myself Frodo and the song was the ring and my job was to take care of it on its journey.
This completely changed the way again how I viewed the world. One of the song’s major themes ‘ it takes a single drop of water to start a wave” was actually coming true right before my eyes. I invited people to see themselves as a ‘drop of water’ knowing that their every thought, word and action will ripple out and impact the world.
Because of that message, I started to be known as the ‘water lady’. One of the conferences I was invited to perform ‘We Rise’ was at the Water For Life Conference at Omega Institute hosted by a ex-Jain monk and student of Ghandi’s who in the 60’s walked around the world to all the cities that had nuclear arms in silent and non-violent protest. When he found out what I did, he sat me down , told me his story and just as his guru told him, he encouraged me me to pursue my mission with no money, because I had to believe that all human beings are kind and generous and that I would always be taken care of. And that was what I did.
From that event, I was invited to sing at the United Nations Water For Life Conference and it was there that I learned about global water crisis. This was the first time I learned that 1.2 billion people did not have access to freshwater and every 15 seconds a child died of water related disease. It was then that water transformed from being my metaphor and became my cause. I then started to integrate the water crisis into my message. Because it is an equalizer – the smallest plant and the richest man need water to survive – it is a place where we can all agree, we can start the conversation and perhaps creates a situation where can collaborate. I truly believed that water was our pathway to peace.
At that same event, a wonderful man who had his own water non-profit invited me to start my own non-profit so I could continue to build the choir and travel around the globe and share my message with ease. In February of 2004, I founded A Single Drop, and my travels and performance engagements went into hyperdrive. I declared September 21, 2004, the UN International Day of Peace as the day that the Million Voice Choir would sing ‘We Rise’ and invited people to plan a peace event on that day.
My journey continued and we now had a set date for the choir to sing on one day. There were times where I had no money in my pocket, no place to stay and I would arrive in foreign countries excited wondering what the universe had in store for me next. I remember when I arrived in Spain for an interfaith conference I didn’t have a place to stay. I left my stuff in a random restaurant hoping no one would take it and went to the conference. When I was standing at the train station to go back and pick up my stuff at the restaurant, a random American women started talking to me on the platform. Within 2 minutes when I told her my name she asked “Are you the Gemma that sings?” It turned out that we had a mutual friend, and there in a flash, I now had a place to stay. At that same event I mustered up the courage to introduce myself to Jane Goodall and before I could say anything but my name she said “Oh Gemma, I’ve heard all about you”. Things like this were happening all the time. One of my favorite memories was when Pete Seeger invited me to his house, made me homemade soup and bread and he told that he sang ‘We Rise’ in the mornings when he walked up the mountain and shared his stories of when he was a peace troubadour..
By September 21, 2004, I had mobilized people from over 100 cities in 60 countries to ‘We Rise’ from wherever they were all over the globe. Although it was a phenomenal moment, it was a bit bittersweet because after all my travels, and experiencing the global water crisis first hand, I had to ask myself – “Ok, this is six minutes of unity and peace – what happens on minute seven? What does peace actually look like on the ground?”
My answer came soon after that when I was asked to speak and perform at the Women and Water Conference in Dehradun, India hosted by the outspoken water activist Vandana Shiva. I was roomed with an incredible woman who worked for an international organization that trains people how to build simple water and sanitation technologies that required no engineering or construction expertise. I took a technology workshop from her organization and two months later I won an award from Queen Latifah and Covergirl and took the $10,000 and started my first water project in the Philippines, my country of heritage.
When I landed on the ground in the Philippines the technology I had learned was timely and very much needed. I partnered with an ex-Peace Corps volunteer and we designed a training to help communities not only build technologies, but to support them to create income generating community based water organizations so they could be sustainable. We got a $50,000 grant from the Canadian Ambassador and opened a local Philippines office, hired local staff and started training communities in the poorest region in the Philippines. Within a 9 months, we had won the Echoing Green fellowship which took us to a whole new level. This is how I accidentally became a water expert. As we refined our program I won Social Entrepreneur of the Year Awards from Ernst Young and Schwab Foundation and even presented our work at the World Economic Forum. Our organization also won the Tech Awards, Warriors of the Millennium Goals.
When A Single Drop in the Philippines was self-reliant and thriving, I left and began to focus my efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa where women were the most burdened by the lack of water and sanitation and co-founded the Global Women’s Water Initiatie which is what I’m doing now. We train grassroots women in Africa to build water and sanitation technologies that have the potential to become micro-enterprises. Because of this body of work, I was recognized as one of the 100 Most Influential Thought Leader and Innovative Filipinas and recently Reuters named me as one of the Top 10 Water Solutions Trailblazers in the world.
A: You you have performed on stage across the globe as a soloist and are a resident storyteller for “The Shout,”. Have you ever felt overwhelmed or nervous to be on stage and share your story? If you have or can you tell us how you overcame this fear?
G: I have never ever really felt debilitating fear or nervousness when I perform or speak. Not many people have the gift of having a captive audience, so if I have any nervousness, I just harness it into an opportunity to maybe bring them some joy or new information or if I’m lucky, both – whether it be through music, stories or even international development strategies. Certainly there are times where I feel my personal story is not appropriate. In my professional circles I do get concerned that I might not be taken seriously, if they know that I was a singer or a preschool teacher before I started doing the water work. So far it hasn’t been a problem at all and I think the awards and recognitions trump any of those fears. That said, the majority of my invitations it seems people are much more intrigued by my story of boldness and transformation and the water work is just part of the story. Ultimately, I always want to make sure that I’m accessible and available to anyone who might be somehow inspired or moved by our work or my story.
I’m actually starting to write a book and an OEP mentor editor (Joe Loya) has been so lovely and has been helping me through the process. It’s the story of my accidental life and how we all have an ‘alchemist’ (Paulo Coelho) story where our random experiences that at one point seem totally irrelevant and disjointed are all connected had to happen in order for you to live the life you were meant to live.
A: How did you learn about the OpEd project? Why is the OEP mission important to you?
G: I met Katie because we are both Echoing Green fellows . I’m class of 2007 and she is 2008. I support the OpEd mission for practical reasons. When we train in Africa, we chose women not simply because they are disproportionately affected by lack of water and sanitation, but because they have a much deeper relationship with water as they are the ones who fetch it, do all the water related chores and are responsible for the family’s health. Their voice is crucial when decisions are made around the provision of water and sanitation. Being able to build technologies and promote sustainable solutions for improved health through water, this becomes their voice. Often times they are invited to the decision making table simply because they must meet a ‘gender’ quota. Our goal is to be able to support them to bring their voice to the table not just because they are fulfilling a quota, but because they are well-informed and have valuable contributions. And then of course, after taking the “Write To Change the World” I wrote my very first OpEd which was not only picked up by Huffington Post, but I was asked to be a HuffPost blogger! I would’ve been happy having published one piece in my lifetime, and now I’m getting asked by three more well known international outlets requesting pieces from me!
A: What are you listening to on your Ipod or what book are you reading?
G: The book I am reading right now “The Man Who Outgrew His Prison” by Joe Loya. What I am listening to on Itunes, “Defying Gravity”, from the musical ‘Wicked” and “Hurry It’s Lovely Up Here” from the musical “On A Clear Day” and my version of Ricky Lee Jones’ “Company” the title track of my upcoming jazz CD. How funny, I just realized the first two songs are about rising’! Do you hear a theme here?
Get in touch with Gemma by visiting her website or follow her on Twitter (handle: gemmabelle). Click here to learn more about her non-profit A Single Drop For Safe Water and the Global Women’s Water Initiative. Last but not least, do not forget to check out her successes on The Huffington Post.
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