TEDx Yale: I Am Maru

February 20, 2012 • Blogs, The World at Yale • Views: 1165

By Ifeanyu Awachie:

The girl I am to interview sits down across from me – sharp and stylish in gold earrings, a bright teal sweater, and shining black leather boots. Her name is Marina Filiba, and she’s been wearing the same t-shirt for eight months.

Marina is participating in the I Am Challenge, a youth-led initiative that asks young people to commit to wearing a t-shirt with their name on it for 365 days while raising funds for causes they care about. Marina gave a talk on the I Am Challenge at the TEDx Yale conference this February 4th. When I ask Marina how she found such an exclusive opportunity, I’m surprised to hear that she didn’t start out wanting to give a talk. A self-proclaimed “ TED junkie,” Marina was thrilled to hear that TED was happening at Yale and approached   TEDx Yale curator Diana Enriquez Schneider about helping to organize the event. By then, TEDx Yale had enough organizers, but Diana suggested Marina sign up for the student speaker competition. Though the idea made her nervous, Marina auditioned, became one of the most popular candidates in the online competition and won a spot on the stage.

Marina is currently the international director of the I Am Challenge, overseeing two to three regional directors of Challenge projects around the world. While the projects change depending on the region, the t-shirt remains the same in each country, establishing a connection between participants regardless of cultural separation. To Marina, that makes the world seem a little smaller—and this feeling is one of her favorite aspects of the Challenge.

Dozens of young people around the world have taken up the Challenge; those with long names might have some trouble, though. (Courtesy I Am Challenge).

In the beginning, the I Am Challenge consisted of Dan and Ben— two friends in New Zealand who dared each other to wear the same t-shirt for one year. Co-founder Dan Cullum says that he and Ben realized they “weren’t going to be able to get through the whole year if they didn’t have a cause.” So they contacted the New Zealand branch of World Vision, a humanitarian organization, and began a project to raise funds to build wells in water-deficient Tanzania. Soon after that, their friends asked to get involved, and the larger organization was born.

Since 2008, the Challenge has spread to 11 countries around the world, and over 300 young people have participated. Today, groups have adopted the challenge in Hong Kong, Marina’s homeland of Argentina, and my hometown of Atlanta. In New Zealand, a seasoned group of Challengers is working to sponsor arts programs in Christchurch, a city leveled by an earthquake last February. In 2012, they will launch a project in which each Challenger is paired with a child in a developing Asian country with the goal of raising $550 for that child. After completing the year-long Challenge, each participant gets a second assignment—to find someone to take up the Challenge and continue raising money for the same child.

In Kuwait, a team led by a regional director named Hiba is focusing its efforts on environmentalism. They plant trees and run a market where they sell goods made with recycled materials (like purses crafted from grocery bags). Marina has never met Hiba in person but says that she is “amazing.” Rather than letting their project fizzle out, Hiba’s team already has new leadership lined up for when she leaves for university. Marina says the group in Kuwait exemplifies the kind of commitment the Challenge aims to foster.

When I ask Marina whether she knows Dan and Ben personally, she tells me that Dan is her boyfriend—a detail they keep under wraps. The two met in London two years after Dan star TED the Challenge and have been dating ever since. For two years, Marina has never seen Dan without his “I Am” shirt. “I don’t know what my boyfriend looks like without that shirt,” she says, we both laugh. Dan never pressured Marina to take up the Challenge, but Marina tells me about times on her visits to New Zealand when she and Dan would be shopping at the grocery store, and Marina would see people wearing the t-shirt who didn’t even know Dan. It was this evidence of the Challenge’s impact that made Marina want to get involved.

Marina outlines the Challenge’s objectives for me: one is “getting rid of excuses”—the Challenge aims to refute the stereotype that today’s youth are commitment-challenged. Through “I Am”, kids our age show the world that we are passionate, that we can devote our lives to something. Marina and the other Challenge directors don’t try to sell their mission as an easy one—they know every participant will face days when they wake up, go to their closets, and regret their decision to wear the t-shirt. But as Marina said in her talk, “When you think back on this year, you’re not going to remember moments of hesitation, but rather the 365 days of genuine commitment to a cause much greater than one’s wardrobe.”

Another of the Challenge’s objectives is fundraising. As Dan says, the t-shirt is just a tool that Challengers can use to raise money for and awareness about causes they support. Marina points out that sponsorship is a great way for people to get involved in the Challenge if the t-shirt isn’t their style. She says, “My sister told me, ‘I’m past the age where I can wear some t-shirt and be an activist and all that, but I want to support you.’ So she became a sponsor and gives $25 a month to the Challenge.”

The Challenge’s third objective addresses fashion. This was an especially interesting part of Marina’s I Am Challenge story. She hails from Buenos Aires, Argentina, one of the fashion capitals of the world. When she started the Challenge, friends and family questioned her. “Are you crazy?” her dad asked when she talked about donning the t-shirt just before heading to Yale. Marina was unruffled: she saw the beginning of the school year as a great time to introduce her new classmates to the Challenge. She got some positive attention for it at the Orientation for International Students (OIS): at the end of the program, she received the award for “Best Wardrobe.”

I had to ask: doesn’t it get hard, wearing the same shirt every day? Marina answered that the longer she does the Challenge, the less she thinks about what she wears. She has become convinced that “[her] time is better spent in other ways.” She tells me that the Challenge pushes you toward this kind of self-discovery. She regularly hears stories of people who finished their long year of fashion suppression to find that they couldn’t return to life without the t-shirt. They figured if they were going to put effort into the clothes they wore, they might as well do it for a cause.

The Challenge has renewed Marina’s faith in today’s youth. Each week, she gets emails from people wanting to take up the Challenge in their communities. In New Zealand, an entire infrastructure—shirts, fundraising tools, moral support—already exists for those who wish to begin, but building project groups from scratch in other places leads to trouble with unwieldy logistics and heavy bureaucracy. But despite it all, they follow through with the Challenge. Seeing that, Marina says, is when she is most impressed.

So, are you thinking of signing up for the Challenge yet? If you are, you’ll be glad to hear that, along with a group of four fellow Yale freshmen, Marina is bringing the I Am Challenge to campus. The group includes Luis Schachner, Marina’s suitemate Nancy Xia, fellow international student Christian Rhally, and Monica Hannush, who met Marina immediately after her talk to learn how to get involved. The group is still deciding which cause they’ll adopt; one option they’re considering is fundraising for and volunteering with local tutoring programs. Marina stresses that they are open to suggestions from anyone for projects to support.

Marina is certain that even after she’s done wearing the t-shirt, the Challenge will still be part of her life—especially since she’s dating Dan. Service was a big part of her life before the Challenge and will be after it. She may even be starting an initiative of her own next year. Her studies at Yale have given her new ways of thinking about her work: last semester, Gateway to Global Affairs prodded her to examine the role of women in international activism. As for a major, she’s thinking Psychology or Political Science, or both.

Before concluding our interview, I ask Marina why her t-shirt says “I Am Maru” instead of “I Am Marina.” She explains that in Argentina, everyone goes by nicknames—if her mom calls her Marina, she probably hasn’t done her laundry. The “I Am” t-shirt allows one to present herself as she wants to be perceived, and Marina has always thought of herself as “Maru”—she’s still getting used to being called Marina in college. As the interview wraps up, another function of the shirt comes to mind—it’s a surefire way to bring about meaningful conversations with strangers and reporters alike.

Ifeanyu Awachie ’14 is in Timothy Dwight college. Contact her at ifeanyu.awachie@yale.edu.

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