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.