On Foundations and Chapters

In my last blog post, written in the airport, I talked about beginnings and stories, and I promised I would go into deeper detail regarding the week that preceded my departure. It’s time that I provided the context for my in media res introduction, and that this blog began in earnest.

Google will tell you that the word “foundation” means, among other things, “an underlying basis or principle” with synonyms like base, point of departure, and beginning. Perhaps more importantly, it also means cornerstone, core, and heart.

Heart

Pre-departure training was essential in laying a foundation for my placement, and I’m excited to share some of the highlights with you. Our very first morning, we were asked two questions: “Why are you here?” and “What inspires you?”

In a fundamental sense, the answer to both questions is, “People”. I am here serving with VOTO because I believe in human potential, and I share in Engineers Without Borders Canada’s belief that poverty is caused by broken systems that limit the potential of people living within them. I am here because I believe in VOTO Mobile’s mission to amplify the voices of under-heard people to promote their agency to participate in decisions that affect their lives. I am here because no matter where you go in the world, everyone has hopes and fears, dreams for the future, friends and family; we all laugh in happiness and cry when sad, and I hope to offer my full effort in service to play a part in creating a world where everyone has the opportunity to live the life they want for themselves. It is this possibility that inspires me, too.

Coming at it the other way, I am here because of the people who inspire me. I am here because of family, friends and mentors who share the ups and downs of life with me, who believe in me (even when I don’t) and push me to be better. I am here because of the members of the EWB Western chapter, who dream big and work hard, who aren’t afraid to ask tough questions and address root causes, and who invest in people so deeply. I hope that through this blog I can provide tangible context for the amazing work that EWB and the Western chapter do, and that I can share what I learn over the course of my placement with you all, who have given me so much. I cannot thank you enough, and I couldn’t ask for a better foundation.

Cornerstone

Beyond those questions, there was still a lot to learn during pre-departure training, and I’ll share some of the highlights here. If you’re interested in hearing more, feel free to contact me.

Shortly after, we played a game called Sockball, in which one person was blindfolded, and attempted to throw a sock through the arms of another person, while the rest of the team watched. In the first round of the game, the hoop-person could move to “catch” the sock, but none of the observers could say anything to guide the thrower. In the second round, the hoop couldn’t move, but the observers could cheer or boo to indicate “getting warmer” or “getting colder” for each throw. In the final round, the hoop was still stationary, but the observers could given full spoken instruction to the thrower. Each team had the best results in the speaking final round, followed by the silent first round where the hoop was free to move. The worst round for every team, was the second round, where we were restricted to either cheering or booing. When we could communicate fully, the sock-thrower could make precise adjustments to their aim, but when we could only cheer or boo, it was hard for them to interpret our meaning. This led to the throwers overcompensating and missing more often that not. To me, this exercise was an important demonstration of the dangers inherent in partial or unclear communication.

We also had a session on gender and development, where we learned about how gender-neutral is actually gender-blind, especially in decision making in the development sector. One case we learned about was an instance in which an agricultural project was implemented to make plowing fields easier for farmers. What the project organizers failed to account for was that plowing was traditionally a male-dominated task in that community, whereas sowing the seeds afterwards was more typically performed by women. By making it easier to plow more land, the project team inadvertently increased the amount of land the women had to sow seeds on, making their work more difficult. We were introduced to a framework for analyzing barriers that keep women in poverty, which consists of two axes: one ranges from individual to systemic factors, and the other goes from informal to formal factors.

barriers keeping women in poverty

There was another very interesting session run by a group called Spoke’N’Heard, where we were introduced to the concept of deep listening, which is explained really well in this video here (the video is only 3 minutes long, but if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, watching until the 1:10 mark gives a pretty good summary).

This concept is something that has really stuck with me, and I think it has implications for both interpersonal and development spheres. With regards to the interpersonal aspect of things, I know from my own experience that it can be very tempting to go right to asking questions or offering advice when someone is sharing something that is upsetting them, or that they are having difficulty with. It can be difficult to sit quietly and listen, and provide an outlet for them to speak freely, even more so when that person is someone you care about so deeply you feel you can’t sit and wait while they are hurting. In a broader societal sense, this is also an important method to create understanding between people whose experiences and outlooks on life may differ substantially from one another. In the development sphere, too, a project can only truly be successful if it first and foremost listens to and respects the desires of the people it is intended to serve. The project organizers must put away pre-conceived notions of what they think is “best” and work together with the community in which they operate.

Le Playground ran a session on how to coach a person to foster their personal development, and it’s best explained in person, or maybe through video chat, but I’d love to bring it back to the chapter. In the meantime, I’ll share a video that they showed during the session. This one is a bit longer (7:35), but it’s worth a watch if you have some spare time. If you’ve attended one of Le Playground’s sessions at an EWB conference, you may have seen part of it.

Another very important concept we learned was the difference between helping, and serving. You may have noticed that I’ve tried to use the term “serve” instead of “help” where possible. Let me explain.

“Helping” implies that the person receiving assistance is weaker than you, cannot handle the situation they are faced with on their own, and requires your support and/or direction. “Serving”, however, means that the other person is equal to you, and that you are offering your abilities to further their goal.

One more thing that really left an impression on me was the Q and A session we had in the EWB House. The 21 JFs, as well as staff from National Office—including the CEO—all sat on the floor of the house while we ate dinner, and we had a chance to ask about advice on our placements and questions about EWB and development in general. The openness and candor was really invigorating, and it felt like a microcosm of the whole week’s experience.

There were a lot of other sessions, whose contents will likely come up in some future blog posts—although I’m happy to send a list of topics and discuss them with anyone who’s interested in hearing more!

Lastly, I would be remiss to end my post on pre-departure training without thanking my wonderful fellow JFs for being so brilliant, supportive and friendly, and challenging me to question my thinking and adopt new perspectives, as well as the amazing staff at National Office who work so hard behind the scenes to make our placements realities. You inspire me so much, and my foundation for this placement is that much stronger for knowing you. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you all!

I figured I’d end this post with a quote, too, and perhaps make a trend of it for the summer. The rest might be more sophisticated, or insightful, but this one’s going to be real sappy, just to warn you.

What do you mean, “going to be real sappy”?

What do you mean, “What do you mean, “going to be real sappy”?“? You do know whose blog you’re reading, right? I try to hold it back most of the time, but, goodness gracious, friend, come on

That being said, I can’t think of any that would be better for an entry dealing with learning, friendship, and departures (even if a certain blog author—who will remain nameless—published it several weeks after said departure).

Anyways (and thank you for tolerating my attempt at jocularity, just now),

“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”

-from Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne

Thank you for your support, friendship, and patience.

Yours constantly,

Alex

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3 thoughts on “On Foundations and Chapters

  1. Thanks for sharing some really neat aspects of pre-dep with us! Love that you added some videos 🙂 Look forward to future posts as well

    Like

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