I called this blog ’Lessons I Learned’, but really it would be better titled ’Lessons I’m Learning’. I believe in sharing what we learn to help others avoid our same mistakes and also exposing ourselves to the criticism and questions which might help us improve. I am skeptical of the popular approaches to both voluntourism and development work, though those are both areas in which I have worked as I’d love to be part of learning how we can do them both better. I think we need to learn before we can help, so I believe “service learning” should be “learning service”. I feel like I am learning more every day about how to help create the world I want to see my future kids and their future kids living in, and sometimes what I learn contradicts what I thought I knew was true. I have learned that good intentions are not enough and that the only person you can “improve” in the world is yourself, so I had better start improving the world by starting there. I hope the dialogue generated through this site will give me more chances to do that and to share the lessons I am learning with others who could benefit from avoiding my mistakes.

05 December 2013 ~ 0 Comments

A piece I was asked to write for “International Volunteer Day”

Here you go: http://www.childsafetourism.org/international-day-volunteer-voluntourism-harm-children/

14 November 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Unreasonable Values

A Huffington Post piece I wrote on the Unreasonable Values of the Unreasonable Team: http://bit.ly/UnVal

10 November 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Reflection

Watching yourself on video can be painful (especially when you had just cut all your hair off in an attempt to cut out the straight perm you should never have had – and the fact that you were being filmed in frizzy sweaty Cambodia!). Tara Roberts, founder of girltank, had come through Phnom Penh a few years ago (2009 perhaps?) and had taken videos of women who were leading organizations. She later went on to build a website, and other resources, and a few months ago sent us some cuts of the videos she had taken. I have been cleaning through my “to read” email box, and finally watched these short videos.

http://vimeo.com/album/2323180

In this modern world, where we are recorded on our phones and cameras all the time, we’re more easily able to look back in time and see where and how we have changed. Watching myself give advice to others in these videos is actually like watching someone else speak, as now that I am back in a place of trying to figure out “what’s next”, I need my own advice as much as the next girl. If you like frizzy hair and cheesy statements, these might be up your alley. If not, go back to reading your copy of the Economist!

04 November 2013 ~ 1 Comment

Why is sexism ok in development work?

I just posted a piece on The Huffington Post called “Why Is Sexism Okay in Development Work? Reconsidering the ‘Women are Better’ Dialogue.” Read up if you are interested.

It was inspired by hearing multiple people this weekend say “I don’t hire men,” when speaking about their social enterprises or NGOs in emerging markets.  This is a dialogue we hear more and more. Imagine if they had said “I don’t hire women….”

I had added this part below, and then removed it, as it is a bit of a tangential issue: the employment of men vs sexist dialogue.  I thought it might be worth including some reflections on the problem of actively not employing men as I saw it in Cambodia, not just from social businesses, but from corporations and other entities:

While living in Cambodia, I noticed that the job opportunities in the capital city, have an infiltration of these anti-men biases in all sorts of jobs. Nearly all garment factories in the country hire only women, with tens of thousands of women pouring into the streets during lunch breaks and shift ends. I visited a crab canning factory shipping crab all around the world, and it was like entering the book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: hundreds of people wearing blue full-body covers with only their faces visible, cracking crabs and using black-lights to pick out any remaining pieces of shell. All of the employees were woman. The salt flats being pounded into flat uniform planes to later be flooded and dried reveal rows of women pounding the earth with a wooden peg, called an “elephants foot.” (Note: The fact that most of the managers in all of these cases were men, and that the men walking next to those women got to conduct the action without doing any of the heavy lifting is a whole separate issue. But let’s leave that for a future discussion.)

The unemployment problem is very bad in Cambodia, and often skewed towards men as women are typically fully employed, if not financially gainfully, then they are usually working full-time in the home. Many men sit on the streets on their motorbikes all day, hoping to be paid to give people rides, while often not making enough to cover their family’s needs. (Note: At least one organization has noted this discrepancy in the entry level employment options for men and woman, and has started a men’s skills training centre offering electrical training, air-conditioning repair, etc and an iron workshop)

To read the article on the Huffington Post, visit here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniela-papi/why-is-sexism-okay-in-development-work_b_4210184.html

 

 

18 September 2013 ~ 1 Comment

Belittling Excellence

Note: This is a pretty cheesy post. I wrote it a few months ago, on a particular day when I was fed up with our competition for mediocracy, and then I never posted it as I thought perhaps it was indeed the epitome of an American blogger’s cliché: way too cheesy. But then, as I continue to be exposed to more and more examples of people racing to be average so they can fit in and not stand out for being great, or working hard, or caring a lot about someone or something or some core value, I have decided my own fear of being too cheesy was a silly reason to not post this and point out something I believe to be true: when we belittle excellence, dedication, and hard work, we incentivize averageness, and overall, that leaves us all with a pretty average future. So, for the cheese:

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen this epidemic spread through our society.  Perhaps you’ve even fallen victim to it yourself. It’s slowing our personal & collective progress. It’s pervading our schools, our work, our teams, and our families. It’s what causes many people to choose to underperform.

It starts in primary school, perhaps around grade three. The young artist who used to be praised for his work, gets made fun of for being too talented. He gets put down, and is embarrassed about his gifts. He stops sharing his work with others for fear of being made fun of. He chooses acceptance over excellence. Our arts our failed.

In high school, it’s a pandemic. The boy who has been made fun of for years for being too smart decides not to take advanced biology. He gets made fun of enough already, and doesn’t want to add more fuel to the fire. He chooses acceptance over excellence. Our sciences are failed.

On the sports team, one girl stays longer than the rest. She practices harder, stays in the gym later, and tries her best. She gets told to “Cut it out. Stop brown-nosing.” She heads home early, and chooses acceptance over excellence. Our sports are failed.

In an office, a young man stays late at work. He has extra meetings to make sure his team feels supported. His co-worker walks in and says “Stop working so hard! You are making the rest of us look bad.” He heads home early so that others wont see him still working. He chooses acceptance over excellence. Our businesses are failed.

The masseuse works hard at a kink in your neck, giving it extra attention, and trying to fix the problem. The others walk by, give him a nudge and say, “Why are you working so hard? There’s no need to. Plus you are making us look bad.” He continues, determined to do his job well, despite what his colleagues say. He chooses excellence over acceptance. Lucky you.

It’s time we started accepting excellence, and rewarding those who strive for it, rather than accepting and encouraging those who shy away. Or else, we’re all failed.

18 July 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Getting home in Cambodia

My mother would yell at me if she had seen me this morning, climbing into the back of a pick-up truck and squishing onto the back corner, careful not to lean back as we sped off to find yet another passenger. I had been waiting in front of our office, hoping to hop in a car that was heading to Siem Reap, but none with any space had come by in the last fifteen minutes. I knew the pickup would take much longer, stopping many times along the way, and that maybe I’d be late for my 8am meeting, but I also didn’t know how long it might be until a speedy car came by…. so I hoped in.

Seven in the front cab and 13 of us in the back…. 14 now. Another woman gets in, smiling and saying hi to another girl in the truck. Maybe their cheerful greetings are because they have known each other for a long time, or maybe they are because they can see their own joys and concerns in the other – both pregnant and heading into Siem Reap to visit the children’s hospital to check on the progress of their unborn babies.

The older man next to me turns and asks:

“Where are you going? Where are you from? How old are you? Are you traveling alone? How long have you been here? How did you learn Khmer?”

A nun, with short white stubble on her nearly shaved head lets me know my Khmer is “chi’bah”. “Not SO clear,” I say, “I’m still learning.” It’s easy to know the few words to answer his questions as I get to practice often with this Cambodian sing-song of introductions.

He used to speak French, he says. Before the Khmer Rouge, before the war, when French was taught in schools.

“Do you speak French?”

My high school French teacher would be sad to hear it, but I don’t really, I say. Sorry Dr. Rodgers.

“Do you know where Pailin is?”

He asks and points. He knows exactly which direction we are going in and where each other major town is in relation to us, pointing in each of their directions and telling me a bit about them.

“I used to live in Pailin.”

Before I can stop it, my brain starts judging. “Perhaps he lived in Pailin as a Khmer Rouge solider,” I think, remembering it was one of the last strongholds. His smile is so wide and he’s so eager to make friends with the “barang” on the truck, I say to myself “Well, even if he was a soldier I am sure he didn’t want to be… and either way, as a soldier or as a laborer in the regime, he would likely have seen many loved ones and neighbors killed….”

The attention moves away from me and my thoughts of the deaths of the past and on to a more recent one. The man across the bed of the truck, with RAY BAN written in large letters across his plastic sunglasses, is showing a picture of his daughter who has recently died. The photos were of her funeral… she’d died in Thailand. They had likely gone over to work as day laborers. I couldn’t understand well enough to understand more… I wish the old lady was right and my Khmer was indeed perfect.

15, 16, 17. I didn’t think we could fit more people, but now the final three are sitting on the wood that is protruding from the back of the truck. A moto goes by with a basket full of more than a dozen piglets, pink tails sticking out to wave at traffic. The driver has his helmet resting on the front of the motorbike. It’s too hot to put it on, perhaps, but it’s there ready in case he passes a police checkpoint. I’m sure my mom would suggest I should be wearing one of those, especially if we add more people.

18. We’ve turned down a dirt road. It’s unfortunate you see, as I’m meant to be back in Siem Reap in a meeting starting in 10 minutes. That said, I’d just done a training with our team the day before about how we can’t always control what happens around us, but we can control our emotions and reactions. I decide just to forget worrying about the call and enjoy the bumpy ride. As if knowing I needed a distraction, the man turns back to me and says:

“How many cows do you have at home in America?”

Hmmm…. “I don’t have any cows,” I say, wondering how that will go over. At first, a bit of shock, but that quickly fades into understanding.

“Of course! You use a tractor to plow your fields, yes?”

Ummm….. “I don’t know how to drive a tractor, actually!” Disappointment. “I really should learn,” I think, as if the judgment of this older man and others like him was enough to justify the desire to prove that I too can grow things from the earth. Well… maybe I could. Probably not well to be honest, I think as I watch the man in front of us, tilling his field. Two cows pull the small but very heavy plow and the mud-covered man pushes down on the top of it to keep it digging into the earth.

“Do you have fields like this in America?”

I describe that we do, just not so many near where I grew up. We are looking out onto an endless expanse of green. Like patchwork, each plot of land is a slightly different color, planted at a slightly different angle, making the land look like a large quilt. Dotted throughout, as holes in the pattern, are coconut trees. I notice the similarity in the landscape to the clothing of many of the passengers, holes here and there, or patches covering over where holes had once been, like the patchwork on the boys knees next to me – small cuts and scares from previous scrapes.

“He’s heading to the doctor.”

The old man points out. The boy is meticulously plucking each kernel from an ear of corn, one by one and popping them into his mouth slowly as his mother hugs him close.

As we’re gradually making our way down the dirt road, an older woman in the bed of the pickup starts making a betel nut packet. She takes out the leaf, puts white paste on it from her carefully opened container, and places some seeds into the mixture before placing it in her mouth.

It turns out that we’ve taken this detour to stop at a Wat. There is a celebration going, and I notice that most of the passengers in the cab are also nuns. Half of the truck piles out at the Wat which is full of music and people dressed in their most respectful clothing.

“Come visit some time! I live over there, we have coconuts and many fruits.”

He points in the direction of his home. We smile goodbye, and I hop into truck bed to grab a seat on the floor, no longer worrying about being late.

16 July 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Voluntourists at Home

She and her family had been forced to evacuate their home when Hurricane Katrina was approaching. They hadn’t been back to New Orleans for more than two weeks, and when they were finally told it was safe to return, they packed up some of the belongings they had salvaged and started the long drive home. When they pulled into their driveway, they saw that many trees had fallen, some on their roof and many across the property.

Her mother walked around the house and returned looking shocked. There were people in the backyard!

The family walked around the house to find a group of volunteers cutting down their trees. They had traveled to Louisiana with a visiting church group and proclaimed that they were here to help. They had already cut down a number of trees and were currently cutting down one that had only a few branches missing and the top had fallen off.

The family got together to chat, to figure out what to do. They were a bit annoyed as they realized the volunteers had been dragging away wood they could have saved for firewood, and they were currently cutting down trees they could probably save…. plus it was stressful to have uninvited people in their home when all they wanted to do was settle in and assess the damage on their own as a family.

But they realized these volunteers had good intentions! Plus, they didn’t want to offend them and tell them to leave, since they’d traveled all this way to try to “help”.

The volunteers had already removed most of the trees that had fallen on the house. While the trees had damaged the house, they had also prevented additional water and debris from entering their home as the trees had been stoppers, filling the holes they had created.

When they pulled trees off of the roofs there wasn’t always apparent exposure to the elements but inside it led to additional leeking. The family was so glad that they had returned home just when they did, as the volunteers had just removed a tree from their house which, unbeknown to them, actually had some branches protruding through the roof that they couldn’t have seen just by looking at it from the outside, only from the inside. (There CERTAINLY in another analogy in that!)

They looked over at other houses on the street that the volunteers had already cleared and realized that some neighbors, who were not scheduled to return to their home for more than a week, now had holes in their house exposed to the elements.

“But how do we tell them to LEAVE?” the family asked each other? Instead they politely asked them to keep the rest of the firewood rather than drag it away, and waited as the volunteers marched off to the next home.

A woman who was just on a course I instructed in Cambodia told me this story about her experience living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and I am sharing it here with her permission.