Before we left we were instructed to look up the day of the week on which we were born. Our host explained that in Ghana babies are given many names that together represent their unique place in the world. The day of birth is the first name to be given, with others to follow once the baby survives to the eighth day, including, at a minimum, the name of a family member or ancestor to be emulated, a religiously affiliated name and a surname that is usually associated with the father. Listening to a Ghanaian share their full name is like listening to the beginning of a story, my favorite kind of story. A story about people, places and history all woven together into a rich and textured tapestry. A story without a true beginning and one that you hope will never end.
This impression of rich connectedness is what continues to linger with me as I sit and reflect upon my trip. In Ghana, details of birth, life and death matter. People and places matter and serve to elevate the expectations that surround individuals and their future legacies. This is why marriage is taken so seriously, with families investigating the character of potential mates and their respective lineage. With so much at stake, a union must be acceptable and worthy of one’s inherent promise.
And then the slave castle, the final destination of our trip. To bring people who mattered so much- men, women and children; chiefs and honored wives; mothers, daughters, aunties and uncles, each with important legacies and expectations surrounding their lives. And then to strip it all away. To defile, shackle and humiliate. To squeeze them through the place of no return.
People do matter. But their connectedness matters even more. People are part of families and communities. They are from specific places. They are part of stories and legacies that weave together in complex patterns over time. When we elevate people and their stories, we give them honor, we adopt a long-term vision, we think beyond ourselves. But when we break the connectedness and devalue people, the implications reverberate further than we can know.
Even before I left Ghana, I found myself trying to explain the lessons of the castle. Through texts and pictures I told my children that I had stood in the dungeon, that I had looked through the bars and touched the walls of the point of no return. I tried to convey the power of these experiences when juxtaposed against the nobility of lives and stories.
When I think of sending UB students to Ghana, I hope they will experience the extremes in this order, first beholding the elevation of humanity before confronting its annihilation. Somehow the sequence seems important. As my dear and wise friend Oluwafemi once explained, in order to achieve our potential we must continually dip ourselves in gold. This is the gift that Ghana has given me, one that I hope to continue to share.
I have a fairly expansive belief policy. My kids will tell you that I believe in anything that is good. Santa Claus and Guardian Angels, yes…. evil monsters and zombies, definitely no. This may seem like a joke, but I assure you that my policy is well thought out and quite sound. It draws on the principles of infinite diversity and the knowledge that virtually anything is possible when we work toward the greater good.
From an implementation standpoint, my policy is highly robust and transferable within most contexts and settings. It allows me to scan for the positive, picking and choosing perspectives and insights, remaining open and determined to find something of value. From an impact standpoint, it serves many functions. By espousing such a policy, people always know where I stand, especially my children who I am most interested in influencing. My policy also affords a certain protective functionality- preventing me from getting bogged down in the endless negativity and defeatism that threaten us at every turn.
To be clear, I want to be known as a dreamer, an optimist, someone who believes in infinite possibilities and potential. And so, I let my curiosity and openness guide me, feeling my way forward toward new adventures, relationships, and the magic they afford. In some respects, my policy has high discriminative validity. If it resonates strongly with the policies of others, I can usually tell right away. There is a certain synergy that ignites, catalyzing collaboration, innovation, and excitement that is too apparent to be ignored. But interestingly, it does not have the opposite repelling effect on those with more cynical tendencies. Although I have been known to madden my staunchest and most empirically-minded colleagues with my openness to the worlds of the unknown, they seem- at the same time- to be drawn to my sense of wonderment, even if they are loathe to admit it.
Let’s face it, the opposite of openness is not very inviting, even for those who are trapped within. The Land of the Cynics, Skeptics, and even Realists can feel dark, desolate, and shrouded in fear. And clearly, it’s growing more crowded by the minute. Conversely, the Land of the Dreamers is infinitely inclusive and open with endless room to stretch and explore the landscapes that continually change and re-imagine themselves.
I concede that my approach- and associated policy- may seem unconventional, but since first writing this post (in September, 2014) I have connected with a growing number of Dreamers who share my faith in the promise of possibility. I have met them in rural Tanzania, working to empower women and communities through agriculture, community development and education, and recently on the Mona Campus of Jamaica, striving to strengthen their capacity for research and public health, investing in the promise of collaboration and engagement. And when I travel to Ghana this January, I have a feeling I will meet many more, for suddenly, Dreamers seem to be everywhere I am going. For this, I am truly grateful- and terribly excited.
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!
(Adapted from original post, September, 2014)
Mara Huber, Ph.D., Associate Dean, Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning, University at Buffalo
Please excuse my absence. Perhaps it felt abrupt, like a sudden departure or loss, or maybe you didn’t notice at all.
I wasn’t really gone. I have been here the whole time, working in the early hours of the morning, stealing moments and stretching time.
I have been consumed, determined to finish the book, to share the stories of our Tanzania project, to invite you on our upcoming journey, or accompany you on your own.
And now that it is nearly complete, the final tweaks and edits being made, I am eager to reconnect, to explain the significance of my absence in hopes that you are still there.
So often in my life I have rushed from one project to the next, failing to take a breath, to appreciate or share.
But this one is big, certainly bigger than me alone, and to realize its potential I need your support.
The book is about “Finding Your Impact through International Travel,” and is dedicated “to the bold and compassionate students of the world who yearn to make a difference.”
It shares the stories of BTEP, our engagement project that began with a chance encounter with nuns from the Mara Region of Tanzania, studying in Buffalo while searching for partners to help them build a school for girls.
Written in collaboration with my colleague Dan Nyaronga, who hails from the very same region of Tanzania, it speaks to the power of friendship and the amazing connections that happen when we open ourselves to a bigger purpose, to the influences of serendipity, chance, and fate.
The book is about how fascinating the world truly is, and the adventures that await us in faraway places or in our own communities where we least expect them.
It is about the promise of people who at any moment can surprise us, contributing their talents, strengths, and passions, revealing new paths forward, crossing bridges and weaving their histories both forward and back.
And as the title suggests, the book is about impact and the magic that happens when we work together, focusing our resources on shared visions and goals.
I hope you can understand my eagerness to get this right, to share these truths that have revealed themselves through BTEP and our evolving relationship with the Mara Region.
But please know that my impatience goes much deeper. You see, 100% of sales from the book will support scholarships for girls in this region, allowing them to change the course of their lives and those of their families and communities through education and empowerment. When I think about these young women and what lies ahead, where their education will lead them, what they will accomplish, what we will accomplish together, I grow giddy with anticipation.
And so, my dear friends, please excuse my absence and refrain from holding a grudge. I have not left you, nor have I moved on to another project or audience. I am still here and am officially ready to move our relationship to the next level. Will you join me?
I recently attended a press event and left dumbfounded by the remarks of the presiding dignitaries. The vast majority either didn’t make sense at all, or were essentially vacuous in terms of actionable promises. Since literally bolting from the event, I have found myself pondering the importance of words as they relate to community development.
I have already confessed my general fascination with words in an early post https://marabhuber.com/2014/03/24/sculpting-our-words/, but in this case I’m reflecting on the lack of intellectual and ethical discipline that they often convey. Just recently I was accused in a LinkedIn group of being too academic and using “the turgid style that seems to say: “I’m smarter than you are.” The critic urged me to say what I mean. While I admit that I have often been accused of being difficult to understand, I would argue that my intentions are at least noble. In choosing my words, whether verbal or written, I strive and struggle for clarity and precision. In the world of higher education, which is my home, and more specifically in the realm of research, we are left to constantly defend the veracity of our assertions, and so we take our words very seriously. Whether in peer reviewed articles, presentations, or meetings, our words are scrutinized for logic and proof, and accordingly they serve as the very foundation on which our relationships and reputations are built.
I realize that Higher Education is not the real world, and that many “normal” people would argue that academics get lost in words and their meanings. Yet I strongly believe that regardless of your background or professional culture, words DO matter and should be treated with more care and thoughtfulness. And I would assert that this is especially true when we deal with matters of community development.
Why? Well, for one reason words are simply not interchangeable. It’s true that we have multiple words to describe similar ideas or concepts, but each connotes nuanced distinctions that are subtle yet important enough to be named. The differences between a partner and a customer, an opportunity and a contract, collaboration and commitment all become extremely important as projects play out, grants run their course, or tensions begin to rise. The ability to articulate one’s goals, needs, and boundaries in a way that is respectful yet clear can make all the difference in project outcomes and the ultimate longevity of relationships.
This is especially the case in community development where organizations are seeking to help and add value in humanitarian ways, while at the same time attending to their own budgetary needs and agendas. Even when all parties are nonprofit with no direct gains or monetary interests, the complexities of their missions and funding sources and associated political lifelines guarantee that ethical conflicts and landmines will abound. Without the ability to clearly articulate and maintain one’s position using carefully selected words with their associated meanings, the promise of successfully navigating the treacherous waters of community development will remain dismal at best.
I have a fairly expansive belief policy. My kids will tell you that I believe in anything that is good. Santa Clause and Guardian Angels, yes…. evil monsters and zombies, definitely no.
This may seem like a joke, but I assure you that my policy is well thought out and quite sound.
It is grounded in the existence of infinite diversity, and the knowledge that virtually anything is possible, especially when we focus on the greater good.
From an implementation standpoint, my policy is highly robust, transferrable and scalable to most domains and settings. It allows me to scan for the positive, picking and choosing perspectives and teachings, remaining open and determined to find something of value.
From an impact standpoint, it serves many functions. By espousing such a policy people always know where I stand, especially my children who I am most interested in influencing. My policy also affords a certain protective functionality- preventing me from getting bogged down in the endless negativity and defeatism that threaten us at every turn.
To be clear, I want to be known as a dreamer, an optimist, someone who believes in infinite possibilities and potential. And so I let my curiosity and openness guide me, feeling my way forward toward new adventures, relationships, and the magic they afford.
In some ways my policy has high discriminative validity. If it resonates strongly with the policies of others, I can usually tell right away. There is a certain synergy that ignites, catalyzing collaboration, innovation, and excitement that is too apparent to be ignored.
But interestingly, my belief policy does not have the opposite repelling effect on those with more cynical tendencies. Although I have been known to madden my staunchest and most empirically minded colleagues with my openness to the worlds of the unknown, they seem to be drawn to my sense of wonderment, even if they would never admit it.
Let’s face it, the opposite of openness is not very inviting, even for those who are trapped inside. The Land of the Cynics, Skeptics, and even Realists can feel dark, desolate, and shrouded in fear. And clearly, it’s growing more crowded by the minute. Conversely, the Land of the Dreamers is infinitely inclusive and open, with endless room to stretch and explore the landscapes that continually change and reimagine themselves.
You might ask whether my belief policy is somehow counter to my training as a researcher, but I would argue that the two go hand in hand. Data and research allow us to be thoughtful and reflective, pushing the boundaries of what we know and can do. But ideally, they should be grounded in theories and world views that are strong and powerful, guiding our questions and interpretations, scaffolding us higher and further.
I concede that my approach- and associated policy- may be unconventional, but I can assure you of their inherent appeal. And since the Land of the Cynics isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, I encourage you to take a little vacation.
I will leave my door ajar, just in case you choose to visit… and stay.
Today is my birthday, and I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful present than the exciting adventure that awaits us in just a few short days.
In partnership with Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, I will be heading to the Four Corners region of the US Southwest along with 18 middle graders and a phenomenal Social Studies teacher for 9 days of hiking, rafting, cultural exploration and service.
I first learned about Global Explorers (globalexplorers.org) at an education conference over 5 years ago, when I was captivated by their mission of “providing transformative journeys for students and educators…inviting you to unleash your potential to do good in the world by sending you on a mindset shattering expedition that will encourage you to live a life that matters.” Browsing through their portfolio of destinations- Tanzania, Peru, Cambodia, Candian Arctic, and dreaming about opportunities to share such experiences with children, including my own, has consumed more of my time than I should admit.
But when I began working with Nardin Academy (as both a parent and trustee) on their strategic planning process and saw their dynamic new mission statement taking shape, “helping students to develop their individual talents and cultivate their intellect, character and courage to make a difference in the world,” it seemed that Global Explorers could be a wonderful high-impact partnership. I am so grateful that Nardin leadership embraced the concept and that the trip resonated with students and parents. The notion of a 9-day adventure, sleeping outdoors without the amenities of home while being removed from all social media and technology, is a big ask for 12, 13 and 14 year olds. But the students have courageously accepted the challenge, and our adventure awaits. I should note that in addition to Nardin students, we will also have several students from City Honors High School, including 2 of my own children. These dynamics of differing grades and school cultures will add richness to the layers of experiences and lessons that will impact us in exciting- and still unknown- ways.
When I think about the missions of Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, and my work at the University at Buffalo cultivating Experiential Learning opportunities for undergraduate students, I am struck by how closely these align with my own sense of mission- as a parent, professional, and community member. The idea of utilizing our talents to make a difference in the world necessitates that we get out of our comfort zone, explore different cultures and ways of life so that we can live our own lives with purpose and impact. The more that we can engage young people in these types of high-impact experiences, the more our communities and world will ultimately benefit.
I am hopeful that this will be the first of many more Global Explorers trips to come. But for now I plan to enjoy every moment of this exciting adventure and I look forward to sharing some stories and reflections upon our return. – Mara
Have you ever been asked to share your networks or turn over your professional relationships? Does the mere mention cause you to feel defensive, evasive or even angry? Perhaps the world can be divided into those who understand the importance and fragility of relationships and those who are focused only on leveraging them.
The chasm between these two groups can feel both vast and threatening, especially for those of us who view relationships as the very foundation of our success. We do all that we can to sustain and nurture them, even in situations that are well beyond our control.
But when we are directed to give up our relationships, by leaders who fail to appreciate their value, it can feel like a direct blow to our own contributions and worth.
When faced with these situations, perhaps when ending a position or preparing for leave, we might be tempted to find comfort in the innevitable outcome. For we know that relationships are strong and immutable only when built on a foundation of respect and understanding, allowing us to reap their benefits even in the face of changing contexts and expectations. But without the history and attention to nourish them, their outputs will be short-lived, quickly withering and eventually drying up altogether.
So mercurial in nature, relationships can make or break one’s success depending on their willingness and ability to tend to their associated needs. Understanding the history, context, and varying perspectives involved in relationships is critical for a leader to build the necessary support and capacity, regardless of specific mission or strategic plan.
By distancing themselves from relationships- or dismissing them altogether- leaders can easily succumb to the dangers of hubris, falsely believing that their success is all but guaranteed. Rather than building on the efforts of those before them they inadvertently step on toes, ruffle feathers, and devalue those whom they need most. These mistakes can prove quite costly, setting them up for failure and collateral damage along the way.
As keepers of relationships we must resist taking any comfort in our leaders’ inevitable failure, since we stand to benefit more from their ultimate success. When our institutions and organizations thrive and meet their strategic goals our communities and our own families stand to benefit in important ways.
Clearly, we all deserve to be valued for our relationships and the work that goes into cultivating and sustaining them. But ultimately, we have the power to transition our connections in a manner that transcends our specific roles and emotional needs.
Being able to frame our own work and contributions within broader institutional constructs- not just during times of transition, but also in times of weakened leadership- will help to ensure our own success and stability. This higher notion of stewardship will in turn benefit our organizations and the relationships that are formed, setting an example for those with whom we work…. and even those we work for.
Couples are drawn to divorce mediation in an effort to avoid the ugliness and costliness of litigation. Although they have decided to end their marriage, they are committed to making decisions that are in the best interest of their children. The mediator, by definition, serves as a link between the disputing parties, helping them to clarify their vision and align their decisions with shared goals and objectives. The mediator does not take sides, nor does she allow any discussions or behavior that undermine progress toward the agreed upon outcomes, thus ensuring from the outset that the process will be successful.
It struck me early on that this same model would be a powerful tool for faciliating partnerships, especially those involving colalboration with public schools. Here was my thinking- organizations and social systems have very different philosophies, cultures, priorities, and needs which can make sustainable collaboration very slippery. In fact, left to their own devices, organizations have built-in escape hatches, able to blame one another for failures to execute, follow-through with planned initiatives, or provide necessary support. Because partnerships are often seen as peripheral to individuals’ primary job responsibilities, there is no clear recourse when targets aren’t met. Moreover, since goals are rarely defined or operationalized, partners can frame and communicate their successes independent of external standards or expectations. Like marital crises, these large-scale interpersonal differences and shortcomings can threaten the ultimate health and sustainabilility of the “family”, effectively putting the children in the middle of the dysfunction.
Earnest efforts to capitalize on the promise of strategic collaboration must recognize these tendencies and ensure that all parties are working together toward the greater good. In the world of mediation, this can be achieved through the development of a shared vision that represents a commitment or goal that is highly valued by all parties. In divorce mediation most vision statements focus on the children and involve a commitment to promote their wellbeing. Because the tendency to deviate from this vision and succumb to the negativity and anger associated with divorce can be so strong, mediators often encourage couples to bring pictures of their children to serve as visual reminders, thus leveraging the power of the shared vision to keep them on track.
For community partnerships the importance of a shared vision cannot be overstated. When well crafted, it can provide enough detail to guide efforts while at the same time sufficient latitude to build synergy and generate infinite possibilities. The shared vision can also serve as a roadmap for communicating goals and successes so that all parties can define and promote their impact and continue to build toward further growth. In these ways, the vision statement can be the life of the partnership. But it can also be the death. When poorly articulated or lacking sufficient detail or commitment, the partnership will be difficult to launch and equally challenging to evaluate. And if the inherent benefit and incentives are not made clear at the outset, it will be difficult to get the necessary buy-in and follow through that is essential for success and sustainability.
Clearly, the most disappointing thing about divorce mediation is that it’s never enough to save the marriage. Even when the mediator is able to facilitate civil and sound decision making the relationship is doomed for failure. But what if the mediator could get to the struggling couple a year or two earlier- would a compelling shared vision and a strong mediation process change the outcome? Perhaps there is a limited window of opportunity during which relationships between diverging parties can be strengthened and buttressed and successfully led toward common goals. In the world of community partnerships we are currently within our window of opportunity. Despite the disparate positions and seemingly infinite dysfunction we are all after what is essentially the same vision – citizens who are prepared, motivated, and able to contribute to our world in important and meaningful ways. Our challenge is to harness the power of this shared vision through a process that will lead and guide us toward our important goal.
Like the struggling couple who carry around a picture of their child, we must constantly remind ourselves of the purpose of our work. And rather than oversimplifying the process of collaboration, we must recognize and understand its complexity. Once we acknowledge and appreciate the need for mediators who can serve as keepers of our shared vision, we can finally begin the work of designing and building the “win-wins” that our communities so desperately need.