Miles’ first book, Kevin’s Questions follows the experiences of a Kenyan AIDs orphan, Kevin Sumba, whom Miles met in Kisumu whilst making a documentary. In his second book Making a World of Difference, Miles has travelled around the world, speaking to people involved in community and grassroots organisations to find out how and why these people have chosen to help others. From a teacher, Suri, in Thailand, who organises home visits for poor students, to a couple, Wil and Flor, in Amsterdam, who run a children’s farm in one of the poorest suburbs, Miles’ book shows how people the world over have discovered the benefits of giving.
Miles was kind enough to have a chat with me during his recent visit to Australia about his latest book and what he’d learnt from his travels.
Your new book focuses on unsung heroes (some of whom are featured throughout this article), who have no similar backgrounds religiously, economically or culturally, what common traits did you find they had?
They would really look to see what the problem was, as opposed to assuming it. They would listen to what people themselves wanted, instead of assuming what people wanted. They all could use whatever skills they had, whether they were an architect, an event planner, or whether it was dentistry.
They were all can do people, social entrepreneurs to a certain extent. They had seen something and wanted to change it- to change the way things are in the world.
Why do people look to help others outside their own community or even their own country?
People exposed to needs or crisis outside their community, by witnessing something you can’t turn back. That happened to me with HIV/AID epidemic, I saw it, I had access that a lot of people don’t have, I couldn’t just stay home.
What were the biggest lessons you learnt from the people in the book?
This will sound silly- Life’s okay. Actually it is all okay. Suri talks about this thing- ‘the contentment of giving’. Paul Pholeros, the Australian Architect, said ‘just giving it a go’.
Going out and making a difference and helping people, you actually get a lot back. It makes your life a lot better- I actually suspected that, but it turned out to be true. They are all really happy extraordinary people, who enjoy life in every different way. People in extraordinary situations do amazing things.
Your book is very pro- Grassroot, community-lead projects, and seemingly anti- governments…
I have certainly seen governments not take care of their people. Take Kenya, where the ministers seem more concerned about their travel budget. There are real needs in certain places, but the politicians don’t seem very concerned what the people’s needs are.
If they are very concerned, the governments don’t have the best techniques to help the people. The reality is that I think people know what is best for them, themselves. There are certain things governments are stuck with. By nature they are bureaucratic, they want more power. The nature of any organisation is based on survival first.
Smaller organisations, the more grassroots, the faster they are able to adapt. They see what is really happening on the ground, because they are on the ground themselves.
You can see more of a difference when you do it yourselves, when you work with a grassroots organisation. You can feel the difference. You can see the impact you are making in people’s lives directly. That is also the inspiring part. Sometimes people who work for the UN or work for the government, they want the best, but they can’t see the affect of their work directly, so they get disheartened.
Why has the issue of HIV/AIDS become so important to you?
Because I got to see what it was like for children not to have parents. Their parents to have something that stigmatises them. In these communities it’s your own fault if you get HIV, you must have done something wrong. When the truth is, it is a disease.
The children have to grow up and they can’t understand why their parents died. And there are millions and millions and millions of them. I vowed, vowing is one of those big words, I kinda made a promise to talk about it, write the book, which I did with Kevin’s Questions, then a feature film, Make it Real to Me. I guess I just have to.
Chung To from the Chi Heng Foundation, a charity that helps AIDs orphans in China.
Sometime you get a lot of sleep, sometimes it is actually really upsetting, you cry, which is probably the best thing to do. But then saying this I’ve seen the other side as well, amazing things, it’s that balance. I guess the highs are higher and the lows are lower. The more highs you see then the more lows you see, but you kinda get used to that.
You are often telling people’s stories for them, what responsibility does this put on you as a filmmaker or as an author?
First of all I have to get it right, and not impose. I have to please them, and I have to please myself. I have to make sure I don’t hurt people while helping them. So if there are details in the story that might get someone into trouble, legal trouble, I make sure they don’t get into legal trouble. That’s my responsibility.
I certainly can’t expose them then say thank you and walk off- I have to stay in touch with them. That’s a great thing; I get to be friends with all these people. I get a bigger and bigger family around the world, that’s nice to have actually.
What do you think your work has brought to your own life?
Now when anyone tells me something is impossible, I don’t believe them. I’ve had these amazing experiences where people will go to the ends of the earth to make things happen. Gandhi said “Don’t ask, Don’t get” he’s kinda right- if you can imagine it, then it’s possible, that’s true of fiction, that’s true of reality. Life gets more and more interesting and more exciting.
If someone was reading this interview, and they wanted to get involved and make a difference - where should they start and what should they do?
They should start right at home. First of all just start doing things a bit differently. Just a smile, if you’re in a situation when you’d normally get angry, don’t get angry, just smile, see what happens.
Research on the internet, take a look around, once you start opening the door and looking at the issues there is a lot of interesting stuff right under your noses. It’ll lead you down one track, to another track, to another track. It’s funny how one thing leads to another.
Check out the interview on Trespass where we are giving away 3 copies of Miles Roston's book, Making a World of Difference.