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.
I am excited to kick off a month of Zoom coaching focused on Building Growth and Fulfillment during the Pandemic while also raising funds for an exciting global project. Together we will gift a brick making machine to the community of Raranya, Tanzania to empower their growth through construction of new school latrines, a safe house to protect girls from FGM, and other priority projects determined by their needs.
In lieu of coaching fees, I will ask participants to make donations to a GoFundMe campaign https://gf.me/u/ywvsvi for the brick making machine
Group sessions will be capped at 20 and a limited number of private group and individual sessions will also be available. Visit my Coaching for Cause page and share your interest .
With the sudden move to online instruction and disruption to internships and other high-impact experiences, we have been testing the potential of virtual projects; both for the students and the organizations with whom they collaborate. Many of these projects have involved global partners, small and medium-sized NGOs working with vulnerable communities to build capacity and support basic needs. For students, the opportunity to work closely with global organizations represents an educational high point in the midst of disappointment and uncertainty. And for the NGOs, the opportunity to connect and innovate in the face of dwindling resources offers new opportunities. The following are examples of projects completed by undergraduate students at the University at Buffalo during summer 2020. It should be noted that projects are co-curricular with no additional cost or credit requirements, and culminate in the earning of a Global Collaboration digital badge.
Reusable Sanitary Pad Project
When a UB student participating in a study abroad trip to Tanzania in 2017 first introduced the idea of a reusable sanitary pad sewing project to our partner in Tanzania, she never imagined that today, 3 years later, a second pad project would be gaining momentum, and that she would once again be the project’s lead catalyst and supporter. This time, on break from medical school, and waiting out the pandemic that had disrupted her summer plans, Danielle Nerber worked with a group of UB undergrads to lead another GoFundMe campaign and support the start-up of a new project in a nearby village under the continued leadership of Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO). Starting with community surveys, clarifying the challenges women and girls face when managing menstruation, and galvanizing community interest in the sewing initiative, we had no doubt that the campaign would be successful. Within a few short weeks, the necessary funds were raised, materials gathered, and an initial training recently completed (see featured video). The momentum for this project continues to build with new opportunities and ideas for engagement evolving weekly. With its implications for health and wellness, education, and economic empowerment, this project resonates with diverse student interests, and provides opportunities to build on a strong foundation of collaboration and trust.
We have all grown accustomed to accessing turn-by-turn directions on our mobile devices, gaining instant access to wayfinding and details about virtually any place or region. Yet in many rural communities in countries throughout Africa, including Tanzania, a lack of mapping makes the most simple navigation nearly impossible for those outside the community and region. This reality poses additional challenges for organizations focusing on community development. This summer, a group of UB undergraduates completed initial mapping work, focusing on the village of Raranya, which will host a pilot initiative focusing on water and sanitation, being led by Friendly Water for the World and Hope Revival Children’s Organization. With initial trainings planned for fall 2020, the students worked from satellite images, marking structures and enhancing current available maps. As a next step, HRCO (our Tanzanian partner) will take the maps into the field and begin adding water points, community resources, tarmac roads, and other important infrastructure to support upcoming activities. Once these structures are added by hand, our students will capture and code the additions within the official maps, benefitting the ongoing project and building capacity for future opportunities and needs.
Storytelling through Video Creation
PriHEMAC, an NGO based in Oyo State, Nigeria cultivates elderly friendliness by building capacity with local organizations and churches. Although our students were immediately drawn to PriHEMAC’s mission, they found little in the way of imagery,, stories, or media on their website. Through Zoom-based meetings with the organization’s leadership, a UB undergraduate, James Lockamyeir, proposed a narrative video to share the story of PriHEMAC and build support with various community sectors and stakeholders. The fact that James had never attempted to make a video did not intimidate him. He rose to the challenge, working closely with our PriHEMAC liaison, Gideon Adeniyi, utilizing existing footage and pictures while directing new interviews and testimonials. The video is both compelling and powerful and in a few short months has inspired new projects and ideas for building external support and engagement. The student is now sharing his experiences with other students who are eager to contribute to global NGOs through the creation of digital media and storytelling.
These are only three examples of the many global projects that continue to evolve and develop. As I look to the fall and more uncertainty related to COVID’s continued impact on education and experiential learning, it is clear that virtual projects are worthy of continued exploration and investment. In addition to resonating with student interest and sense of purpose, they also offer exciting benefits for NGO partners. Perhaps most exciting is the idea of generativity which featured so prominently in the initial design work for our Project Portal. The notion that students could continue to build on one another’s efforts, expanding and deepening impact and empowering NGOs to build on their own assets and growth. We have certainly seen the promise of this type of student engagement, and we look forward to deepening our investment in the coming year.
A realization that whatever the schools will provide this fall will not be enough…panic. What to do. Enroll our children in private schools. But they will be full, too expensive, and also not enough.
Deep sigh. Addressing the schools directly is no longer an option, at least not at this moment. Too much chaos, complexity, too many variables that cannot be controlled. We either send our children, or we do not. And not is clearly not an option for most.
A return to problem solving. We often frame the problem wrong from the very beginning. Maybe schools are not a problem. Maybe they are not a solution and should not be viewed as such. Maybe they were never supposed to be everything, or even most things, maybe just some things, maybe a base. A base is a starter, a foundation on which you build. If you want an impressive gravy or soup, you use a base, and then add ingredients, a little of this and that until you get depth, flavor, and the layers begin to build.
What if we view formal education as a base- maybe a rich and savory one or fair to middling- but a base nevertheless. Maybe for this year, at least, we accept the foundation that is offered- either in-person or remote, whatever is most comfortable. And then we build.
To build on a base is to enhance. What could that even look like? Dynamic, interactive, alive. Building on curiosity, talents, interests. Stemming from within but connecting with emerging ideas and needs. I know this kind of building. It is high-impact experiential learning. It is my work. It is what I do and create.
How to frame it out? Not too much structure, it will weigh things down. Just enough to allow for clarity and focus, choices and interests to emerge. But it needs integrity, meaning and importance. Something noble that will resonate internally and with the opportunities that swirl around us.
Let’s see. ENHANCE. Explore challenges, ideas and innovations. Yes, this is always the way to begin, getting close, grounding ourselves in clarity. Natural world. This can be so many things- ecology, conservation, renewable energies, stewarding the resources that are so precious and dear. Hands and heart- using our hands- knitting, crafting, climbing, discovering something we love that brings us joy. Add value. Go ahead, make a difference- give, do or help, and feel your impact, a new kind of power that yearns to be nourished. Numbers and languages. Analyze, break codes, figure it out, cook, measure, translate, speak, sign, understand. Connect and collaborate. Do a project, find a mentor, get input and feedback, translate an idea into action, make something happen and discuss. Envision the possibilities. Feel yourself expand and gaze into the future. Explore career paths, educational programs, new models and paradigms. Where is the world going and what contributions will you make?
You are an ENHANCER, through Reflecting on your growth, you will start to move and see the world differently, the resources and opportunities that surround you, including your school and education. You will see adults ready to share their stories and lessons, communities ready to teach and embrace your gifts, and technology and innovation ready to connect you with possibilities still unknown.
How to support this type of learning? First we must pause to recognize its significance and inherent value. And then we must begin to build.
We are a month into the stay at home orders and I feel compelled to reflect on the status of our project model. How strange that the circumstances leading to widespread fear, sickness and isolation have also activated the potential of our model to be both generative and antifragile. Clearly it is delicate business focusing on the good and promising in the midst of a global pandemic, but it is also important to document what seems to be working as we will surely need powerful models to see us through.
Although our projects span diverse topics and activities, I will limit my reflections to our Tanzania partnership since we have over 10 years of experience on which to draw. With the development of ourProject Portal in 2018, we had- for the first time- a “place” to synthesize, showcase and nurture the various ideas, initiatives, and visions that were moving along at varying paces and awaiting support of any kind. I of course started with projects that were in some way already real; bicycles that had been donated in hopes of someday creating a community lab, women who were learning to sew and using their handiwork toward economic empowerment and self-sufficiency, a project in its nascent stages in need of a business plan, storytelling, or some other tangible resource. Once a few projects were up on the Portal, new ideas began to flow, needing only a description, a compelling photo, an invitation for students to engage through sample activities and contributions. New projects began to come quickly- a new website to showcase the various initiatives and invite travelers to come and see and engage; a water and sanitation project to support community research establishing needs and capacity, and a reusable sanitary pad project that had been started by a former student and was in temporary stall.
The design of our Portal requires a common project structure that insures consistency across project types yet allows for maximal flexibility. To be included, projects must be mentored, collaborative and result in some tangible product. These are the only constraints, allowing for virtually any type of engaged activity to qualify. Upon reflection, the very existence and design of the Portal itself began to catalyze new Tanzania projects, even before the stay at home orders were in place. Yet, at the same time, the ambient conditions surrounding student engagement were not yet fully conducive to activating the true potential of the platform. Namely, because our model, which was designed to be maximally accessible, invited students to engage outside their coursework through co-curricular digital badges, participation conflicted with other competing demands and coursework, which inevitably took precedence over projects. Although we saw strong interest with many students initiating Tanzania projects, there was little follow-through and related impact. Yet, with everyone staying at home (however geographically defined), we began to see more engagement, including students who had started projects and wanted to re-engage, and new students searching for meaningful global opportunities. The remote and virtual aspects of our model invited broad and diverse engagement, and through this expansion of participation, we are beginning to see the benefits of our model through lenses of generativity and antifragility.
With regard to project-based collaboration, the notion of generativity speaks to the expansion and acceleration of projects as engagement deepens. We hypothesized that as utilization of the Portal increased, with the addition of new collaborative projects and associated impacts, the speed at which new projects were generated would increase, with new synergies and partnerships evolving, and new possibilities emerging. We have seen this generativity both within individual student engagement and over time as new students join existing projects and contribute new inputs and outputs. An example of within student generativity is the work of a student who was interested in capturing the stories of young women engaged in a new Batik dying project led by our partner, Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO) in Musoma. Through communication with the project leader, Stephen Marwa, the student eventually obtained photos and hand-written profiles exploring the importance of the Batik project for the participating women along with their hopes for future entrepreneurial opportunities and the impact of the Corona Virus, which was just beginning to spread throughout the country. Although the resulting profiles represented the completion of the student’s project, she was eager to continue her engagement towards finding new ways to support the women’s efforts through further communication and engagement.
In addition to students’ leveraging their initial projects toward deeper impacts, we have also seen generativity build across student engagement. Through a Water and Sanitation Project, it became evident that students were especially interested in issues of sustainability and eager to engage in related initiatives. In working to identify a specific project that would be suitable for student engagement, we settled on a community-based survey that would establish needs, resources and infrastructure related to water and sanitation within target villages. A graduate student helped to develop the initial survey instrument in collaboration with our partners and compiled the results in a comprehensive report to be shared with possible funders and community stakeholders. This project is quickly growing, and generating new opportunities for students to explore specific areas of the survey, conducting their own research, suggesting innovative technologies and interventions, and working with village stakeholders to contextualize findings and identify new opportunities for collaboration.
In addition to evidence of generativity, we are also seeing our relationships strengthen, moving toward a state of antifragility; namely, outcomes improving and becoming stronger with engagement, even when (or especially when) interactions are uncomfortable or in some way dissonant. This point may seem esoteric to many, but I think it is inherently important to understand and follow. For many years, our Tanzania partnership felt fragile and even dangerous to pursue. I had begun efforts in support of a particular school project that was being led by a group of nuns. Because of our singular point of focus in terms of project goals and partners, and the singular definition of success for our endeavors, there were multiple threats and points of fragility along the way. At best, we could hope to add value toward the construction of the school, and found ourselves in a delicate space with little room for movement or alignment with our core mission. As we expanded our engagement, developing multiple relationships throughout the Mara Region, and further clarifying our engagement model, we opened up new possibilities for collaboration. With successful projects emerging and building momentum, and students benefiting in ways that supported their academic and professional goals, the space for new synergies and further collaboration began to expand. And through the utilization of technology-supported platforms and engagement tools, access began to grow exponentially, in turn fueling further synergies, projects, and opportunities.
After 10 years, I can assert that my partnerships and associated projects no longer feel fragile or dangerous. Instead, they beckon us to challenge their boundaries and assumptions, pushing on our collaboration toward growth and learning on all sides. To me, this is what antifragile looks and feels like, and I find myself inspired to push even further. In the last several weeks I have been asked by my partners for money to help them survive the COVID pandemic. While I have gotten used to such requests from my Tanzanian friends, this time I pushed back, suggesting that they utilize their existing resources to prepare and build internal capacity. I mentioned the importance of masks, and highlighted a mutual friend, UB librarian, Cindi Tysick, who has been designing and adapting masks to accommodate different needs and functionalities. Upon interest, I connected my friends with Cindi who quickly shared mask patterns and resources to help get them started. Within days, we received photos of early mask prototypes (including the featured photo), and are currently adding a “Masks for the World” project within our Portal, inviting students to work with Cindi, supporting related efforts among our global partners and new organizations that seek to get involved. I think this is a beautiful example of generativity and antifragility at work, and I can’t help thinking (hoping) that it is only the beginning.
Since 2009, I have been visiting Mara Tanzania, bringing groups of students, faculty and community members toward the goal of building collaboration around women’s empowerment and community development. Admittedly, my vision for collaboration has been ambitious from the start- far different from the types of sponsor or funder relationships that are so common in this part of the world. Instead, my version of collaboration has always focused on the idea of adding value to existing or emerging initiatives through the sharing of knowledge, ideas, or engagement, essentially doing what we do best as a University community, but doing it with our partners in Tanzania, both in person and remotely.
I have come to recognize that this notion of collaboration is ambitious even within our own community, let alone one so far away with regard to distance, culture, and history. Not surprisingly, this concept of collaboration has yet to be fully embraced or understood by most of our Tanzanian friends and partners. Although we made significant early contributions to the school project in Rorya, the initiative that first introduced me to Mara and brought me to Tanzania, the needed fundraising far exceeded the limits of our engagement model, causing us to step aside and continue our search for more collaborative projects. With persistence and the help of Dr. Dan Nyaronga, a Buffalo professor who happens to be from the Mara Region, we eventually made progress, establishing relationships with organizations and leaders through a yearly study-abroad course, laying the foundation for collaborative projects that continue to grow and evolve today.
Through an ongoing relationship with Buhare Community Development Training Institute (BCDTI), in Musoma, we were first introduced to an organization that has evolved into Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO), led by Executive Director Stephen Marwa, who has become our main partner and liaison for the region. Stephen has proven to be an outstanding collaborator in the most ambitious sense, and has embraced every resource, connection and opportunity that we have shared, transforming ideas into projects and initiatives, demonstrating amazing leadership and serving as a mentor and inspiration for us all. When our students and community members shared ideas for projects, including a reusable sanitary pad sewing initiative, and a bicycle lab for girls who lack access to school, Stephen quickly brought these projects to life, galvanizing community support and engaging local women and youth, cultivating new leaders and building capacity from within. And even beyond the Musoma community, Stephen has been nurturing connections with our collaborators in Tarime, through the Mogabiri Farm Extension Center (MFEC), expanding his network and building synergies for greater impacts and outcomes.
Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, we have been making significant progress as well, trying to actualize the promise of collaboration within our own university community. For me, my Tanzania efforts have served as a laboratory of sorts- allowing me to test what is possible and then reflect on implications and innovations. Like Mara Tanzania, there are so many communities and potential partners eager to collaborate, building on ideas and support to leverage internal assets and opportunities for growth. But how to connect students in ways that are meaningful and appropriate, how to add value without overextending our reach? Over the past year, we have built a new infrastructure to support the type of collaboration we have been seeking. In fall 2019, we launched the ELN Project Portal http://www.buffalo.edu/eln/students/project-portal.html– a web-based interface for connecting students with mentored projects of all types and focus, both local and global, including Tanzania projects featuring our partners. To guide students through their engagement, helping them get the most from their project experiences, we created a series of digital badges that follow our PEARL framework (prepare; engage and add value; reflect; leverage), guiding them through the process of engagement while helping them weave connections with academic and professional goals. And at the heart of this exciting model are the experiences afforded through engagement with partners like Stephen, MFEC, and our collaborators across the Mara Region.
As we prepare for our students to return for the spring semester, I am excited to engage them in what I see as the 2nd phase of my Tanzania collaboration journey. It is clear that there is movement and momentum in Tanzania. Many of the projects that we have discussed over the years and have tried to nurture and support are now evolving and developing under the leadership of our partners. Now it is time for us to help document the growth, to help give it form, whether written or digital. We will follow the lead of our collaborators, working to add value and offer meaningful engagement. This was the vision for our collaboration, and it is truly an honor to be engaged in this important work.
For Spring 2020, our students will focus on the following projects in collaboration with Stephen Marwa (HRCO)
Water and sanitation: cultivating sustainability ecosystems in Mara Tanzania.
-partnership with Friendly Water for the World and Stephen Marwa
-piloting a new model for community engagement around sustainable technologies
Students will support initial feasibility study for pilot communities, working with Stephen and Friendly Water to document community assets and gain understanding of needs towards establishing a foundation for growth and the formation of a new model with deepened community engagement. Students will also document the stories and strategies associated with successful sustainability activities in the region toward sharing best practices and tools for success, while supporting GIS mapping and community geography work.
Tailoring, batik and reusable sanitary pads: community empowerment through social entrepreneurship
– Individual projects underway in Musoma and Tarime (MFEC)
– Exploring new markets, training programs and synergies
Students will document evolving projects in Musoma and Tarime, interviewing participating women and program leadership, and showcasing the products toward building capacity and sharing model with other interested communities.
Bicycle lab project
-Pilot project underway with bikes donated by Spoke Folk (Dunkirk, NY)
-Plans to expand program and start a community bike lab
Students will work to document the stories of the girls who have benefitted from the community bicycle project and how the bicycles have impacted their education and future opportunities. These efforts will help build resources and support for future iterations of the program.
We look forward to sharing our progress through student projects and posts. Please follow along and check out our portal for more exciting initiatives.
I am getting an increasing number of calls about digital badges. Colleges and universities, K-12, adult education, and community programs all wanting to explore the promise of this new pedagogical tool.
The interest is exciting and I am always happy to discuss the potential of digital badges. I see them as a powerful design tool- allowing us to clarify our missions and visions, supporting our students in leveraging our resources in working toward their highest potential. I must be compelling in my enthusiasm, or maybe the promise of badges speaks for itself, because by the end of the conversation or presentation, the leaders are usually ready to sign-up for a system of their own, wanting to discuss next steps and a quick path to implementation. This is the point that gets a little awkward as I explain that there is no one to sign up with- certainly not me, and no template or program to follow or purchase.
How to begin? I try to explain that the badge or micro-credential part of the system is actually the easiest. There are online platforms that walk you through the creation of badge icons, which are simply interactive digital files. You brand badges with your organization’s name and information, the respective title of the skill or competence, and the specific expectations and evidence associated with the skill. On the administrative side, the platform allows you to issue or award the badge, sending the file to the student once you approve their evidence.
But the rest is up to you/us- what do we hope the students will do with the opportunities provided, how will they translate these into success or readiness, and how will they communicate their skills and competencies to the world and to the audiences that matter most? These clarifications and the associated mapping work will frame the next stage of our collective evolution, and digital badges already provide the necessary design tools.
With a little time the “how” to build and support badging systems will become less mysterious. As organizations begin to play with these platforms, we will begin to see the possibilities. And as employers begin to endorse certain badges, or emphasize specific skills or competencies or types of evidence, the market will begin to shift in response. Soon, apps and start-ups (or perhaps Amazon?) will market badges directly to students, allowing them to sample from both formal and informal educational programs and experiences, weaving preparation with projects, accomplishments and endorsements into compelling digital narratives and portfolios of evidence.
In this way, education will eventually flip. But in reality, students are already the designers, with a bounty of resources and opportunities at their disposal. As the keepers or deliverers of these resources, we should embrace opportunities to help our students translate our affordances into success and further opportunity. Yes, in activating the potential of digital badges we will, ourselves, have to stretch and grow, building capacity to connect our own resources with changing opportunities and expectations. How ironic that in figuring out how to create digital badge systems for our students, we would benefit from working toward digital badges of our own.
With less than three months into our new Project Portal, I am excited on so many levels. Student interest is high and new projects are coming in from all directions. Our digital badges are yielding important data and the resulting stories are already compelling. While there is much to dig into and explore as we build out our new model over the coming months and years, there is one facet that begs immediate attention; global collaboration.
To say that there has been strong interest would be a gross understatement. Inquiries have been coming in almost daily. The students are from diverse backgrounds and areas of study- engineering, communication, public health, psychology, statistics, and computer science; students from the local community and others from countries and regions around the world. But perhaps even more remarkable than their diversity, is the consistent manner in which they are asking to join the projects; articulating a genuine and moving interest in making a difference through their engagement; a desire to give something back or make lives somehow better.
What projects are attracting such strong interest? For now, they are all associated with my Tanzania collaborations. They involve clean water and sanitation, women’s empowerment, early childhood education, and an emerging community bicycle laboratory. They feature long-term partners who are on the ground in Tanzania, extraordinary people who are committed to the work and eager to collaborate with our students, to engage their ideas, talents, and opportunities, and the resources that may follow.
If you visit these project profiles, you will find articulated learning outcomes that are both familiar and highly regarded. You will see cultural competence, global learning, communication, problem solving and other ideas that represent important skills and competencies valued by 21st century employers and deemed important for a well-rounded liberal arts education. While undeniably important, let’s be clear that these learning outcomes are not what is speaking to our students. Instead, it is the chance to connect with real communities and people, to touch the world, to make a difference, to fulfill a sense of purpose and hope, and to experience the challenges and rewards of collaboration.
I have been experimenting with the complexities of collaboration for over 16 years, and acknowledge its ambitious and perhaps aspirant nature. Even within our own communities, it is difficult to navigate the implicit power imbalances and differences in culture and perceptions that undermine our attempts to collaborate. But as we search for goals that will challenge and stretch us toward innovation and relevance, I believe that global collaboration is worthy of our pursuit. Put simply, it is inherently meaningful and resonant with the best that we have to offer.
As I look ahead to the future of experiential learning, I am both inspired by the adventures in collaboration that lie ahead and reassured by the knowledge that our students are profoundly ready.
I am back in Buffalo- having just returned from our 10-year anniversary trip to Mara Tanzania. And just like that, 10 years of my life and professional energies have been wrapped up in a bow; celebrated, honored and commemorated by my dear friends and partners who made me feel special and cherished beyond description.
And now I strain, eager to get my head around the many lessons and insights, allowing me to shift into the next phase of my work, whatever it may be. Why the urgency- you might ask. Although our partnerships are in many ways impressive, I know that they are inherently precious, and perhaps still fragile. You see, our Tanzania project was never an institutional priority. I was never asked to develop or sustain it. In fact, over the years I have had to be tenacious, finding ways to keep it going, often under the radar, buying time until the landscape shifts and new opportunities emerge.
And even now, as the benefits are both obvious and resonant, I am still working to think ahead, identifying the next manifestation that will allow our investments to keep growing and multiplying. This work of continuously nurturing engagement is both taxing and frustrating, moving at its own pace and rhythm, always precarious, never secure. Perhaps in an effort to coax it along, or instead to simply grasp for those who understand the significance and struggle, I will share some resonant truths in whatever form they offer themselves.
Capacity building is real– both as a challenge and an opportunity, especially in developing regions like Mara. Literally everywhere we look there are assets and resources but if they cannot be harnessed and leveraged, their communities and people (especially women and children) will remain vulnerable. There are organizations and leaders ready and poised to have an impact. But without sufficient infrastructure, incentives, levers of change, they will remain alone and unable to activate their potential. Investments will not trickle down and lives will remain cruel. But if we can weave structures and networks around these assets and leaders, connecting them upward, inward and outward, we can leverage their individual resources toward greater impacts, eventually catalyzing growth and collaboration from within.
Grants and donors are not the answer– no one funding opportunity or single initiative will save our most vulnerable communities or populations. When I see new non-profits or small community organizations waiting and searching for the golden funder, or praying that it’s me, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I see the precious resources they expend trying to court the funder or win the grant- ready to pivot to whatever initiative or remediation is being endorsed. And when partial funding is offered, they eagerly accept, getting started right away, even when funding is insufficient to cover required costs. And then they are back in the weeds and the cycle continues.
Collaboration is key, but it requires strategic support. It’s amazing to see so many organizations and communities dealing with the same challenges and offering such similar programs. And yet they often fail to connect and certainly to collaborate. Instead they compete. Collaboration can be fostered and nurtured, but it needs to be facilitated by skilled mediators and designers. The best place to start (in my experience) is with new opportunities and themes that can add value to individual efforts while not competing, interfering or adding complexity. This can be achieved through identifying broader themes and commonalities that resonate with external trends and resources, and expanding and creating new opportunities rather than relying only on known resources.
Technology can be a game changer, but the “how” must be translated- everywhere we go there are computers and cell phones, and requests for more technology. But most of the computers are not working, and there is little understanding of how technology can be leveraged for individual and collective growth. We have had multiple requests for our students to design and manage websites and provide other critical support. But when we ask to work with individuals who have related job responsibilities and or skill sets we have had no success. Since technology and connectivity are featured in virtually every strategic plan for developing countries and regions, building capacity and expertise among key professionals and youth is absolutely critical.
Higher Education has a pivotal role to play– this is where it gets tough. Because I am part of this system, I cannot go too far. But I can say unequivocally that we can do much more. Our students want to get close. They want high-touch experiences. And our faculty have so much expertise and resources to offer. Our leaders must recognize that this work is not “extra” or outside our core mission. Instead it is the pathway to continued (or perhaps renewed) relevance- it is worthy of scholarship, research and innovation. It is inherently noble and important.
I hope that these insights are not construed as negativity or defeatism. On the contrary, I find myself more excited than ever to continue our relationships and our collective efforts to build capacity through collaboration and engagement. In fact, as I write this post, our students are formulating projects based on their own experiences with our partners in Mara. Their projects will be open to students from all backgrounds and majors who are eager to work on real-world issues and challenges, and to contribute their talents and resources in meaningful ways. What will come of these efforts and the foundation we have built over the past 10 years? I have no idea- but am hopeful beyond words.
In a few weeks I will be returning to Tanzania with my dear friend and co-instructor, Dan Nyaronga, and a new group of students from the University at Buffalo. As always, we will be visiting with our various partners, exploring community initiatives and the complexities of women’s empowerment in this challenged but magnificent part of the world.
While our itinerary will be similar to past trips, this one will be different. I will be celebrating my 10-year anniversary, and (hopefully) ushering in a new phase of engagement.
When I remember the very beginning, the first time we visited in 2009, I am reminded of this video produced by Kevin Crosby, and the model we initially set out to create. Even then, we dreamed of collaboration built on shared understanding and respect, and a commitment to adding value and building capacity, leveraging our vast UB resources, while building synergies with community-based organizations within the Mara Region and beyond. We hoped to seed interdisciplinary efforts, working across silos to develop innovative solutions to improve the lives of women and their families, while stretching our models for university engagement and outreach.
As I reflect on our accomplishments, there is much to celebrate. Over the years we have helped to support the emergence of community leaders, the creation of new initiatives, and the early stages of collaboration among partners. But how to go even further; to transcend the expectations and constraints of traditional support and partnerships; to elevate the notions of collaboration and capacity building both within the community and our own institution?
This time I will bring the promise of an exciting new initiative that we are busy building- so busy that I have yet to write about or introduce it. We are creating a digital portal that will invite students to engage in collaborative projects, mentored by UB faculty and/or select alum and partners around the world- including (and especially) Tanzania. We will construct profiles introducing our partners and their work, inviting students to browse through pictures, videos and reports, learning about challenges and complexities, towards engaging in projects that will add value while helping to clarify and support their academic and professional goals.
For our partners I dream of expansion and empowerment, building their internal capacity around strengths and resources, leveraging engagement with UB and other partners around shared and synergistic goals. For our students I wish them the fulfillment that comes with the knowledge that they are making a meaningful difference and the sense of agency and infinite possibilities ahead.
For me, the portal offers a path to access and equity, allowing students to engage at their own pace and at no additional cost. The idea that anyone can activate their talents and interests, clarifying their sense of purpose, and making a difference in ways that will extend well beyond their own professional success.
This July we will be harvesting projects for our new portal, laying the foundation for future students to engage through collaborative projects. This idea of project harvesting is both compelling and profound. When we begin to see challenges and needs as invitations for projects and collaboration, opportunities will emerge all around us, and technology will be the transformative tool that allows us to build, catalyze and expand our impacts in ways that we cannot know.
As I return to Tanzania I cannot help wondering what lies ahead. And as I prepare to celebrate my 10 year anniversary, I can’t help feeling (hoping) that this is still the beginning.