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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Every Angel Is Terror

...line from the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Fellow Poet Tony Brown says he's: going to have it tattooed on my back next time I go in for ink. In the original German of course.

I'm dipping into the Elegies as I work, in preparation for my performance in Duino next month. There's a danger of falling into Rilke's words, lines that make me gasp, and turn my fingers to water on the keyboard.

We never have pure space in front of us,
not for a single day, such as flowers open
endlessly into. Always there is world,
and never the Nowhere without the Not: the pure,
unwatched-over, that one breathes and
endlessly knows, without craving.

The Eighth Elegy

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My first Twitter day

4pm: Gearing up to hear Mavis Staples in San Francisco tonight.

2pm: Read that the MacArthur Foundation has just committed $68 million to foreclosure prevention in Chicago. Tweet: Outsource the National Budget to the MacArthur Fdn!

12 noon:
Punch the air YESSS! on learning that Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler is National Book Award finalist.

11am: Sam Chanse asks why 47% of Californians support Prop 8 (to ban gay marriage again). I respond: because gay marriage is the reason your 401K is now worth less than its weight in recycled beer cans.

Let Tony Yang know about the Soldius Solar Charger for cellphones

10am: Listening to Gayatri Spivak on the trajectory of the subaltern

Monday, October 13, 2008

BarCamp Africa Reflections

What inspired me at BarCamp Africa was the collective energy of vision, passion, and trained intelligence, hungry to go to work on all that diminishes the humanity and dignity of the population of Africa.

What made me wary was the sense of "mission" - which too easily becomes a "missionary stance". "Missionary stance" is the belief in any model, way, solution, that must be imposed on people "for their own good."

Another concern was the lack of political and historical context to most of what was shared and presented. There was an absence of crucial information on multinational activity, odious debt, and US and European military presence on the continent. A discourse of investment, wealth creation, entrepreneurship, that does not include a discourse of justice, equity, and people owning and controlling their own resources, inevitably becomes a new wave of colonization.

There was also a glaring invisibility of women on the two panels of the day. The opening plenary had one female speaker on a panel of six. The midday Technology Panel, moderated by Guy Kawasaki, was all-male.

I left thinking hard about how to keep vision, passion and trained intelligence porous and flexible. How to harness them to equity and justice.

Here are some insights and ideas. They continue the conversations begun at the BarCamp, so the "you" they address are the participants of that gathering.

1) Specificity is generosity.

Africa is a concept - a blank canvas onto which people project their fantasies, stereotypes, and illusions.

"North-Eastern Kenya", "Accra", "Kwazulu-Natal", "the Niger Delta", "Lesotho", "Southern Egypt", are specificities.

When we speak of the landmass of Africa as a single, undifferentiated region, as if it was one country, we do Africa, and Africans, a disservice. Africa is 54 countries, each with its own unique history, political economy, social and cultural complexity.

Note the difference between:
I've lived and worked in Africa,

I did tech consultancy for a Dutch NGO in Harare for 6 months in 2005.

2) Embrace complexity.

I heard a hunger in the room yesterday for simple, elegant solutions. While I appreciate, and share, that longing, it is never simple to change human lives, and human societies. More than embracing complexity, we need to commit to it!

3) Dive into historical and political context.

Imagine taking a vision of microcredit and wealth generation to impoverished communities in Lousiana - without having studied Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Or trying to implement a civic education program among the working-class Irish Catholic population of Boston, without ever having heard of the Kennedy family, or its role in American history and politics.

Imagine championing models to alleviate poverty and disease in Iraq while ignoring Gulf War I, Gulf War II, US invasion, and the ongoing military occupation. In complete ignorance of the fact that Iraq had one of the world's best public healthcare systems, before the US dropped bombs on it.

That's what it's like to engage in any kind of work on the African continent - entrepreneurial, humanitarian, technological - without first studying the history and politics of the countries you're entering, the communities you're engaging with, to understand how they got to where they are.

4) Apply scientific rigor.

What I enjoyed about some of the BarCamp sessions yesterday, was the way they acted as an informal peer review process for ideas and models being applied or proposed. For decades, African countries have been the test labs for theories of development or philanthropy, many already tried and discredited elsewhere in the world. The continent is littered with the detritus of discarded experiments.

The time has come when anyone seeking to implement a model, idea, program on the continent needs first to invest in serious research on what has already been tested in the field. And second, be willing to run it through a peer review of African experts, with hands-on experience in the relevant areas.

5) Flip the picture and apply it in reverse to the US.

Imagine a BarCamp USA taking place in Nairobi. 175 bright, visionary, highly-skilled people gather to address the serious crises and challenges facing the US - through connectivity, creativity, community. Some of the participants are US natives. Of the non-US natives, about 50% of them have visited the US. But all of them feel an affinity to the US, are passionate about making a difference there, and unleashing the tremendous human potential they see on the continent.

They share models and experiences in business, philanthropy, technology, of their engagement with US communities, to alleviate poverty, violence, marginalization, market distortions, lack of information.

Now, imagine yourself as a participant in that Barcamp USA, sharing your model / project / endeavour / question. It is to be applied in the USA, to US populations, communities and contexts. Imagine showing, or viewing, slides of Americans living in poverty and desperate need(A), or smiling and happy as a result of your investment(B). Explaining how "you" got "them" from A to B. Imagine yourself talking about the problems and opportunities in the US, about what works and what doesn't, why and how, at Barcamp USA in Nairobi.

Whatever questions, discomforts, reservations come up - pay attention to them. If it's a struggle to even do this mental exercise - breathe deeply and stay with it. The insight you'll gain will be invaluable.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Open Space

I spent 13 hours yesterday on the Google Campus in Mountain View, CA, at BarCamp Africa.

My reflections on the day's content will go up on the BarCamp Africa blog shortly. What I want to share here is the open space principles which governed the day's proceedings (described as an "unconference').

I've participated in Open Space events before - most notably, two South Asian Progressive Conferences in San Francisco. And I recall responding instantly to the brilliance, simplicity and democracy of the Open Space principles. Then, for some reason, they filtered out of my consciousness as a tool for effective gatherings. When they were introduced yesterday, it was a welcome re-connection. And I suddenly realized their power and applicability to all the other areas of my life too - relationships, work projects, political organizing.

So the way an Un-conference works: people propose, in a forum of the whole gathering, the sessions they want to lead / moderate, on the topics of key interest to them. They write their name and session description - 1 line! - on a post-it note. The post-its are put up on a chart, that maps out the rooms for each session, and participants check out the chart and decide what session they want to catch. My favourite part is that it's totally OK to be a "butterfly" - to flit from session to session.

Open Space Principles

1) Whoever comes - are the right people.

2) Whatever happens - is the only thing that could have happened.

3) Whenever it starts - is the right time.

4) When it's over - it's over.

The Law Of Two Feet

You are responsible for your own experiences. If what's happening in any space or session is not working for you, you can exercise the Law Of Two Feet and move on in search of something that is.
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