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.

Structural Thinning: Removing the layers of structure that constrain our students’ potential

When it comes to (higher) education, structure is inherently necessary. It defines resources and commitments, ensures stability, and sets expectations for all who participate. But too much structure is detrimental. For students, it shuts down growth and creativity, and prevents them from benefiting from, and contributing to, the very resources designed to support them. And for educational systems, it prevents them from adapting and being nimble, which ultimately threatens their relevance and viability.

Unfortunately, this is true for experiential learning- the area of education that transports students out of the classroom and into the world through internships, mentored research, global experiences and project-based learning. In an effort to provide students with meaningful opportunities, colleges and universities bury their resources in layers of structure and complexity. To access offerings, students must navigate organizational offices and programs, applications, deadlines, fees and curricular requirements. And if they are fortunate to obtain an opportunity, they must comply with requirements, securing signatures, count hours, and meet stringent expectations.

How ironic that we have managed to suck the life out of the most exciting and expansive type of learning.

So let us begin to remove the excessive layers of structure, starting with opportunities themselves. Keep only what is necessary to ensure value and set students on their way. In our model, we require that experiences are mentored and collaborative, and that they result in something that is meaningful for an identified audience. Mentoring gives students a connection with a faculty or staff member, seeding a relationship that can offer support and encouragement. Collaboration provides students with feedback and challenges them to adapt and integrate as they pursue their goals. And a meaningful contribution stretches students to think beyond themselves, to consider an audience and work to add value through their actions. With these key design components in place, we release all other constraints and open up the universe of possibilities.  

When you begin to view the world through the lens of meaningful projects, amazing things start to happen. The most exciting opportunities begin to emerge from relationships, challenges, and ideas, and all a student needs to get started is a tingle of curiosity, a desire to understand, or a dream of making a difference.

But, without enough structure, how can we support and assess (experiential) learning? What about students who lack the necessary skills or foundation? Don’t we need some level of consistency across experiences to anchor learning and facilitate success? Yes.

As we remove layers of structure that constrain opportunities and experiences, we must add facilitative structure to the process of engagement, supporting students as they work through their projects, and navigate the challenges that they will encounter as they pursue their goals.   

We support student engagement through our PEARL process, helping them Prepare, Engage and Add Value, Reflect and Leverage their experiences toward broader impacts. We guide students through these stages with prompts and exercises, encouraging them to move forward, integrating their experiences with academic and professional goals. And when they reach the end of the process, we award them a Digital Badge, serving as an enduring symbol of their achievement, linking to their final project and communicating their contributions to external audiences. That’s it. No academic credit, no additional costs, and no external deadlines or threats of termination. The experience is theirs to activate and they have unconditional support to help them through.

I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about stuckness, the state that prevents us from flexing and growing as we engage with the world around us. Although this state can be perilous and demoralizing, especially at the system level, at every moment, we have the power to release ourselves by redesigning the very structures that keep us stuck.

The opposite of stuckness is magnificent. It is creative, innovative and inspiring. It is expansive and generative. It is students finding a sense of purpose and direction, seeking out opportunities to grow and challenge themselves, stretching and thriving, adding value and finding their place in a world that needs every drop of their talent. And for our colleges and universities, unstuckness is a renewed sense of commitment to our students and relevance to the world.     

Coaching for a Cause

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 .