Sunday, November 6, 2011

Brainstorming with MIIS Students – Am I Now Empowered??

Last month we visited my daughter Jessy, a student at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. She organized a brainstorming session for me, to help me define goals and work toward vision and mission statements for my sex education project, which is one of the projects to be funded by a non-profit I am in the process of starting with several friends.

one of many chart pages of notes
I’ve been reflecting recently on how much I learned from the session. First of all, these young folks know stuff! Lots of stuff. They asked me questions I couldn’t answer, or hadn’t thought about yet, and really gave me some tools to use for analysis going forward. I’ve been working in Kenya for seven years now, as a teacher and trainer, and it was amazing how little I still actually know about setting up a sustainable project. Turns out that both the art and the science of designing a good project are important, and the “science” – the rubrics, charts, worksheets, logic models . . . – are simultaneously both cool and useful.

The thoughtful focusing process that the students took me through was instrumental in helping me refine my thinking for the non-profit that I am now helping to develop. They got me thinking about everything from how to define success and then how to measure it, to how specific I think the target group I would like to help should be: women and girls? women and girls ages 11 – 26? rural Kenyans?

Interestingly, though, what was a side discussion at the time has turned out to be the topic I’ve been thinking about and discussing the most in the past couple of weeks.

Empower. Empowerment. Empowering. I don’t remember who brought it up at the meeting, very likely me, but a goal was articulated to “empower” girls and women, and one of the students immediately took issue with the use of that word in our context. Her point was that for me to empower you, there’s a connotation that I’m the one with power, you are the one without power, and I’m giving you something that you can’t get for yourself. In the context of westerners going in to a developing country and “empowering” people there’s an unintended subtext which is suggestive of paternalism.

I can offer knowledge and skills to someone who is interested in what I know, but only that person can use the new skills/knowledge/new-found self confidence/whatever else may come from what he or she learned, to become empowered, if that’s the right use of the word.  

In an article I read written by a teacher who says that she doesn’t empower her students, she makes the comparison to learning. As she says, she can teach her students, but she can’t "learn" them. Only they can learn.

Here are some of the pieces I’ve been reading on empowerment.

I still can’t articulate well my unease at the common use of “empowerment” – but I feel empowered by the insight I gained from Jessy and her MIIS friends!!
Monterey wharf

And who doesn't want to go learn cool stuff in Monterey??