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)

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.