By Mark D. Bowles, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, History at American Public University
Unlikely pairings can have unusual and unpredictable results. So consider what might happen when a famous, extreme athlete partners with an academic, historian of science to write a book. I played the role of the historian, and the athlete was Katie Spotz. She gained fame in 2010 by becoming the youngest person to row alone (and without a chase boat) across an ocean. She did this at age 22, crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to South America in 70 days. The resulting partnership reoriented my focus from the past to the present, and demonstrated ways in which historical skills can be applied to contemporary issues of social justice.
The reason for Katie’s row was to raise awareness and funds to support those suffering from the global water crisis. In the United States, water has received much attention lately. We most often hear about how drought conditions are effecting California (and other states), and the future impact in terms of housing, farming and the environment. While many debate the cause and even the existence of global warming, there is an even more significant crisis that threatens more lives than anything else on this planet, including murder, cancer and warfare. That threat is the lack of access to clean drinking water.
The facts were staggering to me as I became aware of them. There are nearly 900 million people that lack access to clean water. There are 2.5 billion people that do not have access to adequate sanitation. Every 21 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease. Fifty percent of all hospital patients in the world are being treated for water-borne disease. And the list of devastating statistics goes on and on.
So when I saw Katie post to her Facebook page that she was looking for an author to help her write a book, I immediately messaged her and suggested we meet. I thought that I could contribute writing skills (I have written 14 previous books) and an analytical and historical perspective on a complex humanitarian crisis. Plus, I was anxious to simply tell an amazing adventure story. And from a somewhat morbid perspective, I thought how interesting it would be for my subject to be alive. Historians often have a fascination with the dead.
During our initial meeting in 2014, we both agreed to the collaboration, and less than a year later, our book is now complete. It is entitled Just Keep Rowing, and it seems fitting that an unlikely partnership is resulting in an unusual publication route. The ultimate goal for our book is to raise awareness about the global water crisis by telling Katie’s fascinating story. We decided that by eliminating a traditional publisher, we could earn more money to donate to charity. So we are currently experimenting with a Go Fund Me campaign. If successful we will have the funds to publish and promote our work, and profits will go to clean water charities.
One charity we have already partnered with is H2O for Life. Katie currently serves as its Ambassador, and it connects schools and faith based organizations in the United States with schools in developing nations to help them fund clean water, sanitation and hygiene projects. This past year Katie and I coordinated the adoption of the Mzomtsha Primary School in South Africa. With my colleagues in the ecumenical faith based organization called Just Faith, we organized a community lecture, launched a fundraising campaign, and shared the story with many news agencies. We culminated our efforts with a Walk for Water in June 2015. At the walk we simulated what it is like for so many people throughout the world who live miles away from a water source. Though we live in a water oasis in the United States, millions of people are forced to carry up to 40 pounds of water, for hours at a time, just to survive. And often this water results in deadly bouts of diarrhea. Women and girls typically perform this collection task, preventing them from going to school, while also exposing them to very dangerous environments.
All proceeds from our community lecture, walk, and media campaign benefit the 100 boys and 100 girls at the Mzomtsha Primary School in South Africa. While our goal was to raise $2500 to complete a series of clean water projects, we surpassed this and have now nearly raised $4000.
I have learned several important lessons from these interconnected experiences of researching, writing, fundraising, and community engagement. First is that collaborations by individuals with greatly different skill sets can lead to results that are greater than the sum of the individual parts. This is not something that academics often do on a regular enough basis. Stepping out of a comfort zone, which for me was collaborating with other historians, reinvigorated my passion for writing, and inspired a commitment to global community involvement.
Second, while the world of academia is one that I love deeply, one of the dangers is that in our quest for scholarly distinction we sometimes become so narrowly specialized that we sacrifice opportunities to make a difference to those in need. Pursuing unlikely collaborations can overcome this limitation, while also capitalizing on our long-cultivated specialized strengths. Third, the value of my humanities background has been essential to me as I worked on this project. With liberal arts degrees under constant attack by many for being impractical, this project was a very good example for how a “soft” skill set is necessary, and I would argue vital, in the 21st century. Finally, unlikely partnerships can yield unexpected rewards. For the increasingly complex problems in our world today, I hope there are more of these in the future.
Before Katie left on her rowing journey she scrawled a quote from 19th century French novelist Marcel Proust in black marker on her boat’s inner white wall, above her map of the Atlantic. It read, “A real voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” These new eyes, I believe, are best found in unlikely partnerships where talents can blend together synergistically to create something entirely unique. And when life presents seemingly insurmountable difficulties…just keep rowing.
About the Author:
Mark D. Bowles is Professor of History at American Public University where he has taught full time since 2009. He earned his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in 1999, and he has authored or co-authored 14 books focusing on the history of science and technology. Visit him at https://apus.academia.edu/MDB.