Generativity, Antifragility, and Connectedness in a time of Distance and Isolation

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We are a month into the stay at home orders and I feel compelled to reflect on the status of our project model. How strange that the circumstances leading to widespread fear, sickness and isolation have also activated the potential of our model to be both generative and antifragile. Clearly it is delicate business focusing on the good and promising in the midst of a global pandemic, but it is also important to document what seems to be working as we will surely need powerful models to see us through.

Although our projects span diverse topics and activities, I will limit my reflections to our Tanzania partnership since we have over 10 years of experience on which to draw. With the development of ourProject Portal in 2018, we had- for the first time- a “place” to synthesize, showcase and nurture the various ideas, initiatives, and visions that were moving along at varying paces and awaiting support of any kind. I of course started with projects that were in some way already real; bicycles that had been donated in hopes of someday creating a community lab, women who were learning to sew and using their handiwork toward economic empowerment and self-sufficiency, a project in its nascent stages in need of a business plan, storytelling, or some other tangible resource. Once a few projects were up on the Portal, new ideas began to flow, needing only a description, a compelling photo, an invitation for students to engage through sample activities and contributions. New projects began to come quickly- a new website to showcase the various initiatives and invite travelers to come and see and engage; a water and sanitation project to support community research establishing needs and capacity, and a reusable sanitary pad project that had been started by a former student and was in temporary stall.

The design of our Portal requires a common project structure that insures consistency across project types yet allows for maximal flexibility. To be included, projects must be mentored, collaborative and result in some tangible product. These are the only constraints, allowing for virtually any type of engaged activity to qualify. Upon reflection, the very existence and design of the Portal itself began to catalyze new Tanzania projects, even before the stay at home orders were in place. Yet, at the same time, the ambient conditions surrounding student engagement were not yet fully conducive to activating the true potential of the platform. Namely, because our model, which was designed to be maximally accessible, invited students to engage outside their coursework through co-curricular digital badges, participation conflicted with other competing demands and coursework, which inevitably took  precedence over projects. Although we saw strong interest with many students initiating Tanzania projects, there was little follow-through and related impact. Yet, with everyone staying at home (however geographically defined), we began to see more engagement, including students who had started projects and wanted to re-engage, and new students searching for meaningful global opportunities. The remote and virtual aspects of our model invited broad and diverse engagement, and through this expansion of participation, we are beginning to see the benefits of our model through lenses of generativity and antifragility.

With regard to project-based collaboration, the notion of generativity speaks to the expansion and acceleration of projects as engagement deepens. We hypothesized that as utilization of the Portal increased, with the addition of new collaborative projects and associated impacts, the speed at which new projects were generated would increase, with new synergies and partnerships evolving, and new possibilities emerging. We have seen this generativity both within individual student engagement and over time as new students join existing projects and contribute new inputs and outputs. An example of within student generativity is the work of a student who was interested in capturing the stories of young women engaged in a new Batik dying project led by our partner, Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO) in Musoma. Through communication with the project leader, Stephen Marwa, the student eventually obtained photos and hand-written profiles exploring the importance of the Batik project for the participating women along with their hopes for future entrepreneurial opportunities and the impact of the Corona Virus, which was just beginning to spread throughout the country. Although the resulting profiles represented the completion of the student’s project, she was eager to continue her engagement towards finding new ways to support the women’s efforts through further communication and engagement.

In addition to students’ leveraging their initial projects toward deeper impacts, we have also seen generativity build across student engagement. Through a Water and Sanitation Project, it became evident that students were especially interested in issues of sustainability and eager to engage in related initiatives. In working to identify a specific project that would be suitable for student engagement, we settled on a community-based survey that would establish needs, resources and infrastructure related to water and sanitation within target villages. A graduate student helped to develop the initial survey instrument in collaboration with our partners and compiled the results in a comprehensive report to be shared with possible funders and community stakeholders. This project is quickly growing, and generating new opportunities for students to explore specific areas of the survey, conducting their own research, suggesting innovative technologies and interventions, and working with village stakeholders to contextualize findings and identify new opportunities for collaboration.

In addition to evidence of generativity, we are also seeing our relationships strengthen, moving toward a state of antifragility; namely, outcomes improving and becoming stronger with engagement, even when (or especially when) interactions are uncomfortable or in some way dissonant. This point may seem esoteric to many, but I think it is inherently important to understand and follow. For many years, our Tanzania partnership felt fragile and even dangerous to pursue. I had begun efforts in support of a particular school project that was being led by a group of nuns. Because of our singular point of focus in terms of project goals and partners, and the singular definition of success for our endeavors, there were multiple threats and points of fragility along the way. At best, we could hope to add value toward the construction of the school, and found ourselves in a delicate space with little room for movement or alignment with our core mission. As we expanded our engagement, developing multiple relationships throughout the Mara Region, and further clarifying our engagement model, we opened up new possibilities for collaboration. With successful projects emerging and building momentum, and students benefiting in ways that supported their academic and professional goals, the space for new synergies and further collaboration began to expand. And through the utilization of technology-supported platforms and engagement tools, access began to grow exponentially, in turn fueling further synergies, projects, and opportunities.

After 10 years, I can assert that my partnerships and associated projects no longer feel fragile or dangerous. Instead, they beckon us to challenge their boundaries and assumptions, pushing on our collaboration toward growth and learning on all sides. To me, this is what antifragile looks and feels like, and I find myself inspired to push even further. In the last several weeks I have been asked by my partners for money to help them survive the COVID pandemic. While I have gotten used to such requests from my Tanzanian friends, this time I pushed back, suggesting that they utilize their existing resources to prepare and build internal capacity. I mentioned the importance of masks, and highlighted a mutual friend, UB librarian, Cindi Tysick, who has been designing and adapting masks to accommodate different needs and functionalities. Upon interest, I connected my friends with Cindi who quickly shared mask patterns and resources to help get them started. Within days, we received photos of early mask prototypes (including the featured photo), and are currently adding a “Masks for the World” project within our Portal, inviting students to work with Cindi, supporting related efforts among our global partners and new organizations that seek to get involved. I think this is a beautiful example of generativity and antifragility at work, and I can’t help thinking (hoping) that it is only the beginning.

 

 

Traveling WAY beyond Global Learning

Photo by Doug Levere

With less than three months into our new Project Portal, I am excited on so many levels. Student interest is high and new projects are coming in from all directions. Our digital badges are yielding important data and the resulting stories are already compelling. While there is much to dig into and explore as we build out our new model over the coming months and years, there is one facet that begs immediate attention; global collaboration.

To say that there has been strong interest would be a gross understatement. Inquiries have been coming in almost daily. The students are from diverse backgrounds and areas of study- engineering, communication, public health, psychology, statistics, and computer science; students from the local community and others from countries and regions around the world. But perhaps even more remarkable than their diversity, is the consistent manner in which they are asking to join the projects; articulating a genuine and moving interest in making a difference through their engagement; a desire to give something back or make lives somehow better.

What projects are attracting such strong interest? For now, they are all associated with my Tanzania collaborations. They involve clean water and sanitation, women’s empowerment, early childhood education, and an emerging community bicycle laboratory. They feature long-term partners who are on the ground in Tanzania, extraordinary people who are committed to the work and eager to collaborate with our students, to engage their ideas, talents, and opportunities, and the resources that may follow.    

If you visit these project profiles, you will find articulated learning outcomes that are both familiar and highly regarded. You will see cultural competence, global learning, communication, problem solving and other ideas that represent important skills and competencies valued by 21st century employers and deemed important for a well-rounded liberal arts education. While undeniably important, let’s be clear that these learning outcomes are not what is speaking to our students. Instead, it is the chance to connect with real communities and people, to touch the world, to make a difference, to fulfill a sense of purpose and hope, and to experience the challenges and rewards of collaboration.

I have been experimenting with the complexities of collaboration for over 16 years, and acknowledge its ambitious and perhaps aspirant nature. Even within our own communities, it is difficult to navigate the implicit power imbalances and differences in culture and perceptions that undermine our attempts to collaborate.  But as we search for goals that will challenge and stretch us toward innovation and relevance, I believe that global collaboration is worthy of our pursuit. Put simply, it is inherently meaningful and resonant with the best that we have to offer.

As I look ahead to the future of experiential learning, I am both inspired by the adventures in collaboration that lie ahead and reassured by the knowledge that our students are profoundly ready.

When we are ready

7As I prepare for my upcoming trip to Tanzania I am overcome with a palpable sense of readiness- the knowledge that this trip will usher in a new and more impactful stage of engagement. One that is worthy of our collective hope, inspiration and commitment.

The fact that it has taken nearly 10 years of travel and engagement to finally reach this point strikes me as somehow important and worthy of unpacking.

What do I mean by being ready? It’s as if the conditions for engagement have finally reached some magical threshold or tipping point, setting our partnership into motion. Like a fan whirring into action, I can feel the speed of collaboration accelerating, the ambient space expanding, and interest and possibilities literally swirling around us.

Why has it taken so long? While our collective readiness is a catalyst, it is itself predicated on smaller currents, each complex and fragile, inherently necessary yet insufficient on their own.

I am reminded of this fragility as I reflect on my own work at the University at Buffalo. Only now, after 15 years of stewarding strategic engagement, am I confident that we are poised to actualize our potential. With the embrace of high-impact experiential learning, the creation of the Experiential Learning Network (ELN) and our new Global Partner Studio (GPS), we can now support and leverage engagement toward greater impacts, sharing stories and building further capacity through our new journal, digital badge and curricular tools.

When I reflect on the readiness of our Tanzanian partners, the growth is undeniable. Community leaders who have embraced the gifts of communication and technology are emerging as liaisons and change agents, boldly seeking additional resources and support; higher education institutions are open to partnering and sharing course content, travel experiences and technology-supported resources.

But none of this would be possible without the students and faculty who are seeking more meaningful levels of connectivity- activating their learning, teaching and research in ways that will take us farther and deeper into communities, complexities and the promise of collaboration.

When I think of the perseverance that it’s taken to get to us to this point of readiness, it’s not surprising that we have been tempted to withdraw or retreat along the way. As human processors we are terrible at discerning progress until we pass through some undeniably tangible milestone or indicator of success. In fact it is often just before we reach that turning point that our frustration and fear pull us into the weeds and out of the game.

As I think about my upcoming trip it is clear that many pieces are now firmly in place. Our partners are busy leading and communicating, our institutions are ready to leverage the benefits of our engagement, and students and faculty are eager to get involved. Even my own family members are contributing and connecting as the boundaries and barriers continue to melt away.

Maybe this notion of readiness represents an exciting new frontier. Once we have interest and resources to share, the challenge is really one of activating potential, making sure that the structures, processes and people are in place to support, catalyze and harvest the fruits of our collaboration.

But if we are truly committed to the work, imagine all that is possible. Imagine what we will accomplish, together, when we are ready.

 

What is High-Impact Experiential Learning?

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Photo by Doug Levere, University at Buffalo

This past July I led a UB study abroad trip to the Mara region of Tanzania. By all measures the course was a success. All expectations and outcomes were met and the students arrived home safely with enough memories and photographs to last a lifetime. Officially, the class is done, but the impacts are just getting started.

As I struggle to communicate the meaning of high-impact experiential learning, I can only offer a glimpse into my world- a world of infinite possibilities and points of connectivity that often leaves me exhausted and exhilarated as I try frantically to keep up.

In the seven short weeks since we’ve returned, so much has happened- is happening. Every day I brace myself for new developments. Here are just a few highlights from this week alone- and it’s only Wednesday:

  • Natasha (who was featured on the cover of UB’s recent issue of its Alumni Magazine https://issuu.com/ubaa/docs/at_buffalo_fall17_-_issuu ) is ready to plan a fundraiser for the preschool in Tarime. She has been thinking about the teacher who currently works as a volunteer, and wants to start a fund to ensure that early childhood education is a priority. In preparation, she is thinking about her networks of influence and how to connect her efforts with her Sociology graduate program.
  • Danielle- a senior Anthropology student- finds herself completely immersed in an initiative that began as her final course project. With a deep interest in women’s health and specifically the impact of menstruation on girls education, she identified a Tanzania-based organization, Dare Women’s Foundation http://www.darewomensfoundation.org/ interested in bringing a reusable pad project to the Mara region. In less than a week, Danielle has raised almost $1,000 through a GoFundMe campaign https://www.gofundme.com/girl039s-empowerment-in-tanzania and is now coordinating the details of an upcoming training trip towards the goal of utilizing existing sewing projects to begin this new venture. Danielle is also connecting with a faculty member within her Anthropology department to frame her efforts within a research project which will in turn support her involvement in the UB Honors Program.
  • My own children will be hosting a book and baked goods sale this weekend to raise money for a poultry project in Tarime. Once mature, the hens will be given to women throughout the region as a means of generating income through the sale of eggs. But the cost of feed and vaccination has exceeded the appropriated grant funding, so the project is in jeopardy and immediate help is needed.
  • We’re gearing up for an informal event tomorrow evening that will help build capacity for future trips and engagement efforts. In partnership with the New York chapter of American Women for International Understanding http://www.awiu.org/, we will be featuring photos from UB’s own Doug Levere http://www.douglaslevere.com/gallery/ along with student reflections and videos. Having Doug participate in the trip, along with the contributions of the talented UB Communications team, is yielding impacts beyond anything we could have imagined. Not just for our own immediate benefit, but for our partners like Children’s Dignity Forum http://www.cdftz.org/ who are beginning to share the photos of our visits and utilize them to build further capacity for their own community development work.

Just listing these examples makes my head spin, and yet these are the type of outcomes or outputs that represent the magic of high-impact experiential learning. While the experience itself- in this case our trip to Tanzania- is hugely important, it is not the end product, but instead a vehicle for impacts that can continue to generate, build and transform well beyond the life and limits of the experience.

As we contemplate the potential of higher education to be an engine for innovation, we must insist on delivering offerings that are high-impact by design. No longer settling for localized or siloed outcomes, we have to challenge ourselves to think and design bigger and bolder. Although we cannot know what is possible, we must design with a vision in mind, building models that are generative and foster collaboration and synergies for the benefit of all involved. This represents a new frontier for curricular innovation and I’m so excited to be testing the limits.