Tyler Higgninson: A Practical and Personal Growth Experience

Summary of Experience

What an incredible experience! I learned a lot about program design, localizing or contextualizing said program or project, and expectations. The workshop was engaging, challenging, and fun. The client project pushed me in a number of ways.

I had been eager to attend the DPMI J-term for a number of reasons, including a better understanding of program design. One of my former bosses was a Professional Project Manager and it just seemed like he could do anything. He piqued my interest in project management. I wanted to learn those skills that he had. This is not something that I was necessarily expecting to get at MIIS.

At a Visit Monterey Day, Dr Levinger shared a quick example of what type of instruction you could expect and we talked about checking your logic using an “if-then” exercise. I was already convinced then that I wanted to attend at MIIS, but the addition of being able to work on project development and philosophy sealed the deal. Attending the one-week workshop for managing social impact introduced me to such philosophy.

Among others, the main tools we learned about and practiced were problem trees, results framework, log frames, stakeholder identification, impact measurement, and budgeting. Each of these are the hard tools that I walked away with; however, I also learned about communicating in a group, relying on others strengths and understanding, contextualization, expectations and most of all that knowing how project development is done is very different from knowing how to do project development.

At the workshop, we all got split up into different groups and were assigned mostly hypothetical problems for which to design a project. This wouldn’t necessarily be the final project but more of a way for us to practice what we were learning. I say mostly hypothetical because the other groups all seemed to have a project that related to why they had come. One group worked on a mangrove rehabilitation project since a group of people from a small town facing threats of mangrove depletion was attending the workshop. Another was working on sustainable housing since that is a project they have been interested in.

My group was charged with preventing the capture of children for sexual exploitation. Talk about a heavy topic, and one that I had very limited understanding of especially in a Colombian context.

Luckily, I was in a group of incredibly talented and knowledgeable people including one student from France with the others being from Colombia. I later learned (after the workshop ended) that two of the group members were actually ex-combatants of Colombian armed forces. They were being rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. I didn’t ask nor would I expect them to have told me but perhaps the topic we were working on wasn’t as hypothetical as I had perceived.

I’m glad that I didn’t know this until after the workshop. Not that I would have thought less or more of them, but it certainly would have changed how I contributed to the group or participated. There was one instance where we were engaging in role-play interviews, taking on different stakeholder point of views so as the help identify other stakeholders. I was given the roll of a member of the armed group that was facilitating the rapture of the children, but from the perspective of a soldier who was participating in the activity reluctantly. This helped me to identify that ex-combatants may be a group that we could involve in the project. I don’t think I would have suggested that had I known the entire group dynamic, having left it up to them to suggest if it was something they wanted to include in the project.

Discussions about armed group involvement became a central topic in our project. We talked about how some armed groups prefer that the problem be reduced so as to minimize the attention and involvement of international groups in the protection of the children. And that in some cases, they facilitate and fund activities to help prevent captures. This of course helped develop certain values towards international development including the need to involve all stakeholders, and draw from the strengths of the local community.

The social change visions that I hold for the future are mostly macro in scope. I want to help be a catalyst in the reshaping of economic institutions in the creation of an economy that actually works for the betterment of society. I want to help make renewable energy the norm and not an alternative. I want access to reliable and clean energy to be a basic human right. What this J-term helped me learn is that all of these will look very different from community to community as the context changes. The underlying problems, values and resources of the communities needing these changes will be fundamentally different and may require different approaches.

When we first started out, each tool that we were introduced with became a challenge in that it made sense during the presentation, but when it came to using it for our project we stumbled. This is what I mean when I say that learning how project development is done and doing project development are different. As we created a problem tree, we wrestled with cause and effect. In the log frame, we had trouble coming up with activities and how to measure them as well as in the difference between outputs, outcomes, and what to measure or how to measure it. It became easier as we got to know the problem better, and decided to narrow our problem down geographically.

The workshop itself went on for another week but by the end of the first week, we had a much clearer understanding of what we wanted to do. We basically would help create economic opportunities for families, pulling from resources including the armed groups to help.

One personal challenge I faced during this program is that thought, “who am I to do this.” Meaning, who am I (an outsider) to come to another community and think that I know how to make it better. What gives me the right to come in and design a project with my values and understandings to change the community? I think I learned how to involve the local community and draw from what their values and desires are. I am in the process of loosely developing an ethic by which I can engage in development that makes sure that I don’t usurp a roll that isn’t wanted. This will look something like finding out what the people actually want or what they perceive to be an appropriate response to the problem. I talked with Teryn about it a little bit and she did make some points that sit mostly well with me. She mentioned that we could act as like a bank, providing a loan for someone to buy a car. We don’t make the decision for them to buy the car, or which car to buy but we can help provide the resources with which they are able to make the transaction. I don’t particularly like thinking of myself in terms of a bank but I get the point.

Another aspect of the trip that helped me to digest what we were learning was talking to real people. While in Medellín, I participated in a home-stay. I lived with a single mom who was an empty nester. She taught me so much about what was and has been going on in Colombia particularly giving me a larger perspective on the peace deal, Trump, corruption in Colombia and many other things. It was fun to come home after the workshop and inquire about her thoughts on what we were learning and how it applied to Colombia specifically.

A hard moment was one morning when she got a call that her mother (who was living in a retirement home near by) had passed away. I immediately felt out of place and the more I thought about it the more I no longer wanted to stay there. Apart from the obvious need for personal space for grief, she would be having family coming to stay with her. I knew I wanted to at least free up another room by moving to a hostel or another home stay. She wouldn’t have it and was adamant that I stayed. At first I was terribly uncomfortable until I was sure that she was serious about me staying. I am so glad that I did. I learned about, at least in this particular setting, what it was like to experience a passing in the family.

One of the family members who came to visit was her sister who I was able to talk with a lot. She had a son who, while away at school, was threatened with kidnapping for ransom. The mom and her husband ended up not paying the ransom. Some time after that event, in an unrelated event, her husband and children were killed by a group of militias. She ended up moving to the US for a while until she felt comfortable enough coming back to her home country.

When we were learning about measuring the social return on investment, I wasn’t sure how I felt about valuing things like human life, or the innocence of a child. I was able to open talk to her about her take on it and if she felt like she could put a value on feeling comfortable again in her home country. She was able to give me a perspective on it that helps me understand the importance of measuring such things.

For the remaining week and a half of the J-term, I went up to a small town called Minca in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to work on a client project. Misión Gaia is basically a one-person foundation that relies on volunteers to help with its activities in the community. They have an animal health and well-being program, Spanish lessons, a gift store, and sustainable tourism project. They currently are working to launch a project called “Minca Limpia” where they address the solid waste issue in the town.

I helped develop a written project document based on an old write-up that they had. I can’t claim that as a deliverable because the founder really wrote most of the document and it only included some of my feedbacks. I did however create a log frame, which helped to identify some activities that are key to the project that weren’t initially included such as providing a baseline and evaluation methodology against which they would measure the pilot project. I also drafted a template for the budget, worked on the communication plan, created profiles of necessary volunteers and worked on finding sources of those volunteers. I also left them with a list of recommendations or next-steps needed for the project.

One thing I learned is the need to surround yourself with people who share your vision and not to rely on volunteers. A risk I found while looking at assumptions of the activities was that there would be enough people to carry out the activities. As mentioned before, it’s basically a one-person show. Volunteers come and go to help run the store, and make measurements but they come and go. The founder is pulled in many different directions and needs to restructure the administration of the foundation to make it work. For instance, the main source of funding comes from her teaching Spanish lessons. This takes up anywhere from two to eight hours of the day. The more she teaches, them more money but less time she has to dedicate to the project. If she taught less, she wouldn’t have even a basic income on which to live. We talked for a while about different way to organize the foundation including shaving off all but the most important projects, seeking outside funding, hiring for positions and making the projects more financially self-sustainable.

This was a major take away for me since, although I can work well in a group, I tend to isolate myself and try to do everything I can on my own. This simply won’t work if I want to have a tangible, scalable impact in the world.

With a few practical tools and a whole lot of personal takeaways, I feel much more prepared to work on international development projects. I look forward to learning more in the weekend workshop and applying what I have learned in all types of projects.