ONE Member of the Month: Vivian Onano

Vivian speaking and presenting on the issues about which she is most passionate. Photo credit: www.flickr.com

Congratulations to Vivian Onano, our ONE Member of the Month for March. An incredible activist and advocate, Vivian, a college student at Carthage University, is tremendously humble and wise beyond her years. I had a chance to interview her this month about her passions, platforms and what people with no free time do on their free time.

viv2Vivian meeting with Pastor Lawrence Kirby of Kenosha . Photo credit: one.org

How long have you been involved with ONE? What prompted your involvement?

I joined ONE in August of 2011. I became very active in the online campaigns and shortly thereafter, became a member of the ONE chapter at Carthage College. Somewhere in between March and April last year, I became a congressional district leader in Kenosha.

You’ve been involved in so many ONE events. Is there one moment that sticks out as particularly special or defining?

All the campaigns are so interesting- from my participation in ONE, I’ve learned a lot. I also learned so much about reaching out to the American people. It takes so much courage to go into a community and speak on these issues. These issues, the ones I talk about, are so close to me – I’ve seen them personally.

In the ONE Vote campaign, for example, I found the people to be so polarized. I’d be on campus, talking to students who identified so strongly as “die-hard Republican” or “die-hard Democrat”. I wanted to tell them, you can’t look at these issues politically – you’re hearing the voice of the world’s poorest. Being able to have the opportunity to speak on that message is an opportunity most don’t have and that is special.

 What are the ONE members in your community like?

The ONE community here is very dedicated. We have a name on campus they can identify. Last year, I was at a conference in Ghana and was constantly wearing a ONE shirt. On the fourth day, a girl came up to me and asked, “Are you an ambassador for the organization or do you just have that one shirt?”. I had to laugh – I have the many ONE shirts in the same color. I’m just proud of ONE, I believe in the message, the work of the organization. When I was doing work in Kenya, I was asked the same thing. I think I need to ask for shirts of more colors!

Right now, the idea of ONE is dawning on students’ minds. I’ve been approached with questions of “How can I help?”, “How can I get involved this summer?”.  So, we are doing a good job – but the work is not done yet.

viv3 Vivian and Director of A.W Clausen Centre for World Business at Carthage College, Dr. Arthur Cyr. Photo credit: one.org

How do you balance your college life with your amazing amount of activism?

My activism is my passion. And when you’re passionate about something, you always make time for it. I’ve  been so fortunate to be given many platforms to speak about the issues I care about and the issues are really speaking clearly to me. Yes, it is sometimes overwhelming, but it is too easy to keep moving, to keep quiet, assuming someone else will take over. One person thinks that, then the next and the next; eventually, no one will speak out on the issue. The key thing is to focus on the issue – it keeps you moving, keeps you going.

A video Vivian made for us for World AIDS Day 2012.

 Can you tell us more about your “I Am” mantra? That seems to really define your work.

“I Am” means taking initiative, running with it, giving results. Young people want to get involved but it can be difficult to understand how. Unless we decide to personalize our story, people will never understand it and never get involved. So taking initiative and mobilizing, while making the stories your own, will spread the message to more people, effectively getting them interested and involved.

We saw that you are a pre-med student but have been actively involved in the tech world. How do you foresee combining those two interests?

I am currently studying biology and business administration with a minor in economics. I’m very interested in health care systems in developing countries. When I was doing HIV/AIDS work in Northern Kenya, I saw so many young people who didn’t even know about the disease. Just seeing how women were dying of diseases that could be treated – but there, there was no quality healthcare – was very upsetting. Technology makes the provision of these medicines, this knowledge possible. Working for the clinic in Western Kenya, we reported on patients, their HIV/AIDS treatment and compiled it into a database. I compiled the data and submitted it to the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Health has reports on patients, yes, but by creating a database that tracked the ARVs and the patients, the government can see what the clinic is doing. This information led them to opening a second clinic.

We can never really know whats going on elsewhere in the world, but technology allows us to see it immediately and with numbers. It gave me confidence that I could communicate on it clearly because I was passionate.

Speaking of being passionate, what issues are you most passionate about?

I believe in the empowerment of women and children. Education is a weapon to fight any war and win. When I say “war”, I mean any of the global issues I discuss. With quality education, issues won’t be an issue in 20 years. If we educate our women and provide quality health care, women will have healthy babies, those healthy babies will grow up and be healthy enough to get an education and will contribute to a healthy community. They’ll be healthy enough to go to work, to do their farming. If your community is healthy, you won’t need the resource of free medication, which can be a financial drain. It is a cycle.

When you aren’t inspiring the masses, what do you enjoy doing on your free time?

In my free time – well, I do have books people sent to me. I’m currently reading “Out of Poverty” by Paul Pollack. I spend most of my time researching and reading things online, just taking in information all the time. If I’m not out doing something, I’m on my computer researching!

You’ve had many mentors, apparently since you were young. Can you speak on the importance of having a mentor as a young person?

I would like to speak on how important it is for a young person to have a mentor. I’ve had my mentor for six years, Peggy Pierce Peters. She is my main mentor, among a few we call Vivian’s Circle (I didn’t come up with the name!), people who have dedicated their time and resources to help me achieve my success and my dreams. I’m so blessed to have them, I wouldn’t have gone half as far without these people. Without Peggy, it would have been so difficult, coming from Kenya, to really break into the American people. But she taught me about American culture, American history, helping me know what it meant to be American.
VIVIAN & MENTORVivian with her mentor, Peggy. Photo credit: Vivian Onano.

It is so important to have a mentor who believes in you. Peggy has been in lots of charity/nonprofit work and really has advice she can give. Though she has never been to Africa, she really understands how they work here, which really opens up the discussion. Every person should have mentors, from both in and out of your country. Having an in-country mentor is helpful because it is relatable-they know about what you’re going through.

But international or domestic, it is just important to have someone who is supportive, someone to guide you. To give you love but with a constructively critical angle. Parents have their own restraints but with a mentor, they understand it. It isn’t always get people to commit but once they do, there are so many people, so many resources. Be open to learning, the process never ends.

Do you have any wisdom you’d like to leave with ONE members?

Yes, I’d like to give you my favorite quote: “Service is the rent rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth”. I believe in that.

Want to keep up with Vivian and what she is doing with ONE? Follow her on Twitter here:@vivianonano

Big thank you to Vivian for all the amazing work that she does for ONE. Want to nominate someone for the next Member of the Month? Email Malaka at mgharib@one.org with the subject line, “Member of the Month.”