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Day 27

July 27, 2013

I was up at 5:30, sat on the rocks and watched fishing boats glide purposefully by as the sun rose. I had gotten up earlier than the sunrise. Earlier than Pradeep, as well, who had been up late again doing this thing people call “work” (I wouldn’t know very much about it).

Today the “meat” of the conference was tossed in our faces. A lot of us didn’t know what hit us. We had a talk from Steven from OECD and Clair from HP about how we can integrate evaluation into our daily practice as leaders of innovative projects.

We were given heavy packets of handouts and journal articles. We walked through a powerpoint and some exercises. Yet, there was something ‘off’. I think it may have been a mismatch between what audience normally attends these kind of presentations (Western university-educated academics or community-based researchers) and who was actually in the seats (innovative Indian on-the-ground leaders). The terms being used were mostly things I was familiar with, but only because of a community-based research course I’d taken the year before. On top of that, the two main presenters spoke American English or French English (English with a French accent). It may have been hard for people used to hearing Indian English to understand (think of what someone with a heavy accent sounds like).

As a result, the morning session hit us like a brick and the afternoon session hit us again like a brick. By this point, our brains were fighting for resources with our digesting stomachs.

One of the attendees tried to shift the course of the session with an idea for how to map out the projects in the room based on their scope and general focus. By map, I mean literally to map them on a piece of paper and see what other ‘territories’ they are near. I thought it was a brilliant idea and that it could have been used from the beginning to set a common reference point (and to help people pinpoint potential collaborators). A little space was made in the program for this idea to be introduced, but after that we continued to march forward through the different sheets of paper.

I won’t tell you much about the content of the sessions, except for the idea that motivated them (one I am still puzzling about). “You are playing on a different level now,” said one of the organizers to the award winning attendees. “It is not enough to just be good in your local project. How can you share your core ideas globally so that others can be inspired? How can you make use of the ideas of others? It’s not about thinking globally, acting locally – instead, you’re already acting locally and we’re asking you to think globally.”

As you might recall, 27 days ago I wrote about how one of the questions I came with was this idea of transferability of ideas. Are there some things that will be as useful to problems in Hamilton as they are to Bhopal? I am much less convinced that this is true. With all this push to make our ideas shareable, I wanted some ‘proof’ that this sharing would do more good than harm. If done in a hamfisted way I think these international ideas could stamp out local thoughts. I don’t know. Am I being unfair? I need to think more about this.

Today, I learned more from conversations with individuals during the breaks than during the ‘workshop time’. I volunteered to be the recorder of one of the participants’ collected learnings (she’s the one who spent 8 years living on the streets with children). I spoke about the bias towards the written word and its effect on memory with someone who runs an alternative university. I got recommendations for where to tour in Belgium from someone who had spent six months there a few years ago (Ghent is ghreat, apparently [har har], as are the waffles).

The evening workshop was on storytelling. Being able to engage and inspire with a relatable story is a crucial skill. What I liked about the workshop was that it did not aim to ‘teach’ us how to tell stories. Instead, the organizers passed around cards with images on them. We had to choose an image that represented our work, and then explain it. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and depth of the answers. It was almost like having the card in your hand gave you permission to tell the story of your work as you saw it. “Kind of like those ink blot tests.” Pradeep told me later. “What you choose to see in it tells a lot about your psychology.”

We then went through a more formal process of drafting and storyboarding a narrative.

At dinner, I ate a lot of cauliflower and listened in on some interesting conversations. Then, Pradeep, the man who runs the alternative university and I went for a walk on the beach. I got to learn more about their model of self-directed, but still guided, learning. One example of something they do – at the end of the first year, they send their students with bikes to ride from village to village. For ten days they have to survive on their own. They are given no money, no food, no cell phones. They have to find labour work to make money to eat, or barter. They sleep on roadsides.

We talked about enabling environments, creating places where people (especially young people) feel safe enough to open up and push themselves. It was again a lesson I’ve been seeing again and again this trip.

During the morning session, someone talked about “getting outside your box” and I wrote Pradeep a note. “Have you paid these people to reinforce all the concepts you’ve been trying to teach me?”

A few seconds later he gave me back the note. He had crossed out ‘paid’ and written in ‘bribed’.

Ah, India.

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