Friday, December 26, 2014

Forecasting Futures

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me."
—Thomas Merton 
For the daughter of a future forecaster and as a professor who has designed degrees with an eye on future technologies, communications, and employment trends, this is a difficult line to swallow. Yet here I am at the end of this year and many of the most important moments in my life, I did not see coming at me.

I did not know that I would return to El Salvador. Yes we hoped to and we worked towards that end, but I thought our funding goal would be difficult to achieve in such a short timeframe. It was, but we did. And it was once again life-changing.

I did not know that I would be invited to present at MenEngage Global Symposium in India. And when there, that I would be asked to present twice. I had no idea that I would be moved by the incredible work of so many, put full trust in strangers, ride in a tuktuk or bicycle taxi, see so many beautiful and horrifying sights, travel with new friends, and be inspired.

I did not foresee that three months of this year I would be in excruciating pain and unable to walk. I did not foresee how an MRI could be a looking glass to my past and my potential future and that an epidural would take most of the the pain away in a matter of days. I would return to normalcy almost as quickly as I had been disabled.

And I did not foresee that my father would die so soon after my mother or that he would die in the painful matter that he did—and I wouldn't be by his side. I had no idea that I would be "beside" my father on his last night due to the technologies of the internet, the iPad, and Skype. I did not foresee how glad I would be that I was. And I did not know how deep and long lasting grief is.

Yet I have gone with good intentions, trust, and hope. And perhaps this is what I need. It's my hope that the upcoming year is a bit kinder, a bit easier, and failing that, that I move gracefully through. I pray for the strength and good humor to welcome whatever path I am given.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” 
—Thomas Merton 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pregnant with Hope

"Sandra, 18, is among those who escaped. Offering only her first name and speaking in Los Angeles, where she was awaiting an immigration hearing, she described violence as a part of life in El Salvador. First, a classmate became pregnant by a gang member. Then, the cousin of another classmate disappeared".
Approximately nine years ago, Bill Ryerson came to me with the idea of a game to address over population that he wished to present to his client, the UNFPA. I had begun four degree programs at Champlain College: Multi-media and Graphic Design, and the three Game Degrees based on a cohort model. It was time for a change and working with our former college president Dave Finney, I created the Emergent Media Center with the mission of giving students an opportunity to create media for clients in an internship-like model. Bill's idea was a perfect fit. What I did not know was how it would become a key mission in my own life.

We approached Aminata Toure then Gender Specialist at the UNFPA. She loved the idea of a game but not one on overpopulation. Instead she was insistent that there was a need for a game for boys on violence against women and girls. Let me say this again—a game for boys to change their attitudes and behavior towards girls. Though I was, and still am, an advocate for the power of games to educate, I had a difficult time seeing how this media which often negatively portrays women as either victims to be saved, objects to be violated, or as over sexualized creatures violent in their own right, could be designed and accepted by teen boys for the opposite. Even designers in the industry told me that game play mechanics couldn't support such a message.

The first image we saw when arriving in South Africa to conduct research towards development of the game.
But here I am nine years later, returning from my second trip to El Salvador with a team of Champlain College students who have successfully conducted the third series of BREAKAWAY game camps. This year we trained over 45 facilitators and worked with over 95 children aged 8-16. The youth love the game and the camp! The town of Sonsonate embraced and celebrated the camp, my student team, and the mission (you can see evidence in our Facebook page: I am grateful to the original design and narrative teams—Brian, Rob, Jovan, Lauren, Heather, Max, Connor, Joel, Sara, Alex, Kaitlyn, and Maureen who designed such a powerful tool for good—and to the teams of students, staff, faculty, and partners who created it. Little did they know—as college students—the impact it would have years later. I am also grateful to Mahmoud and Mariana who understood how much a solution to violence against women and girls was needed in their own countries, Palestine and El Salvador, and drove the project forward.
Our BREAKAWAY team in 2009 testing the game in St. Lucia
Why has this one project captured my heart and attention? I could begin by explaining that it aligns with my life's dual mission of education and the creation of transformative media. BREAKAWAY does both on multiple levels: 1) the education of my Champlain students in the creation and implementation, and 2) the education and enjoyment of my "students" in El Salvador. My Champlain students have gone on to careers in a time when college student employment directly out of school is depressing low. Our El Salvador students have been deeply loved and joyfully return that love.

But on another level, that of the heart, I need to explain that I have unexpectedly fallen in love with this tiny, troubled nation: a nation embattled by gang violence and poverty. A culture ruled by a deep Catholic faith and yet children give birth to children.  A warm people with nothing to give yet who have given my students and the BREAKAWAY team so much! A nation where parents know there is little hope for the future and their children make the dangerous trek to the U.S. border with hopes of escaping the the violence.

 The Salvadoran children of BREAKAWAY 2014
Just yesterday, only one day home from El Salvador, this article came across my newsfeed "El Salvador's Gangs Target Women and Girls", above and below are excerpts from the article:
"7 June 2013 in Santa Tecla, the girlfriend of a gang member recruited two friends to go to a party. The gangsters suspected that one of the girls betrayed them, talking to a rival gang. Eight men raped the girls. First two were killed with multiple knife wounds. The third was held for 24 hours while they asked for ransom, but when they couldn't get the money they killed her, too. The three were dismembered. They were 12, 13 and 14 years old."
The dedicated El Salvadoran BREAKAWAY Facilitators thanking the Champlain College team.
Is it too much to hope we can impact even more residents in El Salvador? Our preliminary study with Dr. Hua (Helen) Wang of the University of Buffalo indicates that the attitudes and behavior of the El Salvador BREAKAWAY youth camp participants are changing in regards to VAWG. During our trip this year, I met with representatives from the UNDP country office and ISDEMU (the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women). We discussed broadening the impact through integration into the school system beginning with the most troubled schools. Our trained El Salvadoran Facilitators can be a key part of the equation. Our Emergent Media Center team will look for grant opportunities to support and grow the initiative. And of course, my BREAKAWAY team led by Mariana and Hannah will be looking at raising funds to return next year.
This holiday season, I am struck by the story of a young girl in poverty who gave birth to a little boy in a time of deep conflict for her nation. I think of my young Salvadoran facilitators, Gabi pregnant with her first child and Karly with a beautiful new borne. My hope for them and their babies is that peace will rise up in their land and the children will lead. BREAKAWAY is one tiny attempt in a world of  possible solutions. A solution that is working one small hand at a time. Consider helping us in this mission of creating a more peace-filled world