Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Lifelong Learning

"You stop learning, you start dying," insists Ruben Puentes, Professor and Director of Partnerships at Future Generations Graduate School. His career reflects his desire to expand - as a soil scientist for a government agency, a teacher for a U.S. university, the leader of a network of researchers in transnational migration, Associate Vice President of the Rockefeller Foundation, and a part-time potato grower on his farm in Uruguay. For Puentes, life is always a classroom.

Puentes (center) listening to a discussion between a farmer and a local expert in Manaus, Brazil.

Puentes' task at the Graduate School is to strengthen the Master's Degree in Applied Community Change curriculum along with student teaching and advising. "This is a unique opportunity to continue learning, not only from faculty colleagues but from students themselves."

Puentes' students appreciate his global experience that links community development, natural resources management, and agriculture. Most are practitioners themselves with diverse experiences, and their questions force Puentes to continue learning.

"Education is in the learning, not the teaching," Puentes says. "Future Generations Graduate School is the place to be for those with a passion for learning; it is difficult to find a better place either to start or continue a lifelong learning journey."

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Voices of Future Generations: Puddles

At Future Generations, we often flip the role of teacher and student. Everyone has something they can teach someone else and everyone has something they can learn from someone else. This is the inherent truth in learning communities.

This week's episode of Voices embodies just that. A father attempts to teach his daughter a lesson and ends up learning one instead.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Voices of Future Generations: Girls from Halifax

Racism. Stereotypes. Job security. These have been contemporary issues in Britain surrounding the influx of refugees and the Brexit vote. They are contemporary issues, but not new issues. In this week's Voices track, girls from Halifax, England talk candidly about these issues in their own community.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

360 Degree Feedback

Understanding oneself and making productive personal changes are difficult but rewarding tasks. Future Generations Assistant Professor Dr. Jesse Pappas, along with a team of colleagues, created the Personality Pad to facilitate these tasks. 

"The Personality Pad's goal is to assist with self-insight and self-development," says Pappas. "The tech platform it uses will drive a peer-reviewed process among faculty and will eventually be used among students." The National Science Foundation has been funding Dr. Pappas' work on the Personality Pad since 2011. In that time, thousands of individuals worldwide have used it to gain self-insight and set self-development goals. 

Personality Pad uses a system of 360 degree feedback. "Essentially, 360 degree feedback provides insight about how individuals perceive themselves compared to how they are perceived by the people around them," reads the project's website, www.personalitypad.org.

Dr. Pappas and his team's goal is to adapt this well-established professional tool for personal use. Findings suggest that a majority of individuals have a greater understanding of their personality after implementing 360 degree feedback. In many cases, this leads to actionable plans to implement personal development. Pappas is also working to adapt the technology to the specific needs of Future Generations Graduate School. "One unique but challenging aspect of the Future Generations cohort module is an extremely diverse group of students, in terms of culture, previous academic training, and learning styles. The Personality Pad could go a long way in improving the teaching effectiveness of our faculty."

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Advocating for Rural Communities

From early in her career, Shannon Elizabeth Bell (Class of 2005) knew that her research must benefit the people she was studying. Bell recently published Fighting King Coal: The Challenges to Micromobilization in Central Appalachia (MIT Press, 2016). Along with her previous book, the award-winning Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice (University of Illinois Press, 2013), Fighting King Coal brings to light the myriad environmental injustices taking place in the coalfields of Appalachia.

Bell is currently an associate professor at the University of Kentucky. Her books and career build from her Future Generations practicum. Titled West Virginia Photovoice, her practicum bridged activism and the academy through in-depth interviews, participant observation, geospatial viewshed analysis, and document analysis.

One important insight from her graduate work with Future Generations was building from successes. She led fifty-four women in five coal mining communities through an eight month process of "telling the story" of their communities. These stories included the strengths, beauty, and challenges, as well as the participants' ideas for change. Many ideas became realities thanks to the visibility that Photovoice provided. Roads were repaired, municipal waterlines were built, and a community park and pool were reopened. The project increased participants' sense of efficacy and empowerment.

To learn more about Shannon Bell's West Virginia Photovoice project, visit www.wvphotovoice.org.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sharing Histories

Customarily, mothers are taught health lessons which, even if simplified, are paradigmatic and hard to remember. Dr. Laura Altobelli, Professor and Director of Future Generations Peru, is leading research to advance a method that transforms the training of community health workers (CHWs), leading to faster progress in knowledge and behavior change of mothers who learn from older women whom they know and trust. Through systematic recall and sharing memories of personal experiences, this innovative behavior-change method engages and empowers female CHWs to take ownership of their cultural beliefs and practices, and on those build a new collective understanding for future behavior. Community health workers gain self-confidence and can better convince other women to uptake knowledge and behavior that improve health and healthcare use in the key first 1,000 days of life (conception to age two).  

Dr. Altobelli's prior study in Peru provides preliminary evidence of reduction of child stunting when government personnel used this methodology to teach CHWs, who then taught mothers with similar methods. The earlier study showed it to be low-cost, simple-to-learn, and effective. It enhances current best practice of participatory women´s groups and home visits by providing a replicable interactive participatory method grounded in local knowledge. Findings corroborate empirically proven conceptual frameworks on memory and behavior change.    Future Generations Peru hopes to continue research on the method to demonstrate effectiveness at scale of this maternal behavior change innovation, with reduction in child stunting and anemia, supported and sustained by primary healthcare services and local government, and incorporated into global policy and programs.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Zumra: Testimony to the Power of Human Energy

This week's entry was written by Negash Abebe, a Future Generations student based in Ethiopia. Negash and the other students met Zumra, an influential community leader, during the East African regional residential this term.

The day that Zumra arrived at the Red Cross Training Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the waitress who came to our table stopped all of a sudden and stared at one of our companions. "Are you not going to introduce me to him,” she asked, after a brief pause. “I am pretty sure I've seen the man somewhere, possibly on national television. Just can't recall where.” 

We told her that she was right, and the man with a stoic face she was staring at was Zumra, the founder of the famous Awura Amba community. Across the country, almost everywhere everyone has some knowledge of the relentless Zumra and the community he formed. To many, he is a symbol of defiance, perseverance, love for humanity, justice, and equality for men and women. 
Zumra (center) with the East African cohort of the Class of 2017

At a very young age, Zumra began questioning the legitimacy and fairness of the community's existing social structure where women were looked down on simply because they were not males and obliged to marry at a very young age. After decades of soul-searching, determination in the face of critical challenges, and hard work, he founded a community known today not only in the country, but also around the globe for its unique lifestyle and social ideals that center on principles of social and economic justice and peace. 

Awura Amba community is as much well-known as the man who brought it into existence. Nearly ten years ago, when the news of the ways of the community came in to public attention, journalists  came to speak with Zumra and other community members. It took a relatively short period of time before the name of the community, Awura Amba, became a highly celebrated brand nationwide. Some people named their businesses after the community. A popular local newspaper adopted the name. 

From the very outset, Zumra has had little interest in attracting aid or any other kind of external assistance. He truly believes that in order to bring about change in a community, the most useful asset is the unwavering human spirit. He argues that many, if not all problems of the world, are solved if and only if humans place trust in their own power to make change. Zumra understands well that despite aid to a community’s cause, change happens for real when the desired change is in fact in line with the desire of the people, and as a result everyone has set its mind and heart on it. In the passionate lecture he gave in the residential program for the Africa cohort of the class of 2017, Zumra again and again asserted that people have to believe in themselves more than anything else. 

In a country where the overwhelming majority of the population strongly believes in the value of religion, Awura Amba's disregard for religious institutions is unusual. Zumra said that this progressive position has brought discrimination from other communities. During the previous regime, they were even untruly accused of conspiring against the then government and were forced to flee their land and seek refuge in the southern part of the country. At the time, people made every possible effort to wipe them out from the face of the land simply because they refused to believe in what others did. Every member of the community including the founder firmly stresses that God is in people's mind and heart, and making institutions and going to one in search of God is a total waste of time. Zumra argues that the divine resides inside of people and looking outward for it is a waste of energy and time. 

To Zumra and his community, the definition of divinity extends to the level that people are divine as long as they do the right and righteous. The idea of showing respect to churches and religious institutions that people built with their own hands, while simultaneously disrespecting the people, is ludicrous. The Awura Amba community believes that both earthly and heavenly rewards, if any, are the result of one's actions. Zumra strongly believes and passionately speaks that people are capable of creating heaven on earth. To him and his like-minded followers, action and only action speaks louder than words. 

The following day, as we left the Red Cross Training Center together, the group of students debated Zumra’s position on religion. As a young community change agent who would like to believe that reason paves the road to a better future, I listened attentively to the man's critical thinking and liberal attitude. I was in awe. 

Zumra’s inquisitive mind, outspokenness, and tenacity in the face of injustice has put him in a difficult position since an early age. He fled from his parents’ home at age thirteen. People did everything in their power to convince him that he wasn't “normal.” After leaving home, he spent five years traveling throughout the Amhara region. He sat alone in the middle of the night amidst wild animals and thought about social justice questions until sleep took him. 

Zumra has lived his entire life in defiance. He bravely challenges people, holds his ground, and yet keeps an open mind. He believes that the energy that keeps him going comes from his love for humanity. Standing for the disadvantaged lightens his heart. Making peace thrills him. Taking care of senior members of the community gives him immense satisfaction. To Zumra, all these aren't only the moral thing to do, but the most rational path to pursue for a man and a community.  Zumra is a living testimony of human energy. He walked his talk, and with little to no aid, he proved the fact that it is human energy that essentially brings and eventually sustains effective community change of all kind.

Today, the Awura Amba community, some five hundred kilometers from Addis Ababa, has five hundred members. There are also thousands of members of the community who live in other parts of Ethiopia and across the globe. Members share in and advocate the ideals of the community that center on equality of gender, social and economic justice, and peaceful coexistence. Today, in the Awura Amba community a man does what women do and vice versa. Children's rights are respected and protected and from an early age, kids are taught the values of equality, the necessity of caring for the disadvantages, hard work, and the importance of living a free life that does not detach itself from responsibility.

Awura Amba is a utopian community. Even still, it has a long way to go in terms of achieving equality of gender, social and economic fairness, and peaceful coexistence of communities. A man, who has zero formal education, and little outside aid has managed to effectively make community change possible that many nations and people still dream of. If this isn't the power of human energy in action, I have to say, I don't know what is.   

Monday, October 17, 2016

Bringing Home Fresh Ideas

Kristen Baskin, a Future Generations student based in Athens, Georgia, joined the Appalachian regional residential this past September. Here's a description of the experience in her own words:

The Future Generations Appalachia residential was interesting, insightful, well-planned, and incredibly helpful for my community in Athens, Georgia. Luke Taylor-Ide [Regional Academic Director for Appalachia] planned a residential that was so organized – meals, lodging and schedule - that we could 100% focus on our learning. I've been working in the field of urban gardening for a long time, and eventually started a composting business, Let Us Compost.  If Let Us Compost were a bike, the residential was a living bike shop, oiling the gears, patching the holes in the tires, straightening the bottom bracket, while as I looked back upon Athens, I could see old bike paths I'd ridden a million times, new avenues to ride, and the air all around us that feeds everything.

Future Generations is so applied that I often don't see a gap between my business, Let Us Compost, and  my graduate school work.  Even though we had to travel for ten days to go on the residential, the alignment with work at home was spectacular, relating mostly to farms, food, community health and public policy. The residential was like a GIS layer placed on top of my community and business – each site visit was a better lens into what we we're doing, how we could improve, and mostly a lens into the assets we already had – friends, partners, dedicated customers, land to make compost, a steady stream of food scraps, a team of spirited and passionate cyclists, and a governmental landscape that made it possible for us to grow.  It was really new and difficult being away from my daughters, and I know for many people this is a big challenge for the program – but it's really important to have that separation from your community and even sometimes your family to grow and become better.  Coming home I love my family even more, and am crafting our systems at home to be better for everyone.

The most powerful visit was the trip to Refresh Appalachia, where we learned from a farmer how to use pigs to till the soil, use milk crates for an entire start to finish egg business, and how female animals really run the farms. This particular farmer was working in a coal mine and turning it into remediated, farmable land. He used an egg crate inside his hen house for roosts, the same crates to store empty egg cartons, to haul eggs (they have perfect circles that hold them steady), to wash and dry eggs (perfect drainage system), and finally to stack the full crates of eggs in nice squares for the market.  The crates were free from a dairy and he used them for everything!  With the land and sun he had an incredibly cycle that didn't cost very much at all. 

We visited the Capitol Market in Charleston where we saw a hand-painted public piano. I loved that it was out for everyone to see, anyone could play it and it spread joy all around. Somehow it was beautifully maintained too, and didn't get destroyed by the weather. This taught me that if I'm going to get everyone in Athens to compost, I need for my community to understand what we are doing, and why. But more important than that, I need to involve my community more in what we are playing – asking for their input, talking to people who don't compost and what they need to do so, and digging into the deeper environmental concerns that our community has – rather than just my own. I can set up a beautiful piano of sorts, but everyone needs to play it, the proper person needs to maintain it, and it needs to benefit the public, even if with new songs I've never heard. 
Let Us Compost has changed a lot since I came home – we created a knowledge management system on Evernote so that everyone can see the operations manuals and have tools that they need at any time – this was a combination of my organizational management class with Dr. Ruben Puentes and absorbing my classmate Stephanie's mind for organization. We created better systems for events so that our staff can manage them and interact with the community in new ways. We've pitched two stories to the local newspaper and were printed up in both Flagpole Magazine and the Athens Banner Herald – these were pitched by community members and our bike haulers! The interview with Flagpole was conducted by phone on the residential.  This advice came from Dr. Daniel Taylor, who told me to gather community voices rather than drawing a famous inspirational speaker – that these voices would grow composting more. A video was made about our bike hauling and I didn't make an appearance or have any input on it which was wonderful!! It was delightful to see “my” company become our community's company.  

Due to a conflict that occurred with a Let Us Compost staff member while I was away on the residential, I created a template for our composting pilot which allowed our farm manager to give us six months of information about how to compost weird things at a farm. Before having this report, all his information was kept secret, and he felt like he wasn't listened to or valued. Now he openly shares his ideas and processes, so we can all be a part of it. We launched a new test pilot to pick up CHaRM materials – things that are traditionally hard to recycle, and the only people participating are our clients – so they get all the input. My classmate Ashley inspired putting this into action – hearing about her community's struggle with recycling made me incredibly grateful for the infrastructure we had – I finally saw it as an asset! Future Generations has really stressed this point – our community voices is what should drive social change – and it can flow through SEED-SCALE's process. Within days the lessons from the residential were applied – and it's been working really well – our team is united, we're sharing ideas, following process, and repeating systems instead of creating new ones.  Thank you for my education!!