Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Ponderings: David Cassidy to Life Lessons from Scoopy-Doo

This weekend started out cold and dreary day, but for the first time in quite awhile, I am home for the weekend, a full weekend. It is extremely quiet around the house with one son at college in Chicago, the other now in Uganda for a fellowship. But it sure feels good to recharge my personal batteries.

Distracted from grading, I checked Facebook last night and noticed that David Cassidy is gravely ill – organ failure, induced coma. The prognosis is not good. It was just earlier this year that he acknowledged that he has dementia. For many girls of my generation, he was a heartthrob. I can’t tell you how many times I played the Partridge Family LP and sang along with those songs during my pre-teen years. We, the generation of Gilligan’s Island, the Batman TV series, The Monkees and The Archies, The Brady Bunch, and a bit later, Scooby-Doo, grew up on low-tech shows, goofy musical sit-coms, and Saturday morning cartoons. No social media, no “reality TV”, no cell phones, and no personal computers, but lots of time with friends outdoors making up our own forms of entertainment.



Much has changed since then – in terms of what defines family on a sit-com to the technology (and online content) available to youth. Having taught undergraduate students for almost 30 years, I am all too familiar with the notion that musical trends, technology, and social interactions are constantly changing, and that it is hard from me to keep up. Students are amused by the fact that I used a calculator not my smart phone for doing math problems (I won’t even mention the slide rule days). They can’t fathom surviving with a single phone in the lounge for a whole dorm floor. And no, we never heard of downloads or streaming back then. My students would certainly laugh at the close-and-play record player I brought to college with me in 1977.

Other things have changed as well. This week, a friend of mine posted an article about teen mental health.  It begins with the following staggering statistics:

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.
This change is seen at the college level as well. Coincidentally, we had a professional development session this past week on how to deal with students who are contemplating suicide. College counselors are seeing a record number of students; just type in “college students and mental health” into Google and you will see all the news stories on this topic. According to Active Minds, over 1 in 4 adults in this country live with a mental health disorder, but despite the rise in students using college counseling centers, the 18 to 24-year-old age group still has the lowest rate of seeking help. NCAA student-athletes identify student-athlete mental health and wellness as their number one challenges from a health and safety standpoint. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. And here is one more stat from Active Minds that is quite frightening:
More than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts and 1 in 10 students seriously consider attempting suicide. Half of students who have suicidal thoughts never seek counseling or treatment.
Active Minds was started by a college student at the University of Pennsylvania after her brother committed suicide in 2000; the nonprofit organization has become the voice of young adult mental health advocacy nationwide with over 400 campus chapters. The group “aims to remove the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, and create a comfortable environment for an open conversation about mental health issues on campuses nationwide.” We have an active chapter on campus. Creating a supportive campus environmental is important, but I keep wondering about what is behind these trends, the upsurge in mental health problems? What  has changed since I was a teen or in college?

There is growing evidence to suggest that increased screen time and the associated decrease in sleep and diminished face-to-face social interaction are at least partly to blame. Some, like Richard Louv, have suggested that a lack of unstructured time outdoors and a disconnection from nature may also play a role in these alarming trends. I don’t recall my high school or college friends talking about depression or suicide, but, of course, the stigma surrounding mental health has changed dramatically over the decades as well.


In higher education, there is much talk about the need for grit – something many of our students seem to be lacking. From a 2017 article in Forbes:  
As MIT professors Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee persuasively argue in The Second Machine Age, fast-emerging technologies guarantee that rapid disruption is the new normal, both in our economy and across our society.  Once secured by degrees, professional success in the future will increasingly depend on coping and adapting to disruption: intellectual agility, determination, self-reliance, emotional intelligence, and the ability to innovate.
Yet another reference to fast-emerging technologies and the disruption that can cause.

Admittedly, I don’t know how to teach “grit” or help students become more resilient. I am good with sharing the complexities of the molecular structures and reactions of living cells or talking about big global challenges like climate change. I can point a student to the resources on campus if they need help and have had to do so more times than I can count. Perhaps the enormity of the social, economic, and environmental challenges facing young adults is part of the reason they feel a sense of hopelessness or are truly afraid for the prospects for their future.


At times, I long for what seemed like simpler times – when technology didn't change monthly and we could sing along with the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch on songs such as Come on Get Happy or Sunshine Day. Maybe we need to review some episodes of Scooby-Doo and consider the life lessons that gang taught my generation. (I suggest reading this list and see if you agree.)

We certainly need more downtime from the to-do list and the screens, and more time to hang out with friends and family (and not just via Skype or Facetime). And now, the sun has just broken through the mid-November clouds, so I think I will go out for a walk to let the blustery wind rejuvenate me before I get back to the piles of grading.

A walk with Corey (before he headed to Uganda) and the ever-silly Revi
Photo credit: Dave Husic

Friday, June 30, 2017

A Visit to Rural Uganda – Part I

Exploring the Dynamics of a Community-Based Environment Organization 

For eleven years, the International Institute for the Environment and Development (IIED) and various other partners have sponsored an international Community-Based Adaptation (to climate change) conference. This year (2017), CBA11 was held in Kampala, Uganda and I am fortunate to have been able to attend. The theme focused on harnessing natural resources and ecosystems for adaptation (or ecosystem-based adaptation). According to IIED, community-based adaptation “focuses on communities to use their own knowledge and decision-making processes to take action on climate change.”

In conjunction with the conference, field trips offer a chance to see first-hand some community-based projects. I was selected to join 19 other individuals (representing 13 countries) on the trip to learn about the work of the Kikandwa Environmental Association or KEA from June 23 – 25. The organization, founded in 1999 and incorporated in 2004, had as its original focus the health of the environment. This emphasis continues, but as we were to learn over the next few days, KEA has expanded its role significantly.

Early in the morning, we left the Royal Suites Hotel and headed north and east of Kampala through some crazy city traffic. Our host was John Kaganga, a retired educator who now is the director of KEA. 

John Kaganga - in center telling us about KEA
John likely anticipated delays and wisely had us stop at a gas station while still in the outskirts of the city for a “health break,” and he had brought along Rinam Glucose Biscuits (yes, that was their name and they taste a bit like Vanilla Wafers) and bottled water to keep us “nourished.”
A bit blurry as this was taken on a very bouncy bus ride
The Kikandwa sub-county is the central region of Uganda which is hilly, dry and rural. Sub-counties are organized into parishes which contain small villages. There may be 50 to 80 villages in a parish. One doesn’t find much about this region in a Google search, but you can get some clues of the challenges faced by looking at the issues of focus of the NGOs serving the region: “fighting the AIDS/HIV epidemic, addressing human rights abuses, and solicitation of funds for children and youth who can’t afford to pay for their educational expenses.”

From Google Maps


A typical village scene



A subset of our group was “volunteered” to serve as rapporteurs to develop a report about the projects and some of the information from that report is adapted below and in Part II of this series. Thanks and credit to Mark Marvin Kadigo (Uganda), Bithun Mazid (Bangladesh), Thabang Phago (South Africa), and Marlene Achoki (Kenya) – just a few of the new friends I made at this conference.

From left to right: Mark, Bithun, Thabang, Marlene, Esta
A sillier moment
KEA Headquarters – a community resource: 
Our first stop was the KEA headquarters located in Kasejjere Village in Kikandwa town, Mityana District.

KEA Headquarters


The association used some funding to purchase land and construct a permanent structure in which they established a community innovation resource center with the main objective of managing knowledge on climate change and disseminating this knowledge to the community. It is at this resource center that climate change related information is digested by volunteers, translated into local language, and then made available to the community members at no cost. The center also handles information on agriculture and any other relevant information.


Some of group checking out KEA Headquarters

In addition, the resource center serves as a secretarial point in the trading center offering secretarial services such as printing and photocopying to the community members from a 20 square kilometer region. At this resource center, farmers and community members have had the opportunity to gain some computer literacy and the small piece of land behind the center is used as a space to pilot new agricultural technologies thought about by the farmers. Geofrey Kizito has volunteered at the center for six years and Alex has been there since the beginning, despite having no official relatives in Kikandwa.

Geofrey and Alex on the left

Working with local governments: 
KEA works closely with the local government authorities and this helps to strengthen their influence in the community. The association has a close relationship with the sub-county authority, and thus, they serve as a direct feedback and lobbying link between the community and the local government. They leverage this relationship to communicate environmental issues faced by the communities to the local government and also assist the local government to ease adoption of some technologies advocated for by the government.

Visiting with the local government official

This would be somewhat like a township or county board of supervisors meeting


My impression was that the local official was more engaged and responsive than I am used to back home!
Rural education: 
In rural areas in Uganda and many other developing countries, it is often a long distance for children to travel to school, and most often, they must walk. However, in too many cases, children either are needed to work the land and fetch water and/or families cannot afford to send their children to school. To address this need, KEA established a primary school in the hills, close to the association’s headquarters in Kasejjere village. This school was founded on the principles of climate change awareness. The children are introduced to concepts of climate change and community-based adaptation strategies, which are incorporated into the mainstream curriculum. 

KEA school and students
The students performed song and dance for us

The school is also used as a platform upon which community members, including parents of the students, gather to discuss climate adaptation strategies that are being tested and adopted in the community. The school offers a way through which climate specific information can be effectively passed on to the communities on a wide scale and at a very low cost since the target audience is collected at a central point.


Some of the community meetings occur under this 110 year old mango tree on the school grounds (the sign is outdated) which was planted by Director John's grandfather.

Engagement of women: 
What stood out during our visit was the engagement of women in the association’s projects. Several women volunteered to take us to their farms and led the discussions around the technologies they have employed. Clearly, KEA is empowering the women in their community to actively take part in climate adaptation strategies being advocated for by the association. The women showed remarkable knowledge on community based adaptation strategies being used, and many of them hinted that they had a considerably large proportion of influence in the management and ownership of their farms. Some were single mothers managing children, livestock and the fields.

Some of the impressive women we met (and guys too)

Work still needs to be done on getting women involved in leadership roles in the association, although they are likely already too busy. There is a Rural Women Initiative NGO that works in Uganda.

Half-plus-Half 1000 acres project:
Kikandwa Environmental Association devised the half-plus-half project where community members, who have some natural vegetation standing on their land, are encouraged to save a quarter to one-half of an acre (if more than that is available) of that vegetation without destruction. The community members are being taught about the importance that natural forests have on the ecosystem. In essence, if more than one person can leave a portion of their land relatively undisturbed in its natural state, the community could end up with a considerable amount of land under natural vegetation. The forests provide shady retreats, medicinal plant products, are good for pollinators, and, of course, are important for wildlife and protection of watersheds. Currently, these preserved plots are fragmented instead of being in one large block; ideally, corridors connecting these plots could enhance wildlife movement. 

One of our morning meetings and breakfast was held in one of the preserved forest plots
Another plot
These two photos taken by Thabang Phago
Besides preservation, KEA is encouraging reforestation with indigenous (native) tree and shrub species that community members can get from the "supermarket" or plant nursery. Planting trees to restore forest or interspersed with crops provides a host of co-benefits, including carbon sequestration and microclimates to protect crops from rising temperatures.



A KEA member telling us about the nursery
The entire KEA story is too long to tell in a single post and this one is already pretty long. So...


Next up: Part II - Agroecology