Experiencing “Other”

Africa, Business, Charity, HR, L&D, Race, Uncategorized, values, Volunteer

The really important thing is to see connections. It is only when we see real connections that we can meaningfully talk about differences, similarities, and identities.                                                          

– Borders & Bridges, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

Recently on a trip to Uganda (volunteering with homeless children and using HR skills to help local staff in case you haven’t heard 100 times already) I had my first experience of feeling “Other”. I won’t discuss the critical theory and postcolonial theory surrounding Othering, but if you’re interested in learning more see the works of Michel Foucault and Edward Said as good starting places.  A disclaimer – this blog is not intended to illicit sympathy (poor white girl got stared at), but simply to share a moment of new experience creating a different and enhanced perspective.

One evening walking to buy water with my Brit friend in Kampala we drew a lot of attention. I am VERY white, with orange hair, and I’m pretty tall too at around 5 ft 10 and the average height of Ugandan women (according to google) is about 5 ft 2. I felt very different. Being a typical Brit I also did not speak any of the local languages. I didn’t feel in danger I hasten to add, but I felt like a spectacle, something to be stared at – why was I there? During this I had a moment of empathy for my boyfriend; we live in a very white town in North Yorkshire and he is mixed race (Afro-Caribbean & White British) and he feels different and unwanted (especially as our town voted to leave in Brexit). I’ve always been sympathetic to his situation but I had a moment of clarity and empathy whilst in Kampala. We live in the same house, in the same town and yet we’re both living a completely different experience as I’ve always found the town friendly and welcoming.

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Another instance of feeling a spectacle was when the group of us white Brits (and one Ozzy) walked through the slums. Although we were in Kampala to help it was hard not to feel like a voyeur walking through the slums, knowing that we could leave any time we chose and could go back to our nice hotel. Everybody in the slums, especially the children were lovely, friendly and welcoming and I felt like Princess Diana and that was surprisingly uncomfortable. We must have seemed like royalty, those living there assuming that we were rich and could potentially help them out of their poverty should we be in the mood to help. I don’t wish to belittle or in anyway diminish the great work we did out there (for Retrak charity) but I think it is important to critically think about perception, culture and Othering.

In a twist to the original theory of Othering, I experienced being Other from a perceived position of power. It is hard to express in words how that felt. Ultimately I experienced “White Guilt” – as Jean-Marc Ferry observed, “[w]e have to remember, in a critical way, the violence and humiliation we have inflicted on whole peoples in every continent in order to impose our own vision of humanity and civilization.”. This is something, having studied postcolonialsim, I’m acutely aware of.

I want to end this blog post on a positive note, I wholeheartedly agree with the quote I started on of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o – that we need to see real connections, and as Maya Angelou said –

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

L&D In Uganda #ConnectingHRAfrica

Africa, Business, Charity, HR, L&D, Leadership, Management, teamwork, values, Volunteer, workplace

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Now that I’m back in the UK I feel that I’m much more able to reflect on my time in Kampala volunteering with the charity Retrak. I’ve got huge respect and admiration for my companions who blogged during their experience, but I didn’t feel emotionally able to at the time. So here goes…

Part of the reason why we went to Africa was to utilise our HR & L&D skills to train and coach the staff who work at the children’s centres in Kampala for Retrak. Centre managers, social workers, counsellors, programme leaders, volunteers and so on. It was a truly humbling experience to be able to, in some small way, help those incredible staff members to feel valued, supported, cared for and listened to. These are people who are truly dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable children. Children who are homeless, abused, frightened and alone. Can you imagine how much resilience, passion and determination it takes to continue to deliver excellence to these children day in and day out? I’m going to cover more about the amazing work they do in my next blog.

We did sessions with the intact teams who worked together in each centre. One day I co-facilitated on a session around resilience, teamwork, communication and pacing. We always offered follow-up 1:1 coaching sessions should they wish to continue talking to us on an individual basis. Below is a picture of me and my wonderful coachee Juliette:

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Juliette is one of the amazing social workers at the girl’s centre. We also ran a day’s programme for the head office staff. My topics were on communication, respect, values and leadership.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had such an attentive and appreciative audience.

I was also struck by the universal nature of problems in the workplace. Some of our participants were telling us about their issues assuming that they were due to the cultural differences of Uganda – but I can tell you, from having worked with organisations all over EMEA – we all experience the same problems and gripes as one and other. Some at a more extreme level than others, sure. Ultimately though, we all want to be and to have high performing teams, effective leadership, we want our staff to live and breathe our values, we want commitment and motivation, we want engagement, respect, diversity and resilience. I can say unequivocally that ALL of the Retrak staff that I met were high performing, dedicated and inspiring.

Ultimately I was left feeling like I want and need to do more for these wonderful people. If you’re interested in finding out what you can do to help them too then please get in touch. There must be more!

Here is the rest of the wonderful team I facilitated with:

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Please remember that it is not too late to donate too!

Maybe it is time for a move…

Love. Family. 

Africa, Charity, HR, L&D, Leadership, Perfectionism, teamwork, Uncategorized, values, Volunteer

    I’m en route to Dubai and from there to Kampala as I write this blog. Those of you who regularly follow my blogs you’ll know that I’m on my way to volunteer with homeless children and to train/ coach shelter staff with Retrak charity and other likeminded HR/ L&D volunteers. I’m with the Manchester lot on this flight, and those flying from London will meet us in Dubai. 

    It’s hard to describe the full spectrum of emotions we’re all experiencing on this flight. We’re excited, nervous, emotional and in many ways this still feels very surreal. 

    It’s been a long fundraising journey for all of us and between us we’ve raised nearly £19k to help improve the lives of homeless children and hopefully to find them loving and supporting homes and families. I can’t imagine being where I am today without the support of my family, they’re my support and my inspiration (that’s us, the Cowells in the featured pic!). 

    To raise money I’ve done a 6 hour sponsored spinathon, a car boot sale, a pub quiz, numerous raffles and my parents have bullied everyone they’ve bumped into, in to donating. The other guys have done all sorts – 10k runs, sponsored walks, fashion shows – you name it and they’ve done it. 

    I must say though that I also feel guilty – I feel like I could be bringing more money, or more items for the children, or have in some way got the word out about this fantastic charity in a greater way. I feel nervous. I’ve put myself forward to be chief sports coordinator (self appointed title) and I’m planning on running around with the kids, playing football, basketball, organising a sports day – anything! What if the kids don’t like me? What if I can’t control my emotions and I allow myself to be overwhelmed? 

    That is, of course, my typical perfectionistic response to any situation (I could have done better and what if I don’t perform as well as I should?). However, despite these anxieties I know I’m going to leave Kampala feeling proud. I know in my heart I’ve tried my best and will continue to try my best and the rational part of my brain knows that, that is all anyone can reasonably ask of themselves. 
    I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have donated, supported and cared. I feel truly overwhelmed by your love and kindness. 

    Thank you. 

    The Emotional Cost of Charity Work

    Africa, Business, Charity, L&D, Leadership, Management, Uncategorized, Volunteer, workplace

    Well there’s around 6 weeks left before I go to Africa with a great group of people all volunteering their time (and money) with Retrak charity #ConnectingHRAfrica. A huge thank you to everyone who has donated or sponsored me so far, I truly appreciate it. I’m committed to raising £2k by the end of August and I’m currently at £1,125.

    However, not only do I want to thank everyone who has donated and sponsored me (I truly can’t express how grateful I am), I also want to talk about the emotional toll volunteer work like this can have on you. I’m going to share with you some of the things that I’ve learned and hopefully these lessons can help you should you ever choose (which I really hope you do) to volunteer with a charity.

    Firstly, I honestly wasn’t expecting this to be so hard, I mean, clearly I was very naïve. I thought to myself, sure, I can commit to raising £2,000, I’ll pay for my flights to Uganda myself, and I’ll pay for my visa, pay for my various injections and malaria tablets – man, charity work is expensive! I have a good job but I’m not Rockefeller and I’ve actually had to get a loan for this and use my annual leave. I thought, with all of the people and all of the companies I know, and work, they’re all surely going to want to donate, nice and easy, because who wouldn’t want to help homeless children in Africa?!…

    And this is and has been stressful! In my last blog I spoke about resilience and in all honesty this has really tested mine. The pressure I’ve put on myself too hasn’t helped; desperately not wanting to let the charity down, and what if I pay for my flights and all the rest but don’t raise the money and I can’t go? That could have been money I just gave to the charity in the first place, money lost and wasted! I have had many sleepless nights about this trip and about fundraising. Also, nobody wants to be that person who constantly hounds friends, colleagues and family to donate. You start to feel like a cold-caller or a door-to-door salesperson (avoid eye contact or she’s going to shake her charity bucket at us).

    The last thing I want to do is put any of you off doing something like this because I am so proud to be supporting such an amazing charity that does incredible work, but I think you should know what you’re getting yourself in for and also what will help get you through to your goal.

    So, here are the things that help make the stress easier:

    • Having a network around you to share your experiences with. I’m really fortunate that I’m travelling to Kampala with a great set of HR peeps, although most of us have never met, through Skype calls and our Facebook group it really feels like we’ve become friends already.
    • Having people you can brainstorm fundraising ideas with. I knew I wanted to do a sponsored spin but I had NO IDEA how to go about doing it. Thankfully my colleague Kerry knows the wonderful staff at the York Marriott Hotel and she was more than happy to connect me up with them. The staff there were brilliant and supportive on the day during the epic 6 hour spinathon and thank goodness I was with my colleague Mark (who kindly volunteered to submit himself to torture with me) or I really think I might have quit before the 6 hour end goal.
    • Support, support, support. My parents have been fantastic! They run a bar and have tapped up all of their friends and punters and anyone that bumps into them in the street or shops (!) to get them to donate. I know they’re really proud of me and that helps motivate me to keep going and achieve my goal. My boyfriend has listened to me stress out and meltdown about it and has reassured me, has shared my JustGiving link with his band and his social media network. My colleagues Kerry and Mark have both listened to me stress and worry and have listened with empathy and then have offered their advice and support.
    • This is one can be really tough. Sometimes it will feel like people aren’t donating because maybe they’re not the friends you thought they were, or maybe because they don’t care that it is really important to you – but don’t take it personally! You have no idea what is going on in their lives and maybe they’re going through a skint spell (it happens to the best of us), or maybe they have their own fundraising going on, it could be any of 100 reasons so please keep that in mind.
    • Remember you’re doing something amazing. Just trying to raise funds for a charity is awesome, so be proud of yourself. Anything you raise is fantastic and will be greatly appreciated and put to good use.

    There have also been some amazing positives so far to this experience (honest), and I’m not even there yet meeting the kids and local volunteers and doing such great work.

    Some of the most unlikely of people have donated SO generously and it really warms the heart to witness such generosity and such unexpected kindness too. You will be amazed by the selflessness of some people and this work will also reconnect you with people you never thought it would and it really highlights the people who are there for you.

    I hope this blog has helped some of you understand how tough charity work can be, but I also hope it inspires some of you to do something that’s tough, outside of your comfort zone but incredibly worthwhile and rewarding.

    If you would like to donate please visit my JustGiving page.

    For more information on the amazing Retrak charity see their website.

     

    The World We Believe In

    Africa, Business, Charity, L&D, Uncategorized, workplace

    All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing – Edmund Burke

     

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    This September I’ll be travelling to Kampala in Uganda with an incredible group of HR professionals, and the charity Retrak and #ConnectingHRAfrica, to help and support street children and to train local staff. You can find out more about what we’re planning to do here: https://www.retrak.org/work-in-hr-come-with-us-to-uganda/

     

    What is #ConnectingHRAfrica ? We are the extension of #ConnectingHRManchester, which is a regular meeting of HR professionals around the Manchester area. This is a get together to talk about all things HR and L&D, a project founded by Ian Pettigrew who has gone on to organise #ConnectingHRAfrica (Ian is a trustee of Retrak). Here is a link to Ian’s blog on why he is so passionate about his work with Retrak: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/please-help-us-make-positive-impact-lives-street-hr-africa-pettigrew?trk=prof-post 

     

    Why have I volunteered? A ginger going to Africa, why would you do that?!

     

    Well, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, 2015 was not a good year for me personally, perhaps some of you may have noticed that I’ve returned to my maiden name on LinkedIn and Twitter (enough said), and I am desperate for 2016 to be a much more positive year for me. I want it to be a year of exciting experiences and happy memories.

     

    When I heard about this opportunity through a post on LinkedIn, it was incredibly serendipitous timing as I was just then starting to feel in a positive enough state of mind that I was looking for volunteering opportunities. Coming off the back of a few months of wallowing, I had started to gain some perspective and had come to the conclusion that it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself, and to do something for the benefit of others. I had already started researching different charitable opportunities when I saw this title on LinkedIn, “Work in HR? Come With Us to Uganda” – YAAAS. Not only a chance to volunteer but also to be able to utilise the skills I’ve gained from working in L&D and HR these last 3 years.

     

    I feel very privileged to be in the position to be able to offer support and help to homeless children and local workers. Retrak is a fantastic charity, and the work they do is truly inspiring. Retrak believe in a world where no child is forced to live on the street. Their mission is to transform highly vulnerable children’s lives, preserve families, and empower communities. We put children at the heart of everything we do and we will defend and promote their rights. Retrak operates in Uganda, Ethiopia, Malawi, Kenya, and Tanzania. Retrak has also trained partner organisations in Mozambique, DRC and Zimbabwe. Retrak is also involved in ground-breaking research working with organisations across the globe from Mexico to Cambodia. The last Retrak annual report shows that 96 children were rescued from trafficking, 4,265 street and vulnerable children were provided with help in outreach, placement, and follow up, and 605 children were reunited with families.

     

    Last year I travelled to Morocco and visited the Sahara Desert, and en route to the desert there was a child begging by the side of the road – but not for money, for water. It is hard to imagine such levels of desperation, of needing to beg for water, and it was utterly heartbreaking to see. That experience has stayed with me, and at that point I knew I wanted to volunteer in some way to help children who are struggling so severely.

     

    I know this trip to Kampala is going to be an incredibly emotional and potentially heart-wrenching experience. I’ll be visiting the slums, working with children who have suffered terrible abuses, neglect, drug addiction and much more. I’ll be working in a safe home for girls, organising a huge football match, and a community day for HIV testing, medical and dental help. I’ll also be running around like a lunatic with the kids, playing with them and entertaining them as best I can. I really hope that the time I spend with these children, and the money I raise for Retrak, can positively and sustainably influence their lives.

     

    So how can you sponsor me? I’ve got a JustGiving page, and I would be incredibly grateful for any support you can offer (you, or a friend, or even your work!):

     

    https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Alice-Cowell1

     

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