A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Closing the Circle

Did time just skip a few beats?

I’m back in Ireland.
I’ve come full circle.
I’ve gone from ‘I’m am on this journey’ to ‘I have just completed this journey’

I’m sad, happy, tired, excited, confused, jolted, joyful, thankful, thankful and thankful again.

I’ve been catching up with family and friends. Figuring out what is next. Stepping into the future.

The next phase is about to begin.

I will be posting a more reflective piece on my travels, but in the meantime, I just need to set on Irish soil for a while, breathe, think, plan, and be.

This was some trip… and the journey is just beginning….

Cape Cod meets Cambodia

Watching a film changed Sarah Symons’ life.. and her husband’s, and her kids, and her neighbours, and groups of women from Cambodia to India.

The film was ‘The Day my God Died’. The topic Child Sex trafficking. And the response from Sarah moved from initial horror to ‘What can I do to help prevent this?’ That question led her, and her husband John, to set up ‘The Emancipation Network’ (TEN) which buys and imports handmade products from survivors of trafficking and people who are at a high risk of being trafficked. When an alternative income stream for families and communities is assured, the risk of trafficking is radically reduced- a correlation Sarah saw that she could strengthen.

TEN now import goods and products from 14 different organisations, and are expanding their reach. John and Sarah’s home in Cape Cod became there office and storage depot and operates in a flurry of activity. Arriving to their home I was quickly taken on the grand tour, introduced to large boxes of goods-from hand embroidered bags to handmade paper- each top quality, and told about the story of the people behind the products.

Once the goods are purchased they are then distributed and sold though a series of ‘Awareness Parties’; a Tupperware model of sales, organised though a network of volunteers. The parties are a chance not only to sell goods (and thus provide an income to the artisans) but also increase awareness about sex trafficking.

John and Sarah are examples of the power of commitment. With a background in investment banking, John brought his business know-how to the job, looking at business models that are scaleable and economically viable in the long term. When he realise that the TEN model could really work, he quit his job in banking and teamed up with his wife to expand the business. This month they are opening their first retail outlet in Cape Cod.

My weekend with John and Sarah was a full of fun and inspiration- not only for learning about TEN, but also spending time baking with their fantastic kids Maya and Luke, and waking up to their dog Dakota tugging at my blanket to play!

Their door was opened to me as a stranger, and I left it as a friend.
How wonderful!

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The Architecture of Design

A stroll around the MIT Campus threw some interesting shapes....


Developement through Design

The US in technology central, and no where is this more evident than at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston.

Through the TED Talks, I heard of a professor, Amy Smith, and a group of students who are applying their technological know-how to design products to accelerate development through a class called D-Lab (Development Lab). So, when in Boston, I went along to find out a bit more. It was good timing too, for the students were hosting end of term poster presentations explaining their innovations. There was briquette burner for in home use (with the briquettes made with sugar cane waste). There was a moulding vacuum device for making prosthetic limbs and a prototype intelligent pill dispenser box; all with application in the developing world.

Chatting to the class’ teaching assistant, Amy Banzaert I realised also that D-Lab acts as a catalyst to get more and more technically minded young people interested in developing issues. As part of the course, students have an opportunity to travel overseas to study the problems and develop prototypes with local communities. Once they are back at MIT, they work on their designs in collaboration with contacts they made. Ideas are sparked, developed, modified, redesigned and when a good design is hit upon, it is passed on to the next group of students who develop the idea further. A new generation of technical thinkers in incubation…

But what happens the designs?

Well, a good question. It was a question plaguing Peter Haas, so much so that he went on to establish AIDG (Appropriate Infrastructure for Development Group). Through his travels and studies Peter was seeing available solutions, which due to a lack of business models in the developing world to support the scale up and manufacture of the design, did not have the impact they could. And so he set about developing local businesses which take the designs, get them manufactured and then distributed locally. It is relatively early days for AIDG, but starting out in Guatemala they now have plans to replicate their own model in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Like D-Lab, AIDG tap into the latent talent of students by providing overseas internships. In doing so the local business’ benefit from technical knowledge and a fresh pair of hands. A good match all round I would say.

DLab and AIDG were good examples of how the link in the chain (from concept to distibution) need to be forged for effective solutions to spiral into action.

(Thanks to Cathal Kearney, a Irish pal at MIT who helped me set up the DLab meeting, and Anne Marie Bellavance for the link to Peter)


Are you a Zaadzter?

Online social networks are sprounting. I owe much of the connections I made on this trip to one, the Omidyar Network. But on my travels I came across another, Zaadz, which is bringing people who are interested in change in connection. With a community of over 40,000 people signed up, that’s a lot of interest, and a lot of energy.

While in Boston, I met up with Jake Stetser, the chief integration officer at Zaadz. A complex title, which in reality means making the vision of Zaadz mesh with their website and technology. like the wording of their plan;

Our Plan.
Ours involves Conscious Capitalism infused with Spirituality and a healthy dose of Enthusiasm, Love, Service, Inspiration, Passion, Humor and Teamwork. People CRAZY enough to think they can change the world, Courageous enough to do something about it, AND Committed enough to stick to it when they feel like giving up.

If you think you are one of those crazy people, and you want to meet others, perhaps zaadz is a way for you.. give it a knock, who knows what it may open.

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Care for a seat?

Seeding SEED

While in New York I was back on the couch surfing variant. But this time, I didn’t just get a couch, but a whole loft conversion, courtesy of the hospitality of Carlos and Ruth Monteagudo

Carlos and Ruth, and their son Daniel are a fascinating and wonderful family. Ruth is a lay minister and children’s book writer, and talking with her about the book writing (and illustration) process was an enlightening one. From concept to complete Ruth works with the illustrator to create a product alive with vision and fun- writing and redrafting together until a book ‘which neither of us could have done alone’ is brought to life. Collaborative creativity at its best.

Carlos has an equally fascinating career path. Trained as a psychiatrist, and one time assistant professor of Psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School, he realised that his was still to complete ‘his life’s work’. He was contemplating going into politics, seeing the need for higher level system change. To facilitate it, he applied and got a Kellogg Leadership Fellowship- a three year fellowship which allowed him to take 3 months off his full time job a year, and explore and question. This started a whole chain of questioning and routes, trying to understand the best way he could create the change he wants to see in the world. While on the programme he met this now business partner, Melinda Lackey, and together they started to see the need for collective visioning to create change. Through much research and dialogue they established SEED (Solutions for Economic Empowerment and Dignity), and organisation which takes groups of individuals though creative planning to raise their bar of their own potential.

As they say themselves;
SEED challenges social programs to go from good to extraordinary and provides the self-help tools to make this possible.

And as Carlos describes SEED;

My work at SEED is about reclaiming that dream of creating a new world together. It is about discovering what is possible, when we open our hearts and minds and spirits to the yearning, the “first impulse,” that I believe is within each of us…and to the brilliance inherent in our human collective.

Personally, I found it both intriguing and rewarding to talking to Carlos about his experience of the Kellogg Fellowship. He equated the journey to my own, and explained how this journey helped to shape and direct his life, and continues to do so. While I am just at the end of the physical travel of this trip, I also know I am just at the beginning, and the journey ahead is looking ever more exciting.


Breaking the Boundaries of Play

Sometimes you just can’t meet everyone. But there are always phones.

Meeting with Amy Jaffe Barzach didn’t happen in person (time constraints, New York traffic) but we did have an interesting conversation. Amy is the co-founder of Boundless Playgrounds, an organisation which aims to make play accessible to all children, of all ability, across the US.

I hadn’t thought much about playground design before meeting Amy, but it is amazing what a shift in thinking about audience, and a few small design changes can do. Wider slides, ramps, sandpits at knee and waist level, wider doors. From a distance a Boundless Playground may look the same as any other playground, but such small changes can mean inclusion for a child who otherwise would be sitting on the sidelines.

It was exactly that image which got Amy going in the first place. Seeing a child in a wheelchair unable to access the local playground seemed like a cruel irony to her, and it got her thinking about the changes she could make to improve the interaction of that child. 100 playgrounds later she is still going strong. She has build up a team around her and is working with playground manufactures to think differently about who their products are for.

Boundless Playgrounds is a great example of seeing solutions though different eyes. By seeing who are on the margin, Amy has managed to shift where those boundaries are.

Play just got a lot more playful.


Derek Ellerman- The Polaris Project

When Derek Ellerman was studying at university, he read a newspaper article about a group of Korean women who had been trafficked into the USA and were living just a few streets away. There was little reaction to the news externally, but within it sparked a sense of questioning about why little was being done to help these women. He bumped into a neighbour in his building one day, Katherine Chon, and they started to discuss the issue. Realising they didn’t know all they did some research and discovered that sex and labour trafficking is the third largest criminal activity in the world, and it is not just confined to developing countries.

Their questioning led them to set up the Polaris Project, a community of individuals from policy planners to grassroots activists committed to combating the problem. They run support centre for survivors and work in advocacy roles- a combination unusually rare in the sector. Across college campuses they also host a ‘Slavery Still Exists’ Campaign, raising awareness of the issues on home turf.

To Derek it is as much about shelters as it is laws, where working at both end of the spectrum; intervention and prevention are crucial to success. There is a long way to go yet, but thanks to the Polaris Project, it is getting a bit closer.