Minutes & lifetimes

Minutes & lifetimes

Ten minutes. Ten minutes of sitting on the edge of a pool somewhere in a suburb of Jakarta, eyes closed, breathing steadily, legs dangling in the water as I tried to not let the occasional mosquito fly-by distract me. At the end of yet another harried day of passively commuting through Jakarta’s famed traffic, tortuously moving from government office to government office in my quest for a foreigner research permit, I found these ten minutes of quiet back at the guesthouse.

Ten minutes that set into motion a seismic shift in how I approached my complex, often fraught, relationship with my father – who, at the time, was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from me.

I had been struggling with depression for several months, though an extended research trip to Thailand and Indonesia helped keep me busy – distracted – and superficially fulfilled and somehow able to eat enough food to function (often a challenge for me when the mental doldrums settle in). To help with the ache of emptiness, confusion, and loneliness that still lingered densely in my stomach, I sought solace in a bookstore in Bangkok early in my trip. That’s how I first met the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, in the form of a modest little paperback that seemed to call to me from the shelves: the sun, my heart. It was the warm embrace my soul needed, as saccharine as that sounds.

By the time my work brought me to Indonesia, my reading brought me to a section of the book entitled “My Love, Who Are You?” :

Some day, if you need a topic for meditation, choose one that you care about… your “self,” or the “self” of the person you like the most, or the “self” of the person you hate the most can be the subject of your practice.

…You have to become that person. You have to be one with him or her, to worry about what he or she worries about, to suffer his or her suffering, to appreciate what he or she appreciates.

I decided to try it, hoping for some sort of illumination that might ease my melancholy feelings of disconnection, but also just happy to have something besides work to at least temporarily distract my mind from its own heaviness. I started with someone easy – someone who I had relatively uncomplicated feelings about: my mom. I set my phone timer for ten minutes, settled in, and began deep, calming breathing as my mind embraced the question suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh: “My love, who are you?”

For the first time in my life, it occurred to me: wow, my mom had – with my dad – packed up her life, her three small children, and left her home country to move across the world to a country where she knew nobody, where she would constantly be speaking in her second language, with a culture and lifestyle vastly different from the one she’d known her whole life. Wow.

I loved her, adored her, admired her, but had never taken the time to try to understand her experiences as a person – a realization that humbled my unquestioned assumption that I was a loving, kind daughter.

The next night, I tried a more… challenging… person. My dad. A loving, exuberant person whose joyful energy was tainted by a short temper, tendency toward petty bullying, explosive impatience, and a frustratingly limited ability to focus on the realities and logistics that his family needed. Over the years, these negative traits exacerbated the tough times our family went through, and we all suffered for them. I held great love for him, but also, great resentment.

Over my ten minutes spent meditating on him, I found unexpectedly deep reserves of compassion toward him. I realized that his life had not turned out according to his dreams – and brilliant potential – and that this was a source of suffering for him, a reason to not feel particularly good about himself. I realized that every reactive response I gave to his negative outbursts did nothing to help with the underlying disappointment he felt about himself. I saw that, even though my sharp words and censure might be “justified,” they added to his pain and really achieved nothing. And I saw what a remarkably optimistic, joyful person he was at his core, and how he was eager to show us his love for us, even if he didn’t quite know the best ways to do so.

Wow.

This poolside meditation on the other side of the world evolved into a huge turning point for how I interacted with him, and our relationship became more kind, more peaceful, for the years following. This transformation is all the more precious to me since his death three years ago. Those ten minutes helped me find a way to enjoy the all-too-limited time we had left to share. They’ve motivated me to try to keep such mindfulness alive in my life, to pause and reflect on the people I care about, so that our precious time together can be illuminated by genuine awareness and acceptance.

I’m by no means emotionally fluent in this practice. I won’t pretend that my actions toward others are purified of any misunderstandings, frustration, or lack of sensitivity – far from it. I have to actively remind myself to set some minutes aside, to temporarily shed ego, to open my sometimes vulnerable and aching heart to new realizations. And I have to learn more how to accept that this is not a practice driven by the notion of “fairness” – that the people in whom I invest time in trying to understand will not always return that kindness.

When I do find my way back to this practice, these beautifully unfolding minutes, I find greater peace in my life, no matter what others choose to do with their own minutes.

One of my last interactions with my dad would strike most observers as fairly bland. I have chronic pain in my left upper back – near my shoulder – from an old muscle injury, and it had been flaring up during a visit home from Myanmar, where I was living and working at the time. On my last evening there, he walked up a bit shyly to the desk where I was feverishly toiling away on last-minute travel logistics and work tasks that needed to be done before I boarded my flight. He gently tossed a small package toward me. A shoulder brace.

“Hi honey… I saw this on the TV and thought it might help with your shoulder, so I found it online and ordered it.”

My knee-jerk reaction in the past would have been irritation. Yes, I know, that sounds remarkably unappreciative and bratty, but – without getting too much into our family history – he had a long-running habit of wasting money on overhyped informercial products, even when there wasn’t money to spare. The purchased goods mainly ended up taking space in the chaotic, tangled mess of a garage. The often pointless products baffled me, and his gullibility as a consumer and his disregard for the realities of our financial situation had frustrated me countless times over the years.

A faint tremor of that irritation flared up, but I was moved by the kindness of the gesture. I looked at the diagram on the packaging: a set of straps to help keep the shoulder stable.

“I think it has magnets or something which might help with the pain,” he offered.

Further examination showed no magnets or any other pain-relieving features.

Striving to express the kindness and appreciation I felt, I softly said, “Oh, thank you, Papa… that’s so nice… but I don’t think this will help. My pain isn’t quite in the shoulder joint, and I think this is just meant to keep the shoulder stable. Are you able to return it?”

He was downcast, but he tried to cover it up: “Oh! Oh, I see. Yes, it was confusing to order with them. I saw an ad for something with a magnet in it that might help with the pain, but it was for the wrist or something, so I tried to find one for the shoulder and back area, but it was so confusing…”

“Yeah, that can happen… Thank you, though – it was so thoughtful!”

I could sense he was still disappointed, but I found myself immediately sucked back into the world on my computer screen, and he slowly walked out of the room.

My heart kept tugging at my mind’s hem, refusing to let me focus on work. I tried, impatiently, to shoo it away – “What? It was a nice idea for a gift, but it’s useless, so I thanked him and just nicely suggested he return it to get his money back. He’ll be fine!”

After some minutes of this, I paused. I closed my eyes. I looked inward to where my love and empathy for him dwelled.

Yes, I had been gentle, but he was still disheartened that his gesture of love had not been as helpful as planned. And, though I could rationalize that this situation was “no big deal,” his feelings still existed, and they mattered to me.

I scurried out to the living room, where he sat in his armchair, his TV-front refuge. I kneeled down next to him and put my hand on his arm.

“Papa… I’m sorry that it wasn’t what you wanted to order. I really appreciate you trying to help me. It’s so sweet. I just didn’t want you to lose money on something that wasn’t going to be used. I’m so sorry. It was such a kind idea!”

His dismay evaporated, his usual chirpy energy quickly rushing in – just a small bit of reassurance and extra kindness was all he’d needed to buoy his spirits. “Well, sorry honey, I really hoped it would help you. These companies need to make it easier to know what you’re ordering!” And so commenced some perky chatter on the logistics of online shopping.

That was my last evening of normalcy with my dad. The next time I came home, just over a month later, he was in a hospital bed, on a ventilator, unable to speak. He died a couple of weeks after that.

One of the memories that I clung to in the days, weeks, months following his death was that evening’s exchange. That decision to take just a handful of minutes to pause, to reflect, to show my love to him when he needed it, even if in such a seemingly trivial way – that decision and the feeling of connection, of peace that it brought both of us.

I still, from time to time, search out that memory and turn it over and examine it and gaze upon it with gratitude.

Originally published in Leo in Bloom Issue 01: From Awareness to Acceptance

Why we need conservation realism

Why we need conservation realism

The rationale behind my new Conservation Realist series

Welcome to the Conservation Realist publication! I am a conservation researcher who specializes in studying the interactions between conservation and communities. I’ve worked as an academic and as a conservation practitioner, and currently am a consultant for various conservation projects, including as a monitoring and evaluation specialist to understand the processes and impacts of conservation activities. I am deeply motivated to work for more effective, ethical, and equitable conservation, driven by practical lessons learned from extensive on-the-ground work.

And that is precisely why I have very little patience for unproductive and even unethical narratives, assumptions, and approaches in conservation. Unfortunately, these are found in great abundance.

In the conservation world, there are often starry-eyed calls for optimism. “Hope spots” and “bright spots.” A common rallying cry: “We have to show that it’s not all doom and gloom!”

What’s often ignored is that there is a vast and rich middle ground between optimism and doom. It’s realism. And we need more of it to be incorporated in mainstream conservation conversations and actions.

Candidly, conservation is not doing so well. That’s a kind understatement. There are, thankfully, wonderful successes that should absolutely be celebrated and learned from (though I internally roll my eyes each time I hear someone breathlessly speak the words “hope spots” in a way that brings to mind “live, laugh, love!”). There are, sadly, many more failures. And instead of being swept under the rug, they must also be learned from. They must be examined through a pragmatic lens to learn what went wrong, how, and why, and to inform future efforts. This is how we can still gain something productive from the tens to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars spent on each of the multitude of failed conservation efforts.

With any challenge, we are neither served by brightly plastered optimism nor defeatist pessimism. Neither approach brings about healthy, necessary change. Focusing on the successes while ignoring the failures skews our understanding of what’s actually happening. It leaves us unprepared to deal with reality. It’s like how I sometimes (often) (almost always) delay looking at my credit card statement until the day the payment is due. Ignorance is bliss, and I definitely need to purchase (“invest in”) a new pair of good quality and ethically produced shoes for my post-pandemic work trips to Southeast Asia right now despite having no actual travel plans yet. But the balance needs to be paid off, or else there will be interest and late fees to pay. And if I simply monitor my spending throughout the month, I am much better able to curb my spending and avoid that awful pit-in-stomach “I spent how much?!?!” moment at the end of each month.

Closely linked to this ostrich-head-in-sand perspective (though I have learned that ostriches don’t actually do this, which is a credit to their mental and emotional strength and we should all learn from them) is the widespread, unquestioning acceptance of how conservation as a field goes about achieving its goals. It seems to be generally assumed that, because our mission is positive — saving nature! — our mindsets and actions are inherently good and beyond reproach. This is nonsense. Conservation is conceived of and implemented by humans, and is tightly linked to control over resources and people’s activities. This means that conservation is steeped in all of the human follies, foibles, and flaws that infiltrate other human endeavors, especially where power and control are involved.

I know that I and others who hold similar views are at times viewed as killjoys. If you’re not an optimist, you must be a pessimist — and you’re definitely not a team player. Maybe, if you’re a venerable, grey-bearded elder (male), you can get away with it. But if — like me — you’re a youngish (decreasingly so…), petite woman with a soft voice, then perhaps you’re just unpleasant.

So, I will often qualify my pragmatic comments with, “This might just be me being a grumpy lady” to soften the awkwardness of questioning or contradicting problematic conservation norms. And I was going to call this publication “Grumpy Lady Conservationist,” until a kindred spirit in pragmatic conservation womanhood thoughtfully cautioned that such a label would allow for the perspectives shared here to be more easily dismissed as peevish rantings, as with a curmudgeony older relative (“oh, that’s just her way, don’t mind her!”).

The aforementioned sister in pragmatism also inadvertently came up with a fantastic tagline for the original title: “I say ‘grumpy,’ but really, I’m incensed.” I love this. Our views on conservation are not a product of inherently grumpy characters; rather, we’re often driven to frustration by prevailing narratives in mainstream conservation.

So, here we have it. Conservation Realist. Topics will include: conservation’s colonial roots and ongoing neocolonial attitudes; the urgent need for meaningful monitoring and evaluation (and not just because I want job security as a conservation M&E specialist); different facets of inequity in the conservation field; and, on the positive side, the exciting diversity of experiences, forms of knowledge, and efforts that exist out of the mainstream conservation spotlight.

I hope you enjoy, learn, discuss, share!

Two intrepid researchers walking through a small fishing village, with thatch huts and wooden fencing, in a torrential downpour.
Accepting the soggy reality of southeastern Myanmar’s rainy season, equipping ourselves appropriately with raingear, and forging on with what we need to do. Is this a forced analogy to conservation realism? Perhaps. (photo: Wint Hte)

Design Thinking & Conservation

I’ll be very candid. When I first learned about Design Thinking, I internally rolled my eyes. “This is just… common sense. Why does it need a flashy label?”

And then I thought it over, and remembered – to quote many elderly people in my life – “common sense isn’t very common.”

Upon further consideration, I realized that Design Thinking (DT) is actually a very compelling approach that encompasses important processes and mindsets that are often missing in conservation research and implementation. I don’t think that DT is particularly novel or groundbreaking in and of itself, but I do firmly believe that it is a useful framework that brings many effective, and often tried and true, approaches together, linking them in a relatively neat (in theory) package.

It’s certainly not a silver bullet, nor a fixed set of directives that can guarantee a specific outcome. Its strengths, from my perspective, lie in its foundational values and mindsets, which – if implemented thoughtfully – lead to more inclusive, participatory, and transdisciplinary processes, linked to practical considerations for on-the-ground action.

Like many other toolkits/frameworks/approaches, it can yield wonderful outcomes if used thoughtfully and responsibly. I firmly believe that, with such thoughtful and responsible use, DT approaches can substantially contribute to more effective, equitable, and ethical conservation practices.

What it is

Design Thinking is an approach that seeks to develop practicable, accessible solutions that address real needs for real people. It was originally applied to product design, focusing on developing products that aligned with user needs – hence the term user-centered designed. DT is now applied more broadly, moving beyond product design to more general development of solutions in a diverse array of sectors, where “human-centered” (rather than “user-centered”) work focuses on a collaborative co-creation process of solutions.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation

IDEOU.com

There are a number of different outlines for the DT process, but generally, it involves: setting the intention/focal problem on which to work, including the “users” of any potential solution; gathering information about the users, the problem, and the context of the problem; synthesizing or analyzing the gathered information; ideating possible approaches to solutions; and protyping models of possible solutions, including testing and adapting them (including gathering additional information) until a workable solution emerges. There is a lot of iteration in the process, and the value comes not from rigidly following a given pathway of steps, but by mindfully using these steps as a guideline to help structure work on complex, dynamic issues.

Overview of the DT process used at Point B Design + Training

This process has been called a “dumbed down” version of the scientific method, but – as a scientist – I don’t agree with that interpretation, at least based on what I’ve experienced. It’s a larger process in which the scientific method can – should – be deployed in the Needs Finding phase, along with more grounded theory approaches, bringing natural and social science methods and ways of working together to inform the same process.

Speaking of disciplinary mindsets and approaches, DT involves “waves” or undulations between divergent and convergent thinking, branching out to embrace broad sets of ideas and possibilities, then narrowing down to focus on a workable portion of those ideas and possibilities, then branching out to explore the potential of ideas in that workable portion, then narrowing again. This is a nice “convergence” (ha!) of two different ways of thinking that are complementary, but often framed as opposites (e.g., convergent thinking is often thought of as a natural science way of thinking, while aspects of several social science approaches tend toward divergent thinking).

What I like more than the process, and what I believe must be preserved to ensure that the process remains true to its goals of meaningful co-creation, are the central mindsets of DT. Again, this list varies depending on which particular school of DT you work with, but common traits on these lists are: mindfulness, empathy, optimism, collaboration, and experimentation. Other important attributes include systems thinking and beginner’s mind (humility and curiosity). These mindsets shape the DT process to be truly participatory, ideally through each step, and that the process is responsive to real-world conditions.

Link to Conservation

Conservation issues are generally complex, even intractable, and I do not preach that DT will somehow help us find all the answers. But going through the DT process, and integrating DT mindsets, will certainly help us improve our work toward whatever solutions might exist.

Even early in my career, as a student conducting research on conservation efforts, I was struck by three realizations:

  1. CONSERVATION SUFFERS FROM THE KNOWLEDGE-IMPLEMENTATION GAP1
  2. CONSERVATION PROBLEMS ARE LINKED TO COMPLEX SYSTEMS2
  3. CONSERVATION IS A SOCIAL PROCESS3

Moving into the complex issue of marine megafauna bycatch in small-scale fisheries, including evaluation of conservation efforts to reduce this problem, I saw that designing effective, ethical conservation actions requires practical planning, consideration of the social-ecological system, and meaningful inclusion of diverse stakeholders. However, these elements are often not realized in conservation. This prevents application of conservation research to real-world, practicable conservation solutions.

Conservation problems can be considered “wicked problems.”4 They are generally linked to complex, dynamic social and ecological systems1, and cannot be solved by simple, straightforward solutions. Efforts to address conservation problems can trigger reactions throughout these systems, including negative impacts to human communities. Wicked problems can be complicated by diverse stakeholder values and conflict among stakeholders. The process of developing and implementing conservation actions can exacerbate conflict; for example, non-inclusive processes might spark resentment among marginalized groups, and any negative social impacts of conservation actions will fuel resistance to conservation.

Where conservation planning, decision-making, and actions do not adopt a truly inclusive, holistic approach, opportunities for achieving the desired conservation outcome could well be diminished – and human rights might be violated in the process. Without carefully considering these complex systems and interactions, and the links between actions and outcomes, conservation efforts might actually end up being ineffective, or even counterproductive.

In the worst cases, conservation efforts might be seen as part of a “misanthropocene” movement – i.e., conservation that is against humans, does not consider implications for environmental justice and human rights, and is essentially neocolonial. Patrick Christie distills this idea in this talk for the Bevan Series, outlining misanthropocene tendencies and proposing humanistic conservation as an alternative. I present some of the characteristics of humanistic conservations along with elements of DT that nicely align with them:

“Humanistic Conservation”Relevant elements of DT
“Facilitate, build capacity”   “Curious”, “humble”, “service-oriented”   “Inclusive of various types of people & forms of knowledge”Focus on user needs   Beginner’s mind, empathy, user-centered view Co-creation, human-centered, participatory  
Humanistic conservation concepts from Patrick Christie’s Bevan Series talk

For conservation that is more effective and ethical, many have made a call for more such humanistic approaches. Key elements including considering conservation in the context of social-ecological or human-natural systems, incorporating interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches and diverse forms of knowledge, and improving monitoring and evaluation to understand how actions link to outcomes (including negative social impacts). The rights and values of diverse stakeholders must be considered, e.g. as in human rights-based approaches. Furthermore, the human elements of conservation must be incorporated throughout the planning and implementation process, including diverse values, respectful interactions, conflict transformation, and transparent, clear communication.

From the literature, and from my own conversations and experiences, we can be fairly confident that conservation would benefit from greater integration of:

  • Systems Thinking: to map out complex social-ecological systems and linkages
  • Understanding & sharing mindsets and values: to respectfully integrate perspectives and experiences of diverse groups, and to identify avenues for accessible, respectful engagement
  • Mindfulness around interactions: Paying attention to history, mindsets, and values while monitoring how different stakeholder groups interact
  • Participation and inclusion: Ensuring that stakeholders are meaningfully included in research and conservation processes as an integral part of the team, not as an afterthought
  • Communication: to clearly share, in accessible ways, information, ideas, and plans across stakeholders
  • Diverse forms of knowledge: Not only across disciplines or sectors, but also across cultures and ways of knowing.
  • Creativity: Building off of diverse forms of knowledge and collaborative energy to look for new solutions, or new applications of existing solutions
  • Evaluation and Adaptation: To learn and implement lessons from failure and success

These all fall within a DT approach. DT is not the only way to achieve these; many projects already embrace meaningful inclusion, collaboration, and evaluation, without calling it DT (this is why I am an advocate for academics listening more to practitioners, but that is a conversation for another time). But, again, it is a framework in which all of these elements are incorporated.

Many ways of working in conservation implementation, and even academic research, fit nicely in a DT approach. These include: stakeholder and institutional analysis; participatory appraisals and assessments; social-ecological monitoring and evaluation (though this is not widely implemented); and Local and Traditional Ecological Knowledge surveys. Really, any form of research – if undertaken in a thoughtful, inclusive, ethical manner! – fits in the “information gathering” phase of the DT process outlined above. And, by emphasizing empathy and collecting rich information from users, DT can provide insights about people’s decisions, motivations, and hopes.  These insights are critically important – yet chronically overlooked – in conservation.

How we use it

Yes, we us a lot of sticky notes – such is the cliche of DT. But that’s quite a small component of our DT work!

Through our work at Keiruna Inc., the DT process is used as a guide, not a strict, pre-defined series of steps, and DT mindsets are integrated in all of our activities. In some of our activities, the whole process might not be necessary – e.g., when we are conducting project evaluations but with no concrete “solution” needed at the end of the evaluation other than a series of recommendations (though these recommendations are based on our informed ideas of possibly productive and important intervention points, and could be the basis for future prototyping and testing).

Most of our familiarity with DT in theory and practice come from our ongoing work with Point B Design + Training, a Design Thinking research and training lab in Myanmar. Together, we’ve applied DT mindsets and approaches to conduct diverse research projects on environmental issues and coastal communities in the Gulf of Mottama, as well as to develop effective, responsive training programs for youths interested in conservation. Current projects include working on plastic waste awareness (including communicating knowledge from villages to urban areas, a flipping of the common narrative that “we must spread awareness to passive communities”) and the complex problem of marine mammal bycatch in coastal fisheries.

Our general approach is to work with an initial group of contacts to map out the social-ecological system and to get a preliminary grasp of the issue to be studied and/or addressed. From there, we identify additional stakeholders to include (as well as an open-ended “look for anyone who hasn’t come up yet due to marginalization” directive), key topics for which information needs to be gathered, and feasible means of engaging stakeholders in the process. We work to understand the history and interactions between stakeholders, as well as their values, needs, and hopes, and elicit their ideas on enablers and barriers to ethical and effective conservation, as well as their ideas for future directions. This is matched with rigorous natural and social science research.

Ideally, stakeholders are involved from the beginning, though usually the work involves a pre-defined set of issues and goals identified by an organization or donor; in this case, we work to bring stakeholder perspectives into the process as soon as possible and to understand their perspectives on the externally defined project at hand. We are eager to continue exploring how DT can deepen mutual understanding and respect, as well as collaboration, among stakeholders, and contribute to more ethical, productive, and long-lasting outcomes in the conservation realm.

Notes on critiques of DT

There are a number of critiques of DT, many of which I find to be specific to a very constrained view of DT, and others which I find to be relevant to the misuse of DT (e.g., as a flashy buzzphrase to tick a box without meaningful links to real impacts). There are concerns that it is “fundamentally conservative” and privileges those already in power; that its promotion is overblown (which I do agree with, generally); that it is a privileged way of thinking. I’ve also read thoughtful analyses of how to minimize or even avoid these problems, including here and here .

Again, it’s an approach, not a pre-packaged solution, and its outputs and outcomes will only be inclusive, effective, and sustainable if it is used mindfully (again, mindfulness is a key mindset of DT) and as part of a longer-term process of monitoring, evaluation, and adaptation.

References

1Knight AT, Cowling RM, Rouget M, et al. 2008. Knowing But Not Doing: Selecting Priority Conservation Areas and the Research–Implementation Gap. Conserv Biol 22: 610–7.

2Ostrom E. 2009. A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems. Science 325: 419–22.

3Biggs D, Abel N, Knight AT, et al. 2011. The implementation crisis in conservation planning: could “mental models” help?: Mental models in conservation planning. Conserv Lett 4: 169–83.

4Brechin SR, Wilshusen PR, Fortwangler CL, and West PC. 2002. Beyond the Square Wheel: Toward a More Comprehensive Understanding of Biodiversity Conservation as Social and Political Process. Soc Nat Resour 15: 41–64.

Developing an Innovative Conservation Training Program

At the Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab (MCCL) at Point B Design + Training, we’ve developed a thoughtful, remarkably effective training program to build research and conservation skills and knowledge and to cultivate the passion that many youths have for environmental work.

We designed this as part of the Gulf of Mottama Project’s (GoMP) Conservation and Research Training Program, which I developed while working for IUCN to help meaningfully achieve my pre-set work duties of “building local capacity for research.”

This program’s core is the MCCL internship program, where we work with three sets of interns: (1) full-time interns who are recent graduates; (2) graduate student interns from Mawlamyine and Bago Universities; (3) undergraduate student interns from those same universities. We are open to students from any department, as long as their application and interview shows genuine passion for environmental issues and an eagerness to learn. This is implemented alongside a program for supporting and guiding university research teams (faculty and graduate students), as well as joint workshops that are open to interested participants beyond our internship cohort.

We built this program to address three concerns that had arisen during previous pre-defined efforts to build research skills at local universities:

  1. How to meaningfully engage a cohort of participants through a curriculum of foundational and specific trainings?
  2. How to (quickly!) fill some of the critical gaps of the existing educational system and build skills and mindsets needed to underpin thoughtful, high-quality research (and application of that research)?
  3. How to set participants up for sustained growth and success beyond the lifespan of our project?

The internship program is built on a training curriculum that covers 3 levels of skills:

  1. Foundational mindset: Establishing critical thinking, systems thinking, and mindfulness as core ways of thinking
  2. Enabling tools: Building at least basic computer skills (perhaps even starting with typing trainings), and also practice skills for general communication (including reading research papers in English) and career logistics (e.g., how to write a CV)
  3. Research-specific skills: This includes general, cross-cutting skills (proposal writing, project design, preparing budgets, research ethics), as well as more specific methodologies for data collection and analysis, and how to present findings to stakeholders

These skills are learned through regular skills seminars, specific trainings, and intensive workshops, as well as field experience and participation in ongoing research projects and outreach activities. We sequentially increase the responsibilities of the full-time and graduate student interns, transferring program management, training, and leadership skills to them over time. I (or another external expert) directly train the MCCL staff, developing trainings and research methodologies together, and then they implement these activities as a sort of “training of trainers.” The senior interns initially pick up some co-training duties, and then are able to lead the trainings and field activities on their own, allowing us to make the most of our relatively small team.

I’m very proud of this program, which has been running since 2018 and has trained at least 20 interns thus far. We added two Research Assistant positions for former full-time interns, and extended the program from 6 months to 1 year based on the most common “negative” feedback from our end-of-internship evaluations, which was that 6 months was too short.

These evaluations indicate that our interns gain substantial skills, and – most resoundingly for me – confidence. “Confidence” was not an option I’d put in our evaluation surveys; it was written in by several interns under the “Other: Specify” option. And this represents what I love so much about our program: the intangible outcomes – the happy little (but growing) community of youths building confidence and skills together, and who take the tools and information from our trainings and make magic out of them.