It can be a challenge to wrap your head around the changes the world has seen over the last two decades: the heady economic highs of the nineties, the global financial crisis and the ripples it continues to send out, the astonishing strides made in technology, communication, and medical research. The news is dominated by the tragedies of war and terrorism, and political changes abound. We are global and local, connected yet self-interested, listening as never before, but not always hearing or agreeing. The whole world seems to be in transition: destination unknown. The Tibetan Plateau is no exception; it has been through its own set of changes, some gradual and some lurching. Now, more than ever, we need hope, solidarity, and support of human dignity.
When I think of Trace Foundation at twenty years, I think of a web of connections. I envision the thousands of people who are part of the work and relationships that have come into being around this enterprise. Some are in the earliest years of their lives, still forming a sense of place and identity, and some are in the latter years, looking to pass on their knowledge and passions. Individuals search for new ways to understand their place in the world, the culture they carry, or the language that roots them. I think of the lives connected by learning, by writing, by solving the problems of daily life, by caring for others, preserving precious traditions, and stretching beyond those traditions to meet new opportunities and find new futures. These connections, these people, are what I see at the heart of Trace Foundation.
The web of connections that makes up Trace Foundation is full of unlikely stories. My own experience—that of a young American woman who visits, almost by chance, a distant part of the world and is so taken by the place and the people that it leads to two decades and tens of millions of dollars of engagement—is an unusual place to start. There’s a quote that I came across once: “It’s unusual, obviously, but it’s something that could happen, and did.” In some ways, that is my story, the story of Trace Foundation, and the story of many in our web—the monk who runs a cheese factory, the nomad girl who now holds a PhD, the short story writer who becomes an internationally recognized filmmaker . . . You could say that Trace Foundation is about making the unlikely happen on the Tibetan Plateau.
Over the years, most of the web of connections that constitutes Trace Foundation has been characterized by trust, common purpose, friendship, and optimism. But of course there are circumstances when suspicion, misunderstanding, and even aggression have flourished. This is the way of the world, and on the Tibetan Plateau every person is touched by this reality in some way. As I consider the past and the future at the twenty-year mark, it saddens me to see these more corrosive elements playing such a central role in people’s lives and in the life of our organization. Over twenty years we have seen many restrictions fall away only to see them return. Most of our truly local work—with rural villages, schools, or clinic-level projects that you will see described in this report—is no longer possible. To those who set the tone for so much of the interaction, I would offer this: there is no single more important thing to do for the future of this part of the world than to broaden the circle of trust.
Trace Foundation has been fortunate to have had many great partners over the years, from government officials to English teachers and yak herders. These partnerships are absolutely essential to any successes we’ve seen in the field of development work; I hope that any of you reading this report take some pride in it. Working on the Tibetan Plateau is hard, and there are too many obstacles to overcome if we don’t work together. There are huge physical distances involved, layers of complexity related to race, gender, traditional and modern outlooks, legal frameworks, and political mindsets. There are banking challenges, visa difficulties, and linguistic barriers. There are competing priorities, personal interests, limited funds, waste, and unforeseen impacts. It takes time to build relationships and it can be difficult to find the right expertise or connect through shared values. There are misunderstandings. There are lots of mistakes. But there is also potential—huge potential.
The unlikely stories of Trace Foundation show the potential that is present on the Tibetan Plateau for positive collaboration, accomplishment, and fulfillment. They are a testament to this, as is the list of the many “firsts” we have been part of. For example, our scholarships sponsored the first Tibetans to complete their law degrees and the first to attend the most prestigious film school in China. Working with universities on the Tibetan Plateau, we supported the establishment of new majors in business management, law, computer science, traditional Tibetan medicine, and Western medicine—all in the Tibetan language. We also supported the first dictionary of Tibetan sign language and the first dictionary of technological terms in Tibetan, among others. The first participatory workshop in a village, the first native-speaking English teacher, the first library in a school—you will read more in the following pages. While one can never know what kind of long-term impact these firsts may have, they are bells of human progress that cannot be un-rung.
People often ask me “Why Tibet? Why does it matter?” What can I say? I like the Tibetan Plateau. I like the places and the people, the colors and wide-open spaces, the depth and breadth of the culture, and the blend of the familiar and unknown that I experience there. As for why it matters, I can list many reasons—the natural resources, including the four major rivers of Asia that originate on the Plateau; the unique language and culture in rapid transition; the importance of diversity globally; or the growing schisms around ethnicity and religion that challenge the stability of far Western China and beyond. But the answer is really much simpler than that: it matters because everywhere matters.
Trace Foundation has always been about improving people’s lives and opportunities. We are engaged in areas critical to human development, where we can add value that would not be present otherwise. We always aim to make a long-term difference and view development as not just about material advances but about the broader picture of what people care about—relationships, beauty, culture—the intangibles that should not be lost. On every page you read in this report, you will find traces of culture, and traces of what has come before. You will find the imprints of those whose lives were impacted, as they have traced new futures for themselves.
As we look forward, our work and vision remain steadfast. In the coming years, we are as committed as ever to strengthening the education system by investing in people—students, educators, and scholars. That means supporting young Tibetans who are trailblazing with new teaching methodologies, as well as exploring new contributions to be made, for instance in the field of early childhood education. We’re adding scholarships tailored specifically to rural science teachers, to women training in law, business management, and the sciences—all crucial areas in the coming years.
We are similarly committed to preserving and promoting Tibetan culture. From the digitization of ancient texts to support for contemporary Tibetan artists breaking new ground, Trace Foundation has sought not only to preserve the incredible heritage of this region, but also to foster a living culture. We are exploring and innovating ways to make cultural resources accessible to Tibetan communities—whether that’s via an online repository accessible around the globe, or face-to-face with one of our expert librarians in our New York office.
Over the past ten years, our library holdings have become a boon to both researchers and nearby Tibetans. In addition to making available thousands of resources in three languages, our library hosts events year round that bring together Tibetans, Westerners, Chinese, and many others to encourage an active, ongoing conversation on the state of contemporary Tibetan communities.
At our twentieth year, Trace Foundation continues to foster and look for the connections that allow cooperation and humanitarian values to advance on the Tibetan Plateau. One of our priorities is to broaden our international community. Last year, I challenged the Foundation staff to start bringing in outside funding. Trace is a private foundation and, as such, has never operated with more than a few years’ reserve at any time. If the Foundation and its activities are to have any long-term sustainability, then the circle of support must be broadened. The goal, over the next five years, is to reduce my support to operating expenses and a special project budget only, and for all other work to be done with outside funding or through partnerships. We are starting to have some success in making this transition, which is exciting to see.
As important as a community of support is to our financial sustainability, it is even more important as a sign of ongoing, broad support of Tibetan culture and people within the international community. At the moment, the possibilities for project implementation are diminishing, the impacts of the financial crisis are still being felt, and the world’s attention is drawn to global concerns and crisis situations. It is becoming harder to see where the connections between the future of Tibetan communities and the future of global development and the global community can be made. I do not expect that everyone will experience the connections I have. But I nevertheless believe the Foundation has a role to play in broadening appreciation for this part of the world, and in creating avenues for those who care about cultural traditions, linguistic diversity, the advancement of women, tackling poverty, the power of education, environmental sustainability, the rule of law—the list goes on—to be able to include the Tibetan Plateau in their geographical areas of concern. I believe that the track record of the Foundation, and of other like-minded organizations, shows the value of international cooperation on the Plateau, as well as the continuing need.
Perhaps most important, I believe that the Trace Foundation web can do more to connect Tibetans to their broader communities. What can happen when Tibetan singers, lawyers, doctors, computer engineers, artists, filmmakers, teachers, and development workers deepen their connections within their own professional communities? Of course we, and many organizations, have done a great deal to support these connections over the years, despite the constant barriers of language and distance. I nevertheless believe there is a further level to be achieved, through our support and community efforts, one that requires a more sustained commitment and a closer look at new forms of communication.
So let me end these reflections with an invitation—an invitation to form a connection. Perhaps you are Tibetan, and the connection is obvious. Perhaps you are a Web designer, who would like to think about how to present educational materials on the Internet. Perhaps you are an official in the Chinese Bureau of Civil Affairs, who would like to help us navigate new regulations. Maybe you are passionate about early childhood education and would like to support local kindergartens. Perhaps, like me, you are drawn to the beauty of this unique culture and love to see human potential flourish.
To trace means to redraw, while respecting existing lines. Join us in supporting the heritage of the Plateau while redrawing the lines of what’s possible. Let’s build on the present and the past for something new—a future greater than what we foresee, full of the surprises of the unlikely and the joys of the newly imagined.
Andrea E. Soros
New York City