By guest contributor Patricia Seybold, Founder & CEO of Patricia Seybold Group, author of Customers.com, The Customer Revolution, and Outside Innovation.
Twenty-five years ago, an innovative experiment was launched in western Uganda: to co-evolve a set of transformational techniques with impoverished people living in rural, under-developed areas—tools that empower people to create a vision of what they want in their lives and to work together to achieve that vision. Now, twenty-five years later, tens of thousands of people are teaching one another how to “Awaken the Sleeping Genius in Each of Us” as they improve the quality of their lives and the prosperity of their homes and their communities.
One part of URDT’s “secret sauce” is to teach school girls to become change agents in their families and in their communities. This “low tech” example uses the brilliant minds of enterprising young girls to ignite the brilliant minds of their family members. These families prosper, and, in turn, teach others in their communities how to replicate their success, they then all move on to community-scale projects—building schools, water sources, roads, and farming co-ops.
To spread the power of this creative visionary approach to community development, many of these girls graduate from the URDT Girls School and become students at the African Rural University. There, they join other young women from across Africa to be trained as Rural Transformation Agents.
Video: Grace Biira—Why I am studying at the African Rural University
When they graduate, they are offered jobs in rural sub-counties—each young woman is now chartered to ignite the creativity and aspirations of people in scores of rural villages. Among their duties: identify and support additional school girls and their families to become role models creating systemic change in each village. Help villagers create and achieve visions for their communities.
How URDT Embodies the Principles of Improving Collective IQ
A. We teach children and adults how to create a vision of the goals they want to achieve, and how to use the structural tension between their current reality and their vision to generate actions that enable them to realize their goals. Students and their families apply these techniques in the students’ “back home projects” each school term. Students teach their parents new techniques to use each semester, and are graded on how well their families learn and do using this “Two-Generation” approach to education (kids teaching their parents and siblings).
B. We use systems thinking, participatory action planning, and collective reflection to continuously improve how quickly and how well people on campus and in the communities are able to achieve their goals. This is a daily practice, involving the entire student body, faculty and staff for an hour at the start of each day.
C. We are constantly identifying new opportunities for collective co-evolution. For example, school girls’ parents decided to form a savings co-operative to grant micro-loans for farming projects. Then farmers decided to improve the profits from organic farming by planting higher value crops. Then they decided to build agricultural processing plants to create higher-value food, like milled flour and animal feed. These locally-generated initiatives are replicated across the network of participating families and communities.
1. How do we Engage Our Innovators?
We start with the school children. We teach first school girls, now both girls and boys, how to use the creative process and the visionary approach. We also arm them with practical know-how in sanitation, nutrition, organic farming and business entrepreneurship.
The children teach their parents and their siblings—both first hand, and by writing and performing plays in the communities, and by broadcasting on the community radio.
These families who now have a creative, visionary orientation towards life inspire and teach others in their communities. Many start small businesses and hire and train others.
The school children and families are supported by the teachers and staff at URDT. The leaders in each village, district, and county become enrolled in the creative, visionary process through participatory action workshops. The community radio is used to supplement and reinforce the hands on training the interns provide and to mobilize community members.
The African Rural University student interns and graduates identify, train and support innovators in the rural communities they’re deployed in. They work with community members to identify needs, and to plan and execute community-driven projects to address those needs. They also train and support the leaders at each level of government.
These interns and graduates support one another and they are supported by the staff of URDT. The community members support one another and join together in a variety of community projects.
2. How Do We Leverage Our Collective IQ?
The University graduates who work in the field as “Epicenter Managers” and the secondary school children who work with their families on school breaks all report back what they are learning and what challenges they’re seeing.
Students, interns, faculty, and graduates write and share reports, create video documentaries, establish a baseline for each family and document the improvements in household income, health, nutrition, and education.
The educational institutions on the URDT campus use the learnings from all the field work that is taking place to study what works and what needs improvement. For example, the University students engaged in participatory research with groups of women in several villages about land rights. Who owned the land they were farming? What kind of ownership was it (there are 4 different kinds of land ownership)? Who inherits the land? What can you do to gain title to the land you are farming? How can you ensure that you will retain title to the land when your spouse dies? These village women—many of them illiterate—learned about their own properties and took the steps required to gain title to the land they were farming. This land rights participatory education program was so successful that it is now being developed into curriculum for secondary schools throughout Uganda.
3. How Do We Focus on Core Capabilities?
The goals of the people we serve are to improve their health, income, and quality of life.
We provide them the tools to envision and to achieve these goals by teaching them how to master the creative process to achieve what they want in their lives.
We also teach them the skills they need to improve sanitation, nutrition, farming productivity, carpentry, mechanics, solar technology, and many other trades and crafts, and we teach them how to start and run a profitable business.
The new vocabulary they use is related to having a creative orientation. They talk about creating and achieving a vision. They talk about engaging their family members in planning. They refer to obstacles as their “current reality.” They identify local resources they can mobilize to achieve their goals.
Their world view is very holistic. They have all become “systems thinkers.” They see the interconnectedness between sanitation and good nutrition and health. They discuss the need to improve the quality of their roads in order to increase commerce and gain access to better education and healthcare.
4. Push the Frontier: How are we accelerating our human/tools co-evolution & understanding how quickly we can evolve?
By replicating the same practices from the school child to the family unit, to the community, to the sub-county, we are creating a recursive ripple effect. That’s why we call our employed university graduates—our Rural Transformation Specialists—Epicenter Managers. Each one is at the epicenter of a new set of waves of co-evolution and co-development.
Many of the people in the communities that are engaging with URDT and ARU and its students and graduates are wholeheartedly adopting the principles of the creative orientation towards their own lives. They have moved from resignation and apathy to being engaged creators of their own destinies. They are working across tribal and gender boundaries on common, shared projects. In addition to the pilot projects that are undertaken each year in 240 families (the families of the Girls’ School students) over a five to six year period, we also have two or three projects going in each village in which there is an intern or an ARU graduate. In addition to these projects, which have been stimulated by URDT/ARU students and graduates, many local people and village leaders are undertaking their own projects to improve some aspect of the community infrastructure (roads, schools, clinics) or of the local economy (savings societies, marketplaces, value-added production).
We can and do support and amplify the co-evolution through outreach, through radio programming, by interviewing and documenting success stories, by holding community meetings, and by bringing experts from all over the world to study what is happening in this corner of Uganda.
5. How Do We Walk Our Talk?
We excel in practicing what we preach. We are constantly coming up with new ideas for new ways to improve sustainable livelihoods in rural communities. For example, we provide training for urban youth on how to thrive in the rural communities they migrated from—how to engage in profitable agriculture and to build local sustainable businesses so they can remain in the countryside, rather than working in an overcrowded, congested urban setting.
We are embarking on a “green campus” program to take our current organic farm and sustainable energy practices to the next level as we continue to evolve and improve our campus.