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Saturday, Nov. 25, 2006

Keeping on keeping on -- her way to social change

Sarajean Rossitto is an Italian-American of many passionate parts: fundraising and management consultant, NGO and NPO development barnstormer, blogger, jogger, actress, and a consummate cook.

News photo
Sarajean Rossitto devotes her days to working for social change and helping other people build the skills to do the same. ANGELA JEFFS PHOTO

Right now, as the coordinator of the Tokyo-based group People for Social Change, she is preparing for a Skills Build Forum to be held Dec. 2 at Jingumae Kumin Kaikan in Tokyo's Harajuku.

"It's a forum to help activists develop the skills they need to be more effective in nongovernment organizations and nonprofit organizations," Rossitto explains.

The forum will consist of two workshops: Coordinating Letter-Writing Campaigns, and Educating for Peace and Social Justice. Followed by a panel discussion on Human Rights NGOs in Japan: Diverse issues, Different people, Same rights. "But we're finding that people are increasingly interested in the workshops, where they can get practical information and hands-on experience," she notes.

"This is the eighth skills building forum I've coordinated and we're learning all the time."

Rossitto first came to Japan in 1989 from New York, where she had worked as a community organizer at university. "I'd begun studying drama but being at the peak of the antiapartheid movement and coming from a family committed to helping the underprivileged. I switched first to sociology and then social movement theories."

Her father, she says, was the leader of the Toys for Tots annual parade.

Also, going to a Catholic school from age 5 meant she was more often than not involved in food-gathering for those going hungry. "After a huge earthquake in China, we all had to fill a box with basics for a child. When you're young, that kind of effort has a big impact I think."

After teaching at the YMCA in Kanda, where there were regular U.N.-sponsored lectures on social issues, she decided she liked the atmosphere but not the work. So she took her savings back to the U.S. and spent it on going to grad school.

"I wrote my final paper at Columbia on human rights in Asia. It was this rather than any forward planning that led me to come back here in 2000. Luckily, a job opening came up within months."

As the first non-Japanese to join the Japan-U.S. Community Education and Exchange, helping coordinate a program to bring NGO staff from the U.S. to work as fellows and interns in Japan, and vice versa, Rossitto was thrown into a very different world.

Committed to seeing difficulties as opportunities, she worked at JUCEE for nearly four years. This culminated in organizing a three-day conference in 2004 sponsored by the Nippon Foundation, with nine workshops and three panel discussions.

"I left soon after and turned freelance. Now I have two name cards and three streams of work, two connected with my work with NGO/NPO Program and Organization Development: consulting, education and skills development, and linking."

She runs courses each semester at Temple University. Those, starting January, will cover the role and function of NGOs and an introduction to human rights, with an overview of NGO projects.

"There's a lot of confusion in Japan between NGOs and NPOs. It's a lot clearer in the U.S. and the U.K. I'm trying to become an expert."

Last month she organized a series of JICA-sponsored leadership workshops for the Japan Society for the Rehabilitation of People with Disabilities, with training and an emphasis on proposal writing. The forum next weekend also falls within skills development.

By "linking" Rossitto means bringing companies and NGOs and NPOs together in collaborative projects. Morgan Stanley, for example, has two community projects in progress; after sending 15 people to Niigata postearthquake, the company is now supporting a community center. Also, it's working with Palette in Ebisu.

"I'm also helping CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) draw companies to the Asia Foundation to talk about collaborative projects. I know of many international organizations who want a Japanese partner."

Volunteerism, she says, was a fad for a while, but has not really dented social consciousness. "It'll take time. But we're working on it. It's not just about the annual beach-cleaning effort which, while all well and good, is basically a salve on the conscience. It's about a long-term commitment to social change."

The hardest part is convincing the public of the need, and that working for NGOs and NPOs involves real work, jobs and salaries. She tells of a Japanese NGO staff member who is constantly being harangued by his family for wasting his degree and told to go get a real job.

Rossitto's second name card introduces Brakeley, founded in 1919 and now one of the most experienced and well-established fundraising consulting firms in the world. "I am one of two people in a Japan office, here in Tokyo."

On her way to an evening meeting, she never lets up, but is constantly phoning, faxing and cold-calling.

It's not that in never taking no as an answer she's become thick-skinned. She is as fragile as everyone she says, "but I know that to be in any way effective in bringing about social change and justice I have to just keep on asking."

NGO/NPO Program and Organization Development: call 090-2189-5500; E-mail: rose.ito@gmail.com; Web site: people-for-social-change blogspot.com/; Brakeley: phone (03) 3462-6265; fax (03) 5728-2331; Web site: www.brakeley.com

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