Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Indi(end)


After three months of living abroad, I'm home. Being home is good. I have all the luxuries of food, culture and friendships I so sorely missed, and I benefit from the perspective I'm slowly developing from being plucked out of the thick of my former Indian workplace.

As I had mentioned in a previous blog post, working in India was extremely hard. There were parts of my experience I loved and others I loathed. But when I lay down in my bed on my tempurpedic pillow, inside my apartment with regular electricity and water, in a city where I can get a decent cup of coffee, its easy to forget all the past hardships. And I think its with good reason because I can now see more clearly what my team and I accomplished and what I learned from the experience.

Did we finish our project? No, but we are still moving along. Over our time we met and interviewed nearly 30 people, from school teachers and NGO leaders to government officials and villagers, capturing over 25 hours worth of video footage, allowing us to complete three five-minute documentaries each portraying a specific challenge affecting the region. Currently, we are working with a team of web developers in Bangalore to construct our wiki-based platform, which we hope to launch by early January 2011.

Did I learn anything? Yes, a lot. I come away knowing how to take an idea and execute it. When I first proposed the idea for the project - before it was ever funded - it was a theoretical concept, lacking any roadmap. Technically, the project is still theoretical until it launches and proves successful, but my team and I still designed the mechanisms we hope will give us the best chance to convert this idea into a reality come January. Throughout this project, I also began to learn how to quietly manage a team. I had initially proposed the project and was the most senior person on the team, but the way the program was constructed, there were no clear lines of authority - it was a group effort through and through. But on a team with a range of experiences, from undergrad to graduate students, it was important that the group had direction, but just as important, an opportunity for every member to assert and develop their own leadership skills. Striking this balance of knowing when to step in and knowing when to let others take the lead was something I could never learn in a classroom. It was a life skill I was afforded by this opportunity.

The experience was hard and it was humbling, but I'm home, I'm happy and I can reflect positively, without regret, on my time working in India.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Education Reform in LA

My summer with Education Pioneers came to an end this Friday and overall it was a great experience. I finished up my project and provided the CEO of Value Schools with a comprehensive strategic growth plan that will provide the foundation for Value Schools’ expansion. I learned a great deal about education reform and met some amazing and inspiring individuals who have devoted their lives to improving education in Los Angeles.

One of the most valuable parts of the Education Pioneers experience was the opportunity to hear from all the key players involved in education reform including the district, charter schools, and teachers unions. As someone new to education the opportunity to hear from all sides was incredibly important and my opinions regarding education reform were challenged over the course of the summer. Charter schools have done some great things in Los Angeles, but not every charter school has been as successful as Green Dot. I think that it is important for people to make the distinction between a charter school and a high performing charter school when discussing the role charter schools continue to play in education reform.

LAUSD is failing many of its students and it definitely deserves much of the bad press it receives, but through Education Pioneers I have had the opportunity to meet some great leaders from the district. LAUSD Deputy Superintendent Deasy delivered an outstanding keynote speech at our end of the summer networking event and I am hopeful that he will be an effective leader who will take the radical steps necessary for real change to occur. The district still has a very long way to go but I am more optimistic about education reform in Los Angeles than I was at the beginning of the summer.

Lessons Learned

I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work in India for the summer. I learned and experienced so many things that I would not have been able to experience in the US. Adjusting to a completely new professional and social culture provided me with insight and patience that I will definitely carry with me forever.


My project was a continuation project from last year, and will be carried on by the NGOs we worked closely with. We were able to construct a database that will hold patient information for the HIV/AID’s community. This database will streamline the referral and follow-up system currently in place and reduce the amount of time and resources needed for each NGO.


I learned a great deal throughout the process and have definitely changed my management style. I learned the importance of constant communication, especially when working in a new culture where miscommunication occurs often. I also learned to manage my expectations and take into account that efficiency and productivity levels may vary in an environment where reliable internet and electricity is not always guaranteed. All of these factors have given me a richer understanding of the non-profit landscape in a developing country and it makes me appreciate all of the work that is occurring on the grassroots level across the world.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Education Pioneers: Wrapping Up

5 more days to go, and things are winding down.

Last week I had the opportunity to present preliminary drafts of my work to various leaders around ICEF, and the feedback I received was very encouraging. In fact, some of my marketing recommendations made it into the annual PR planning meeting with ICEF's communications vendor. I feel pretty confident that I added value to this organization this summer, and thus made my small contribution toward the solution to this education crisis.

This week I'm finalizing my recommendations, presenting to a number of leaders, and getting ready to hand everything over to my supervisor before I head back to school. Additionally, I've been working to make all of my recommendations as "plug and play" as possible. Resources are tight at this organization, and I've learned that one of the biggest hurdles in implementing my recommendations will most likely be staffing requirements. Thus, whenever possible, I've developed templates, examples, detailed implementation plans and in one case I was able to create the actual brand guidelines which I recommended.

I think one of my key learnings this summer has been organizational in nature. ICEF was founded with one after-school program in 1994. Since then, it's grown to 15 schools and about 400 employees. What was once a start-up environment is now transitioning to a small company. As I worked to recommend marketing and communications solutions in this environment, the importance of scalable systems became increasingly evident. ICEF has proven the success of its educational model and has exponentially grown its impact in South LA in a relatively short amount of time. The challenge is creating organizational systems to keep up, and to sustain even more growth and impact.

My summer as an Education Pioneers fellow has been a very rewarding experience. I've learned an incredible amount about education reform, I've formed my own opinions and have been forced to question those opinions, I've met and networked with numerous leaders in the LA education world (including Superintendent Cortines!), and I've given much thought as to how my work in education will continue beyond this experience. And, just as importantly, I really feel as though I've grown professionally as a result of this summer.

Jennie

Monday, August 16, 2010

It's Over Already?

Those were possibly the most fulfilling and rewarding 9 weeks of my life. I have made friends and learned a lot about myself. I think that the “goodbye” e-mail that I sent to the organization says a lot about just how much my time with Chrysalis meant to me:


Dear Chrysalis,


What an amazing organization. As I mentioned to some of you yesterday, I thought I knew, but I had NO idea. The client stories are heartbreaking and their perseverance admirable. I have a huge amount of respect for the work that you all are doing. I can’t deny that the stories that I heard didn’t make me toss and turn as I tried to go to sleep each night. However, I woke up each morning proud to come to work.


Although these last 9 weeks have flown by, they have made a lasting impression. I feel honored and humbled to have been a part of the Chrysalis Team. Where can I pick-up the “Lifetime Membership” form?


The last week of my internship was an amazing week. One of the clients who had attended a Jobs Club session that I led asked me for help a few times. I taught her how to shake hands professionally (she was doing the grabbing the thumb handshake) and what a “complete” application packet looked like. On Monday she came to my office to share with me that SHE HAD GOTTEN A JOB. The most important part of the whole conversation for me was what she told me a few times: “I did it by myself.” That’s the proof that Chrysalis works. The organization does not exist to hand jobs to people, but rather to give them the tools and confidence that they need to go face the madness of job hunting on their own. Most everyone has many doors closed on them, but eventually one opens.


She rang the bell on Tuesday, and I had to wipe a tear away. The framed picture of me and her that my co-workers gave me on my last day of the internship is hanging on my wall and is a constant reminder of the change that I can make in the world.


Going into the internship, I had my reservations about what I was going to walk away with compared to my classmates. I can honestly say after completing it that I have no regrets about my experiences this summer. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.


I wanted to share one last video. This woman was honored at the last Butterfly Ball (a fundraiser for Chrysalis) and rang the bell while I was there. It is always a good thing to see such a remarkable program like Chrysalis get the attention it deserves.


Molly



Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jaalaka - Connecting the HIV/AIDS Community through Technology


“Things will change when you get to India”. This was echoed throughout the pre-departure planning stages for my project. I had a very clear understanding of my purpose for this project: resolve the technical issues and expand the software into other NGO’s, but I went in knowing that these objectives could change dramatically.

I am fortunate that my project has not deviated greatly from the proposal my team had prepared. The NGO’s that are working with us are extremely organized and have realistic goals and expectations that were communicated clearly and promptly from the beginning. Despite the pre-departure planning, there have been many challenges that I did not anticipate. Specifically, the length of time needed to resolve the technical issues that these NGO’s are facing, the technical knowledge needed to implement the program, and the identification of possible expansion opportunities for the software have proven to be the biggest challenges.

However, we have been able to take a step back from the urge to focus solely on fixing the technical issues and have analyzed the most efficient growth for the SMSFrontline software. After meeting with multiple stakeholders working with the HIV/AIDS community, my team and I have identified a need to expand the program and create a more efficient network to connect all the stakeholders that are currently using the SMSFrontline software. A centralized database would allow the NGO’s I am working with to share their data to create a more automated and structured tracking, referral and follow up system. In order to create this database, we have enlisted the help of various sources- LEAD students from BVB College, a software engineer and a fellow intern. I am hopeful that this database will streamline the data flow currently being implemented and improve the overall data sharing between the NGO’s. So what does my team envision? We hope that a specific NGO can refer a patient to register for a support group via SMS, and the support group will receive a message regarding the referral. If the patient attends the support group, the support group can then send a SMS message back to the referring NGO to confirm the registration of the patient. All of these messages would go through the central database and a history of the patient will begin to accumulate. With such limited resources, the NGO’s can benefit greatly from this system and will allow the NGO’s to spend more time working directly with the community members.

Working in India is definitely a unique experience. I have learned to become much more patient and accept the miscommunication that is bound to occur. Because my project involves many stakeholders, I am often at meetings to discuss specifics about the project. Email and phone calls are not effective in India, and thus, things take much longer to accomplish because of the face time that is required. One benefit to this is the chai and biscuit requirement for every meeting- if I wasn’t a tea drinker before coming here, I definitely am now!

Despite the delays that consistently take place in India, small victories do occur and are appreciated that much more. I am truly enjoying my internship and I feel fortunate that I can now truly understand the different work cultures that exist across the world.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Daily Struggle

I came to India to get experience developing and executing an entrepreneurial idea and to gain international exposure to NGO work. My experience in the US had quickly taught me that a nonprofit organization's approach to working in one city required a different approach to working in another city. I knew that regional differences played a significant role and anticipated that India's would only be magnified, but to what degree and to what dimension I had no clue. In my nearly five weeks working in India, I've quickly learned what I came here seeking. Entrepreneurship is no doubt difficult, but doing it in rural India requires twice the input and gets you only half the output. Never had the words, "you will soon appreciate the small wins," rang so true.

Everyday is a new day and never like the one before. When we first arrived we focused heavily on meeting with foundation staff to begin understanding the challenges in the area and develop contacts throughout the region. When not in meetings, we were discussing our web platform and wireframing the webpages to pass along to our web developers.

As we began developing our local sea legs, we soon became all too familiar with "the runaround." The runaround is everywhere. A task that should take five minutes takes five days. Things that are promised are rarely delivered without persistent pressure. Good communication (not to be confused with translation problems) is hard to come by and passing the buck is standard operating protocol. These are all part of a culture, which for thousands of years has tolerated with great patience bureaucracy, a sense of individualism, and in my opinion, a lack of trust, which I think is at the heart of why you can never find the decision maker when you need a simple task completed, and why when things go wrong everyone wants to point their finger to the next person. Without accountability the job is always harder.

Having learned to recalibrate expectations we have continued to pursue our work in the field, meeting, interviewing and filming NGO leaders, government officials, journalists, professionals, farmers and villagers. If logistics are the tortoise of our project, then getting an interview is the hare. When people hear you are a student from the US, it becomes your VIP pass to speak with whomever you want, even without an appointment. And they have no problem opening up their mobile contact lists to you either. Whether it was the Commissioner of the Municipal Development Corporation, who overseas 1.2 million people, or the most successful businessmen in the region, getting their numbers, speaking to them on the phone, and setting up a meeting was no problem - in fact, almost too easy.

With already 15 hours of footage, we split our time pursuing new leads and editing clips to help frame the challenges we seek to present. Beyond all the day-to-day operations, this has been our biggest challenge. There are no shortage of problems to be solved, for example in the education sector, but determining which issues are systematic and which could have potential to be addressed by the general public with a sustainable, scaleable solution is always a debate. And ensuring our time is spent wisely is a guessing game. When we travel four hours to a remote village to interview farmers about their involvement in their child's education, it's a total crapshoot whether the information we gather will be pertinent to our project's objectives. Some days require so much time and energy, yet provide little reward for the project, beyond the personal experience we can take home with us.

Beyond the personal challenges of work are the personal challenges of maintaining proper health. After four weeks of eating in the local restaurants, in villages and transitioning from bottled to filtered water, my stomach and I felt most invisible, with the exception of the minor discomfort from time to time. But as soon as I thought I had begun developing an immunity to the spices and dubious cleanliness of food preparation, I was knocked off my feet, admitted to the hospital with a food-borne virus. Right when I thought I was in a good zone with respect to my body and my project, everything nearly came crashing down. If it weren't for the support of my team, our project may have been derailed while I lay incapacitated.

India is a challenging place to work. And where I am, in the rural enclaves, life is much slower and more conservative. On one level, I can't say I would want to work in an environment like this again. I must acknowledge that I am biased by the struggle of being away from my fiance for so long, but there is more to my sentiment that resides here in India. I have accepted my new temporary home, but I often find myself fighting the cultural norms. I know change is slow, and I'm not expecting to change the world overnight, but its the small things, like getting a computer cord, which require four visits to the computer shop after four separate promises that it would arrive that evening, and the next, and the next and the next. It's arriving at a meeting, and waiting five hours for it to get started. It's meeting with a doctor and asking him a question about your test results and receiving a look of contempt as if it was an affront to ask a question of such an educated man of status. And the gender inequalities, while not oppressive, are disheartening.

But when I pull back and see the forest from the trees, I come away more optimistic from this experience. There has been a lot of amazing things about working with the people in India. Most are gracious, friendly and willing to help. They have taught me so much about their culture, and through the process, have educated me of the challenges of international development. I haven't even finished my project and yet I know that grown through the richness of experience, which has made the journey all the more satisfying.

-Jesse