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Saturday, December 20, 2014

2014 Person of the Year: Basheer Mohamed

“It's not about examining your life. It's about what you do with the options you have to improve it.
by Dave Newport, LEED AP

Basheer Mohamed is my 2014 Person of the Year, and I feel like I am ripping him off.

This wonderful guy who has worked and fought and suffered and kept going—and I am ripping him off.

OK, maybe not ripping him off. Maybe it's more of an exchange. But I am getting the better of it, I think. 

You decide. It goes like this.

Basheer was born in Sudan. His family scratched and worked and worked some more so they could move from Sudan to Denver when he was a young boy.  They didn’t have a lot, but they got a break and seized the opportunity to come to the US.

Basheer is bright and hard working so he was accepted into one of Denver Public School’s minority-serving high schools, CEC Middle College of Denver, a 94% minority school (mostly Hispanic) of about 430 kids. He worked hard at CEC, got good grades, and struggled to improve his life.

Today he is a sophomore engineering student in my university--and works refurbishing and upgrading surplus university computers and putting them back in the hands of worthy high school students from under-resourced communities in Denver. We call the program Computers to Youth (CTY).

Only a few years ago, Basheer was one of those high school students.  Then one day CTY showed up with a computer bundled with software and a dream: college.  He used the CTY computer to make his dream real. He told 9News Denver:

"My family never had a computer, so being able to bring one home [was incredible]," Mohamed said. "Between us and more privileged kids, it was really hard to keep up with them."

He says having his own computer changed his life. He was able to succeed in school and find his passion.

"It sparked my interest for engineering," Mohamed said.

He was also able to use his computer to seek out and apply for scholarships that are now paying his entire college tuition.  He does not know where he would be without this program.

"If anything, I'd probably be going to a community college if not just working," Mohamed said. "I don't want to know where I would've been without it."

But just getting admitted to CU’s top ranked engineering school isn’t enough for Basheer. He is making dreams come true for other kids like him.

I have a dream.

You can’t get there from here…

 Somewhere in stories like these some critics will assert that people in poverty need only work hard and they can bootstrap themselves up out of the ‘hood.


Last year we were able to bundle recycled computers with dreams and put them in the hands of 280 worthy kids in Denver inner city schools.

Two hundred and eighty kids.

We’re beating the bushes for additional corporate and crowd funded support to expand the program to a whopping 400 computer/dreams.

Four hundred kids.

That’s not even enough for all the kids in Basheer’s high school.

On the other hand, I am certain that every one of the 3,700 wonderful young men and women that come out of tony Cherry Creek High School in Denver’s high dollar neighborhood have a computer, a smart phone, and maybe a tablet too.

No offense to those kids. We have many of them with us too. They are fantastic kids that want to do the right thing—and they come with benefits.

Just saying.

“It's not about examining your life. It's about what you do with the results.”

I wrote the above couple sentences in one of my last blogs where I ranted about how Socrates pissed me off.

Now my own quote pisses me off. Thanks to Basheer, I now realize how privileged that statement is. 

I have options.

Basheer not so much. Basheer can examine his life and want to make it better all he wants to—but has fewer tools in the toolbox.

I’m a white male, tall, blue eyes, from a reasonably well to do white family. My Mom was a researcher at Brown and I was raised on the Brown campus. I started working for the Brown hockey team at age 10. Visited all the Ivy’s traveling with the team. Went to a New England prep school (all white) on a partial hockey scholarship. Didn’t need anybody to enable my college dream; it was what you did. Graduated from Syracuse.  Go Orange.

All while being pretty white. Didn't overcome much. 

I have probably squandered more opportunities than Basheer has ever been given. 

And here’s where I got the better of the exchange. I know I have white privilege.  But his life teaches me to eschew the worst kind of white privilege: the kind that squanders entitlement and opportunity others will never know—or fails to share those perks with those least among us.

A very valuable lesson. Now I realize how to revise my quote and see the world more clearly:

“It's not about examining your life. It's about what you do with the options you have to improve it results.”

Just as there is the “crime” of driving while black, it's a crime to waste the opportunities born of birth called “living while white.” Use them for good. 

Live a zero waste life.

“I'm not black, but there's a whole lots a times I wish I could say I'm not white.”
- Frank Zappa: "Trouble Every Day"

It’s been a tough year to be a black guy. Ah, check it; it’s been a tough few centuries to be a black guy.

As the events in Ferguson, Brooklyn and other places unfolded this Fall, we were mindful of Basheer and how he was dealing. He stayed focused. Worked on CTY. Prepared computers, set up events, did his job. I kept checking in on him. He didn’t talk about it, at least not to me.

He stayed the course. Focused.

Thus, he unwittingly let me have some of his empowerment. Another way this deal is better for me.  He seemingly didn’t let things he couldn’t control divert him from his future.  He continued to grasp the opportunity at hand, did well in school, all the while working to give back opportunity to others. I am certain his heart ached; he’s human. But he kept going.

This 20-year-old young black guy, working for the big shot white guy, inspired me.

Indeed, the CTY program is based on this exchange. It preserves and even enhances the dignity of all involved. As it must. Giveaways without dignity are counter productive. But in the case of CTY, we provide recycled computers to under-privileged kids who have worked to improve their lives and just need a break. They’ve earned it and feel good about themselves because this isn’t just the noblesse oblige of privileged white people from Boulder. They earned it. Thus it’s an exchange respectful of everyone’s dignity.

The exchange also mitigates some of my privilege, enables my dignity (such as it is) to be a little more credible, and gently reminds all to seize the moment.

Likewise, these sorts of human transactions, based on something as simple and noble as recycling, reflect everything that is best about sustainability. Environmental benefits, fiscal equity, and enhanced social justice all from one simple act.

I wish I had 50 programs like this.

Would that we had more guys like Jack DeBell too. Jack, our recycling development director, conjured up this vision over a decade ago. Jack’s a devout recycler and saw his opportunity to give back through the lens of recycling.  His life is about recycling stuff to make the world a better place-- and enabling dreams to come true.

I’d take that on my headstone. Thank you Jack.

Therefore, whereas…

Therefore, by the powers vested in my by the unanimous vote of a committee of one, I hereby bestow and confer the mantle of the Department of Changed 2014 Person of the Year award to Basheer Mohamed, who is afforded all the benefit and privilege befitting this title.

He exemplifies all that is best in the sustainability movement, all which is best in humanity, and is an inspiration to all good souls.

And in this immensely screwed up and challenging world, mindful of all the year’s tragic events across the planet from Syria to Ferguson to Ebola to Malaysia Airlines, somehow knowing Basheer is doing his thing makes it a little easier to remember the kindness and hope in the human spirit.

Thank you.

Tidings of comfort and joy to all.


PS: If you want to help Basheer help others, please feel free to help kickstart our kickstarter campaign. You can invest in others’ futures enabled by computer recycling and dream weaving here. May your Higher Power be with you.


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