July 5, 2015
Over the years I (Cynthia) have met many types of people working in the non profit world. Every person posseses some sort of impressive quality ranging from enthusiastic to patient to insightful, but the one quality I believe brings success to a project is the ability to be a learner which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
People working cross-culturally realize being a learner is necessary in order to get to know the culture and community we are working with, but many times I and others have faked it: nods, smiles, and thoughtful expressions to convey we are listening when in reality we are busy entertaining our own opinions.
While experience and training are necessary, they can also hinder a person in the non profit world from being a learner because the tendency is to compare past expriences, theories, and case studies to the current situation we find ourselves in. We begin to analyze and compare past situations, forgetting that each situation is unique and that we need to be cautious to not jump to conclusions.
Being a learner takes time. A learner will view conversations around a table drinking the local beverage as more valuable than making a premature plan. A learner will not view a day working in the garden as unproductive because the learner realizes he or she is gaining valuable information about the land, needs, and lifestyle of the community while working side by side with their “teacher”.
As the community sees the non profit worker learning about their way of life, they will begin to trust the person and more personal information about life in the community will be shared and friendships will be formed.
Twenty years ago I learned this valuable lesson while living in Siberia. For a period of time I felt insecure about what I was accomplishing because I compared my work to the work of other NGO workers who were producing big events and projects. I was 20 then and more interested in getting to know people versus being a type A personality. I began to wonder what the locals thought of me and was afraid they wished they could work with the project based NGO workers. My insecurity heightened as I prepared a very humble dinner one night for a prominent leader in the community and some NGO workers. I was embarrassed by my meal, small table, and lack of comfortable chairs as we ate. I loved the Russian people and wished I could give them more. As I was thinking about this, the conversation took a sharp turn when the leader confronted a couple of NGO workers by saying, “You are doing everything wrong”. We fell silent as we listened to him. He then told them they needed to work more like me. My body froze and I held my breath as he described how I immersed myself into their way of life by getting to know the community. He said, “We know she loves us and we love her as well”. He then told them the community didn’t appreciate them coming in for a few hours and merely focusing on lessons, projects, etc while never getting to know them. Fortunately, the NGO workers, who truly cared for the community, took his information to heart and many lessons were learned that night. To this day I consider that night as the best lesson I have learned in the non profit sector. I constanstly remind myself of it when I let my experience and training form preconceived ideas of what should be done before I have actually taken the time to get to know the person or community I am working with. I sometimes wish I could be that 20 year old girl again. Yes, my experience and training over the years is valuable, but it is useless when I forget to be a learner.
Although I miss being based on the field, I am fond of my role in Walu. Every person who I have worked with in this organization has taught me valuable lessons. There are times I feel like a 20 year old again as I watch our amazing volunteers immerse themselves into communities we are working with. I am truly grateful for everyone working with Walu from our founder (who is on our board and always available to offer encouragement and advice) to our newsest volunteer.
Pat is our newest volunteer and currently in Nicaragua. He is a gem and a perfect example of a learner. What amazes me about his work ethic is that despite his previous training and experience, he has a natural ability to be a learner. We are learning about the community, their lifestyle, and needs because of the relationships he is developing. Thank you Pat for laying a firm foundation so Walu can effectively work with the Cuajachillo 2 community.
I hope this entry will help remind me and you, the reader, of the simplicity of being a learner. No matter how seasoned we are in our area of expertise, there is always something to learn and the world is so much more exciting when we enter it with wide eyes!