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Q&A with Executive Director Alex Moore

Executive Director Alex Moore spoke recently to Breaking Ground’s new social media volunteer about her history with the organization and her goals for its coming years. After five years in operation, Breaking Ground has helped support the construction of several schools, a library, and bridge, in addition to establishing a soccer program for girls, an agricultural training program for coffee farmers, and a business class and grant program for women.

In October, Breaking Ground appointed Erin Rhoda to manage the  organization’ssocial media platforms. Erin is a reporter with the Morning Sentinel newspaper in Maine, studied English at Colby College, and has a master’s in creative writing from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. She has helped run an afterschool program for youth in Kissehman, Ghana, and distribute bed nets to rural villages in Sierra Leone. Contact her at with your ideas for spreading the word about Breaking Ground!

            Describe your first impressions of Cameroon. Set the stage.

It wasn’t until the end of my first week in Cameroon that I began to relax. It was my junior year at Wesleyan University in 2004, and Lindsay Clarke, Sarah Oxford, and I were spending four months in Cameroon to study with the School for International Training. We spent our first days living in a village called Fongo-Tongo, and I remember being overwhelmed by my new surroundings. I wondered why I had come.

At the end of the first week, community members gathered in the compound where we were staying, and we spent the evening dancing and eating a feast. That was the moment I let go. I thought, I can do this. A couple of nights later, Lindsay and I danced with a beautiful 3-year-old girl who wore her hair in big poofy pigtails. When I learned later she would be my host sister, I felt everything was falling into place. I knew I was going to have a great semester.

            What did you do on your school program in Cameroon?

We lived with host families our first month in Dschang, which is where Breaking Ground is now based. As part of our program, we visited local nonprofits and large-scale non-governmental organizations, learning about a wide array of development methods. We also completed month-long independent study projects. While Lindsay lived in the rainforest for her project, studying the effect of the departure of a logging company, I turned to art.

In the Cameroonian village of Idol, women traditionally plan the large murals that the community is famous for. But while a few women are in charge of the overall vision of the mural, they give individual community members squares of the painting to complete themselves. I replicated this form of community art in the city of Ngaoundéré, working with 28 people to paint squares that became one large piece.

Working with a wide array of community members later became an essential and basic part of Breaking Ground’s work, but at that time I had no inkling of what would grow from my introduction to Cameroon.

Those first months, I was struck by the rich orange-red color of the dirt. And as a student I made paintings using the bright varieties of dirt found in places like Idol. In the dry season, a pink, orange dust settles on everyone’s clothes. That’s the color we eventually chose to represent Breaking Ground. We also wanted our name to reference the idea of literally breaking into the dirt—doing the kind of hands-on work that requires everyone’s effort.

            You had to come back to the U.S. to finish college, so how were you able to return to Cameroon?

I came home to finish my senior year at Wesleyan and scheme up ways to return to Cameroon. Lindsay applied for and won the college’s Christopher Brodigan Award, which allowed her to travel to Doumbouo, in the west, to teach English. That’s where she helped contribute to one of the community’s goals: finishing the school’s construction.

I was lucky enough to sell some paintings, which enabled me to book a ticket to meet Lindsay. Stepping off the plane to join her in March 2006 was one of the happiest moments of my life. Since my previous time in Cameroon, I had graduated college, moved to New York City, taught art in afterschool programs and worked as a waitress. I was jumping outside of myself to get back to Cameroon. There is a distinct smell to the air in Cameroon, and I was strongly aware of it when I returned. It held many positive associations.

When I arrived in Doumbouo, the school was mostly finished and the teachers decided I should help paint two world maps on the school walls. Many of the children had never before seen a world map and their place within it. That was a satisfying time because I also taught them how to paint. I love the moment when people stop fearing artistic expression and not only know they can paint but enjoy it, too.

Our work in Doumbouo continued when we helped fund the construction of a library. We knew we were doing purposeful work by supporting projects in which local community members were already invested, but we didn’t think about it becoming the mission of a nonprofit. Sarah was the one to suggest that the work was larger than us.

            What did it take to develop the nonprofit in the U.S. and Cameroon?

The nonprofit formed in the fall of 2006 when Lindsay and Sarah organized our founding board, and our 501(c)3 paperwork was approved in 2007. The board has changed throughout the years. We now have six new board members, in addition to three of the original members—plus my work as executive director. We continue to grow, and I hope in several years we’ll be able to add staff, extend our support network and increase our number of projects in Cameroon.

For several years, Lindsay acted as the full-time director while holding down a full-time teaching job in Maine. While she balanced her responsibilities well, it was too much to ask. At that time, I acted as development director, while earning my master’s of fine arts at Claremont Graduate University in California. So we hired Paul Zangue in Cameroon to handle some of the work Lindsay had been doing, replace the need for American volunteers on the ground, and provide more direction from within Cameroon.

We first met Paul in 2008 when he volunteered to manage our bridge construction project, connecting Litieu and Melah. One of his skills is his ability to handle a wide variety of tasks. One day you may find him speaking to a National Director of bank about microcredit lending and the next day he’ll be digging in the dirt at one of our nurseries.

The board officially hired him as program manager in Cameroon in August 2010. I travel to Cameroon several times a year, but Paul is our presence there. He negotiates when we partner with an organization, keeps track of expenses, plans our programs, and meets people from various government offices. We’ve been working on officially becoming a nonprofit in Cameroon for about a year.

            How do you determine what projects to fund?

We have several ways of identifying our next projects. In addition to maintaining contacts in Cameroon, Peace Corps volunteers often approach us with projects, and word about Breaking Ground has spread quickly. People usually contact us when they learn there’s an American organization willing to support them.

But we only invest in projects that have sprung organically from communities and their self-identified needs. These are community-led projects. As outsiders, we have no authority telling people what they need and want. They already know what they need and want. We support communities that may not have all the resources to finish their essential school or library or bridge. We also support women through our Women’s Entrepreneurial Program, which has taught business skills to more than 180 women and financed several dozen business endeavors.

            What keeps you going back?

What keeps me going back to Cameroon is the heart of it all. There’s a joy and purpose behind all this work, even when it’s difficult. The place and people of Cameroon are now part of my personal history. They have transformed me. I love the energy of the people we work with and the results of our joint efforts. I also enjoy Cameroon on a basic level. I always feel welcome; I love the pace of life, the food, and people’s attitudes.

            Why should people donate to a cause they will probably never directly benefit from?

We’re all connected whether it’s obvious to us or not, and, therefore, part of being an aware citizen is taking responsibility for what happens around the world. Why should we care? It just seems like common sense and basic justice. Everybody on this planet should have the same access to education, food and healthcare. I didn’t choose where I was born and the privileges I was given. I was lucky. I have more than I even realize I’m able to give, and others do, too. All around the world, we have the ability to make a huge impact on others’ lives.