At the risk of sounding cliche, I would just like to say that the past few days have been some of the most inspiring and stimulating of my life. From our vantage point up here in the hills of the Intitute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, CA, spending one pleasant hour after the next listening to the inspiring stories of travelers, professors and social entreprenuers, its hard to see anything but hope and optimism in our surroundings and our future. This place feels like a sort of safe-haven or mini paradise with its beautiful weather, wholesome food and the company of cheerful, enthusiastic, now-familiar people.
If I weren’t going to spend the next seven months eating rice, bathing with a bucket, lathering myself in deet and sleeping on a sponge mattress, I would feel unjustifiably spoiled. It’s all relative, I know – and I also know that at first we will only find meaning in our host communities by comparison to the only other lives we have ever known. But for me, full immersion means the view from within, where I expect old values to blurr or shrink with distance, and new ones to be revealed.
Today was “country day” and so our group was sadly split in half as Team Guatemala and Team Senegal went to contemplate the different experiences that await us on different sides of the globe. Since Rachel, the Senegal team leader, has to leave soon to get settled before we arrive, we spent the entire morning and afternoon session talking about Senegal, starting out with the country’s history, going through bits of the culture and ending with health and safety. It was admittedly a challenge for my attention span and sitting capabilities, but it was very exciting to start to visualize the sort of settings we will find ourselves in, in less that a week – and start to understand intricacies of Senegalese culture that I don’t even remember noticing during the six weeks that I spent in Senegal last summer.
Today we focused on everyday living in our host countries – everything that we will learn by just spending time with our host families – but for the past few days my mind has been on development work, learning about everything that there is to be done and beginning to understand the various resources and processes that are needed to make change. I know that sounds really vague, so I’ll give an example. During our session with Joel Segre on “social impact” (might have been called something else) we were given a series of photographs of innovative devices which have been invented to alleviate poverty in the developing world. Among them was a 100 dollar computer, reading glasses, a cell phone charging station, a bike that purifies water while petaling, and a portable irrigation device. We then debated where to place them on a graph which had two axes, one for social impact and one for profitability. In order to place each device, we had to think about the factors that in each case would enable or hinder the impact of the device. A purifying drinking straw for example was determined to be a complete mistake for two main reasons: it requires women to get down on their knees in a river bed which is undignified, and it can’t be used by infants which are the main victims of water-borne diseases. This device was on the cover of a design magazine. Removed from the realities of the developing world, any average designer here in the United States might not prioritize the dignitiy of African women when looking for solutions to their water problem, but it is an essential factor, and I think this is a perfect example of the insights that we will gain during the coming year, that will allow us to pursue a path of making real change in the world.
Besides the actual content of what I have been learning, I have been especially appreciative during the past few days for the company of the ten other fellows in learning it all. You know you are experiencing something special when you are not the only one to give up a break or delay dinner to continue to talk about micro-finance and social entrepreneurship. I have been exposed to many of the topics we have been covering back in school. The enthusiasm and genuine interest of our group goes to show how truly empowering and inspiring education can be when it applies to real life. The ideas and concepts that we are learning matter not just to our lives (or at least our lives during the next seven months) but to the lives of millions of other people. And here lies the essential beauty of this place (the Institute of Noetic Sciences = the science of human connection…. hmmm…..) our experience, and this organization: what matters to us matters to others.
So what I really meant to talk about in this post was what we did on our “field-trip” day in the city visiting IDEO, Kiva.org, Room to Read and Current TV. But unfortunately I’ve run out of time and lunch is waiting. But I sincerely hope that I’ll have time to tell more about that day later, in particular our visit to Room to Read which was of particular significance for me.