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 .

Projects Alive: Three Global Virtual Projects Making a Difference during the Pandemic

Can student projects really make a difference?

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.

Mapping

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.

Maybe schools are not a problem, but an opportunity to enhance

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.