(And Telling Stories that Change Systems)
As I sit here on this hard-worn albeit rarely used bed, I am surrounded by bags of computers, boxes of books, and heaps of unpacked clothes. They are emitting the unique scent of my favorite laundry softener—which I had used frugally my last year of college in hopes of sustaining it to the next phase of my educational career. And my mind can’t help but churn, with movie-like rapidity, as it takes me through certain moments of my college journey that are a representative culmination that potentially led to this point in time in my life: me, three days away from being in Southern China, and the rest of the world.
I see the reflection of myself, the girl who watched through the clear windows of the Chinese bus as we breezed past the greens of Albany and headed back to the 3rd trimester of my first year of college. Even though I sat in the middle of the bus, having learned the hard way not to sit in the back, I was constantly bombarded by the repugnant smell of urine mixed with hints of cigarette smoke. This contradictory blend of sensory stimulation reminded me of my struggles in labs and an almost-failure in one of my courses, and my hope and need to improve my learning style through exploration and re-application of the skills that helped me succeed in my other courses.
Then I open one of my electrical engineering (ECE) notebooks, and out falls a folded napkin with scribbles of an equation—some sort of secondary derivation from Euler’s formula—that takes me back to a precious moment in Prof. C’s musically-oriented office, where her passion for her students to really get the stuff she taught in her digital signal processing course hits home. In her excitement, and due to an obvious lack of paper, she wrote her explanation on this available tissue. Her actions inflamed my appreciation of and for education into an inferno, and it also reaffirmed my belief that teaching is a noble and honorable profession.
“We need an application-oriented style of education grounded in the realities and cultures of Africa,” was the conclusion that we (my squad of young African women) had arrived at after talking three-hours past midnight about our experiences in the primary and secondary education systems of our respective countries: Togo, Rwanda, and Ghana. Despite the fact that we had many of the content material down pact, as African students in high schools (in the Bronx), many assumptions made resulted in 9th grade class placement focused on multiplication tables and counting-circles-in the box addition. Assumptions that almost stifled the unrealized and unacknowledged potential of us three women, who now dabble in 8+languages, math, health, and engineering.
So, once we got to college and were provided breathingroom, opportunities, and a platform to practice our skills and explore our passions, we began making changes. But as a college student on the streets of Jo’burg, I had become aware of the effects of the cuts in USAID funding on a health facilities and other programs and organizations, and I felt like I could not do much.
I was biding my time.
Although I had to start somewhere.
And this brings me to the bags of computers I am staring at right now. They will be shipped by the end of this summer to the Egyam Children’s Home in Ghana. They contain programs that offer both content and practical material, so that the students can practice and explore other skills including coding programs. About 20 blocks from me, I know another about three boxes of sanitary pads await, ready to be shipped to young girls in Lomé, Togo.
The computers and products were acquired through fundraising endeavors where we perform African Dance, make and sell artwork, and my connections to organizations like Earthteamworks and the Mooncatcher Project.
I found an article on brainpickings about “the value of finding yourself and the true value of education.” I came upon this quote by a German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, that captures aspects of my state of being and my thoughts and feelings about this journey I am about to embark on. And it says:
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life...There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”
And I conclude: Nerve Racking! Exciting!
I have been thinking about this opportunity and adventure for more than a year, and about what it will entail: what will I be seeing, hearing, touching, feeling, and how do I translate these experiences into lessons or tools I can share and utilize? Sometimes I get excited. Other times, I feel nervous and overwhelmed.
However, I am very curious and ready to learn more about the dynamics of African migrants’ health and healthcare in Guangzhou (China), as well as the Social Entrepreneur to Spur Health (SESH) project and their use of crowdsourcing—as a platform that allows all voices (regardless of credentials, or age or other constructs of society) to contribute to solving some of the health issues in China. I want to learn about Chinese traditional medicine; I would love to compare and contrast this form of medicine to African traditional medicine, in Senegal. I am excited to work with the members of Uganda’s Social Innovation in Health Initiative to not only learn more about their work on Child and Maternal Health, but also to explore how they develop and implement local workshops and events that encourage collaboration among community stakeholders in healthcare. I am motivated and really hopeful about connecting with, and learning from young girls (from the slums of Mumbai, India) who are empowered through feminine health education, mentoring programs and job opportunities that allow them to partake in the production of feminine products. I hope to expand this network and mentoring to the women on the campus of Union College (NY).
These summaries offer glimpses into my plans for the beginning of this journey, at least for this year.
At this moment, I want to:
Learn, Live and Relate the Stories
I see myself
And I want to be a student
One who is open
I don’t only want to hear--
About the stories
I want to listen.
So that I am moved within
To create movements without
I don’t want to be just “seen”
I want to partake
I don’t just want to watch
I want to feel:
I want to be a student who absorbs
Like a sponge
In arid environments
That will be a guide to aid
In acutely learning from and with,
Becoming a part of,
And relating the stories I encounter.
These experiences and stories will serve as a conduit to inspire good change.
Friedrich Nietzsche links education to self when he says that: “Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being, something that is not ultimately amenable to education or cultivation by anyone else, but that is always difficult to access, something bound and immobilized; your educators cannot go beyond being your liberators… She is an effusion of light and warmth, a tender trickle of nightly rain…Thus, I hope to absorb and share stories that liberate and spark changes, within the self and within systems.
Stories are ubiquitous and universal (Matthew Gayer, Catalogue for Philanthropy). They capture, cultivate, and cross boundaries and borders; they can unfurl, initiate and empower transformative change. And Ella Saltmarshe discusses this power in “Using Stories to Change Systems,” when she states: “Stories make, prop up, and bring down systems”.
Ella explains that stories have been used throughout history by mankind; they alter and mold our view and perception of the world, and our understanding of our role in it, and our ability in changing it. Through numerous examples ranging from the high sales of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which shed light on slavery), to the work of organizations like Systems Changers (which brings people of different backgrounds together to tackle many of the issues in our society ranging from homelessness to mental health), to similar ones like In With Forward (which works with people facing poverty and social isolation to make change interventions from narrative therapies), Ella supports that stories can and have acted as a:
- Light that shines on our faults, on outliers in our systems, and on our visions
- Glue that engenders empathy and allows for connections to build groups, communities, and movements.
- Web to change personal, cultural and mythic narratives that influence our views and actions.
I believe this to be true. Stories allow us to “see systematically” and “act systematically,” and to change the seemingly big, abstract and untouchable systems.
Stories have done, do and can change systems.
I am ready to begin, and open to learning. My first destination is Guangzhou, China—an evolving country that is burgeoning intricately woven cultures, among African migrants and native Chinese.
- Popova, Maria. “Nietzsche on How to Find Yourself and the True Value of Education.” Brain Pickings, 26 Feb. 2019, www.brainpickings.org/2015/09/30/nietzsche-find-yourself-schopenhauer-as-educator/.
- Matthew Gayer. “Story Telling for Nonprofits,” Catalogue for Philanthropy.
- Saltmarshe, Ella. “Using Story to Change Systems (SSIR).” Stanford Social Innovation Review: Informing and Inspiring Leaders of Social Change, ssir.org/articles/entry/using_story_to_change_systems.
- Edited Freepik Image. <a href="https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/ background">Background vector created by freepik - www.freepik.com</a>