By Barbara Chami
About halfway through NYU’s Center for Global Affairs orientation, Professor Thomas Hill had me hooked. The Peacemaking and Peacebuilding course wouldn’t count towards my international development concentration but I would take this class in the fall, so I could take the Workshop in Applied Peacebuilding course in the spring. I was inspired by the opportunity to learn such a crucial element of global dynamics.
While Professor Hill explained that taking these classes would give students the chance to conduct fieldwork abroad, I ignored the fact that I couldn’t define peacebuilding. His words meant that I wouldn’t have to worry about a summer internship or the heat of New York City. Instead, I would live my dream and spend the summer working with an organization in a foreign country.
Professor Hill quickly helped us define ourselves as consultants, not interns. Our role in these projects is to be critical and to bring a fresh student perspective, which may get lost in years of grueling NGO work. He tactfully crafts his classes to do just that.
Above everything else, the Workshop in Applied Peacebuilding is about self-reflection. Professor Hill offers a variety of partnerships to meet the variety of needs of the students, but each of the students has to understand what type of organization they want to be part of and what role they will play. Would I excel working for the United Nations in Jordan? Or is International Peace Park Expeditions in Hiroshima a better fit? I know children’s education is important – maybe Ba Futuru in Timor-Leste is my best option.
After determining that I wanted to work for a small and involved organization, I was happy to be paired with the World Education Foundation. The WE Foundation cultivates solutions to the world’s most pressing needs, by engaging with communities and utilizing human-centered design thinking. They focus on reducing inequalities around the globe by targeting underserved areas. This was an optimal match because I had focused my studies on agriculture and community engagement and Thomas Hill introduced us to human-centered design.
Although the fieldwork would happen in late July, the class began in January and I spent the seven months in between conducting desk research from New York City. Weekly Skype calls kept me to connected to the WE Foundation as I learned about Myanmar’s political history, religious and military conflict, and the oversaturation of foreign aid. I also learned more about design thinking, how to conduct a needs assessment, and about specific challenges for doing business in the country.
Simultaneously, Professor Hill introduced the class to the literature of peacebuilding and highlighted common pitfalls. I was so impressed by the WE Foundation it seemed like they were following everything my favorite peacebuilding authors, Robert Ricigliano and John Paul Lederach, preached. But Professor Hill also taught us to question the work of the organization that we would be working with because that is what makes you a good consultant.
I began a downward spiral as I thought too much and questioned. I became terrified. How could I be of help to an organization that was doing everything right? Were they, in fact, doing everything right? What if Myanmar is just too difficult to work in? Ultimately I finished the semester very uncertain – I did not want to be part of a failing project.
When I arrived in Myanmar, I was greeted by smiling faces and warm hugs. It was the first time I was meeting Shauna and Marques in person but I immediately felt a close connection. There was no time for small talk; Yangon traffic had us behind schedule so we immediately jumped into a taxi towards our first meeting.
In the short seven days that I was in Myanmar, I discovered how important it is to have a diverse set of local partners and meetings planned ahead of time. Our schedule was packed, but each encounter shed light on a new aspect of the country. We met with organizations ranging from Phandeeyar, an innovative tech hub and accelerator, to Barefoot College, an NGO working to create self-sustaining rural communities. As someone who usually prefers to travel spontaneously, it was illuminating to see how much you can accomplish with proper planning.
While hosting workshops, we learned, laughed, and prayed with children and elders alike. We also conducted a micro needs assessment to help draft ideas for a future project. I felt proud that, finally, I was traveling with a non-selfish purpose.
I was living my dream of working in a remote village, engaging with locals while helping them to discover solutions to their needs; but I was also questioning everything that was going on around me. I stepped into Myanmar unsure of the exact nature of what my purpose as a consultant was, but my role was quickly illuminated.
When a village served us a hot meal but refused to eat, was this the culture or was there not enough food to go around? Why were they feeding us to begin with? What expectations do they have of us? Did our workshops have a positive impact? Or do these exercises not translate between cultures? Did they only let us host a workshop because they are hoping for something in return? While I was living my dream, I hardly stopped to enjoy a moment because I was so overwhelmed with thought.
The experience that epitomized my time in Myanmar, was when I revealed my fears to Marques and Shauna; they were extremely open and receptive to all of my concerns. After discussing the possibility that our workshops may not translate, Marques asked our local partners if it would be possible to work with a local anthropology student. I understood that the WE Foundation brought me on their team to share a varied point of view. Each organization that we met with shed light on different aspects of Myanmar and each person representing WE Team Myanmar offered different interpretations of what we were experiencing.
In my life, I’ve traveled for exploration, information, leisure, and for school, yet I have never experienced anything similar to what I experienced as part of WE Team Myanmar. Traveling both domestically and internationally, I’ve attempted to find my way into remote areas and to engage with locals, to learn about their customs and daily life. This is typically a challenging feat. In the times that I have made authentic connections I was able to share information with individuals but the relationship would not go deeper. This is what led me to pursue a master’s degree. I wanted to bring intention to my interest and to be able to bring something to a group that is so kindly welcoming me in. I also wanted to create a lasting relationship with a community because the longer that you are engaged, the more you can learn. My interest in continuing down this path has multiplied by infinity: The experience in Myanmar exceeded any and all expectations and I cannot wait to continue to engage with all of the groups we met with during that life-changing week.
Barbara is going into her final year in the Global Affairs department at NYU. She is in the International Development and Humanitarian Assistance concentration but has placed her focus on rural community empowerment. She spent spring of 2016, researching agriculture communities in Latin America and had the opportunity to do field research in Bolivia, Panama, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Myanmar.