How would you describe community without using the word itself? Imagine people from all over Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, India and Central America coming together and attempting to define what community means to them. This is only one of the many activities I had the chance to take part in at the Nova Scotia-based Coady International Institute for my internship with Oxfam Canada in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The institute’s methodology is based on adult education principles that Rev. Moses Coady and Rev. Jimmy Thompkins promoted to economically and socially marginalized Nova Scotians in the 1930’s. The pair brought together fishermen, farmers and miners to work and study collectively to understand their socio-economic situation and find ways to better it. With the help of Coady and Thompkins, communities were encouraged to identify and utilize their assets instead of focusing on what they lacked. Rather than imposing their beliefs, the reverends created study groups to allow people to discuss and share their knowledge and opinions on how their communities could become more economically self-sustaining.
As a result, many communities were able to pool their resources to create institutions such as cooperatives and credit unions to successfully pull themselves out of poverty. The Coady institute actively promotes the tools and practices promoted by the two reverends as the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach. Using lessons learned from Coady and Thompkins, the Coady International Institute is currently training young Canadians participating in the Canadian International Development Agency-funded International Youth Internship Program as well as over 50 experienced professionals from various development organizations in leadership skills and community self-reliance.
One of the aspects of my training was participating in seminars and interacting with professionals from all over the world who are participating in a 19-week Diploma in Development Leadership. From a soldier from Sierra Lionne, to Fathers working with street kids in India to a Guatemalan human rights activist, I had the opportunity to meet and hear stories from an array of talented, dedicated individuals. These exchanges and perspectives have been a real asset to me in my internship working with Oxfam-Canada Ethiopia.
All of the workshops I participated in were based on popular education principles, which was incredibly refreshing. There was no teacher-student hierarchy, and there was a focus on group discussion and sharing experiences. I was curious to see what the participants thought of this approach to learning, as it is quite different than the typical educational environment. I spoke to Lensa Simesso, a participant representing the Professional Alliance for Development in Ethiopia.
“As we are learning leadership it seems it (a participatory approach to learning) is the right approach. The best thing which I see in the Coady is the bringing of people from different countries together to share their experience. This a great opportunity for all of us because we learn from each other with trained professionals acting as facilitators. This is helpful in adult education because someone with personal experience on an issue may not take in new ideas very easily.”
I also spoke to another participant, Pascal Sundi, who is the Secretary General for the Forum of Congolese Organisations in South Africa. He explains how the methodology used by the Coady is innovative because it helps to build individual self-esteem, hence contributing to the creation of a safe space for people to share experiences and engage in dialogue.
“I feel the popular education approach is useful in a development learning context because, to use an expression from Paulo Freire’s book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ Liberating education is the opposite of oppressive education, it is an education where all actors play all roles in an interchangeable manner. The teacher can become a student and the student can become a teacher. It is more an education which pushes to reflect on the present situation and find alternatives to make it better. Hence, it is fundamental in the context of development.”
In addition to learning from the participants, I also benefited from faculty who had a diverse range of interests and specializations. From a gender workshop, to an introduction to livelihoods to an emotional but useful power and privilege session, I had an intense overview of many topics and issues relating to development. Even though I previously studied topics related to international development in theory, being exposed to the practical experience and knowledge the Coady faculty offer has been a real asset.
It was stimulating to be in an institution that not only promotes proactive development methodologies and tools such as ABCD, but also ensures that they work on the ground. The field research component to the Development Leadership program consists of Coady staff visiting partners to see the practicality and efficiency of the tools and approaches used in the learning process. Brianne Peters, a former intern and current Program Associate for the Citizen-Led Development Program explains how the training given at the Coady implements itself in the field.
“From an action research point of view, my work is interesting because I visit graduates to determine the kinds of impact our tools and approaches are having in the field and this feeds into broader development discussions internationally through publications, tools and curriculum for our courses. This ensures that knowledge is uniquely cutting edge and relevant and applicable in a number of different contexts, be it for policy-makers or practitioners. In short, our action research is about learning about what works and what doesn’t, sharing this learning as broadly as possible and contributing and collaborating to address some of the issues they are facing.”
The combination of faculty and participant knowledge at the Coady contributes to a valuable learning experience, not only for personal growth, but also for creating a sense of commonality across cultural and socio-economic barriers. I would have to agree with Pascal Sundi when he expresses, “Despite the diversity of experiences we realize that humanity is one, that one way or another we are all affected by the same problems and that one’s experiences may shed light on the situations of others. When I get home, I will without a doubt keep in my heart and my mind the memories and faces that have made an impact on me at the Coady.”