Living the Dream

As I stood in front of my classroom yesterday, already dripping in sweat from writing the objective on the board, I looked out on my new students actively working on their warm up and I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I thought about how different my life was now. For starters, I walk to work every day rather than drive, I hand write my lesson plans rather than type them on a computer, some days I have to yell over top the pounding rain on the tin roof and others we have class outside because the heat in the classroom is unbearably hot, I have no electricity, no powerpoint, no smartboard….just 45 wooden desks and a chalkboard. But in some crazy way, I am living the dream.

I’ve always known that I wanted to work in agriculture, and as a child showing my animals in the 4-H county fair I had decided at a very young age that there was no other field for me. I’ve always known that I wanted to teach, the feeling of satisfaction that you get when you finally see it click for your students and when you see them actually enjoy learning is one of the most rewarding things on this planet. And like many people in this world, I’ve always known that I wanted to help others and make a difference in my img-20161016-wa0006community. And so I dreamed of becoming a high school agriculture teacher or a 4-H or agriculture extension agent…what better way to combine my passions for agriculture and teaching with my desire to make a difference in this world? I’m sure many of my fellow agriculture educators can relate.

I received my BS in Animal Sciences and Agricultural Sciences, and my MS in Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications, and then for two and a half years I worked as an extension agent in my home county in Maryland. It was what I had always dreamed of and yet something was still missing. The truth was that I had also always secretly dreamed of working in a developing country. One international trip in high school and the idea had taken hold in my heart. I saw beauty like I had never seen before and I realized I loved to travel, I loved to be immersed in a culture that was so opposite my own, and I loved making new friends in other parts of the world. But I also saw poverty like I had never seen before and I saw a need, a need for better agricultural methods, a need for building up agricultural leaders within these communities, a need for better opportunities for education of youth, a need I realized I could actually do something about. And so last spring after much thought, I quit my dream job in pursuit of another….becoming an AgriCorps Fellow in rural West Africa.

20160820_112835Currently, my husband (a former Maryland high school agricultural teacher/FFA advisor) and I are serving  as Fellows for AgriCorps, which is an organization whose mission is to “connect American agricultural professionals to the demand for experiential, school-based agricultural education in developing countries.” As AgriCorps Fellows we each have three roles in our community: 1) a high school agriculture teacher, 2) an agricultural extension agent, and 3) a 4-H/FFA advisor. Every week we are still lesson planning, teaching, networking, training leaders, planning events, fundraising, managing volunteers, researching, writing articles, advertising, coaching teams, facilitating discussions, diagnosing diseases, talking with farmers, chasing livestock, laughing with students, and crashing after a long week’s work just like we did back home. Although our current surroundings may look completely different than they did before, our goal is still the same: to educate people about agriculture with the hope for a better tomorrow.

Want to learn more about the mission of AgriCorps or about how can become an AgriCorps Fellow? Visit AgriCorp’s website: https://agricorps.org.

*Note, this blog was posted on the official AgriCorps blog on November 28th, 2016. I have copied and pasted it here again for my records.  Please share it with someone who you think may be interested in becoming an AgriCorps Fellow. Deadline for spring applications is coming up soon!

I Believe in a Poverty-Free Future: A faith born not of words, but of deeds

By Nathan Glenn

You all know poverty. You’ve seen it on TV; you’ve seen it in your region’s city center; you’ve seen it in rural areas; or maybe you’re living in it. The majority of the world’s population live in poverty–3 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day. Even I, growing up in an affluent and quickly emerging Maryland county came in contact with poverty quite often. Most of the time the thought of poverty that is close to us leads to a discussion about politics. So often our discussions lead to arguing back and forth about the cause of our local poverty and how government policies can fix it. It is important for us to recognize that there are different and troubling socioeconomic situations for many of the world’s people, but the real concern should be why aren’t we making progress like we should? Picking up my life and moving it to Liberia, one of the poorest countries in the world, has invoked a lot of thought and inner struggle on this very question.

I walk through the market and wonder about how the development of Kakata (our city of about 30,000 people) would progress if they changed the way they did business. I dream of a day where I don’t pass by the market women, ALL fifty of them or all one hundred of them selling the EXACT same things as the woman beside them, competing against each other for customers, and lowering their prices just to make enough to survive. I often wonder about how can we get these women to stop buying produce from a market outside the city, selling at the market in the city of Kakata, and accepting a less than 5 cent profit for every piece of produce. I am by no means an economic development expert, but I wonder what would happen if all of these market stands, all of these Kakata women began to cooperate and incorporate–maybe into a Liberian grocery store or clothing store or supplies store. Everyday I think of different ideas just like this one, and  I research them. I engage my mind in something that could eventually turn into a meaningful poverty solution.

The importance of thinking, researching, and engaging is not that your ideas are always correct, rather that you are engaged and open-minded. By now we know that there is no golden key to fix the world’s poverty cycle or else we would have used it already. What we do know is that the answer is complex, multi-faceted, and requires people to actively be engaged and passionate about finding solutions together, alongside with the people that they want to serve. I guess one of the major things I have learned from my experience so far in Liberia is that I was wrong when I used to talk about poverty like it was only a political problem. Like it was a problem that could be fixed only by policy. Like it was a problem that had a single, political answer. My students, while recently learning the FFA creed (Liberian version), asked me what was the meaning of the line “a faith born not of words but of deeds”. I told them it means that our faith in agriculture should be demonstrated for all to see by the actions we take, not just the words we say. I think it means that we should show faith in mankind’s ability to break free of poverty by taking action. To show faith in the people around you…to see them as people who can create change rather than people who are simply waiting for change to happen to them or for them.  To show your faith by taking ACTION.

What I have come to realize is that poverty is supremely, a social problem. In Liberia, the entrepreneurial spirit is vibrant in some individuals, but ultimately it is not making the impact that it should. The women in the market accept the small profit margins that they receive, and therefore they accept the poverty in which they live. It’s not necessarily their fault, but it’s their reality. The government doesn’t really believe that they are worth investing in and unfortunately, neither does their society…no one sees them as being able to make an impact, no one allows them to dream, no one enables or supports them to take a risk or to be entrepreneurial.  In contrast, one could say that the U.S. is the world power it is today chiefly because of an impactful entrepreneurial spirit that led Europeans to search for a better life in an uncharted part of the world. Yet, that same entrepreneurial spirit, that belief in the inherent goodness, productivity, and ability of human kind has somehow left behind or completely forgotten large portions of our society in the midst of their poverty. In this way, through inaction and disengagement and lack of faith in people, poverty is a social problem.

New democratically agreed upon government policies are necessary, but without unified social engagement and faith in our poverty-stricken people, whether in your local area or halfway across the world, they will be rendered useless against the power of poverty. Don’t just talk about your local poverty cycle–think for yourself, research solutions, and engage in action alongside those you want to see lifted out of poverty.

 

20160821_144921 dsc02398 dsc02436 20160820_111942

 

Enough…

To anyone looking on, the day had been a series of utter failures….one hit after the other…the FFA meeting had only 2 members show up, the FFA movie night had to be cancelled, and the FFA officer induction ceremony (which I was really looking forward to) scheduled for the next day was forced to be reschedule at the last minute. Watching the disappointment spread across the faces of my few committed FFA officers as I tell them the news yet again of another cancellation was HARD, very hard. But this experience was nothing new, I’ve had this scenario happen many a time here in Liberia…it’s probably why I haven’t had the energy to write anything or blog anything for these past couple months (sorry!). I’ve spent many hours chasing down administrators in order to get approval for a little thing like hosting a small pick-up soccer game, I’ve written countless “letters” asking for things that in my own culture I would have just been able to ask for verbally, I’ve wasted entire days looking for a functioning printer within a 2 mile radius, I’ve watched my well-thought out and beautifully-planned lessons fall to pieces as soon as I try and explain directions to my group of 45 sophomore students, and I’ve sat through so many mindless meetings only to emerge feeling just as confused as I was when I went in there because I still can’t understand all the little nuances of the enigma that is the “Liberian English” language (let alone the number of social cues that I may have also missed). Soooo many days I go to bed feeling stressed, anxious, defeated, and perplexed wondering “Am I good ENOUGH for this? Did I do ENOUGH today? Try hard ENOUGH? Get ENOUGH people to attend meetings? Complete ENOUGH work? Make ENOUGH change?” or “what on earth did I do today? Am I wasting my time?” and “did I even make any difference today?”

Suffice to say, it was an exhausting day, both physically and emotionally and yet something felt different when I fell into bed that night, I felt a sense of peace and a sense of hope wash over me. Why? What was different about that day than all the other days? Why didn’t I close my eyes and worry and fret all over again about the future of the FFA club in Liberia?

Because I was letting go… Because I was learning to TRUST.

TRUST in the process, TRUST in them.

The difference between this time and all the other times? It was the first meeting and first big event that our newly elected FFA officers were given full responsibility to plan. They were responsible this time for getting permission from the appropriate authorities, for reserving the room, for creating the agenda, and for advertising the meeting and making sure that people showed up. To the onlooker, they failed. Only 2 people came. But here’s what you didn’t see….

  • The officers did a lot of advertising for the week leading up to the meeting (they drew signs, they presented in classes, and they told their friends)
  • The officers showed up ON TIME (or within 5 minutes of on time…close enough) and THAT in itself is a huge accomplishment and step forward (sometimes we have spent 45 minutes waiting for just the officers to get there).
  • The officers still had the FFA creed memorized and presented it flawlessly as a team…one person presenting each paragraph. It was great to see them take it so seriously and come together like that.
  • The officers all performed their FFA opening ceremonies with confidence and pride.
  • The president created the agenda and led the meeting entirely on his own.
  • The members practiced parliamentary procedures and it actually worked!
  • The meeting ended on time!!! (only 1 hour!)

Then came the failed movie night….again nobody came. But what you didn’t see was this….

  • Again, the students tried their best to advertise (they made signs, announcements, and told their friends)
  • The treasurer spent 2 days working on printing tickets up so that we could try to sell tickets in advance.
  • The treasurer actually showed up EARLY to help set up the room for the movie night.
  • The vice president went back and forth to many different members of the administration in order to get permission for us to have our movie night.
  • The officers spent ONE WHOLE HOUR not wanting to give into defeat and they walked around outside the movie room for one hour advertising to their fellow students on the street and trying to get them to come to the movie night.
  • After it was realized that the movie night was not happening, they did not jump into a blame game (as might be expected of teenagers in this situation), but they sat and had a meeting about what they could do better next time.

Then came the induction ceremony which had to be postponed due to an irritatingly small technicality (3/4 of the administration offices were informed of the event but we failed to inform the 4th office via letter a minimum of 3 days in advance and so were threatened with FFA being shut down if we proceeded to have the program as scheduled….what in the world?!? I digress…). But what you didn’t see was this….

  • Those FFA alumni had worked for weeks typing up invitation letters and scheduling a program for the day of the event. I will admit, this is the event where I had my biggest doubts about whether or not it would actually happen…it was such a large undertaking. But the FFA alumni working on it really blew me away by how much they were able to accomplish, so many great ideas, so much creativity, so much organization!

Don’t get me wrong, I felt disappointed, sad, defeated, and steaming mad (especially when I found out about the induction ceremony) but I still couldn’t wipe the smile off my face that day because more than the failures of that day, I saw success. I saw students stepping into these new leadership roles and stepping up to the plate. I saw leaders putting all they had into their work, refusing to give up. I saw leaders struggle through the difficulty of the early growing pains that all leaders must go through. I saw creativity bubbling out of them, daring to be bottled back up. I saw responsibility guiding their actions as they steadily discussed ideas and delegated roles to each other. And, I saw in them their determination to succeed, their determination to see the FFA succeed and their determination to see Liberia succeed.

As I sat back and watched them discuss ideas for how to make things better next time, I realized how self-absorbed and arrogant my thinking had been. I was worrying and fretting and asking “Am I enough? Is my work enough?” when the question I should have been asking was “Are they enough? Do I trust them?”

Reminder to self: I am not the one who is going to change Liberia or change the FFA.

And again: I am not the one who is going to change Liberia or change the FFA.

I am only here for a year and I am still and will always be a stranger in this land. They are where the REAL change is going to come from. So instead of wasting time beating myself up every night after days of seemingly endless failures, I need to remind myself over and over again that I am not some sort of “hero,” I don’t have all the answers, I’m going to make mistakes, and my way is not the only way and instead keep building up and encouraging all the heroes around me, listening to their ideas, asking for their opinions, and encouraging them to try new things. Forget about “am I enough?” and focus on are they enough? Are they strong enough to handle disappointment? Do they have enough discipline for this? Are they creative enough? Are they leaders enough? Are they motivated enough? Are they, as youth, smart enough? The answer….the answer is obvious.

They were already enough, before I even set foot in this country, and they will continue to be ENOUGH after I leave. My job is not to convince myself (or you my reader) that I am ENOUGH but to show them that they are ENOUGH and maybe along the way give them some technical skills and trainings that will help them become all that they want to be, connect them with local people who will help make their visions come true, stand by their side as they walk through failures, and smile with them as they meet with success as I know they will. This is the only way that REAL CHANGE can occur.

 

“Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue [necessary for real change] becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialougers is the logical consequence”                              -Paulo Freire in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Below are some fun pictures of various FFA activities we have had over the past few months of blog silence 😉