An Unexpected Treat in Tanzania

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Visiting Sister Janepha at her farm in Baraki is always a treat. Since first meeting Jan in 2007 when she was studying at D’Youville College in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, she has become a dear friend. And seeing her in her element- running a fabulous agriculture project, overseeing development to support a dairy farm, rice cultivation, clinic, school and related community development initiatives, is a joy to behold. But somehow in my general state of bliss, I was completely unprepared for my surprise visit with Christina and her siblings.

We had been introduced to Christina during our last visit in January, 2016. It was the first day of classes at Baraki, and the beautiful young children were enjoying interacting with our UB students- blowing bubbles, playing ball, and exchanging hugs and smiles (see January post for pics and story https://marabhuber.com/2016/01/23/more-gifts-from-tanzania-2/) Sister Janepha had first pointed out Christina- a sullen looking child, wearing only a uniform sweater paired with a native skirt and flip-flops. We learned that Christina and her siblings had been orphaned just a few days before. And although the Sisters planned to enroll Christina in school, they would need to raise funds with the hope of bringing her younger siblings sometime in the future. But upon hearing the story, our two UB students- Amanda and Julia- committed to sponsoring Christina’s schooling for the year. I was so proud and grateful that we were able to help. And upon returning to Buffalo, we decided to allocate additional fundraising resources to support Christina’s siblings, Stella and Jackson. Together, we were able to cover the cost of a year’s schooling and fees for all three children.

The decision to sponsor the siblings had been a joyous one, but for some reason, I didn’t expect to see them during my recent trip to Baraki. The children were shy but they looked happy and healthy. And the hug that Christina gave me was so warm and strong that it nearly took my breath away. Perhaps this is what continues to draw me back to Tanzania- the closeness, the intimacy of connection, the ability to make a difference that you can feel, touch, and know in your heart.

Often, here in my own world, things can feel so impersonal, artificial and sterile. Even when we support charities or good causes, there’s so much distance, so many layers of process and structure. It’s often difficult to feel our impact, our shared sense of humanity. But in Baraki, on a beautiful sunny July afternoon, I got to hug a beautiful child named Christina. And I got to know that at least for now, she and her siblings are safe and loved by the Sisters. I truly am blessed.

 

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we are so very small

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Have you ever noticed how a particular life lesson can continue to present itself, not relenting until we finally acknowledge its wisdom?

For me, the notion of scale has been a frequent visitor over the past several months, seemingly begging to be explored and appreciated.

So here it goes…

During my recent Global Explorers trip to the US Southwest (see various posts), our Navajo guide mentioned how small and ephemeral we all are relative to the vast permanence of the Canyon walls. He was speaking primarily to the children, explaining that although their lives and struggles can feel massive and all-consuming, we are here for such a brief time, and should feel blessed to experience the beauty and gifts of the earth. He urged them to follow the rhythms of nature, to find comfort in our collective smallness and to respect the spirits that are much bigger and more powerful than ourselves. I was fascinated by his words and their calming effect on the children. Although in many ways our time in Canyon De Chelly was the least adventurous and exciting part of the journey, it would become one of our most precious memories. And for me, seeing the children (including 2 of my own) snuggled cozily under the blanket of stars, rocked by the cradling arms of the Canyon, was a vision that will stay with me forever.

But when I returned home to Buffalo, I sorely missed the towering Canyon walls and the sense of scale that they imposed. As I spoke with parents and students about the beginning of the school year, their anxiety was palpable. They spoke of getting into the best high schools and colleges, of entrance tests and state exams, career paths and well-paying jobs. And as I listened to their worries I envisioned them expanding in size, inflating like floats in the Thanksgiving Parade, getting bigger and bigger until they threatened to burst from their own pressure and size.

When I consider my own journey and especially my efforts in Tanzania, I recognize a similar distortion in sense of scale and significance. If left unchecked, my yearnings to grow, utilize my gifts, and make a difference in the world can lead to feelings of restlessness and anxiety, in turn preventing me from being my best, and giving the most.  It’s only through relaxing my need for control and success that the magic of life can finally take hold.

It seems as if we’ve created a world with a distorted sense of scale, striving to become ever bigger towards some over-inflated goal or vision of ourselves.  How ironic that the pathway to happiness and fulfillment lies in the realization that we are so very small, and the comfort of allowing ourselves to be cradled within the vastness of the earth.  How thankful I am for our time in the Canyon, and the secrets it continues to share.

 

Thank You Global Explorers

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Close your eyes and hold out your hands, Cazau and Julia instructed the children as they stood in a circle somewhere off the road near Gallup New Mexico. It was the final day of our adventure and although we needed to head for the airport in Albuquerque, they wanted to squeeze in a final discussion, so the roadside clearing would have to do. Luckily, over the past nine days, the kids had become so immersed in the spirit of the Canyon and the San Juan River, that they were able to hold their energy even so close to the city.

I too held out my hands, wondering what memento would be offered and whether it could do justice to the experience that we had all created and shared. When I felt a small smooth marble placed in my palm, I immediately understood the symbolism. The notion that these children held the Earth in their hands- that even though it was so much older and bigger than any of them, or us, they were largely in control. And how they would choose to utilize their influence would in many ways define our individual and collective futures.

The children understood the significance. The trip had been full of powerful moments – sleeping on the Canyon floor under a blanket of stars, experiencing the joyous embrace of Kathy and Ravis who welcomed us into the Navajo traditions, and spending lazy days and nights on the river, sharing stories and laughter, and a sense of community for which we would always yearn.

In that moment, perhaps the children felt the magic slipping away and the sense of responsibility settling in its place. How would they take what they learned and transport it back to their individual lives? They shared their reflections- spending more time outdoors, less technology, trying to be present and not overscheduled. They promised to come back to the Southwest, to become river guides and group leaders, continuing the journey that we had all started together.

As I stood within the circle listening and watching, I was moved beyond words. I felt so hopeful that these children would carry this experience with them forever, that they were changed in some important and profound way.  I wished that I could follow each of them home to help them process the jarring reality of return, reconciling the fact that they are changed, yet expected to be the same, helping them reflect on the wisdom of the Canyon when they are tested by the challenges of their lives.

Perhaps this is our next frontier as educators and parents, creating tools and forums in which to share and integrate experiences, helping others to process new-found truths and epiphanies within the borders of existing realities.  This integration  is more complex than we may realize. But ultimately, it offers the promise that we so desperately need. By creating and leveraging high impact experiences, we can become kinder, happier, and more responsive to the world around us, global citizens worthy of the precious earth we hold.

So You Want to Change the World?…..

I know you’re out there, even though I cannot see you.

Maybe we have already met. Or perhaps our paths are yet to cross in some interesting or circuitous way. That’s how it usually happens, some chance encounter or a connection through a friend. Or sometimes just a radiant energy that leads to further conversation. Although your stories are all unique, a distinct pattern has begun to weave itself. Perhaps the following profile resonates…

Although people are naturally drawn to you, you often feel alone, fundamentally different from those around you, like an outsider peering in.

Although you experience joy, you would not describe yourself as fun in the usual sense. Your happiness has a serious and reflective quality, a kind of gratitude rather than youthful abandon.

Although you are an achiever, you seldom take pride or satisfaction in your accomplishments. Instead, you refocus on the work ahead, yearning to use your gifts and talents toward the greatest impact.

You are at your best when serving others, and although you feel blessed with a strong sense of purpose and mission, sometimes these gifts feel like heavy burdens that are yours alone to bear.

Perhaps I know you because I am of your kind, and I seem to have developed a heightened sensitivity to your energy- like an airy layer of possibility floating above the negativity and fear that protect the status quo.

The great news is that our number is growing, and those who radiate the strongest are young and brilliant, determined to use their talents to make significant and lasting change. They seem to know instinctively that our systems are broken, and they are ready to serve and lead, understanding that the two are inexorably linked. And perhaps most importantly, they are not afraid.

But they desperately need our help. Their power can only be activated through opportunities to mobilize and leverage their gifts. When the spaces (or jobs) are too tight or restrictive, or the goals too narrowly defined, their potential fails to be realized, with only the most local benefits and impacts.

In order to increase their numbers, we must actively cultivate the talents, passion, and sense of purpose that lie latent within all children and adults. But for these young professionals, the Super Stars who are ready and eager to make their mark on the world, we must put their talents to use recognizing that they are special and finding ways to connect them with the communities they long to serve.

For those of us lucky enough to meet these individuals, we must serve as their mentors and sponsors, helping organizations utilize their talents either through existing or customized opportunities. And when necessary, we must help them create new models and paradigms, connecting them with resources and support, nurturing their efforts and helping them take root.  This clearly calls for a deepened level of engagement and commitment.  However, once we contemplate the implications, we will realize that the true burden- and possibilities- are collectively ours to bear.

Success with a Purpose: (Re)defining the next phase of our work

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We have a lot riding on success.

In addition to improving the lives of individuals and their families, and fostering broader economic health, we see financial success as the primary vehicle for addressing systemic inequities. By helping disenfranchised groups gain access to opportunities and resources, we seek to elevate their standard of living while creating more space for prosperity and growth.

The Women’s Movement has been the most successful large-scale effort to move a defined population into the opportunity continuum. Since women have gained access to virtually every level of the workforce, to some degree, many are now focusing on enhancing positions of authority, leadership, and influence, in hopes of elevating conditions while contributing to the broader systems-level and societal change that we so urgently need. When framed within the deepening challenges facing women and children around the world, and the recent stagnation of women’s progress with regard to key success metrics, it’s not surprising that some women are espousing a specific form of feminism that urges us to dig (or lean) in and fight for our places within the vast power hierarchy.

More than ever, we are invited through books, workshops, coaches and conferences to develop the necessary skills, networks, and dispositions to fight the fight and stay the course. Personally, I have found Women’s Leadership messages and programs to be both inspiring and well intentioned, but ultimately no match for the complexity of the work that stands before us. Through navigating my own circuitous career, observing the self-destruction of many talented and competent women around me, and offering my assistance wherever possible, I have come to the realization that we are desperately in need of more powerful tools and supports than are currently offered.

If we are open, three daunting truths can frame and provide guidance for the next stage of our efforts. First, the complex nature of the professional, economic and political landscape and the subtle and nuanced ways that women are blocked from the full equity we seek, call for more sophisticated tools, strategies, and metrics for navigating and moving. Second, many of our existing systems, leaders, and jobs are fundamentally limited and do not afford the opportunities for connections, creativity, and growth that are most conducive to women’s impact. This reality necessitates the creation of new opportunities beyond what already exist. And third, the existing infrastructure fails to map individual success and talent to societal or systems-level gains, so the success of women (individually or collectively) will not result in, by design, the broader impacts that we need.

This final point alone should warrant immediate attention. Once we acknowledge that our current approaches to success- even if fully realized- would not bring about the scope and depth of change that frames our very Movement, then we need to revisit our notion of success and determine where it falls short. Clearly, we needn’t search far. Virtually all aspects of success, down to our working definition, are based on notions of competing for limited opportunities and access within an inherently competitive playing field. Accordingly, our support and intervention models unpack this definition through the cultivation of strategy, networks, and motivation all with the goal of getting more women in and through the hierarchy, and ultimately to the top.

In addition to being exhausting, this model of fighting and competing is insensitive to many of the more subtle nuances and complexities that obstruct women from positions of influence and the ability to make change. If we want women to not only gain a better life for themselves and their families but also to contribute to stronger communities and a better world, we need to arm them with more sophisticated frameworks, models, knowledge, and tools that will allow them to gain access but also to effectively stretch and reshape the spaces in which they work and live, creating more room for themselves and others to move, grow, and more fully contribute.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we stop fighting for equitable compensation or opportunities. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we begin to fight and work for much more. This next phase of our evolution calls for more noble and ambitious goals that extend well beyond ourselves. If powerful and clear enough, these goals can serve as a shared vision, propelling us further while connecting us with one another along the way. We will need new paradigms for support and development, a deeper understanding of the complex contexts affecting ourselves and the world, and a comfort with process frameworks be they innovation, community development, or problem solving. We will need to provide our children and ourselves with new narratives and characters in literature and all the various media platforms, expanding the ideals to which we aspire and reference our own worth and progress.

Clearly there is a great deal of work to be done. But our investments will yield far reaching benefits well beyond what we can even know.

-Mara Huber

 

Be Brilliant

It begins with a spark, a current of energy that radiates outward, illuminating the darkness and igniting our collective possibilities.

It exists among us in people of all ages and backgrounds. Although some have achieved prominence it is not about money or power in the traditional sense.

Brilliance is an inner light that shines with clarity and purpose, emanating from within while radiating outward, catching and amplifying the light of others, brightening our world.

To behold it, we must be open and ready. For brilliance is most often quiet and understated.

A taxi driver from Ethiopia who sends his children home every summer to remember what’s important; a homeless woman who feels blessed to sleep in a park that is peaceful and safe, asking of nothing and appreciating the gift of life

Sometimes brilliance is bold and dramatic. A friend who funds medical projects in Africa, or Rotary clubs that together eradicate polio around the world

But regardless of the scope or focus, brilliance includes a heightened sense of purpose and meaning that serve as a driver, activating courage and strength, and mitigating fear.

People who shine brilliantly possess an inherent respect for others, and an ability to experience joy and gratitude that nourish their soul and provide all that they need.

To be clear, the world does not cultivate brilliance, nor does it recognize it as such. In fact the very word is defined as a one-dimensional strength, impressive and rare, but somehow different, as if too much.

Perhaps the notion of brilliance is inherently scary. If we were to acknowledge that it exists and represents a superior state that cannot be bought by money, power, or influence, it would be too jarring to address.

In many ways we are unprepared for brilliance, finding it easier to modulate our light, keeping our expectations low and seeking satisfaction in good enough.

After all, those who dare to shine often find their light weakened or snuffed out by others who fail to nurture their flames.

It is ironic that brilliance is viewed as threatening when it has the power to elevate us all.

By merely recognizing brilliance we connect with what is important and are rewarded with a sense of warmth and promise, a clarity that can guide us toward our own growth and fulfillment.

But how can we nurture brilliance, in ourselves and others?

First we must develop our sensitivity- noting shifts in our own levels of radiance and the radiance of others, as conditions change and become more or less conducive.

As we begin to notice changes we can glimpse the sources of our light, feeling out the edges and boundaries and appreciating our impacts and possibilities.

It is critical that we start with ourselves. For t is only when we are shining brightly and able to sustain our own brilliance that we can cultivate it in those around us.

Yes, brilliance is highly combustible, spreading from person to person, eventually  lighting up the world.

And although it begins with any one of us, we simply cannot be brilliant alone.

Who Are You and What Do You Do?

Two simple questions that can illuminate how we see ourselves and our place in the world

“I am a mother of four and an Associate Dean at the University at Buffalo”

“I am a University leader who works to develop and leverage potential toward the greater good”

“I am a connector, facilitator, and creator of new community models and paradigms”

We all have access to an infinite number of descriptors and frames for characterizing who we are and what we do. The way we define or describe ourselves and our life work can vary with our mood, audience, or area of focus. But by putting ourselves out there in a way that is thoughtful and authentic, we can define our space in and for the world and invite others to engage, share, and co-create.

This morning when I was driving my daughters to school I asked them who they are and what they do. Claire quickly announced that she is a gymnast. And Natalie exclaimed that she is a lover of nature and animals. Obviously their depictions are incomplete, yet they serve as bold announcements of their core interests and passions which are still so beautifully clear and accessible.

As we grow older we often lose the brilliance of our passions, strengths, and gifts. We learn to become more understated in our introductions, qualifying the expectations of ourselves and others. We wear our titles and job descriptions like a yoke, yearning to unburden ourselves yet complicit in our own subjugation.

What is our fear of brilliance? Is it the association with bragging, boastfulness, or conceit?

How interesting that narcissism is on the rise with an insatiable thirst for material possessions and status. People yearn to be beautiful, successful, and powerful yet we cannot exclaim the importance of our mission or the passion with which we work and live.

Several years ago my oldest daughter told me that I am not like other mothers in that I love myself so much.

I could tell that her words were not intended to sting or embarrass, but that she was testing out an observation and trying to put her finger on a quality that she was drawn to but also a little afraid. I explained that I do love myself but even more importantly that I love my life. Every day I have opportunities to make a difference, to connect with people, and to learn.

She assured me that this wasn’t a bad thing…. just different.

Sometimes I have the urge to introduce others to the world and to point out the amazing things that make them so unique and important. In doing so, it is my hope that they will begin to see themselves as I do, and to appreciate the gifts that they have and the power that they possess to make a difference.

So try this… pretend that you are me describing you, and ask yourself…

Who am I, and what do I do?

Lenses, Focus, and the Pursuit of Brilliance

 

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Success, Fulfillment, and Humanitarianism…. these are three of my favorite lenses. I’d like to take this post to introduce you, in case you’re searching for a set of your own.

Success is a lens that drives many of us. It helps us to set goals and strive for growth and achievement, while seeking evidence of our competence. Although the need for success can catalyze our movement and fuel our perseverance, it is inherently neither positive nor benevolent. If untethered, success can manifest as addiction, threatening relationships and general happiness, and accordingly should be kept on a short leash.

Fulfillment is a highly personal lens that is tied to our core needs and gifts. The more we know what fulfills us the better able we are to focus our time and energy. In this way, our fulfillment lens- if well defined- can manage and steer our success, navigating us through the inevitable pitfalls and landmines. And although fulfillment is in some ways self-directed, we all share a fundamental need for human connection which gives this lens a somewhat broader and brighter orientation.

Humanitarianism is my favorite lens. It’s also the broadest in terms of its focus and reach. Humanitarianism helps us gaze beyond ourselves and our immediate circumstances, thinking about the broader community and world, as well as ideals and principles that unify and elevate us. Our humanitarianism lens helps us to be better and stronger, and lifts us up out of the weeds toward more noble goals and impacts. It gives us courage to be leaders, and keeps our other lenses in check by pulling them upward and outward toward the greatest level of brightness.

While each of these lenses is inherently limited, when working together they expand our possibilities and potential. When we are shining at our brightest we are able to help others calibrate their lenses toward greater success and fulfillment. But it is when we are at our best and join with others who are also shining brightly, that the real magic happens. Suddenly, the possibilities seem limitless and ideas and solutions materialize with little effort or obstacle. This is when virtually anything becomes possible. 

This notion of collective brilliance has benefits well beyond the success that we crave. When we are shining together brightly we gain a sense of shared intimacy and connection that is resonant with fulfillment, purpose, and mission. Interestingly, these are the very ingredients that can be missing when we strive for success or fulfillment alone.

How ironic that the pathway to personal and professional success may be best accessed through gazing beyond ourselves and our immediate struggles.  In this way, lenses can provide us with the focus and clarity to brighten our vision- individually, collectively, and societally- so that we can maximize our potential and impact toward the greatest good.

Clearly, helping one another develop and utilize these lenses toward a collective brilliance is a goal that is worthy of our most focused pursuit.

Sculpting our Words

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I’ve always been drawn to the complexity of words. 

In the beginning it was the particular feel or sound that appealed to me. But over time I discovered the magical effects that words and combinations of words can have on people and situations.

I’m not talking about manipulation or messaging, or strictly getting what we want. 

The magic to which I’m referring is largely humanitarian in its intentions.  It involves dealing with situations that feature conflict and possibilities for hurt feelings, defensiveness, and collateral damage of the interpersonal kind.

Growing up I was always sensitive to the dangers of human interaction.  I saw minefields everywhere and experienced sadness and guilt at the hands of words (both mine and others’).

But in addition to managing their impact, I was also interested in leveraging their meaning. By recognizing the nuanced subtleties of words, putting them together just so, and choosing the right tone and mannerisms I could say exactly what I was feeling or thinking.  But even more importantly, I could make everything ok, even when it clearly wasn’t.

Over the years I have tried to share my gift for words with those around me.  As a friend I’ve offered countless conversation starters, and enders, for relationship break-ups and traumatic life events.  As a parent I have modeled different ways to handle situations in hopes that my children would become more sensitive and kind.  And in my work life I have used my words to incubate ideas, navigate change and uncertainty, and forge collaboration and trust.

But as I reflect on the deep challenges facing our youth, communities, and ourselves- perhaps it is time to elevate the importance of words.   Being able to articulate visions and ideas in ways that resonate and align with commitments; helping children assert their individuality while preserving their social capital; arming women with the words to empower themselves while building consensus and support- these are all necessary for our collective growth.  Yet they all call for a sophisticated grasp of language and communication that many seem to lack.

Without this ability, things can go terribly wrong and yet individuals may have no conscious awareness of their involvement or shortcomings.  This lack of self-awareness or sense of responsibility is perhaps the most troubling trend that I see.  When framed within the virtue of honesty, we can completely miss the opportunity to do and be better, to elevate and mediate, to lift us all up and forward.

I should note that this sculpting of words goes well beyond English or ELA class.  My own development has led me to the fields of literature and writing, cognitive psychology, as well as training in mediation, and even strategic planning.  But there are virtually millions of pathways and opportunities to cultivate and develop associated skills.

Perhaps at the core is the idea that we have an inherent responsibility to those with whom we interact.  Once we recognize that words are perhaps our most accessible and powerful tool, we can begin to enjoy their humanitarian potential.

Feeling our Impact through Student Experiences

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Although we all strive to have an impact in the world, it’s often difficult to feel our contributions.  We may sense our influence as we connect and interact with others, but our effects often feel indirect and intangible, leaving us wanting more.

As someone who actively searches for touch points, moments in time that capture the power of our purpose, I wanted to share one such experience.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of gathering with members of the Buffalo Tanzania Education Project (BTEP) to raise funds and celebrate our collective connections with the people and country of Tanzania.

Although we have had only three such events since BTEP formed back in 2009, each has been unique in the specific projects and initiatives that are highlighted.  And the particular focus in turn exemplifies the various stages and phases of this interesting and ever-evolving project.

This year we had the pleasure of showcasing the six students who participated in our first UB Study Abroad course to Tanzania, three of whom shared reflections and thoughts about their experiences.

From our vantage point the trip had been a success.  Everyone returned safely and the University learned that Study Abroad to Africa was both viable and appealing, opening the door for future travel and exchange.

But hearing the students speak about their experiences provided a glimpse into the magnitude of our impact- not just the Study Abroad course, but the larger BTEP initiative that has slowly unfolded over the past 5+ years.

A Masters student from China, Yi, spoke about the hospitality of the Tanzanians and how they welcomed and embraced the students with such kindness and openness.  She shared that she had always dreamt of going to Africa, and how the trip has impacted her life.  As she works to complete the first year of her graduate program, she has decided to focus on micro-finance and supporting developing countries in their efforts to emerge from poverty.  She is now very clear on her goal of returning to Africa upon graduation.

Tyler, our youngest student to participate in the trip, spoke of the friendships he formed while in Tanzania.  He talked about the Bishop and the role that faith plays within the communities he visited, not as a luxury or simply an activity of going to Church on weekends, but instead as a lifeline for the people giving them hope and promise as they struggle every day.  Tyler also spoke of his relationship with the driver who he got to know through late-night conversations about life, marriage, and self-sacrifice.  He also described the sense of purpose that he was left with and power that all of us have to make a difference in the world.

When Tyler and Yi spoke about their trip it was evident to everyone in the room that their life path had been significantly affected by their experiences.

Although we cannot know where their educations and careers will take them, we do know that they have for the moment embraced humanity and their own connection to the world.

Through this point of connectivity our own impact and significance can be felt.   What a wonderful gift to share.