What I Know to be True

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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.

Giving Thanks (on Thanksgiving) for Fellow Dreamers

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)

Our Time in the Canyon

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We are all so very small. This was the message I took away from the Canyon, and somehow it brought me a sense of great comfort and warmth.

We had hiked down into Canyon de Chelly, battling the heat and dryness, our bodies still unaccustomed to the desert sun. The petrified sandstone was smooth and slippery with undulating contours and dizzying heights. Dazzling blue sky against terracotta painted contrasts so striking that they demanded adoration, leaving us speechless.

When we finally spotted the homestead, it was nestled within an oasis of green, snug within the canyon walls. Our guide mentioned that for some the Canyon can evoke feelings of being trapped along with an intensity of emotion that is both cathartic and powerful. But for us, the Canyon rocked us in a gentle embrace, lulling the children into blissful happiness while whispering songs of wisdom and comfort.  

Our hosts were Kathy, the keeper of the family’s land and legacy, and Ravis, a Navajo guide who grew up in the Canyon and worked to preserve its culture and traditions. Each shared their stories and gifts with the children.

Kathy welcomed us as only a grandmother could. She spoke of growing up in the Canyon , the rhythms of life and work, and the sense of clarity and purpose with which she toiled. She soothed wounds with plants and herbs, taught the children how to spin wool and weave, and made delicious fry bread, hypnotizing us with stories, humor, and kindness. Her grandson, Montay, played joyfully with the children, running through the orchard and scaling the Canyon walls, enchanting us with his innocence.

Ravis was more commanding. He spoke with a quiet yet authoritative voice, referencing spirits, tradition, and the Navajo ways. He spoke to the children before they went to sleep, lying together on the Canyon floor under the vast blanket of stars, singing them a low and beating melody. He spoke of the age of the Canyon, the vastness of its history, and the briefness of ours. He shared the four words with which parents teach their children, the rhythms of nature, and spirits that occupy all living things.

In the morning, as the sun was rising and we were contemplating our impending departure, Ravis asked the children to introduce themselves. He spoke of the importance of identity, sharing our lineage and celebrating our parents and grandparents and the families or clans from which we come. He explained that by knowing someone’s family you know a great deal about their character and what to expect. We are all shaped by those before us, connected through family, traditions, and the spirits who watch over us.

And in the end we are all 5-fingered people, inhabiting the same earth, cherishing and tending it for the next generation and their children and grandchildren who will follow. 

When we left ,the children were sad but Kathy urged us to feel only joy. In Navajo there is no word for goodbye, only the happiness that will come when we meet again.

5 Years of Buffalo in Tanzania- Who would have thought?

Class visited the primary school where instructor Dan Nyaronga attended as a child
Class visited the primary school where instructor Dan Nyaronga attended as a child

Just two weeks ago we welcomed home a class of UB undergraduates who had traveled to the Mara Region of Tanzania as part of a new Winter Session study-abroad course.
While the students returned with new perspectives on community development and memories to last a lifetime, the course represented an exciting milestone for our BTEP (Buffalo Tanzania Education Project) community, a welcome achievement as we celebrate our fifth anniversary.

If you haven’t heard of the Buffalo Tanzania Education Project, you are unfortunately not alone. With no budget, no formal infrastructure, no official presence or identity, we have evolved almost entirely under the radar. And yet, at least in my view, BTEP represents a wonderfully exciting engagement initiative worthy of attention and exploration.

The premise for BTEP is simple yet powerful. By coming together around a shared vision with clearly articulated goals and areas of focus, we can leverage our individual engagement efforts toward greater impact and sustainability.

BTEP’s efforts have focused primarily on the children and women of Tanzania, and specifically on an evolving school project in the village of Kitenga. To be clear, we didn’t actually select this community nor were we actively seeking partners for collaboration. Instead, our partners- the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa (IHSA)- found us.

Our investments have been small but significant. In 2009 we traveled to Mara and thanks to Kevin Crosby were able to create a video (see kitenga.wikia.com) to help attract contributors and frame our approach. Realizing the importance of getting close to our partnering community, we have facilitated group visits with over 40 members traveling to Tanzania- all at their own expense- to learn, study, serve and contribute.

We have welcomed researchers, students, community members and organizations, insisting only that individual projects are championed by BTEP members, thus avoiding the need for administration, budgetary involvement, or official oversight. And while in the beginning we were able to provide more extensive facilitation and support, our coordination is now limited to convening occasional BTEP meetings and fundraisers.

Our impact to date? From a fundraising standpoint it’s been modest but significant. We have focused our efforts on supporting projects that were well within reach, bridging funding gaps to realize construction of classrooms for the Early Childhood program; the first block of classrooms for the Secondary School and the Dormitory (which is still under construction); a playground for the Early Childhood School; and a bore well and latrines.

To be clear, there is still a long way to go toward opening the School, with construction costs continuing to escalate. The scale of fundraising is well beyond the capacity of BTEP, although many members have become heavily involved in related efforts with several creating a non-profit, Girls Education Collaborative (GEC), which continues to make significant steps toward the ultimate goal.

But from an engagement standpoint our impact has been nothing short of amazing. Here are just a few highlights:
• Three doctoral dissertations all focusing on Tanzania
• Field placements and a travel course experience for Social Work students
• A study-abroad course for undergraduates examining community development within the context of the Mara Region
• Design and construction of a playground made possible by a team of architects, students, faculty, and community members associated with BTEP
• Donation and shipment of solar panels by Solar Liberty Foundation through BTEP
• Construction of a deep bore well and plans to construct latrines and a second well through the leadership of Buffalo Sunrise Rotary Club and other participating Rotary clubs
• Development of the Girls Education Collaborative (GEC) by several BTEP members
• Various research, writing projects and presentations made by BTEP members
• Other contributions of medical equipment, donations, and service

As BTEP continues to evolve, members have begun to journey beyond Kitenga and Mara to build relationships and partnerships in new regions of the country. And while many Western New Yorkers have discovered Tanzania through their own avenues, they seem to eventually find BTEP in interesting and circuitous ways, helping to grow and shape our initiative beyond what we could have ever imagined.

On Friday, March 7th we will come together for our 3rd BTEP fundraiser to support a number of education and development related projects in Kitenga, Lindi, and Arusha. The event will be held from 6:00 – 8:00 in Allen Hall on the UB South Campus. Tickets are $20 and $10 for students. Please contact me for additional information or to reserve tickets.

I hope you will consider joining us and spreading the word about our exciting engagement initiative.

Sharing Arthur O. Eve’s Vision

I first made the acquaintance of Arthur O. Eve in 2010.  He had placed an urgent call to the President of UB sharing his deep concerns for the youth of Buffalo and seeking the University’s help in finding a way to save our city’s children.  As the then Special Assistant for Educational Partnerships I was asked to follow up with Mr. Eve and learn more about his request.  Little did I know that my return phone call would lead to friendship and engagement beyond anything I could have ever imagined.

When I reflect on Arthur’s contributions to the world of educational access it is difficult to articulate the depth and scope of his impact.  But perhaps most impressive and inspiring to me is his continued commitment and love for our city’s children that endures despite his poor health, advanced age, and considerable personal challenges.  Not a month goes by without an urgent phone call from Arthur,  beseeching us to come together- colleges and universities, churches, schools, and community organizations- to work together to support the youth and their families.

Although I have to admit that his religious zeal made me a little uncomfortable at first, I have come to welcome his prayers and devotions.  In fact just yesterday as I was driving in blizzard-like conditions to a hockey game in Erie Pennsylvania, Arthur called to tell me that the Jesus in him loves the Jesus in me.  He also asked me to pray for his wife who is in the hospital.  While he sounded both tired and scared he had found the strength to reach out and share his love, a gift that has stayed with me and has compelled me to share this post in his honor.

Throughout my brief friendship with Arthur he has focused his passion on the role and potential of churches to galvanize collaboration around supporting Buffalo’s children and their families.  Although I had- and have- little experience with the faith-based community, I remain strongly committed to the promise of collaboration, and offered to articulate his vision in the form of a document that could be shared and built upon.  Although at the time (2010 – 2011) we were unable to put his vision (GEMS) into action, I believe that it remains both powerful and doable from an implementation standpoint.

Please read and consider his vision which is detailed below in his own words.

­­­­­­ GEMS

Grace, Education, Mentoring & Spiritual, Development

A Tutoring, Mentoring & Health Program with a Spiritual Foundation for Buffalo Youth.

THE NEED:     Today we are facing an unprecedented threat to our community’s children.  Every day we lose our most valuable resources to the ravages of dropping out of school, crime, violence, HIV-Aids, drug addiction, unemployment, teen pregnancy, apathy, chronic health issues, and hopelessness.   Buffalo has been renamed the 3rd poorest city in the country, socially and economically among Black and Hispanic children, with over 30% of its citizens living in poverty and 52% of the children dropping out of school.  NY State correction agencies use drop-out data, and 4th and 5th grade failures in reading to predict the number of prison cells that will be needed in future years. This speaks to the many challenges that face our city’s youth and the Church.  We all agree that education, mentoring, and spiritual development represent the only viable pathways out of this crisis.

CHALLENGES & OPPORTUNITIES:     Within every poor, oppressed, neglected, and struggling neighborhood in our city are churches that represent bastions of safety, hope, love, and spiritual development.  The pastors, ministers, evangelists, and members more than any other body or institution have the love, commitment, and power to foster the value of education, mentoring, and spiritual development and principles for households, families, and children within the safety of the church and other secure facilities. In addition to the churches our city also boasts a wealth of colleges and universities that serve as engines for knowledge and innovation.  These colleges offer a bounty of students, faculty, alumnae, and leadership who are well positioned to provide resources, tutoring, and mentoring to youth.  Many of these individuals have benefited from programs such as SUNY EOC, EOP, STEP, C-STEP, Liberty Partnerships, HEOP, Upward Bound, McNair Scholars, and a host of other programs designed to support children, young adults, and students of underrepresented or at-risk backgrounds.  These individuals (alumnae and completers) are especially suited to work with, support, and connect with Buffalo’s youth and families.  Jesus said, “As you do unto the least among you, you do unto Me.”  He also said, “To whom much is given, much is required.”  And the Bible reminds us to (Proverb 22:6 “Train up a child in the way they should go.  And when they’re old, they will not depart from it.”)

THE GEMS CONCEPT:     The GEMS program will include the church evangelists, ministers, and members as the first to go door to door around their churches in a 1, 2, or 3 block radius and invite the families to worship with them, and leave a list of programs and community activities that will take place at their church, in which they are invited to participate.  Any youth 19 years of age, or younger (with parental/guardian consent and participation) will be invited to come to the church for tutoring, mentoring, and spiritual development.  These services will be offered by the participating churches in collaboration with colleges, universities, community organizations, health and wellness professionals.  Each program will be relevant, engaging, and useful for children, families, and the surrounding community.

OBJECTIVES:     The GEMS Program seeks to meet the following objectives:

  • Develop a relationship based on faith, hope, family and community
  • Monitor and strengthen the health of the children
  • Help facilitate the access of resources in an effort to reduce barriers to youth’s success
  • Support youth’s efforts related to career exploration and college applications
  • Build strong connections both with the faith based churches, higher education, and organizations
  • Increase youth’s skills and confidence related to education and career opportunities.

THE VILLAGE:   “It Takes a Whole Village to Raise A Child’, is a wisdom that is just as meaningful today as it was in ancient Africa. We need Villages within our neighborhoods that are guided by faith and offer hope and a safe place for seniors, families and youth to live and grow.  Throughout our city there is an abundance of churches and community centers in every neighborhood. By identifying the streets surrounding them and making that area their Village, our community can be strengthened, and our children can thrive.  In a time with such great uncertainty, we need to support each other and be an extended family; bringing all of the available resources together. The colleges, community based organizations, health, and wellness services are ready, willing and able to provide: tutoring, training, job preparation, counseling, health screening, and whatever the individual needs are within the Village.  The Village churches and providers working together would allow for activities to be available daily; and would be the safe place for positive and supportive services.   The churches with a caring and loving heart can help bring neighbors together to have a productive and faith based purpose for the families who live in the Village.  We all agree that we must save the children and save the communities; with everyone working together toward that common goal, we can do it. The successful Village will need the church as a guide; the community centers and the twelve Circles of Hope, will provide. (Luke 9:56  For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them, and they went to another Village.) We need a Village.

CIRCLES OF HOPE:   The Circles of Hope will work together for the same mission, goal, and purpose: to Save The Children. There are twelve circles, each circle carries the message of a hope, and through their input and participation they can make a positive impact on each person within The Village community. Each Circle has it’s own identity, but shares in the goals of the GEMS Concept.  The churches, community based organizations, health and service providers, and individuals who care about children and their futures are asked to be an active participant in one of the Circles of Hope.  Each household will be made aware that there are Circles of Hope, ready to provide services and opportunities to the children and families in the community. “The Circles of Hope” all share in a love and desire to “Save the Children”. (Luke 8:1 And it came to pass afterward that He went throughout every city and, village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with Him.). Let each of us, “Keep Hope Alive”.

-by Arthur O. Eve