November 14, 2008

For Guido, or requiem for a true tiger

When I was in college, the term "facebook" may as well have been more accurately translated to "sex menu".

I cannot tell you how many hours I and my fellow classmates spent looking through the official guide book published by the university, listing names, addresses, and, yes, pictures of the faces of all the members of our incoming class to determine who was hot or not and just how far away that hotness was from our respective dorm rooms. The freshmen facebook was irreparably dog-eared well before the end of orientation week every September, and I suspect that tradition still lives on today.

Of course, Facebook now has a totally different meaning, turning into an online version of the game show "where are they now?" In many ways, I think the reason Facebook has garnered so much more attention than MySpace is that it seems uniquely designed to help you rediscover those people whom you never thought you would miss until you see their name in a friend request.

Guido Sohne was one of those people.


It would be a bald-faced lie to say that Guido and I were anything more than casual acquaintances back at Princeton. And, considering how few black faces there were, especially within the confines of the Computer Science department during the early '90's, that says a lot. It wouldn't be accurate to say Guido kept to himself, because all I really know is that he didn't really hang out with me. And there's clearly an element of arrogance there on my part - after all, I was the president for Princeton's chapter of NSBE, the National Society of Black Engineers, for two years running and organized an entire little community within a community of Black & African students aimed at helping ourselves survive the Princeton E-Quad gauntlet. So I knew and studied and partied and traveled with everybody. If he wasn't where I was, he couldn't possibly be out somewhere else with a whole other set of people, right?

I think that was the weird trick about Princeton: for even a relatively small school (~4,500 undergraduates back in the day), there was enough self-segregation that you could always find ways to make it seem even smaller. As one brother once told me, "I don't even see the white people. I walk around campus, and, it's like they're blurry. Like they're not even really there."

All I really knew about Guido was that he was very cool, friendly, and way, way, way smarter about computer science than I was. He'd disappear for seemingly entire semesters, while the rumors circled around him about some amazing thing he'd done back in his home country of Ghana or some other part of the world.

So, I must admit that I was very pleasantly surprised to reconnect with him via Facebook. Just glad to see his face.

He sent me a pretty long e-mail back describing all of the amazing technological and political activist work he was involved in back in Africa, although he hadn't been back to the US since he left Princeton because, in his words, he'd decided that he was going to come back successful or not at all.

That was October 1, 2007.

And I never replied.

I guess I was just lazy. Like Louis Armstrong said, "we have all the time in the world", right?

The next time I saw Guido's name was when a mutual friend send me a Facebook message this past June asking me if I'd heard that he'd died.

Died.

Of heart failure.

Guido was 34 years old.






Here's a guy who founded companies, co-founded NGOs, advised international foundations, all in the interest of bringing the promise of technology and innovation to those in his home who were less fortunate than he was. He was the living, breathing embodiment of everything Thomas Friedman talks about in his book "The World Is Flat". Someone who had dedicated his life to nothing less than transforming Africa.



It wasn't right.

Guido's death just struck me as colossally, cosmically unfair. Like a tiny crime against humanity had been committed.

And, on top of the injustice of it all, I must admit that I also felt a tremendous sense of shame.

I mean, let's be honest: I firmly believe that what I do, namely tell stories that can both move people's hearts and, if I'm really good, shift their perspectives a little, is one of the single most powerful and important ways to effect the human condition. Everything that is begins with an idea, and it takes storytellers to help grow the new ideas that become the future, especially the one that we desire. But even if I'm the most successful filmmaker the world has ever known, my effect on the world is very subtle. It's not an exercise in direct action like what Guido did every single day in Ghana. Hell, just BEING an open source programmer and advocate in the middle of Accra is a form of direct political action. Let alone those who have been educated, or empowered, perhaps even enriched, directly through his efforts.

Guido was in the arena. And his death reminded me that I hadn't really done much to get my hands very dirty.

But we all have our specific roles to play, and the fact remains that I, personally, will never be as technically proficient or politically courageous as Guido Sohne.

I cannot be Guido Sohne.

But it occurred to me that I could certainly do my best to find the NEXT Guido Sohne.

So, after a summer of informal chats with some of my other classmates and members of the university faculty and administration, we've created the Guido Sohne Memorial Fund at Princeton University.

The idea is this: In conjunction with the Engineering School, we'll conduct a search each semester for an African college student who's studying computer science, and, when we've identified the top candidate, we will pay for him or her to spend a semester studying in Princeton. And, at the end of the term, if there are funds left over, we'll send an American Princeton student over to Africa for a summer to study as well.

In order to do that, we're all engaged in the process of raising the initial $50,000 that's necessary to establish the scholarship. Ultimately, we need to raise $250,000 to make the scholarship self-sustaining over a period of years.

Most of the time, if I ask you folks who read Macroscope to do anything, it's usually to go see a movie or vote in an election. Maybe read a specific book every now and then. I believe this is the first (and, most likely, the last time) I will ever ask you to reach into your wallets so directly.

But, if you're motivated and inspired by Guido's story the way I was, I would ask you to contribute. You don't have to be associated with Princeton in any way to make a donation. Simply mail a check made out to `Princeton University', referencing the "Guido Sohne Memorial Fund", to the following address:

Jotham Johnson '64
Director of Stewardship
Princeton University
330 Alexander Road
Princeton, New Jersey 08540

Yes, I know - checks are so 20th century. Apparently, the university still only accepts direct credit card donations for their annual giving campaign, so we're still trying to figure out a way to facilitate credit card and/or PayPal donations to Princeton that doesn't put either me or any of my classmates (i.e. people who are not official representatives of the university) in charge of anyone else's money (and we're definitely open to suggestions). And I would LOVE to find a company who could do a matching gift of some sort.... especially since Guido was actually working FOR Microsoft at the time of his death (still trying to figure out how to recruit them to get involved).

The point is, contribute. However you can. If we can help even one kid come across the Atlantic and live up to his full potential, there's no telling how many lives will be directly transformed for the better. It's opportunities like these that can literally change the world.

If you're on Facebook, click the title of this blog post to become a fan of the Guido Sohne Fellowship there. Or just click this URL:

http://www.facebook.com/inbox/?ref=mb#/pages/Guido-Sohne-Fellowship/42008299168?ref=ts

On that page, you can find links to a number of articles detailing Guido's work and life. And you should absolutely feel free to forward this e-mail and/or blog post to as many other people as you see fit.

Princeton's unofficial motto is "In The World's Service". Guido helped remind me of that. And I hope I'm not the only one.

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