If you are what you are meant to be, you will set the whole world on fire

“Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need,” this quote by Theologian Frederick Buechner has driven my inner exploration for the past few months. Through both the fellowship, class, and on my own time, I have tried to know and understand myself. This included recognizing my greatest strengths and limitations, my talents and skills, as well as my passions. Through the fellowship, I learned about how I work with others, how I overcome obstacles, and where my interests truly lie. Although this self-knowledge is incredibly helpful in choosing my path for after graduation, I still have more work discerning which path will make me the happiest while serving my highest good.

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In understanding my passions, there are two experiences that come to mind that have driven me towards the field of environmental conservation and sustainability. The first defines the need for more people in those fields, and the second relies on my own work and field experiences to know myself.

            After declaring my environmental studies minor, I began to mentally prepare myself for what was coming. Many of my friends are environmental studies or sciences majors and they always say how overwhelmingly depressing the classes can be. Since I had taken classes in anthropology studying violence, genocide, and warfare, as well as studying abject poverty during the fellowship, I felt like I had tackled depressing classes. However, the more I study the environmental catastrophes around the world as well as encroaching climate change devastation, I have realized that nothing else matters.

            Studying anthropology, I have learned that I love studying humans, our interactions with each other and our environment, our evolution, and our cultures. However, none of these aspects of humanity will continue if we continue to exploit the earth and its resources as we currently do. I full-heartedly believe in environmental conservation because of its inherent worth, not just in relation to ecological services and potential benefits and uses to humanity. However, there is a significant part of me that wants to prevent the climate calamity before it destroys our culture and humanity’s legacy.

            While in the field in Zambia, I regained hope for change and began to feel less overwhelmed. Boniface Haangala, the agroforestry technician at Chikuni Parish Taonga Radio School, created rapid community change. Only one man affected a community of thousands of people and created immense behavior change. Through radio and face-to-face visits, he created fifteen agroforestry gardens and taught hundreds of people about environmental conservation. Boniface inspired me to use my skills to create this type of change all over the world.

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            I realized that my talents as an anthropologist could be used to change behavior, change culture, and shift the worlds view towards the earth’s resources. I understand behaviors and what influences behavior change from many of my classes; these skills could be applied to a variety of environmental causes. I could either use my skills and understanding of people to convince people to change their behaviors through campaigns and rallies, or I think I could be a good sales person.

            Recently I have been considering going into either a green consulting business or sales. There is a wide diversity of opportunity in both of these fields. Within consulting, there are a number of companies that work both in the United States and worldwide. New recruiter companies looking for people who specialize in these fields are taking off. As far as sales, there thousands of up and coming technologies that will revolutionize the planet. Just within the energy sector, companies will need to buy wind, solar, and hydropower. There are also an infinite number of ways to bring nature into cities through urban gardening, sustainable architecture and green roofing. The more I discover that I could do within this sector, the more passionate and excited I feel. It seems to me like the quote, “If you are what you are meant to be, you will set the whole world on fire” by St. Catherine of Siena is true.

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            Another quote that I identified with is that “People lose the ability to engage with reality; that is a process of dehumanization that may be gradual and silent, but very real” (Nicholas). I believe that this quote applies to both people and the environment. Living in our Santa Clara University bubble, it is easy to lose touch with everyone “out there”. It is also easy to lose touch with nature. When Laura, Jack, and I drove out to Nakabwe, a far away outstation of Chikuni, we witnessed deforestation at its height; charcoal sellers had ravaged the entire hillside of a beautiful valley. I realized that once you have seen how other people live or how the environment is destroyed around the world, it is hard to sit back and not do anything about it.

Understanding how environmental changes impact people is an incredible motivating factor for preventing extensive climate change. Laura and I had the opportunity to get to know our cook, Mrs. Milimo, very well while we lived in Chikuni. She told us stories of her children, her late husband, and her life in Chikuni. Every year she grew corn behind her house; however, the past few years had unpredictable rainfall and a large proportion of her crop failed. As climate change continues, this will happen to millions of people around the world, mostly in developing nations.

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Through this fellowship my social imagination has developed into imagining a sustainable future. This future would include clean energy access, better water distribution, and an understanding that the environment is more than just property, but it is essential as provider of all our basic needs. This sustainable future is not perfect; however, if I can do anything to help realize this future I feel as if my vocational discernment will be fulfilled.

           

 

 

 

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Second Vocational Essay

            The eight weeks I spent in rural Zambia this summer changed how I look at the world. I learned about life in a rural village, poverty, and true happiness while I was there. These rural villages are incredibly remote which makes it difficult to build infrastructure to serve the local people. No paved roads go into these communities and during the rainy season they can be cut off for months. Building schools and finding teachers to teach in these schools is near impossible. Instead, Lifeline Energy and Chikuni Radio station, paired with the Ministry of Education of Zambia, broadcast school classes over the radio. Every outstation has at least one solar powered radio from Lifeline Energy and two or three mentors who facilitate the classes. Our research tried to help these mentors teach with assistance from the radio programs. My experiences there have shifted how I view the world and I’m still wrestling with how my views have changed and what those changes mean.

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Recently I have struggled to understand the motivations behind my actions. Part of my vocational discernment process is attempting to understand what motivates me, what I am passionate about, and why I do what I do now. I have come up with countless questions countered by seemingly endless possibilities. However, I have begun to sift through my experiences in Zambia and take from them the turning points and moments that have shifted my worldview. For me, the most important part of this process has been trying to learn how my motivations have changed through this fellowship and how I will proceed within this new paradigm.

            In Zambia, there seemed to be two options for a white woman: I could be an exploiter or an aid worker. The traditional system of dependency and aid has only brought westerners there for those two purposes. Tourists were rare and someone who was genuinely interested in learning about the culture even more so. Although I was not there working within the typical aid framework, I was grouped with the later category.

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The second week we were there, we had the opportunity to visit Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya, “The smoke that thunders”. While we were at the bus station, a bustling location overflowing with new sights, smells, and sounds, about eight or nine people asked me if I was going to Malawi. I was confused because Malawi is not a popular tourist destination. I learned from Kristine, the head of Lifeline Energy, that Malawi was plagued by a series of terrible droughts that lead to disastrous famines. Many aid workers in Zambia were leaving Zambia and going to help in Malawi.

            Ever since I was a young girl, I had expected to live that life. At the age of six, I declared that after college I would apply and spend two years in the Peace Corp. After that, my goal was to work in a household aid agency, such as the United Nations or UNICEF. I dreamed of living and working in exotic, far away places, meeting incredible people, and living a life of fulfillment and adventure. However, these dreams came to an abrupt end even before the fellowship began.

            I knew that the traditional system of aid was broken even before I applied for the Global Social Benefit Fellowship. I had plans of working to improve the system. Yet I do not think I fully comprehended how collapsed the system truly was. Billions of dollars is distributed in aid money yet the number of people in poverty is not shrinking. The wealth gap is ever widening and the environmental degradation in developing nations has become alarming. Even an exemplary community such as Chikuni has benefited but never thrived from the money that has been donated from abroad. Millions of dollars has been funneled into the community and despite their best efforts; there has been little change. Of course Chikuni is doing much better than many other surrounding communities with their education system, the radio broadcasts, and the free health clinics; yet, the absolute and overwhelming poverty trudges on without significant change.

            Living in Chikuni, I met inspiring people who toiled tirelessly day in and day out to improve the living conditions of the people in and around the community. Watching their hard work and the limited outcomes was frustrating. There was no lack of money, no lack of hard work, and no lack of effort, but the system was broken. That realization was difficult for me because it upended my strategic and streamlined life plan. I realized that I could not continue on that trajectory, I could not work within the broken system.

            How to get around this complex problem is still a continually turning cog in my brain. Thus far, I just want to tear down the existing structure of aid, especially government-to-government aid. However, it takes an incredible amount of influence and power to change such a mammoth issue. People like giving to charities; it makes them feel good about themselves and their contribution to the world. The vast majority of these people are so incredibly out of touch with the true needs of the worlds poorest that it is devastating to hear, “Stop giving away your money, it isn’t doing any real good”. That statement is false; charities all around the world help people everyday. Lifeline Energy brings education to thousands of African children every day. But the system needs to change; the values need to be revolutionized. An overhaul of the current system may be in the cards for the near future, but in my eyes it seems quite unlikely.

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Luckily for me, I was introduced to a variety of alternatives through the fellowship classes, including social entrepreneurship. I strongly believe that social entrepreneurship is one of the leading ways to empower people and lift them out of poverty. The job training programs and education in Zambia were the two aspects of life there that helped me find hope for the future. Helping people to help themselves is a crucial aspect that most aid agencies miss. The two programs that I believed were the most impactful in Chikuni were the job training opportunities and the life skills radio programming. These two programs gave people the tools to help themselves and help others.

I have also come to the conclusion that the world revolves around money. Money means power and power means potential for change. Working against a large corporation is daunting and nearing impossible in the world today. But imagine a company equally as large and powerful that had a social mission. Social enterprises need to be the new giants of change and an overwhelming force to reckon with. I know there is a bright and impactful future for the world of social enterprises and now is a time when I can use my skills and experience from Zambia to change the world in a meaningful way. Yet I still question why I want to change the world so badly.

            Whenever I think about what motivates me to help people, I am overwhelmed with a series of questions before I can even begin to ponder an answer or two. How will I feel on my deathbed? Do I carry some sort of privileged, well-educated guilt? A modern day version of the white man’s burden? Do I feel superior to these people? Or pity them? Do I genuinely believe I am making a difference or is this some sort of selfish avenue to make myself feel better? These tough questions plague me and I am sure that many of them will be unanswerable throughout most of my life, yet I strive to find some version of the answer as I choose my future.

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One important realization that I have had is that no matter what avenue I choose, I can make people’s lives better. I am slowly beginning to find comfort in allowing myself to live in the United States, live within the mainstream capitalist society, and still give my life some sort of meaning or value. The concept of the civically engaged citizen eases me to sleep. Americans all over the country are influencing their future through voting, collective community action, and sustainable living. Perhaps I could be content with living “the good life” that Plato discusses. I could try to bring happiness to myself and those around me and still promote a conscious awareness of our global community.

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The one thing I am sure about is my passion for environmental conservation. Perhaps conservation and bringing nature back to humans is where my greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need. The agro-forestry gardens in Zambia and the vast wilderness of Africa reminded me that humans have always lived within nature and that natural world is all around us no matter where we are.  There does not need to be a separation between urban nature and rural nature. Perhaps I can devote some of my life to bringing nature back into urban spaces through green architecture, urban gardening, or local community action. Encouraging people to vote with their dollar and influence the future of commodities and markets may be the avenue that best suits my passions and skill set. Today, that is my answer to the multitude of questions milling around inside my head, but you never know, my answer may be completely different tomorrow – and that is okay. 

Vocational Discernment Round 1

September 30, 2013

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     My experiences in Zambia have yet to culminate into a cohesive set of ideas that will help me find purpose and meaning in my life. Instead, there are a variety of experiences that have pushed me first one way and then another. Even now I am still trying to make sense of them. I have already learned so much from this fellowship and I am sure that I will continue to learn how it has affected me for a long time to come. For me, the biggest impacts came from my interactions with the local people and realize the harsh realities of abject poverty.

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      The most powerful relationships I had in Zambia were with Mrs. Molimo, our cook, and Boniface, the agroforestry technician. Mrs. Molimo taught me many things, the most important being the significance of radio in her life. Every day without fail the radio would play from breakfast through dinner. She would cook to music from all around Africa and beyond. I made spaghetti to both Tonga drumming and Justin Bieber. However, the music was just filler in between life lessons. Mrs. Molimo listened to talk shows about agriculture, development, and government policy. She faithfully listened to the Tonga Market teaching programs, all three grades that were broadcasted. She told Laura and I that Tonga Market was her favorite program because it helped her with her English. For Mrs. Molimo, it was hard to understand native English speakers because of our accent, but the Tonga Market radio spoke with a Zambian accent that helped her learn.

     Mrs. Molimo also taught me everything I know about traditional Tongan cultural practices. While making n’shima or chocolate cake, I questioned her about marriage practices, celebrations, dancing, and singing. I knew the anthropologist in me had gone too far when I started asking about kinship structures. We danced together in the kitchen, to both Tonga drumming and Jay Z. All the Tonga greetings we learned were drilled into us during our time in the kitchen. She demanded we learn the proper greetings as soon as possible. Mwabugabuti (Hello, how are you?) was a lifesaver in the field. People in the outstations were shocked and pleasantly surprised when we sputtered our infantile Tonga. Her knowledge of the gossip and goings on around town helped me appreciate the social structures and her connections. One day she took Laura and I to the Chikuni hospital. Not only did we get a private tour by one of the directors, we also had a chance to meet a variety of patients. We even met a woman in labor. Mrs. Molimo’s connections within the town helped us become accepted by the wider community and I cannot imagine how I could ever repay her.

          Image  Similarly, Boniface helped me understand the importance of informal knowledge as well as the impact that one person can make in a community. Boniface is one of the most inspiring people I have met because of his force as a catalyst for change. Boniface directed the entire agroforestry garden program, teaching both mentors and students about the worth of the environment. His vision and ambition changed Chikuni. Almost all of the Tonga Market schools had a blossoming garden with live fences, a variety of crops, and children who will become a new generation of eco-conscious citizens. Boniface’s work in the school gardens spread to the communities. In the interviews we asked if anyone replanted trees after they cut others down for firewood or charcoal. A surprising number of community members replied, “Yes, I replant trees because Mr. Boniface tells us how important it is”. When I feel insignificant and feel like the world’s problems are too big to solve I think of Boniface. If there was one motivated and inspired person like that in every community, the world’s problems would become much more manageable. I also learned about the rapid impact and dissemination of information. These agroforestry gardens are all relatively new and since their inception, Chikuni has become one of the leaders of agroforestry in the area and possibly in all of Zambia.

            In contrast to the hope and comfort I feel when I think about Boniface and the impact that one person can make, I was overwhelmed and shocked by the social realities of absolute poverty. I have seen poverty. Travelling to over twenty developing countries has given me a glimpse into the lives of the three billion people living under $2 a day. However, I could never have prepared myself for the poverty that I experienced in the outstations of Chikuni and Lusaka. I loved working in the outstations because people seemed happy with the little they had. They lived in communities where everyone was incredibly poor. Every day was hand to mouth for most people in the outstations. Laura and I were always incredibly impressed when someone had saved enough money to buy a solar panel – not because solar panels were incredibly expensive, but because there is no culture of saving in these rural villages. If people had any money they would spend it on airtime for cell phones or extra food. In comparison, I was weighed down by the abject poverty in the townships in Lusaka. Missus, one of the worst townships in Lusaka, was riddled with alcohol, drugs, prostitution and an epidemic of HIV/AIDS. People seemed dejected during our interviews and even our attempts to reduce one of the burdens of poverty failed. Jack, Laura and I went with Kristine, the CEO of Lifeline Energy, to interview three families in Missus. To thank them for their time we gifted each family a small solar lantern. When we went back to visit the same families the day before we left, we learned that one of the lanterns had been stolen and the other two families lived in constant fear of theft. This is only one example of the numerous frustrations that I experienced while there. Every time we tried to help people, there was a possibility it could make their life worse.

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            There were many days in Zambia that I felt like I had taken the wrong trajectory in life. I had always wanted to work in the non-profit industry, make a difference on the community and, one day, the global scale. I often felt like I was In Zambia but I was not making a difference, I was just taking up space and reinforcing neo-colonialist attitudes. Every bus station we entered people would swarm us asking if we were going to Malawi, one of the poorest nations in Sub-Saharan Africa and where the vast majority of aid workers were headed. If so many westerners were coming to help people, why weren’t thing getting better? I began to question my own motivations for helping other people or trying to influence the world. So far, I have come up with hundreds of questions and few answers.

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           One of the most impactful answers that I have come up with is empowerment. We, as educated people, have the opportunity to solve the world’s problems with our skills and education. But at the community level, leaders from the local community should be empowered to help their own people. Father Kelly asked both Laura and I to speak to a young group of girls to inspire them to work hard and go to college. I felt that it would be much better to have a successful, educated Zambian woman come motivate them. I have learned that I would prefer to use my skills and talents to help local community leaders, preferably women, so that they can make a difference in their own communities and beyond. Training people like Boniface to teach agroforestry or life skills can be more impactful than sending money or westerners to help. The more I reflect on my experiences in Zambia, the more I believe that women’s education and empowerment are the most powerful tools for global change.

     As I gather these experiences and new perspectives, I will use them to determine what trajectory I should take in the future. Although there are still so many questions to answer and experiences to distill, Zambia has helped me by increasing my self-awareness and contributing to my vocational journey.

 

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