The first time I put my foot down on African soil in Ghana, I wanted to cry. Feeling the heat that borders on oppressive with not a single hint of breeze may not be everyone’s idea of paradise, but I loved it. Now I’m here again, in The Gambia this time, enjoying the sun as my dark skin absorbs its rays.
Rewind to 20 years ago when Africa was little more than another name on a map, my parents worked hard to make sure that my brother and I had every opportunity not always afforded to people of color. One huge step in this process was packing us up and out to the suburbs of Philadelphia.
My school district was extremely diverse, and I am only now just realizing that my circle of friends looked like a cheesy brochure promoting diversity. I got the odd racial joke of being called an Oreo, and my family and I made a game of seeing how many Black people we saw when we went to dinner, but I lived my childhood blissfully ignorant of present-day racism and prejudice.
And then there was college.
My choice was between a HBCU and a Pennsylvania state school in the middle of farmland. In the end, I couldn’t ignore the money. State school it was. I have never regretted my decision, but I was definitely a black speck of ebony in a sea of ivory.
So, when I graduated and joined the Peace Corps, I told them I didn’t care where they put me, but it needed to be Africa.
I spent the next 2 years in Ghana where I was different, but not obviously so. I was a Black person in a Black country. People assumed I was one of them, and I loved it. There were challenges—Ghanaians had a lot less patience with me compared to white volunteers when teaching their culture—but I was finally among what felt like my people.
And then there was grad school.
I knew I wanted to work in the international field, but the international aspect was missing from a lot of these international programs, so Notre Dame in all its homogeneity it was.
I love the Keough School, but its demographics don’t spill out to the rest of the University. I have found myself more racially defiant than ever, wearing my Nah- Rosa Parks shirt with my fluffy halo of hair all the while secretly wondering how Black is too Black for ND.
Now how does any of this relate to my time in The Gambia right now?
Well, this time, I feel lost.
Before college, I was just an American kid. In college, I gripped my identity as a Black woman tight. In Ghana, I was able to celebrate being around Black people. At Notre Dame, I played the woke Black American. Now, I am acutely aware of how American I am because here, there is no Black and white America. It’s all America, and America is white.
Where does my Blackness fit in? Do I subscribe to the American identity I grew up with, or the African identity that is my history, no matter how distant and forgotten?
I’ve done 23&me, so I know that my DNA test says I have a lot of West Africa in my blood (along with a significant amount of European but who would accept that), but I can’t tell you generations back what my ancestors did. I don’t find it a privilege to live with my parents until I marry, which apparently should have happened already. Even my name, with the Br, is hard to pronounce here.
And I LOVE personal space, a concept severely missing here.
It’s not that these differences didn’t exist in Ghana. I was just so excited to be around Black people that I minimized them.
And now I’m confused.
I’m too Black for America and I’m too American for Africa.
And it’s only worse when I hang out with the white expats. Visually, I can pass for Gambian so when I go out, I feel the Gambian eyes linger on me a little longer. It’s like I’m too similar for them to understand that I’m not like them, and by not acting like them they see it as me rejecting their Gambian culture.
So for all of you who look like TV’s version of America or know the origins of your people, make a little effort to appreciate that privileged knowledge and comfort in knowing exactly who you are. We don’t all have that luxury.
Top Photo: A decidedly not personal-space friendly lounging area at the beach.
“The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past.”
― Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
Old historic buildings, tall gothic cathedrals, ancient marble roads, magnificent Flemish art coupled up with modern infrastructure, and the smell of dark chocolate were just some of the scenes that welcomed me to Brussels, Belgium in the summer of 2021. During my five-week stay in the European country, I was treated to infinite doses of an incredibly rich culture that immersed me in a highly intriguing moment of history. As I made my way through the touristic streets, I would be taken aback by the magnificence of the Art Nouveau architecture surrounding the city. My online research of the city did not do me any justice and I often found myself sidetracked by the hundreds of pictures I took. As much as I wanted to enjoy the present, I did not want to miss anything and, as such, took pictures of everything—from gargoyles to landscape, food, performances, street art, and artifacts.
Among the fascinating places was Grand Place, which had some of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. These buildings date back to the 14th century and stood boldly in defiance of time. As I walked through the structures while feeling the walls with my fingers and closed eyes, I imagined what it was like 500 years ago—what the lifestyle and culture were, and how did they dress and interact. I was curious: was there hunger, wars, and crime, and was there mass travel as is today? Just by the sheer age of the ground I stood, it hit me quite vividly that history has proven to be a double-edged sword, sharing our successes as well as our failures and all preserved in monuments around us.
As a student from Africa visiting Europe for the first time, it shocked me to see so much of African culture in Belgium. During my second week, I took the train to the Africa Museum, an ethnography and natural history museum located 8.5 miles outside Brussels. The museum focuses on the Congo, a former Belgian colony, and other parts of Africa such as East and West Africa. While en route to the museum, I knew I would be interacting with African culture, however, the magnitude of the traditional artifacts on display was unexpected. I started the tour with much excitement, embracing the African culture and appreciation, but this feeling soon turned into shock and then anger. Why were there so many African traditional artifacts in a museum in Europe?
“Some of these pieces were obtained by violent or unlawful means.”
Because of colonization, the histories of Africa and Europe are forever tied and although more than five decades have since passed, the effects are enormous. From the religions we hold to the naming of our children, our education systems, and the languages we speak, they all have a hint of colonization. There have been negative effects too—economic instabilities, systemic racism, ethnic rivalries, degradation of natural resources, and widespread human rights violations that we see across Africa years after independence. These realities became very real to me with each room I entered and with every item I saw. It is no secret that most of these artifacts—masks worn by elders and warriors, traditional clothing and weapons, and musical instruments—were obtained during the colonial era and not in the most peaceful of means. In an announcement in one of the hallways, the museum acknowledges the questionable nature in which these artifacts were acquired. They confess that “a large part of Africa’s material heritage is housed in Western Museums or with private collectors” adding that “some of these pieces were obtained by violent or unlawful means.”
This encounter raised several pertinent questions in my mind, among them was, should reparations be made to post-colonial states for atrocities made during colonization and if so, what forms should they take?
There have been numerous debates in recent years about whether European countries should return these artifacts as part of a reparations process. Countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Benin, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Egypt have, in the past, made appeals to have their artifacts returned. Some European countries have agreed to this but on conditions such as on a loan basis, as was with the case between Nigeria, Benin, and Britain. I must admit that there has been some form of acknowledgment of the need to reinstitute these artifacts, the question though remains—is that enough? It has been shown in research that former colonial masters enriched their countries’ economic and industrial strength through the resources they extracted from their colonies. In addition to natural and human resources, traditional artifacts are just among the many things that were taken.
The Africa Museum noted that it “is currently prioritizing provenance research to ascertain how objects were acquired,” noting that “the museum has an open constructive attitude towards the restitution debate.” Although this shows some willingness to have the debate on reparations, this intent needs to be translated into action.
On this, I say there is a need for both repentance and reparations.
Besides restitution of African artifacts, there has also been a push for reparations that match the level of atrocities committed during colonization. So far, only acknowledgments and very few public apologies have been made. An excellent example was in June 2020 when the Belgian king, Philippe, wrote a letter to the Congolese president acknowledging the “painful episodes” of the colonial era with its “acts of violence and cruelty.” In this statement, Philippe says that he “would like to express my deepest regrets for these injuries of the past, the pain of which is now revived by the discrimination still too present in our societies.” The admission came as a shock as no Belgian monarch has previously made such a statement.
The debate on whether reparations or apologies should be made has been contentious. The main point of debate is the governments and individuals that committed these atrocities are no longer in power and that those who experienced colonialism firsthand are gone. It is from this argument that French President Emmanuel Macron in January 2021 said that there will be “no repentance nor apologies” for its occupation in Algeria but rather they are open to participating in “symbolic acts” that will promote reconciliation. On this, I say there is a need for both repentance and reparations.
But what form should they be in? Well, the first step is education that will allow people, most importantly policymakers, to understand and appreciate the need for it. This would call for an acknowledgment and apology for colonial atrocities. Secondly, reparations do not necessarily need to equate to monetary value (although common) but can also be in the form of radical and justice-driven change, as economist Priya Lukka notes.
There is also a crucial need to make international laws more inclusive through decolonizing principles that obstruct reparations. This would pave way for racial equality and eliminate avenues for discrimination, more so on reparations. It is encouraging to see that there is an ongoing conversation on this topic, which is what is needed if we are ever to ensure justice is achieved for those who were colonized. However, for now, we can start with the return of these African artifacts to their rightful homes.
Top Photo: Statues outside the African Museum in Tervuren, Belgium.
“The Community builds an unimpeachable record for integrity and good offices in the societies it comes to serve . . . Sant’Egidio practices nonpartisan social action that underscores its equanimity and commitment to the common good.”
— R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred
The first time I encountered the Community of Sant’Egidio was not in a “usual” way for a Sant’Egidio member—by attending prayer or perhaps engaging in service, but rather by reading an academic article. As a peace studies undergraduate interested in the intersection of religion and peace, I encountered The Ambivalence of the Sacred, a seminal work by Scott Appleby, Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School. Appleby argues that the “sacred,” religious actors, and religious ideologies in general are not monoliths, but that each tradition and each person within the tradition creates their own response to what they view as the “sacred.”
Appleby also discusses Sant’Egidio, detailing not only the community’s vast diplomatic and peace work in Mozambique, Uganda, Algeria, and elsewhere, but also its activities with a wide range of vulnerable people such as the DREAM project for HIV/AIDS treatment within the African continent, services for elderly people, those experiencing homelessness, those with disabilities, abandoned children, and immigrants. I was immediately hooked, and the work of Sant’Egidio was never far from my mind as I completed my undergraduate studies and began to think about graduate work.
When I returned to Notre Dame in the fall of 2020 to begin the Master of Global Affairs program at the Keough School, I began seeking out opportunities for my six-month internship. I was introduced again to Sant’Egidio, this time in a new way by Professor Jerry Powers, director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the Keough School’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. What began as a simple introduction soon led into an internship and then a full-time position with the Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue as well as an offer to come to Rome and work with Sant’Egidio’s Peace Office during my six-month placement.
From the outset, spending time with the community’s outreach to migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos was one of my priorities. Thanks to an internship and placement grant from the Keough School’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies, I was able to join that project at the end of the summer.
Since starting my work in Rome in June 2021, I have been engaged in assisting Sant’Egidio’s Peace Office with the Rome Initiative, the community’s support for the peace process in South Sudan. The Rome Initiative seeks to find an inclusive way to bring the non-signatories of the Rome Declaration into dialogue and full agreement with the government of South Sudan. No two days at Sant’Egidio look the same, but our focus remains constant: how can we “live out” the values of the Gospel every day by supporting the most marginalized people?
In the spirit of this mission, Sant’Egidio offers robust support for refugees and migrants, including through a program called “Sant’Egidio summer.” For the past few years, about 250 Sant’Egidio members, mostly from Europe, spend part of their summer holiday on Lesbos which is now home to about 7,000 refugees. In the camps, they operate an English school, a School for Peace program for children (from teenagers down to two-year-olds), a full-service “restaurant,” and other services.
Thanks to the Nanovic Institute, I was able to join this group of Sant’Egidio volunteers on Lesbos. Understanding the refugee crisis on the island and around the world is pivotal to the peace work that I am engaged in. When one works in diplomacy and politics, it can often be easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of high-level technical decisions and quickly forget that every poor decision or mistake that is made can result in yet another family ending up in a tent in the middle of a refugee camp with an uncertain future.
I am incredibly grateful to have had this experience on Lesbos, witnessing and participating in the Sant’Egidio community “in action.” I look forward to sharing more about my experiences in my future posts.
Elizabeth Boyle ’20 is a student in the Master of Global Affairs program with a concentration in international peace studies. As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, she studied and worked on interreligious peacebuilding and received the Yarrow Award in Peace Studies. She has interned with Religions for Peace, the US Commission on Civil Rights, USAID, and the US Department of State. Boyle is also the recipient of an Ansari Institute Fellowship.
6:30 AM: It is still dark outside because it is winter in Malawi, and we must set off early to make it to one of the fifteen communities we will visit in our six weeks of qualitative data collection with the i-Lab. The car winds down the switch-back mountain road and I close my eyes, trying not to puke or focus on the fact that dense fog barely lets us see 6 feet in front of us. I tell Cosmas, our driver, “you’re a hero,” for the first time today. An hour and a half later, we make it to the Chikwawa District’s Agriculture Office to pick up the agriculture extension officer who will guide us to the community. However, he informs us the bridge to the community is no longer operational . . . we must go back to Blantyre and take the dirt road.
8:00 AM: So, we start our trek back up the switch-back road, through the dense fog, make a pit stop for roasted maize sold on the side of the road, arrive in Blantyre, and start our journey all over again on a different road. Little do I know, this is the longest, most bumpy, truly terrifying road I have ever encountered in my 26 years on this earth. I have never been tossed around so violently and I feel truly thankful for the invention of the safety locking mechanism on seatbelts.
10:30 AM: We arrive at the community four long hours after our initial start time this morning with a moderate case of whiplash. As we get out of the car and I try to forget about the experience I just had, my research teammate, Lauren, whispers to me, “Look it’s market day.” Vendors from town and other communities have set up shop along the main road to sell fresh produce, baked goods, clothes, and chitenge (the traditional cloth wrap worn by women). Lauren and I pause our walk to the meeting venue to buy a fritter and when we look up from thanking the kind woman who sold us the perfectly fried pastry, the car is gone, our translators and facilitators have vanished, and we are left standing helplessly in the middle of the road—my minimal Chichewa language skills are not going to get us out of this situation.
10:50 AM: After ten long minutes desperately trying to ask for directions and communicating with smiles and pointing, a child approaches us, and it is very clear we are to follow her. The 10-year-old guides us to the meeting location where 20 men and women of the watershed management committee wait for us; they laugh kindly at our mistake, welcome us to the correct location, and we thank our child guide.
We apologize profusely for our tardiness. Our research facilitators, Micter and Moyenda, introduce us and the purpose of our visit. We are there to learn about the community’s relationship with natural resources and how they have sustained the interventions of a watershed management development project that ended eight years ago.
The Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement project, WALA, is aimed to help communities restore degraded watersheds through building physical structures and planting trees, amongst other things. This prevents flooding by allowing water to easily infiltrate into the ground and recharge the water table, allowing for longer growing seasons, lessening the impact of severe weather brought on more frequently by climate change, and increasing food security in the region. The community has so much to teach us about what they have been collectively working on, and how they sustain, modify, and add new interventions to the project every year to better fit their needs. The conversations take place in Chichewa, and because I speak a different yet very similar language from a neighboring country, I can understand a fair bit of what is being said. Later, I get the details from the extensive notes Micter and Moyenda take.
Their notes describe how this community felt a need to go above and beyond the watershed management interventions because this project was the first time an NGO was willing to make the trek into their community. They collectively felt that this was their only opportunity to reap the benefits from the resources and expertise the project gave them. They understand they are geographically isolated, so were truly grateful and appreciative for their first and thus far only opportunity to solve some of the problems the community knew they needed to address.
Most of the other communities we have visited thus far during our field work, those situated along the paved road or just an easy 10 to 15- minute ride on a dirt road, have had multiple projects from multiple NGOs over the past decade, often working simultaneously. Some communities were inundated with NGO projects to assist with issues surrounding health, nutrition, education, or natural resource management, while isolated communities have few such opportunities. How can this disparity, based simply on geography, be fair?
2:00 PM: We are sincerely impressed during a tour of the watershed infrastructure, which is maintained immaculately. We see massive stone bunds, contour trenches, and swales. The sheer amount of physical labor that went into the construction of these elements is astounding. It really is incredible to see what a community can do when they come together to solve their problems and make sure they have a sustainable future. This community is so hidden away from urban society that getting to it is time consuming and physically painful, but to be able to see the progress and get a sense of the lifechanging outcomes that result from a single development project really makes me understand the important role that NGOs can play in a community’s development.
3:00 PM: Before we leave, we are asked to sign the community’s visitor book in which I see the names of the Catholic Relief Services Country Director and a United States Congressional Representative. They visited the community in 2019, before the pandemic. This community and all they have done in sustaining and replicating project interventions, since the completion of WALA, is an excellent example of how development projects succeed in changing lives through effective natural resource management thus leading to poverty alleviation and food security.
3:10 PM: We say our goodbyes and are informed that the bridge we had previously thought was not operational is repaired, so we can take the “shorter and better” road back to Blantyre. Looking back on this moment, I realize I have never been so boldly and confidently misled by a stranger. Boy were we in for a treat. If I thought the road coming into the community was the worst I had ever been on, then this road out of the village made the last feel road like the miniature roller coasters for kids under the age of 5 at the theme park. At no less than seven points in the ride, I think the car is going to flip and tumble down a mountain slope. There are not one but two bridges, and the car cannot even make it over the first one, so we actually drive through a river. I do not know much about cars, but I know they do not normally drive through rivers. This is the point in the day in which I tell Cosmas, for the second time, that he is a hero.
6:30 PM: We make it home a full 12 hours after leaving that morning, our brains bursting with information and adrenaline pumping through our veins. The people we met and the watershed interventions we saw today opened my eyes to the good that can come from development projects. But realizing the inequity in the way NGOs allocate resources, based on the level of ease of transportation into a community, makes me ponder the ethical dilemma of doing what is easy rather than doing what is right. This is a message that I have always held close and I will continue to take with me as I enter the sustainable development field after graduation. I am grateful to have had such an eye-opening Tuesday.
It is hot, the breezes are few, and I am staring at my assigned tasks on our team checklist, realizing again that I have nothing left to do. I am with my Integration Lab (i-Lab) team in Haiti, studying people’s relationship to chronic poverty. Of the four of us, only one is Haitian.
My Haitian teammate does the bulk of the work. During community visits, he registers participants, co-facilitates focus group discussions and participatory activities, conducts key informant interviews, and takes notes for all activities. Back at our hotel, he reads the notes for the rest of us to transcribe, explains their context, and highlights particular insights. Beyond activities directly related to research, he also handles local logistics, coordinating with the hotel, facilitators, recruiters, drivers, and the partner organization. He organizes our fun excursions. And, of course, he constantly translates for us blans (foreigners).
My non-Haitian teammates handle more of the support work for community visits: prepping the materials before we leave, recording the group discussions and participatory activities, handing out refreshments, and taking photos. During data processing, we take turns transcribing and coding notes and recording insights. One teammate confirms the schedules for our next community visits and another repacks our supplies.
My unique contributions are as follows: I track and distribute all the project money and I upload photos and documents into Google Drive.
Without our Haitian teammate, this project would be impossible. Conversely, my presence is optional. One teammate already helped track the money in the first two weeks; the rest is exceedingly simple.
So, why be here? What use am I? My anxiety is perpetual.
My teammates’ answers:
You are good at financial tracking.
Having a fourth person makes data processing easier.
Simply witnessing the participants’ testimonies, their living conditions, and life in Haiti will make you a better practitioner.
Everyone contributes what they can: your skills will be most useful during the spring and fall semesters, so it is okay to be doing less in the summer.
These answers are all true and kind. The first two show that my presence makes my team’s lives easier but that the project could still continue without me. My anxiety remains.
The third answer tries to shift the focus onto individual short-term benefits and long-term communal ones. Alone, this is unsatisfying. I am grateful to have experiences that will make me a better practitioner. However, I am uncomfortable with benefiting more from my time in Haiti than Haitians do. The argument that they may benefit later from the results of my team’s research circles back to the question of whether my presence is necessary. If the benefits could be realized without me, why be here? My anxiety remains.
So we come to the fourth answer and the true crux of the issue. What does it mean to be a valuable team member? For me, it means sharing skills that nobody else can (or at least to be particularly good at something), doing my fair share of work. Broadly, I fulfill these requirements. I have data analysis skills that my teammates do not. I am particularly good with finances. I contributed a lot to the project in the spring and will do so again in the fall. And yet it is difficult to shake the feeling that because my presence is not crucial in this very moment, it is unjustifiable. Learning to be okay with not being a top contributor, learning to believe others when they say I am doing enough (even if the workload is skewed!), has been the most difficult part of the summer.
I face a larger question—one that cannot be fully addressed in this post—about the distribution of benefit from field experiences. Field experience is valuable; the indirect benefits to communities hopefully do exist. Still, students gain more than the communities do, particularly in the short term: this experience leads to a master’s degree, which gives us power, access, and agency in the global development system. Meanwhile, the situation for our Haitian participants is unchanged. That balance is discomfiting, especially in a global affairs program, especially one dedicated to integral human development.
I will never be fully comfortable with gaining more from an experience than I contribute to it, and I do not want to be. That inner sense of fairness helps me be sensitive to potentially toxic dynamics on a personal, group, and communal level. But I do think finding value in my presence outside of how much I contribute at any given moment is just as important. My anxiety recedes.
Author’s note: My team and I were evacuated due to political instability shortly after this blog post was written. We are all safe and well. In whatever way suits you, please send Haiti your prayers, well wishes, and moral support as the country navigates their current crisis.
White Georgia marble rises tall over an ample green lawn. Chairs lie on this pristine patio, lush trees providing a refuge from the summer heat. Sitting on the grounds surrounding the Rhode Island State House in the city of Providence, I cannot help but marvel at the beauty and openness of this public space. In my hometown of Guayaquil, Ecuador, I am more used to parks and fences, to government buildings and guards; where there are beautiful green spaces, there are also signs restricting them to certain hours, activities, and kinds of people.
This thought process of mine portrays a logic long familiar to the field of international development and to policymakers in Latin America: there can be a tendency to praise the accomplishments of our neighbors to the north, including the United States and its ranks of prominent academics, while lamenting over what we supposedly have yet to achieve in the geographic south. However pervasive to this day, this perspective obscures the fact that there are other geographies that matter.
I stand up from my chair and enjoy the protection of the shade trees one last time, then I begin my commute to Smith Hill, a Providence neighborhood less than a block away from the state’s capitol. I venture across a narrow sidewalk overlooking a plethora of lanes and cars. This neighborhood is split in two by I-95, an interstate highway connecting the entire eastern coast of the US. Once on the other side, cracked and abundant pavement greets me, and the thick smell of smoke settles into my nostrils uninvited. Under the hot sun, with few trees and thus hardly any shade, I begin to sweat.
This artificial geography provides an example of vastly different living conditions among segregated areas, including lower climate resilience within low-income neighborhoods of color. It is now well documented that segregation efforts at both the federal and municipal levels have resulted in racially divided neighborhoods within US cities. The denial of federally backed mortgages to neighborhoods graded too “risky” to lend to was one of the main public policies used for such discrimination, as lending risk assessments were dependent on both the housing stock and racial composition of an area. As documented by Groundwork RI for the city of Providence, “neighborhoods of color and those with high numbers of immigrants saw property values drop or stagnate, and with that, resident- and city-led improvements to infrastructure also stalled.”
Smith Hill and other areas that received Cs and Ds, the worst neighborhood grades, suffer from higher concentrations of impervious pavement, lower levels of tree canopy, and higher temperatures as compared to their higher-rated counterparts. The end result is what one can term a “climate injustice,” with neighborhoods of color more exposed to flooding and heat, and citizens who must thus bear a disproportionate burden of the consequences brought upon by climate change.
Such injustices committed by this artificial geography within the supposed developed world make it clear that development is not so much about a transfer of knowledge or resources from the planetary north to “solve problems in the south,” but rather an issue of the “where” and the “who” within those spaces, as nation states and cities are far from being monoliths. The term “global south” should therefore be used to acknowledge the plight of marginalized peoples within the borders of wealthier countries. The Sustainable Development Goals recognize a need for global action on this topic, including within the US, by calling unto “all countries, rich, poor and middle-income, to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.”
Investigating climate justice policy in the US
The Keough School Integration Lab’s first-ever domestic project is a recognition of this pressing global need. In partnership with the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions, my master of global affairs colleagues Dara-Marie Raggay, Mohammad Farrae, and I are currently interviewing stakeholders across 6 US cities in the hopes of addressing the question: How might we accelerate the ability of cities to successfully implement effective policies for climate justice and equity? Our journey has so far taken us to Washington, DC, Takoma Park, MD, Providence, RI, and Cincinnati, OH, where we have observed the unequal effects posed by climate change and structural racism, but also the creative solutions seeking to undo these wrongs.
Our project, often spearheaded by directly affected communities in conjunction with city officials, seeks to compile successful climate justice initiatives, together with common challenges, so that cities beginning their climate justice and equity journey can do so on a stable foundation of expertise.
The more we move forward, the more I have learnt by having my traditional conceptions of development work challenged, not only of where we should work, but even of who should be listened to. As we sometimes look at foreign nations, we must also look inward, giving nuance to the geographies of development that so often prevent us from seeing its global dimension. Sustainable development is needed in developing countries, in the US, and in the world.
If you had asked me a month ago what it means to practice integral human development in impact evaluation, I would not have said anything about timing. It has only been through my experience conducting field research in southern Malawi for my Integration Lab (i-Lab) project these past few weeks that I have realized why it matters so much when data is collected and how the timing of collection could interfere with researchers’ recognition and upholding of human dignity.
My team and I are here in Malawi to conduct a follow-up evaluation of the five-year Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement (WALA) project completed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in 2014. CRS implemented WALA in an effort to reduce food insecurity by promoting watershed management and installing watershed “treatments” (check dams, marker ridges, and in some cases, irrigation schemes) in beneficiary communities. Though an initial evaluation completed during project close-out suggested that the treatments were well-received, a rapid assessment completed in 2018 painted a different picture. The author of this 2018 evaluation reported that the benefits of the treatments had not motivated a majority of beneficiaries to maintain the various structures and, as a result, WALA failed to achieve its objectives. Hoping to understand these disheartening results and avoid repeating the same mistakes, CRS asked us to investigate these findings as well as the barriers and drivers to long-term sustainability for watershed interventions.
We have met countless farmers and leaders eager to tell us about all the ways their lives have improved.
With this report in mind, we began our field research thinking that if the 2018 researcher found the WALA treatments in disrepair and people unwilling to even talk about watershed management, then surely, three years later, we would find only the remnants of the structures and community members who had forgotten about WALA entirely. Surely. To say that the opposite is true feels like an understatement. We have now met countless farmers and leaders eager to tell us about all the ways their lives have improved since WALA and to take us on a tour of the treatments. The findings we have collected so far bear no resemblance to those presented in the 2018 report.
There is only one way that we can think to explain these discrepancies: timing. The author of the last report visited at peak harvest time. Not only is this when farmers’ labor-demand is the greatest, but it also happens to be during peak rainy season as well when the treatments are withstanding the greatest load. Thus, when the researcher arrived in December of that year, farmers were irritated to be sitting in focus groups when there was so much work to be done and treatments that were difficult to assess—if not entirely undetectable—due to the high water levels in the rivers at the time.
There are endless ways that development practitioners can fail, often unintentionally, to uphold the dignity of others.
This is not to say that the researcher’s findings were wrong, but his conclusions were. Moreover, I would argue that the conclusions he drew and the way he presented them in the report misconstrue not only the impact of WALA on the beneficiary communities, but also the beneficiaries themselves. In his report, he describes the irritated community members as greedy and suffering from “resource-dependency syndrome,” a portrayal that I believe violates their inherent human dignity.
There were times this past school year when I would find myself sitting in the back of Clemens Sedmak’s Integral Human Development class or Hal Culbertson’s Ethical Issues in Humanitarian Practice course overwhelmed by the endless ways that development practitioners can fail, often unintentionally, to uphold the dignity of others. I don’t wish to sound hypercritical or turn this blog post into a tirade; just as I wish to express empathy for the farmers who were irritated to be disturbed during harvest, I want to empathize with a fellow researcher who—I assume—did not choose to conduct his evaluation at such an inopportune time.
More than anything, though, I want to extract a lesson from this experience that I can carry with me as I pursue a career in development-related research myself. I want to remember that research design, like project design, must be human-centered and that at the end of the day, the recognition of human dignity must remain our greatest priority.
This past summer, the four of us, representing all three concentrations within the Master of Global Affairs program, gathered to brainstorm answers to the question “what can we do?”; a question that plagued the United States following the murder of George Floyd. Oftentimes, we look back at significant historical moments such as the Civil Rights Era or other social movements and ask ourselves what we would have done. We believe we would have been at the frontlines of those movements, and we didn’t want to look back on this moment and wish we had done something meaningful. This impetus is what brought us together, with diverse perspectives and approaches, to address this moment and beyond.
In our own words
George Floyd’s murder was traumatic for us on individual and collective levels. This trauma was compounded by COVID-19 and the heightened isolation we all experienced. We came up with the idea of having a healing circle, an idea that came from our recognition of our own need to heal, and out of concern for peers who more recently started grappling with the realities of racial injustice since moving to the United States. We were also deeply concerned about our Black classmates. We did not want them to grieve and navigate the moment alone. Although we previously engaged in theoretical conversations in classes such as Integral Human Development, we felt that we had not only the responsibility, but also the opportunity, to go further.
“We didn’t want to look back on this moment and wish we had done something more meaningful.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder we saw our group chat, once a place for silly memes, assignment deadlines, and birthday celebrations, evolve into a space for support, healing, and solidarity. We noticed glimmers of healing, and decided we needed a more organized space to digest our experiences and place in this moment. Thus, the idea for a healing circle was born.
As women of color we experience different faces of marginalization and oppression, particularly through anti-Blackness, racism and colonialism. We were, and continue to be, vulnerable in this moment and sought to strengthen solidarity with our friends. Many of our friends who seek to be allies are also impacted by these structures of oppression. We believe that friendship is most authentic when informed by a knowing and recognition of shared experiences with racism and dehumanization. Through the healing circle, we sought to digest the moment and our experiences of and relationships with racism in a safe and accountable space. We wanted to understand these experiences together and reach a shared understanding. We sought to overcome feelings of powerlessness by reaching out to others, to show radical care for them and ourselves. We also hoped this circle would create momentum for further action.
Creating the circle
Hailing from different countries and backgrounds and each with our own unique experience with racism and colonization, the four of us embodied the intersectional and interdisciplinary approach that we took towards processing these issues in solidarity with each other.
Initially we envisioned this effort as a healing conversation among our peers that would give all participants the opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, and responses to the longstanding and current situation in the US regarding race and police brutality. We hoped that every member of our cohort would join us, as we believed (and still believe) that we would all benefit from this conversation as scholars and as practitioners. In order to ensure maximum participation, we sent a poll to our cohort to find out which day and time would work best for the majority of people.
“As women of color we experience marginalization and oppression. We were, and continue to be, vulnerable in this moment and sought to strengthen solidarity with our friends.”
In determining the strategy for the event, through countless meetings and discussions among the four of us, we decided to rename our healing circle as a “talking circle.” Our rationale was that this conversation was only the beginning of a longer journey through which aspects of healing would be explored individually and collectively.
However, we knew that we did not want this space merely to be a venting session. Rather, we envisioned it as the development of a healing practice, one whose participants understood that racial justice is their problem too. Thus, we sought the help of other scholars, practitioners, and experts, such as Professor Laurie Nathan,Professor Justin DeLeon, Professor Clemens Sedmak, and others. Using their guidance, we constructed the circle as a series of open-ended questions and opportunities for sharing. We considered requesting the Keough School to sanction this circle and mandate participation. We eventually decided against taking this route because we agreed that people are in different phases of engagement with racial justice. We wanted to meet people where they are.
Inside the talking circle
The virtual talking circle began like most Zoom calls. There was the brief silence followed by warm reunions as we virtually reunited with friends after months of isolation. As facilitators, we also felt the quiet relief of seeing more participants trickle onto the call. Our conversation began with a short explanation of the talking circle. We discussed our hopes for the conversation to serve as a collective space for processing the summer, which would ultimately move us towards pursuing racial justice as individuals and as a collective. We asked a series of introductory questions such as “what do you hope to receive from the conversation and what do you hope to bring into the space?”. Some came ready to participate; many came to listen and to learn.
“Our conversation turned towards taking action, and we wrestled with the paradox of valuing both safety and solidarity.”
When the moment was right we dove into our first question: “what was your first experience with race, and how did it make you feel?”. We knew this question was complicated given the diversity of our cohort and our assumption that race was a fairly new concept for many of our international colleagues. As our friends shared their experiences we saw the nuances and complexities of race unfold. Peers discussed experiences ranging from colorism and privilege in the Middle East to sanctioned racial discrimination in the US. These conversations showed us how our awareness of race, privilege, and oppression begins early. Irrespective of our national origin, we are all conditioned to remain silent and accept the status quo. Inequality is reproduced as we are socialized to dehumanize through blind acceptance of wrongs reinforced by our families, our peers, and even our educational institutions.
Our conversation turned towards taking action, and we wrestled with the paradox of valuing both safety and solidarity. One colleague mentioned that true solidarity may require the privileged to willingly sacrifice their safety to stand with the marginalized so that one day we all can experience safety equally. The energy of our conversation transcended the virtual barriers as the comment resonated in the virtual space. Our conversation on safety and solidary revealed the significance of the moment as feelings of community and solidarity materialized in our bodies. Our individual stories became bridges for deepening our connections and commitment to each other. Thus, talking became healing.
To help continue this collaborative endeavor of racial justice, we sought answers from our colleagues who attended the talking circle. A survey afterward indicated that our colleagues were interested in maintaining these conversations. Some suggested different themes of how education can be used to foster or fight against racism, disability rights awareness and promotion, and even learning how to be an effective ally and the essential facts to back up our arguments with naysayers.
Wrapping up the talking circle was difficult for us. We wanted this racial justice initiative to continue, and we wanted this to be more than just dialogue. We knew that we needed to do more than just continue to “talk” about these things. We need situations to change, improve, transform.
One of the limitations that we know we are up against is that graduate student life is short-lived. Graduate students only remain at Notre Dame for a couple of years. We began brainstorming how we are to embed and sustain this initiative of racial justice. Who is supposed to maintain racial justice movement within the Keough School and the broader Notre Dame system? Most importantly, should the responsibility solely remain with the students?
Diversity, inclusion, and representation are great. But how can we go even further in facilitating change to transform structures that maintain the status quo? We would welcome the implementation of permanent structures or programs on our campus that would ensure continued engagement with transforming racism and systemic dehumanization for students, faculty, and staff. We believe this can best be achieved through spaces where students, staff, and faculty can collectively build a vision for a shared future.
When we planned for the summer as master of global affairs students, we expected to have rich in-person field experiences in South Africa, Tunisia, and the Philippines. Some of us even contacted family and friends in these countries and made arrangements to see them. We devised our research plan using methods like focus group discussions and human-centered design workshops—methods that, we hoped, would help to improve development outcomes within the private sector.
But the surprise of a global pandemic disrupted all of these plans, prompting us to adapt and ultimately pivot to online fieldwork. This gave us a chance to test our assumptions and expectations about fieldwork, learn about ourselves as individuals and as a team, and experience an enriching partnership with Chemonics International that will still contribute to better involvement of the private sector in achieving development outcomes.
Originally, our i-Lab team expected to work with four projects in three countries. Throughout the spring semester, we discussed preliminary ideas about our plans for working together in the summer. However, the outlook became gloomier in April, and this continued into May, when we were to begin our fieldwork.
We started our pivot towards virtual fieldwork in mid-May with only two projects out of the four ready to work with us. We were doubtful about the feasibility of using our initial toolkit, confused about our next steps, and questioning the value of any work we would produce in this remote work mode. We spent hours discussing our assumptions and fears internally as a team, with our advisor, Melissa Paulsen, and with our partner liaisons, Chemonics’ Universities Partnerships Team. These open conversations helped us reaffirm our commitment to the project and prepared us to change our outlook on uncertainty and equip ourselves for the many potential scenarios and directions the project might now take.
We started by revisiting our action plan and intended methods of data collection. We agreed to do so regularly and update our plan and methods vigorously as we moved forward. We started by prioritizing our Private Sector Engagement (PSE) in-depth survey for the PSE practices within Chemonics as an organization to formulate our understanding of the needs of our partner. The survey had a high response rate and received input from 28 different ongoing projects in 42 countries. The results of our survey informed our project plan and were helpful for Chemonics to realize where their field staff faces bottlenecks when it comes to PSE, as highlighted in this blogpost on Chemonics website. Based on the survey, we decided to focus more on Key Informant Interviews and desktop research as our primary tools for data collection and deliverable formulation. In this task we collaborated closely with the Chemonics PSE SMART Team.
At the same time, our partner, Chemonics, worked with us to ensure that this was a rich learning experience for us. As a result, we included two short-term PSE focused projects with different deliverables for the health supply chain team within Chemonics and another project in Namibia involving water delivery and maintenance systems. So instead of the initial four projects we had in our proposal, we ended up engaging closely with five projects and teams in eight different countries and had four final deliverables instead of one! It is important to note that we worked extremely hard to guarantee that the quality of our work was consistent and exceptional throughout the different components of our project. The task was challenging, especially with our four team members being in four different time zones, with up to a 12-hour difference. All of this was possible because of those conversations we had early in the summer, where we decided to reach beyond our expectations of how our summer should be and focus on adapting to what our summer actually was.
Below are four lessons we learned from our remote i-Lab field experience.
Accepting Uncertainty and Celebrating It
One of the biggest challenges that we experienced as a team was getting comfortable with the uncertainty of how our project would continue unfolding. It is worth mentioning that this did not mean we waited for things to happen to improve our outcome magically, but rather became completely okay with what might happen next. To do this, we focused on distinguishing between the things within our reach and those outside of our control. Once we made this distinction, it was easier to make a plan and take concrete steps to reach our objective. Recall that when we first started our i-Lab project, we prioritized our data collection on projects that were ready to work with us and co-designed an in-depth analysis survey that guided us on how we would shape our final deliverable. Once we analyzed the results of our data survey, we learned that our partner’s top need was to provide successful examples of PSE in case studies format. This finding guided our next steps.
Practicing Open Communication
Our next key takeaway from our fieldwork was the importance of open communication in all aspects of our project. This helped us align expectations within our internal team as well with our partner. Sharing our challenges and fears openly and immediately allowed us to find solutions to any arising issues instead of delaying conflicts that could jeopardize the quality of our project given our 9-week constraint. Being intentional about communication definitely challenged us outside of our comfort zone, as some of us were intimidated to vocalize concerns and disagreements. Still, it paved the way for us to meet deadlines and adapt our strategy to accomplish the objectives of our fieldwork. For example, our team was split between specializing entirely into different lead roles and keeping lead roles but sharing a smaller degree of responsibilities in other projects. After communicating this concern, we were able to come up with a compromise that allowed us to each focus on a lead project, but continue to support our teammates. What also made this much easier was that our liaisons were very understanding and receptive to our concerns. They validated many of these concerns and worked with us closely to address them throughout the summer.
Working Remotely And Creatively
Working remotely did not mean we could not collaborate creatively. Our team learned to use different collaborative tools to foster creativity and inclusivity internally and externally. Even working remotely, we were aware some of us were more comfortable voicing ideas than others, so reaching a consensus that truly reflected everyone’s opinion could be difficult. However, we were intentional about using online tools that allowed everyone to participate and make our sessions more engaging/interactive. One form of collaboration we used was GroupMaps during a stakeholder mapping session we held with our liaison from the South Africa team. This allowed us to brainstorm in real time and then as a group discuss the rankings of the key players and prioritize key stakeholders for interviews. Using these tools helped us make our decision-making process more effective and even fun.
Leaning into the Team
The last takeaway that resonated with our team was the value of leaning in. While we worked from four different time zones, we were able to support each other in times of need. We conducted interviews that took place at 4 a.m., and thankfully, we could count on each other to take turns and perform these in pairs. We were intentional about dedicating a space to check in during our weekly meetings and even followed up after long days of work to see how we were doing.
This value of leaning in pushed us to ask for a support system when we most need it. For instance, when we faced barriers or roadblocks securing Key Informant Interviews in Namibia, we leaned into our partner in South Africa to leverage networks that ultimately enhanced the quality of our research and led us to our targeted interviewees.
Looking back at our summer fieldwork, we cannot help but smile. We smile because of how optimistically we thought things would unfold for us. But we also smile because we are proud of how we made things work for ourselves despite the obstacles and made this past summer a richer learning experience than we could ever imagine!
One of Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) mottos is to “embrace the uncertainty.” Unbeknownst to us, this mindset would assist us, the “CRS Homies’—Syeda (Fiana) Arbab, Kara Venzian, and Sofia Piecuch—in navigating the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. As part of its 2030 Vision, CRS plans to shift its disaster response from a focus on “shelters and settlements” to “homes and communities.” CRS tasked our i-Lab team with gathering data to understand how refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) perceive and create “home.”
When the quarantine began, our team was required to pivot from our original project implementation plan to our plan B. Plan B was designed for us to delegate leading the research to local CRS staff while relying completely on local data enumerators, transcribers, and translators. As project managers from afar, we needed to be creative in assessing the capacity of our three different field teams, catering our communication to their needs, and being intentional about building relationships with them– all while navigating the uncertainty of the pandemic.
While our initial start date for research was mid- to late May, lockdowns and restrictions were extended repeatedly, ultimately delaying our research in Uganda by two weeks and in Myanmar by a whole month. Our pre-pandemic proposal sought to conduct six focus groups, six mixed method activities, 40 interviews, 20 photography sessions and 200 surveys per country. However, in light of the increasing COVID-19 cases around the world, we simultaneously elaborated a plan B and C.
Plan B involved remote data gathering with local field staff by completing six focus groups, 40 interviews, 20 photography activities, and 90 surveys per country. Plan C required us to go completely virtual in data gathering, utilizing platforms like WhatsApp, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and remote survey platforms like Mechanical Turk, targeted to our countries of interest, as backup plans. We were prepared to implement either plan on any given notice, and ultimately were able to implement Plan B. Nonetheless, when embracing uncertainty, local conditions with layered complications had to be considered.
Due to lockdowns, refugees in Uganda and IDPs in Myanmar faced rising tensions at the intersection of poverty, food insecurity, access to information, and complications from large informal economic sectors (such as migrant workers crossing borders for temporary jobs). Furthermore, refugee and IDP camps and settlements face higher rates of health issues, sometimes having up to 60 times higher mortality rates when compared to host countries. In addition to pandemic-related complications, each refugee and IDP context faced its own challenges due to climate change, civil conflicts and war, food insecurity, poverty, corruption, and coordination failures. These difficulties were also coupled with uncertainties that arose from natural disasters.
Our team sought to navigate these conditions in a way that our research could be implemented effectively without being extractive or ignorant of these realities. We intentionally built our research instruments in a trauma-informed way, actively avoiding any questions that could bring forth bad memories, and reviewed each question extensively with in-country staff to maintain our ethical commitment to the dignity and well-being of people we engaged in this research. In general, we had expected refugee and IDP camps and settlements to be ever-changing and uncertain landscapes to navigate, but we could have never anticipated to what extent.
This disaster-stricken reality required flexibility of deadlines for staff members who were constantly pulled in multiple directions to manage many emergencies at once. Additionally, when coordinating with remote staff under pandemic conditions, an immense challenge was navigating the time zone difference. Our working day in Uganda began at 2am and ended at 9am, while in Myanmar work began at 10:30pm and ended at 6:30am. At many points we were working in both countries, juggling late night meetings with Myanmar and middle-of-night meetings with Uganda, all while balancing our own personal commitments based in the States.
We recognize how unsustainable it is for our physical and mental health to be actively engaged in this work around the clock like this. Fortunately (for this reason), we spent a maximum of five weeks working in each country, with the finish line never feeling too far off, giving us something to count down to: a regular sleep schedule.
In addition to difficulties with time zones, managing a remote staff also had its complications. Each time training was conducted, we veered from the plan in unexpected ways. Internet connectivity issues caused disruptions during training sessions as well as late starts. Local conditions (for example, the weather) determined whether to collect data on any specific day. Lack of clear communication coupled with the time difference occasionally delayed research, where we had to adjust our expectations and add extra days of hired staff time in order to meet our desired number of observations. Awareness of cultural differences was vital for delegating tasks to staff and achieving results. Furthermore, knowledge of local contexts was necessary to communicate, not only with staff members, but also with key informants (“who could have guessed the UNHCR representative preferred to be contacted over WhatsApp?”).
To be accessible in real time and to bond with our local teams, we decided to coordinate with staff in a more casual way. In Uganda, we created a WhatsApp group where we could discuss daily assignments and give immediate feedback (when we were awake).
For Myanmar, we created a Facebook Messenger group. Among all teams, we insisted on finding ways to be personable despite the distance (and screens) between us—we regularly sent selfies of ourselves working, and would often receive them from the team having breakfast or in training sessions together. This interaction was one of the highlights when managing our teams; we loved to put names to faces and to personalize our engagement beyond familiarity with their titles of “enumerator,” “translator,” or “transcriber.”
These informal chat groups also bridged an equity gap, as not everyone on our staff had email accounts; many were refugees themselves and did not have access to laptops. Thus, the less-formal interaction pathways were the most accessible way to communicate, especially instantaneously.
Our distance required us to rely heavily on our excellent staff, without whom we could not have effectively conducted the research. We had to be prepared to adapt to their varying levels of expertise—with some being familiar with CommCare (our data collection app) and some having no familiarity at all—and worked to capitalize on their strengths. Additionally, we recognized that our project was one of several for some people, who, especially during the pandemic, were juggling many responsibilities. Therefore, we learned to adjust to differing levels of responsiveness from field staff. There were some points where our team had to relinquish control and let whatever was going to happen, happen. We became familiar, although never comfortable, with the chaos this distant management required, and learned to live with it.
Our State-side daily realities also provided challenges. For example, internet limitations confined us to the same space during workdays, demanding creativity when we had multiple meetings at the same time. Though our desire was originally to find an official office space, we have instead been able to use one of our members’ studio apartments (which has proved ideal, especially during overnighters). Countless key informant interviews were conducted in our workspace’s closet, as the studio apartment did not provide different spaces to operate in while conducting separate meetings. Without the support of each other, solutions like this could not have come about. We are grateful to have been a part of such a flexible team that has had a strong dedication to this project.
Ultimately, this project demanded flexibility from us in ways we never expected, and forced us to generate innovative strategies to address any uncertainties that arose. Here are some of our key takeaways:
1) We are glad that we made the decision to work together in South Bend. Without in-person cooperation, our work would have been less cohesive, less enjoyable, and less efficient.
2) Through messaging apps, email, video calls, and final debrief dinners (and selfies), we are glad to have gotten to know the 34 staff members that we worked with. This allowed us not only to receive quality work from field staff, but also gave us the opportunity to contribute to their professional development through the creation of professional certificates, resume pointers, and passing along potential employment/education opportunities.
3) Along the same lines, we observe that working remotely and relying on local staff contributes toward sustainable, localized efforts and responses.
Despite the challenges, we have still been able to receive high quality data. We cannot be more grateful for a huge challenge well met and a successful project, one that has broadened our knowledge of project implementation. We recognized all of these uncertainties and have loved the process of being uncomfortable while growing our own capabilities as project managers and consultant-researchers.