We mourn the loss of Stephen Marwa

My heart breaks for the loss of Stephen Marwa. For the past six years, Stephen has been my constant collaborator, but so much more. Over time, his vision for the women and girls of Tanzania, his dreams and work have somehow permeated my own.  

Unable to attend his funeral in Musoma, I have been working through my own process. Rereading the hundreds of emails that started with his initial introduction in late September, 2016.  I can still feel the eagerness and sense of urgency that emanated from his initial message. I had never connected with someone so utterly committed to growth and capacity building. He was completely open to any opportunity or insights that could help him create opportunities for women and girls in this community.

Over the years, that same sense of eagerness and committment continued unabated. Every time we visited Stephen during study abroad trips, we witnessed a transformation. Under his leadership, everything seemed to thrive and grow. And his energy to start new projects and initiatives seemed limitless. Given the pace of transformation, the best we could do was try to add value. So this was exactly how we framed our trips and engagement. I stressed to the students that the work was Stephen’s, and not ours. But through collaboration we would strive to make meaningful contributions. Through our study abroad trips, and later through virtual engagement, students were encouraged to watch and learn and understand, and offer contributions through projects and ideas.

The results have been extraordinary. HRCO projects have included reusable sanitary pads; a community bicycle lab; a tilapia pond; piggery; greenhouse; tailoring and shoe making; and a brick press that transforms local soil into construction blocks. All of these projects featured Stephen’s vision and leadership, and the talent of women, youth and vulnerable populations, working toward empowerment and self-sufficiency. In recent months, Stephen announced that he was starting a Center for Experiential Learning. He planned to invite teams from area villages to engage with his many social entrepreneurship projects, towards replicating in their own communities and contexts. Although ambitious, we had no doubts that Stephen would fulfill his vision. He was already well on his way.

Over the years, Stephen’s work has integrated with my own work. Through virtual projects and engagement, UB students connect with Stephen and his initiatives, exploring sustainability and working on proposals that also support their own goals. These efforts have catalyzed a growing portfolio of NGOs across Africa who are eager to build capacity and follow Stephen’s inspiration through collaboration and virtual projects.  

Sadly, I cannot know if Stephen’s projects will continue on in Musoma in their current form. But I can promise that his legacy will live on through my own work and the work of so many others who have been inspired and forever changed. Despite the daunting challenges in communities and villages around the world, there are inherent assets and strengths that can be cultivated and nurtured. Stephen has shown us that empowerment is more than a concept or an ideal. It is within our capacity and reach, and by coming together, in-person or virtually, we can transform ideas into reality and a future that is worthy of our collective dreams.  

There’s More to be Done: Building Empowerment and Educational Opportunity

As detailed in this recent news article , girls in Tanzania are traveling far through an exciting partnership between Spoke Folk, led by Richard Goodman in Dunkirk, New York, and Hope Revival Children’s Organization led by Stephen Marwa in Musoma, Tanzania.

To date, 50 bicycles have been given to local girls as a way to transport them safely to school, with the goal of improving outcomes in a region where few girls have access to secondary education. The girls are also learning repair skills toward the goal of building a self-sustaining business that can expand access to bicycles along with education and economic opportunities. The project has been a huge success and there is great interest in further developing the model. Sixteen of the participants, all orphans with no family support, have successfully completed their schooling and have been accepted into Secondary School, Form 1. The local leadership has agreed to cover the cost of text books and learning materials for the girls. 

But additional costs for tuition, uniforms and desks must also be covered. School starts this month and we are eager to help these girls continue on their journeys.

https://gofund.me/8b2dda37

Please consider making a donation of any size. As the community bicycle project continues to evolve, we hope to build in revenue generation mechanisms to support future scholarship and growth opportunities. This will allow girls and women to pursue their dreams and create new spaces for growth and innovation.

Thank you! – Mara

Harvesting Talent and connecting it with the World: An Emerging Role for Higher Education

photo by Doug Levere

In a 2013 TEDx talk, “Emerging from the Middle”, I suggested that our education pipeline is insensitive to the diverse talents of our students, and the needs of communities and ecosystems they stand to touch. Rather than cultivating and harvesting potential in its most diverse and abundant forms, we constrain its development, making students compete for limited opportunities for growth and success. While this is tragic for individuals, the collective loss is staggering. The sea of untapped potential represents missed innovation and impact in the face of growing challenge, inequity and need. Fortunately, the solution is both clear and compelling. By recognizing and cultivating diversity of talent and interests through meaningful engagement with the world, we can support student growth and achievement, while leveraging the benefits.

Since giving my TEDx talk, I have been putting this idea into motion, creating a model that connects students with opportunities for customized engagement through project-based learning. Our web-based system, the ELN Project Portal, detailed in a recent book chapter, includes mechanisms to generate and share relevant project opportunities, support and integrate engagement through a flexible framework (PEARL), and showcase and assess impact via digital badges. Together, these components create a dynamic model that can accommodate traditional experiences including mentored research, internships, and civic engagement, while also supporting novel responses to emerging needs and opportunities.

When we launched the Portal in 2019, we included profiles of our Tanzanian partners, small NGOs (community-based organizations) we visited during our annual study abroad course. We had maintained engagement between trips, and our partners were eager to build further collaboration. By enabling virtual projects, we could generate interest in the course while making the opportunity more accessible to those who could not travel. But when the Pandemic hit in 2020, we recognized a broader opportunity. With the move to remote instruction, in-person experiences had shut down and students were searching for virtual options. We quickly expanded the portfolio of global NGO projects, inviting students to explore organizations within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through Zoom meetings and ongoing communication with partners, we were able to customize projects to help students make meaningful contributions while also supporting their goals and interests.

The idea of connecting students with the world was compelling from the start. But the results have been quite extraordinary. Beyond exciting assessment data, it is clear that we are tapping into something important and powerful. Students are ready to connect with the world. They want to be part of solutions, to get close to challenges and ideas. And we need to cultivate every drop of their talent, helping them frame their learning and preparation within emerging contexts and opportunities. Within this space of global engagement, our colleges and universities have important roles to play. Through our respective resources and relationships, we can connect students with opportunities for collaboration and engagement and help them integrate their experiences with academic programs and professional goals. By doing so, we can become more relevant and nimble, activating our own potential for greater impact and sustainability.  

Pole Pole (new reflections on ongoing Tanzania collaboration)

A brick making press changed everything. It was the perfect solution to a problem still ill-defined. Bricks create value. You can sell them, use them, transform them into functional things and structures. And the press allows you to make bricks, using local soil and labor. Only a little cement must be added, a material that is readily available. Think of the potential. Latrines, water collection systems and wells, safe houses, the community can literally build its own capacity. One brick-making press, and then perhaps another. Who would have thought it could be so simple.

Of course nothing is simple in Mara, or any other region facing so many challenges. I remember the first time I visited Stephen at Hope Revival, his NGO in Musoma. He was showing us his greenhouse and vegetables, planted in neat rows. He showed us his chicks that would be given to women to sell for  their eggs. I tried to see it all through his eyes, it was clear he was proud. But at the time it seemed so futile. Drip irrigation, he had said of the rusty hose with holes poked through it, not gushing water but barely dripping against dusty earth. And the chicks had almost perished. He had called me frantically via Messenger- there was no money for food or vaccinations. I had pulled together a make-shift fundraiser, inviting my daughter’s friends to “save the chicks”, bringing small donations in exchange for decorating cookies (eggs and chicks no less) and a used book swap. The chicks had survived, and here we were celebrating Stephen’s accomplishments.

Since that trip, there has been much to celebrate. So much, in fact, that I am losing my clarity. Trips are blending together, students and their projects. And while Stephen is still proud, his efforts have become much more ambitious. I couldn’t stifle a giggle when he recently shared plans to start a Center for Experiential Learning, housed at HRCO. It would show case the various projects involving our students and collaboration. Demonstration projects including the eco-flush latrine being designed by engineering students, along with solar electrification, reusable sanitary pads, batik, bicycles, and even a WiFi café that a student is working on. People could come and see, and engage, bringing back ideas and designs to their own villages throughout Mara and beyond. I giggled not because the vision seemed comical or even overly ambitious. On the contrary- it seemed so natural, the obvious next step in an extraordinary series of projects and stories. Stephen is leveraging his relationship with me, with the students and our university . He understands the power of the model. He is on his way.

How to Find/Create a High-Impact Summer Experience

This process is intended for college students but can be adapted for students of all levels. Please share any questions or feedback. I would love to hear from students applying this process to their own search for summer opportunities. Parents, please share as it is more difficult than ever for students to find opportunities. They need our collective support.

Help us Build More Equitable Partnerships

Our partners in Mara Tanzania now have a brick making machine and it is more exciting than I could have ever imagined. Stephen Marwa, Executive Director of Hope Revival Children’s Organization, is training local young men and women to make bricks from local soil. They will sell the bricks to raise funds, eventually supporting local water and sanitation projects throughout the region. In time, they will become a center for design and construction expertise, focusing on latrines and water systems in villages throughout rural Tanzania.

Our students have contributed to efforts in Tanzania and other partnering countries through our Global NGO projects. They connect with partners via Zoom, contextualizing their understanding of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and making meaningful contributions through their projects.

But their efforts are largely conceptual. Our students can only imagine what it is like to operate a brick making press or create a water catchment system in a Tanzanian village. If we want to truly leverage our global relationships and achieve more equitable collaborations, we should give our students access to the same technologies and resources as our partners.

Imagine a Makerspace that includes an interlocking brick making machine, materials for creating renewable energy and water purification system, and collaborating virtually with partners working within communities to make sustainable change. Through innovating and experimenting together, collaboratively, we can maximize our impacts- for our students, partners, and the broader world.

Please participate in our Giving Tuesday Crowdfunding Campaign and help us make a world of difference.

Thank you!- Mara

How to be nimble

To be nimble, you must have three things: sensitivity- an awareness of changes, threats and opportunities; responsiveness- the ability to flex and adapt; and forward focus- moving toward some aspirant state.

It is hard to deny the level of threat and change surrounding us. But how to respond and flex when our organizations and systems are so rigid, when layers of structure constrain us, and resources continue to disappear.

The secret to nimbleness lies in committing to what is most important and true and then resonating with that vision, finding creative ways to honor our commitments and strengthen our relevance.

Let me show you how it works. My field is Higher Education, specifically experiential learning with a focus on global engagement.

I ask myself, what is most important for our students right now, within the evolving global landscape. It is clear that we need graduates with empathy and curiosity, willing to challenge their assumptions, get close to complexities and ideas, develop cultural humility and strive to add value in the world.

Once I recognize the importance of these needs, I can clarify my own commitments and responsibilities within this space.  What resources and opportunities can I leverage through my work at the University? Faculty expertise, facilitation, support, a digital space for students to connect, and dream, and engage, relationships and global partners, and technology. With this recognition, possibilities begin to swirl around me. I see that resources are literally everywhere.

If we were to work through this exercise, collectively, we would recognize that we can absolutely support students in striving for what they need- what we need to heal and nurture the world. What is most exciting about nimbleness is that movement starts the moment we clarify our commitment and accept the responsibility. And when we decide to be nimble we realize that technology is our most powerful tool. It allows us to revel in the how. It expands possibilities and transforms the learning landscape. Imagine a dynamic world where students’ interests activate opportunities, propelling them on journeys of exploration, learning and engagement. Whether connecting them with a faculty expert via Zoom, or allowing them to share their ideas with collaborators or peers, we find creative ways to nurture their interests and curiosities, to help them build capacity and find their place in a changing world.

In many ways, the Pandemic is forcing us to be nimble. As resources fall way, we will be increasingly unable to sustain our programs and offerings in their familiar forms.  But once we recognize that our commitments are not to our programs or offerings, but instead to our students and the broader world, we can begin to access the exciting benefits of nimbleness. Relevance, resonance, and continued viability are all within our reach; but only if we commit to the promise.    

This is what Building Capacity Looks Like

This morning I awoke to this video sent to me by Stephen Marwa from the orientation that is happening today in Musoma, Tanzania- testing out the new brick making machine and SSB technology that we were able to support through my GoFundMe and Coaching for a Cause. According to Stephen “The youth are so excited and enjoying the process. We will surely achieve our goal.”

When I reflect on the promise of global collaboration and the potential of our Global NGO Projects for both our students and the Musoma community, I can’t help thinking that the brick making machine is the perfect symbol. With this technology, the community will focus on its own priorities and goals, literally building a foundation for growth. And with this machine, our students at UB can work to deepen their understanding and develop their own resources, proposing new projects to support design, innovation, and evolving initiatives and priorities.

It’s somewhat jarring to find such hope and inspiration during such troubling times. But as we look for new models and opportunities to leverage resources and engagement, I find myself watching and re-watching this video. I am indeed hopeful and inspired, and I know there are so many young people around the world who are ready to make the world better, brick by brick.

Navigating hypocrisy and negativity: a strategy for (young) adults

Young adults are witnessing a lot of hypocrisy right now. And their moral purity is leaving them in a state of dissonance, disgusted with what they see and driven to take a stand.

While I certainly understand their frustration, I wish they had tools to navigate these treacherous waters, allowing them to preserve their sense of integrity but also the relationships that will continue to mean so much.

What can you do when adults are behaving in ways that seem so obviously wrong? Ways that go against your core beliefs and contradict what you know to be absolutely and unequivocally true?

For many (young) adults, these situations can feel untenable, like there is no hope for a solution or a reprieve. How can you co-exist or have a real relationship with someone whose values directly conflict with your own? Especially when that person demands respect and will not tolerate what they see as insubordination, and you see as defending your principles.

This dilemma can threaten to end the very relationships that serve as the fabric of our families and communities.

When I was just starting my career, I sought training as a divorce mediator. I was actually interested in conflict resolution, not divorce, but that was the only training program available at the time.  

The model for divorce mediation struck me as powerful- so powerful that I continue to practice many of its core strategies. In divorce mediation, the couple is committed to ending the marriage, and their sense of acrimony and mutual contempt are often so strong that they need help completing the process.

The primary task of the mediator is to clarify some shared goal or understanding, and then use that point of connection to move through the process and related goals. The only thing strong enough to cut through the anger and hurt and bring the couple together in making decisions is their shared love for their children. The mediator holds this up, continually reminding them of their shared purpose in order to create space for moving forward.

The combination of affirming love/or something positive and then creating space works beautifully in many situations.

As disagreements about politics seem to spiral out of control, we can acknowledge, “I know we both love our country and are scared for its future. Although we see the problems and solutions differently, we both want what we think is best.”

Or if you are being treated unfairly by your parents and feel like the conditions are becoming unbearable, you can affirm, “I know things have gotten pretty bad around here. We all love each other and I appreciate what you do for me and our family.”

These statements or acknowledgements are by no means magical- they do not in and of themselves transform a situation or make things inherently better.

But they do create space – if only temporarily- and they can release the stress and negative emotions that come with direct and dangerous conflict. They can break the spiral of anger and hurt and allow something positive and healing to take root. What you do with that space has the ability to make a profound and lasting difference.

I think of this process as resetting, and I use it all the time. Even the best and strongest relationships can take a sudden turn, becoming dangerously contentious, sending us reeling and feeling like we are up against a wall.

For this technique to work, however, you need to offer the affirmation in the spirit of vulnerability and hope. And the greater and more dangerous the conflict, the more compelling the truth must be. Simply acknowledging that you see the world differently or that you will have to agree to disagree is not strong enough to create sufficient space for forward movement.  

Instead, you have to allow yourself the vulnerability of envisioning what the relationship could be, not just for you, but for the collective we, accommodating all the different needs and perspectives and experiences. If we can find a way to articulate this desire so it is resonant and true, not just for us, but for everyone, we can create some space for healing, and begin to enjoy the sense of security in knowing that despite the challenges, we will all be ok.