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.

Curricular Versatility: Virtual Projects Served 3 Ways

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This summer is testing many things, including the potential of virtual projects.

It is clear that we need curricular versatility more than ever. The idea of leveraging resources and investments in ways that accommodate learners’ individual interests and expectations, as well as institutional goals, is becoming an urgent priority. And although technology provides exciting tools and capacities, we are still constrained by the rigidity of traditional academic courses. Finding models that are nimble, impactful and scalable represents an opportunity for innovation and continued viability.

Prior to the onset of the Pandemic, we, the UB Experiential Learning Network (ELN), created a system to support and catalyze mentored student projects. Through our Project Portal, we design, promote and share projects of all types and focus, while also facilitating student engagement via our digital badge series that follows our PEARL process (prepare, engage and add value, reflect and leverage).

Although we continue to build our portfolio to include mentored research, creative activities, innovation and community engagement, we are finding global initiatives especially popular and versatile. Over the past 10+ years, I have cultivated engagement with partners in the Mara Region of Tanzania, developing collaborative projects that serve as the foundation for our expanding offerings. With the move to online instruction beginning in March, we predicted that once students finished the spring semester and confronted the uncertainties of summer, we would see increased interest in virtual projects, especially those with a global focus.

We are now approximately half way through the summer, and our approach is yielding exciting results.  Of particular interest is the range of distinct applications that feature the same Tanzanian partners and engagement model. Namely, in all iterations, students work through our PEARL process, with identical assignments and reflection activities. Through the modularity of our projects, we are able to customize the delivery to meet specific goals and parameters, offering a uniquely versatile and scalable curricular approach. The three applications and their respective benefits are described below:

Self-Paced Co-curricular Projects

Students can enroll in projects, working individually or in groups. After completing indicated preparatory research and skill development, students work with their mentor to create a project plan, and implement activities in collaboration with global partners. Because the projects are co-curricular, students work at their own pace, and earn a Global Collaboration bade upon successful completion. Students can select from a portfolio of projects or craft a customized project based on their individual interests and skillsets. We also offer opportunities for students to explore the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), focusing on a particular SDG and contextualizing their research through engagement with our Tanzanian partners. See sample projects

Projects Embedded in a Virtual Study Abroad Course

In response to the cancellation of our yearly Tanzania study abroad trip, I will be offering a remote version of the course, visiting the same and connecting with our Tanzanian partners via remote collaborative projects. The course schedule integrates the ELN PEARL process and digital badges, engaging students with partners via teleconferencing and social media. While this virtual version is not intended to replace student travel, it serves as a more accessible and scalable option while complementing and leveraging in-person trips. By engaging students in high-impact projects throughout the semester, they will have the opportunity to apply conceptual learning while connecting their experiences with academic and professional goals. This model for virtual study abroad has generated significant interest as colleges and universities struggle to continue with traditional models and programs   cnbc article  diverse education article

Framing Projects within SDG’s across SUNY system

With the sudden move to on-line instruction in spring 2020, and the resulting disruption to travel-based study abroad experiences, SUNY (State University of New York) leaders were seeking remote learning options for impacted students. Together with a group of SUNY colleagues, convened by SUNY COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning), we designed an innovative course sequence piloted this summer. The program engages students in:

  • Exploration of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • Focus on a specific SDG through a selected faculty lens (topical, geographic and/or cultural)
  • Participation in a storytelling module
  • Engagement in a mentored project with a featured global NGO

In this 6-week program, students work through curricular OER (open educational resource) content developed by SUNY faculty focused on specific SDG lenses and storytelling methodologies. They apply their learning through the PEARL process and group projects with global NGOs, including our Tanzanian partners. This model represents a systems-level approach to leveraging individual faculty expertise and global relationships through the creation of OER (open education resources), allowing the material to be repurposed beyond the life of the course, encouraging further innovation around the SDGs and global engagement.

These three variations demonstrate the curricular versatility of mentored projects, and the ability to maximize return on investment through ongoing engagement. It should be noted that in addition to our own investments in our Tanzania projects, our global partners are also leveraging their engagement to build further capacity for their work and communities. Engagement with our students has resulted in significant impacts and new opportunities for external collaboration. This adds an additional facet of versatility, positioning mentored projects as a vehicle for community development and empowerment.

Although we look forward to the return of face-to-face experiential learning activities in the near future, we strongly believe in the potential of virtual projects to catalyze meaningful impacts that are both versatile and scalable in design. It is through challenging ourselves to develop and test these models and their impacts with regard to our students, institutions, and global partners that we fully activate our collective potential.

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.

 

 

From Mara to Mara (2)

My days are filled with poignant moments. Family meals, neighborhood walks, daily rituals cast in heightened relief, with contrasts and nuances amplified in detail and significance. My conversations with Stephen are no different. Yesterday morning he called while I was shopping, and I let the phone ring as he tried again and again to reach me, so sure that I would eventually pick up. I had been among the first in line at the grocery store, determined to stock my pantry with ample food and resources for the coming weeks. I had donned gloves and a mask hand-sewn by my daughter Natalie from Tanzanian fabrics brought back from my numerous trips. I had given her a stack of beautiful batik cloth of vibrant colors and patterns, in hopes of lightening this somber project.  

I eventually connected with Stephen and we began with news of the Virus. He had completed the initial field research in an island community in Rorya, a nearby district. He mentioned that in visiting a health clinic, they were entirely unaware of Corona and had virtually no hand washing or preventative measures in place. He planned to return with his soap making project, beginning to train local community members to produce this precious resource.

Our conversation quickly turned to the success of his research. The community had embraced his work with great enthusiasm and gratitude and the leaders were eager to connect and discuss possibilities for future collaboration. The initial work was complete, and I felt a tremendous sense of relief that we had found a way to make it happen. With the spread of the Virus and the move to online instruction, virtually every project has come to a halt, a state of suspended animation as we await the dreaded apex and begin the envision the other side. How fortunate that the fundraiser was successful and I was able to send over $450 to support the initial work. Although I had targeted the mapping project as the focus of the Happy Hour and GoFundMe campaign, it was all related and my friends and colleagues were happy to offer their support. Thankfully, Stephen understood the preciousness of the gift, and was determined to use the funds strategically in recognition of their significance.

It is this recognition that lingers in my mind as I type these reflections. Stephen understands the preciousness of our gifts. He also understands the spirit of collaboration that drives my continued efforts. He said that while grants and sponsors offer valuable resources, they bring frustration and complexity. Instead, it is better to build from within, laying the foundation through an understanding of needs and strengths, and building growth through trust and relationships, moving forward and expanding through collaboration and synergies. Although Stephen did not use these words, he did convey their essence, an exquisite recognition of a truth that has given me strength, and continues to drive all that I do and know.

Stephen ended the conversation with his hopes that HRCO will become an organization known globally for its work and partnerships, a model for what is possible for communities and people around the world.    

Virtual Study Abroad to Tanzania

Since 2009, we have been taking members of the UB and Buffalo communities to Tanzania to explore women’s empowerment and social innovation in the Mara Region, engaging with partners through collaborative projects.

This fall, we are excited to offer our first Virtual Study Abroad trip, transporting students to this remarkable part of the world and introducing them to the places and people with whom we have been working over the past ten years. The course will follow the same study abroad itinerary and will feature: Dar es Salaam, Mwanza, Musoma, Tarime, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Moshi/Arusha, Zanzibar.

In addition to active participation in class “trips” and “meetings,” students will work on mentored group projects through the ELN Project Portal, collaborating with featured Tanzanian partners to support community development initiatives, earning digital badges along the way.

Fall 2020 – PSY499
Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9 – 10:20 a.m.
24 Capen

Space is limited. Contact Dr. Huber to get added to the class.

From Mara to Mara (1)

We are in the middle of a pandemic. Like everyone around me, I have gone virtually nowhere in the last few weeks. An occasional walk or quick errand in the car. No need for coordinated outfits or dressing up. And yet, this morning, I organized my closet, initiating the great migration of my spring and summer wardrobe and putting my heavy winter things into storage. For me, this is yearly therapy. Despite the usual disappointments of spring in Buffalo, NY, and the looming frost that mocks my impatience, I boldly prepare with color and vibrancy. Of course, this spring I need it more than ever.

When I opened my summer totes, I was overcome with emotion. I realized that for the past 10+ years this ritual transcends seasonal anticipation. As I looked at the clothing before me- the dresses, skirts and colorful cloths- memories of Tanzania washed over me, the trips themselves but also their preparation, selecting items that would be good for travel- the long plane rides, the dusty roads, and bumpy safaris. I chose long skirts for the villages and special dresses for our dinners by the sea. These experiences- complete my with thoughts, conversations, and moments- had permeated the clothing and continue to emanate now, as I sit here typing on my bed, staring at my open wardrobe, feeling blessed beyond words.

It is true that my May trip has been postponed for how long, I cannot know. But rather than sadness, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude, thankful for my relationships and my ability to live vicariously through the movement and growth that continue. Ironically, while I was sorting through my summer clothing, I received a call from Stephen Marwa, who was checking in from Tanzania. Although we had been maintaining weekly conversations, we had fallen off, due to the virus. I have to admit that I was hesitant to answer Stephen’s call, unsure I could hold my usual energy and attention. I am so thankful I answered.

We talked briefly about the Corona outbreak, exchanging updates and news. But the conversation quickly moved to the week ahead. On Monday, they will begin the community survey work, using the instrument that we helped create through collaboration. Although we intended to send funds associated with our students’ project, everything had come to a halt. Luckily, I was able to organize an informal fundraiser that went forward even in the face of social distancing. Through the generosity of colleagues and friends, and the power of GoFundMe, I was able to send $450, which in Tanzania still goes far. Stephen assured me that he would use these precious funds wisely, since there is no way of knowing when external funding will resume. We agreed that the work must continue, and the need for nimbleness, leadership and tenacity are greater than ever. Stephen shared that the heavy rains have washed out many roads, making his initial plans to focus on Musoma Rural untenable. Instead, he will conduct the survey on an island in Rorya, traveling by boat, joined by students from Buhare Community Development Training Institute who are eager to be involved. Any remaining funds will be used to start the mapping work.

I asked him about soap making, which is growing in popularity as communities worry about Corona and learn of the importance of hand washing. We spoke briefly of other projects, emphasizing the importance of a new website that will be designed by a UB student, showcasing ongoing initiatives and building capacity for collaboration and support. I mentioned that I would come as soon as I could, but that was a given and didn’t need to be said. Stephen mentioned his appreciation, but only quickly, since it was also understood. We are well beyond these formalities and both recognize that our journeys are forever interconnected.

How ironic that things are moving more quickly in Tanzania than here in New York. It’s as if we are in a state of suspended animation. Perhaps right now, I need Mara Tanzania more than they need me. But I am grateful that I can come along, sharing their growth and movement, brought to me through Stephen’s voice, social media posts, and my beautiful summer clothes.

I hope to share these updates with you, whoever and wherever you are. I have a feeling that I am not the only one in need of movement, connectivity and relevance. In reality, we are not so far away, and we are all in this together.

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.

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.

After 10 Years in Tanzania, What Next?

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photo by Doug Levere

In a few weeks I will be returning to Tanzania with my dear friend and co-instructor, Dan Nyaronga, and a new group of students from the University at Buffalo. As always, we will be visiting with our various partners, exploring community initiatives and the complexities of women’s empowerment in this challenged but magnificent part of the world.

While our itinerary will be similar to past trips, this one will be different. I will be celebrating my 10-year anniversary, and (hopefully) ushering in a new phase of engagement.

When I remember the very beginning, the first time we visited in 2009, I am reminded of this video produced by Kevin Crosby, and the model we initially set out to create. Even then, we dreamed of collaboration built on shared understanding and respect, and a commitment to adding value and building capacity, leveraging our vast UB resources, while building synergies with community-based organizations within the Mara Region and beyond. We hoped to seed interdisciplinary efforts, working across silos to develop innovative solutions to improve the lives of women and their families, while stretching our models for university engagement and outreach.

As I reflect on our accomplishments, there is much to celebrate. Over the years we have helped to support the emergence of community leaders, the creation of new initiatives, and the early stages of collaboration among partners. But how to go even further; to transcend the expectations and constraints of traditional support and partnerships; to elevate the notions of collaboration and capacity building both within the community and our own institution?

This time I will bring the promise of an exciting new initiative that we are busy building- so busy that I have yet to write about or introduce it. We are creating a digital portal that will invite students to engage in collaborative projects, mentored by UB faculty and/or select alum and partners around the world- including (and especially) Tanzania. We will construct profiles introducing our partners and their work, inviting students to browse through pictures, videos and reports, learning about challenges and complexities, towards engaging in projects that will add value while helping to clarify and support their academic and professional goals.

For our partners I dream of expansion and empowerment, building their internal capacity around strengths and resources, leveraging engagement with UB and other partners around shared and synergistic goals. For our students I wish them the fulfillment that comes with the knowledge that they are making a meaningful difference and the sense of agency and infinite possibilities ahead.

For me, the portal offers a path to access and equity, allowing students to engage at their own pace and at no additional cost. The idea that anyone can activate their talents and interests, clarifying their sense of purpose, and making a difference in ways that will extend well beyond their own professional success.

This July we will be harvesting projects for our new portal, laying the foundation for future students to engage through collaborative projects. This idea of project harvesting is both compelling and profound.  When we begin to see challenges and needs as invitations for projects and collaboration, opportunities will emerge all around us, and technology will be the transformative tool that allows us to build, catalyze and expand our impacts in ways that we cannot know.

As I return to Tanzania I cannot help wondering what lies ahead. And as I prepare to celebrate my 10 year anniversary, I can’t help feeling (hoping) that this is still the beginning.