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How do you keep calm and carry on in a world full of crises?

From left: <strong>Irma Sitompul</strong> of Women's Earth Alliance plants wee forests in Indonesia; <strong>Bernard Chiira</strong>, founder of the Assistive Technologies for Disability Trust, won't hesitate to nix an early plan and cook up a better one; <strong>Rana Dajani</strong>, a biologist in Jordan who studies trauma and DNA, believes that "If you can imagine it, then it can happen."
Photos by Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
From left: Irma Sitompul of Women's Earth Alliance plants wee forests in Indonesia; Bernard Chiira, founder of the Assistive Technologies for Disability Trust, won't hesitate to nix an early plan and cook up a better one; Rana Dajani, a biologist in Jordan who studies trauma and DNA, believes that "If you can imagine it, then it can happen."

Plant just a few trees. Don't be afraid to reject your own ideas. Humble brag in a journal.

This is some of the advice we heard last week when about 1,500 people who try to make our planet a better place – from scientists and philanthropists to activists and entrepreneurs – descended on Oxford, England. In big forums and little coffee shops, they discussed what to do about some of the world's biggest problems and swapped advice from their work on the front lines. The Skoll World Forum brought these people together in a bid to "accelerate innovative solutions."

We pulled a few of the participants aside and asked for their wisdom. We wanted to know their advice for the next generation of altruists. And with the "keep calm and carry on" motto of England in mind, we also asked what keeps them going when things get tough.

Their answers have been edited for length and clarity

Zolelwa Sifumba is a doctor and activist in South Africa. She's a survivor of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and works with the nonprofit TB Proof, which aims to raise awareness and combat TB. In 2022, TB killed more than a million people.
/ Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
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Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
Zolelwa Sifumba is a doctor and activist in South Africa. She's a survivor of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and works with the nonprofit TB Proof, which aims to raise awareness and combat TB. In 2022, TB killed more than a million people.

Zolelwa Sifumba: Be honest and vulnerable

Advice to those just starting out: Look at the pain that brought you [to your work] – it could be your own pain, it could be pain of people around you, pain that you witnessed. Look at that pain and don't ignore it.

I am someone who wasn't allowed to express themselves growing up. But that changed when I contracted multidrug-resistant tuberculosis as a medical student. They took us to a TB hospital, but when we got there they didn't give us protection [such as a mask since TB can be transmitted through airborne particles]. So it was from there that I learned that my health and my wellness isn't a priority in the health system. But after I spoke to a second year group [of medical students], they told the faculty that if you don't protect us, we're not going anywhere. And so that was a powerful example of what my words could do.

Getting TB can be deadly, but it also saved my life because I finally got to use my voice. And I've never stopped talking. I've never stopped. And it really feels good to be honest and to be vulnerable.

Julian Gerhart co-founded <a href="https://zmudri.sk/" data-key="53">Zmudri</a>, which roughly translates to "Get Smart" in Slovak. The group produces videos for teenagers and young people with a focus on civic education, including the spotting of disinformation. About a fifth of the teachers in Slovakia have signed up to use Zmudri's materials.
/ Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
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Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
Julian Gerhart co-founded Zmudri, which roughly translates to "Get Smart" in Slovak. The group produces videos for teenagers and young people with a focus on civic education, including the spotting of disinformation. About a fifth of the teachers in Slovakia have signed up to use Zmudri's materials.

Julian Gerhart: Humble brag in a journal

How to 'keep calm and carry on': I'm going to be practical because entrepreneurs love specific steps and takeaways. So what I do is that I have a journal and I write my small successes in that journal. And it could be anything. It could be one student coming up after our workshop and telling us he loved the workshop. A small thing, but it's very heartwarming.

When I feel bad, when I feel depressed, when things are not going my way and I start scrolling [through my journal], that's how I calm myself very quickly. You start to realize how much impact you have. And it sounds pretty obvious but when you feel depressed your mind kind of forgets about positive things. If I didn't write these things down, if I didn't codify them, my mind would just forget them. So it's very important to celebrate these things, to document them.

Irma Sitompul is the Southeast Asia program director for <a href="https://womensearthalliance.org/" data-key="214">Women's Earth Alliance</a>. She supports women in obtaining the skills and resources they need to help their communities manage and protect natural resources.
/ Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
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Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
Irma Sitompul is the Southeast Asia program director for Women's Earth Alliance. She supports women in obtaining the skills and resources they need to help their communities manage and protect natural resources.

Irma Sitompul: Plant a tiny forest – or do anything that's small to boost your odds of success

Advice to those just starting out: When there's a system that needs to be transformed, reformed, reshaped, it can take decades, sometimes generations. When we know that from the beginning, it will help prevent us from getting burnt out. So my advice would be to identify some small things, some small objectives that you can really focus on.

I wanted to build more forest in my homeland, Indonesia. And I started doing it in 2020 with my husband. I plant mini-forests, tiny forests – sometimes just 4 by 4 square meters. Now, we've already planted 3,000 trees on my land, on the community's land, on other peoples' land and on businesses' land. It's been a great way to reforest our urban areas because we don't need a huge piece of land. I started to take action, and I can see the results within my lifetime.

Rana Dajani is a molecular biologist at Hashemite University in Jordan. She studies the impact of trauma on people's DNA, how it impacts future generations and what can be done to mitigate trauma's impact. the author of <em>Five Scarves</em>, a book about seeking gender equality, she started a program called <a href="https://welovereading.org/">We Love Reading.</a>
/ Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
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Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
Rana Dajani is a molecular biologist at Hashemite University in Jordan. She studies the impact of trauma on people's DNA, how it impacts future generations and what can be done to mitigate trauma's impact. the author of Five Scarves, a book about seeking gender equality, she started a program called We Love Reading.

Rana Dajani: Ask yourself 'what can I do now?'

Advice to those just starting out: I'm a biologist. I have to talk about science [to give advice]. Every human being is unique. Nobody's DNA is like anyone else who has ever lived, who lives today or will live in the future. So you're special.

And because you are special, you have a special perspective on life. So whatever bothers you, go try to find a solution yourself. Trust your gut feeling. And don't worry about changing the world. Think small. It's those small steps that make a difference.

How to 'keep calm and carry on': I'm an optimist. My husband says I see an ocean in a drop of water. [When confronting a challenge,] I think: "What can I do?" and I draw this from my religion as a Muslim. Islam tells me: It doesn't matter what happens in the end. What matters is what you do now. And so I start thinking, "What can I do now?" And that gives me a purpose. And because I have a purpose, I get into action. And because I'm getting into action, it gives me hope. There's a saying: If you can imagine it, then it can happen. And so I do that. And the other thing is I reach out to people. Nobody can solve anything alone. It's about collective humanity.

Gabriel Marmentini founded the <a href="https://thenew.org/org-in-action/acbg-brasil/">Brazilian Association of Head and Neck Cancer</a> after his mother got laryngeal cancer and lost her voice. In addition to creating a support network the group aims to create public policies to help people who've lost their ability to speak access technology that can assist.
/ Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
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Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
Gabriel Marmentini founded the Brazilian Association of Head and Neck Cancer after his mother got laryngeal cancer and lost her voice. In addition to creating a support network the group aims to create public policies to help people who've lost their ability to speak access technology that can assist.

Gabriel Marmentini: Consistency is more valuable than a really high IQ

Advice to those just starting out: I am hiring people who are 18 or 20 years old and the way they think is different from [my way of thinking] and I'm just 31. The younger generation wants results tomorrow. They are so immediate. They want things now. I see them changing clothes, changing relationships, changing work. But this is a real challenge for people that want to build things that are going to last. You need to have discipline and put in effort. So why have I been successful? It's because I've been disciplined for nine years. It is not because my mind is illuminated or my IQ is really high. It's not. It's just that I do things consistently. And I know you're not going to find all the answers with ChatGPT or TikTok.

Bernard Chiira: Don't be afraid to change your mind

Advice to those just starting out: I mentor entrepreneurs, and I would say be very open to learning and be flexible to actually changing your mind. You may end up building a completely different solution to what you had thought was the solution. [Entrepreneurs] will naturally have a bias to love their ideas. And sometimes it can be very challenging to kill it and say, "I was wrong. It's not going to work." It can be heart-wrecking but, remember, the good thing is that entrepreneurs are like idea factories. You can always get more ideas.

Your turn: Tell us how you keep calm and carry on in the face of crises and catastrophes

What do you do to stay positive and productive when bad news mounts up? Email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line "Keep calm." We may feature your strategy on NPR.org. Please include your name and location. Submissions close on Monday, April 22.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gabrielle Emanuel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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