Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Collective energy

During my Cuso placement, I've spent a lot of time learning to work independently.  I don't have an office to go to each day, much of my work is via email, and although there are occasional visits to different organizations, it can be a bit slow and quiet. Although I am glad that I don't work at the pace that I used to in Toronto, sometimes it feels like not much is going on at all.

So, once in a while, something happens that reminds me that I am part of a bigger picture, and that things ARE happening, and it is inspiring.

On December 6th, Cuso International held a "Volunteers for Development Day".  This was in recognition of international day of the volunteer, and it was an opportunity to inform our partners about Cuso's research and strategic directions, invite potential partners to find out more about working with Cuso, and talk and learn about something that is becoming more and more important in the nonprofit landscape - social enterprise activities.

The event was organized by my colleague, Erin MacLeod, and was definitely a success.  About 50 people attended, and there was a constant buzz in the air after both the morning and afternoon sessions, as people talked about what they had heard, and chatted with each other, networking away.

The event was offically reported on by Cuso International in their online news, and both Erin MacLeod and Kate Chappell offered their own take via personal blogs.

For me, the afternoon session was the most interesting, as I already knew most of the information about Cuso presented in the morning .  Our main speaker was Dr.Knife, a professor at the University of the West Indies, based here in Jamaica.  He is a Rasta, and spoke with a lot of patois thrown in, so I had to listen carefully to understand what he said. With a sense of humour, he describe the context - Jamaica as a country where trust has been lost in the official institutions of the police, the politicians, and the pastors, leaving the grassroots community organizations to pick up the pieces for youth who can be described as "at-risk" - at risk of being unemployed, under-educated, and victims of violence of all kinds.  He put the onus on the people in the room to take action to enable a stronger future for Jamaica.  In effect, he said to all of us, "Your work matters."

Dr. Knife also painted a lively picture of the so-called "at-risk" youth.  According to one of the statistics in his presentation, when IQ testing was done inside of Jamaican's prisons, 13% of the men ranked at genius status. Overall, Jamaicans ranked 5th in terms of entrepreneurial proclivity worldwide, with Jamaican women ranking 3rd internationally.  He made the point that it was unlikely these young people were acquiring their intelligence once inside the prison, but that criminal activity was a logical step for many of these youth, either as a result of survival in gang-controlled territories, or from effective shut-out of the legal marketplace.

The discussion then turned to social enterprise.  In this context, social enterprise includes activities undertaken by an NGO to earn a profit, which in turn goes back to support the organization.  The second part of the afternoon included a presentation with one of our existing partner organizations, who run a social enterprise venture (partially developed by a Cuso volunteer) where the youth who attend the program learn skills in making a craft, and then that product is then sold, with the youth being paid piecework for their time, and profit going back to the organization to support the program. When done well, social enterprise can support a community organization, and teach valuable skills (and provide income) for participants.

There were many in the room who asked follow-up questions to the speakers, and you could see the wheels turning in their heads as to how to make this concept work for them.  I was inspired both by what was already happening and by the opportunities that emerged from the discussion. It was a good day to be a volunteer.

It doesn't matter where you are - a conference room is a conference room is a conference room.

Presenting something deep and meaningful about becoming a partner with Cuso International.

Wendy, on the left, a Cuso volunteer, with her supervisor, Mikel, who spoke about the partner-volunteer experience from both sides of the fence.

Attentive listening.
Dr. Knife, asking a question of the morning presenters - you can see how animated he was even from this picture.

One of the social enterprise products - hanging planters made from old tires. We raffled these two off to participants.

The Canadian High Commissioner to Jamaica brought greetings for the event. I enjoyed meeting him, as you can see.

Photo credits all go to Varun Baker, another talented Cuso volunteer, both with the camera and a computer. You can check out his work here.

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