Thursday, November 07, 2013

Lessons from the frontlines: If at first you don't succeed, reevaluate

With less than five months left in my Cuso posting, I'm reflecting more and more on how I'm doing. I have the rather challenging and nebulous task of building capacity in communications for the Honduran non-profit that I work for, and as the end draws nearer I am thinking a lot about how it's gone.
     In all honesty, I had only the vaguest idea of what I was supposed to be doing when we arrived in Honduras in January 2012. I had a great title - Communications and Knowledge Management Facilitator - and an idea that I would be doing work similar to what I'd been doing in B.C. for non-profit clients. But everyone with Cuso International had stressed to me that the job would really only become clear after I started working in the country and saw what was needed (and possible).
    That certainly turned out to be true, although what I didn't know at the time was that even the organization I would be working with in Honduras would have no real idea of what my job was, or how to put my skill set to work. Or even that I had a skill set.
    Nor did I know that they hadn't put much thought into whether they even wanted to be better at communications. That meant my job for the first few months was just convincing my new employer that being out there in the public eye would be good for the organization, for the funders, and for the people of Honduras, many of whom have no idea about the meaningful work going on here to create change in this troubled country.
    As for my poor Spanish skills in the first few months of my placement - well, let's just say that while I'm grateful to Cuso for giving me a chance despite my poor grasp of the language, it was extremely difficult and even laughable to be trying to do communications work when I could barely speak the language.
    Because I could understand written Spanish better than spoken, I'd hoped to be able to get my hands on written documents in those early months that would help me get a quick grasp on all things Honduran, including the specifics of the work done by my organization. But that turned out to be the first communications challenge in my shiny new communications job: To find anything that had actually been written down in this overwhelmingly oral culture.
     But time passed and I got the hang of things. I worked hard at my Spanish, and eventually drew the interest of my co-workers due to throwing myself cheerfully into their projects in any way I could. Sure, sometimes that involved essentially working as a typist - I suspect my rapid keyboarding is still the thing they admire the most about me - but they gradually came to see that maybe I could be useful.
     At first the work was just get-'er-done kinds of things: Making brochures; taking photos of projects to keep the funders happy; making a PowerPoint for somebody. Not having enough to do was a theme in those early days, and I was glad I at least had a blog and an orphanage volunteer project on the side  to occupy my time.
     I'd anticipated spending much of the initial months helping my organization  - the Comision de Accion Social Menonita - develop a communications plan that would define the who-what-why-when-how kinds of things that have to be talked about. After running headlong into complete indifference, however, I had to scrap that pretty quick.
     But I'm a pushy person. So I just kept pushing. I started making Facebook pages for the six regions, whether they asked for them or not. I started showing up at their doorsteps and asking to take photos of their projects and read their proposals so I could understand their work. Then I moved on to making web sites for each region, counting on being a quick enough study that I could get past the fact that I know nothing at all about how to do that.
     I made myself helpful to head office, burning the midnight oil along with the rest of them as we wrestled with translating some complex proposal into English so they could meet the (unreasonable) demand of a funder. The work had very little to do with building capacity in communications, but I found that if I helped them with what they needed, they were more receptive to my constant suggestions for improved communication.
    At this moment, everyone's mad for the little 10-minute videos I've started making for the regions, another example of something I know almost nothing about. I'm loving it, and wish I'd thought about video work from the beginning, because it's a great way to tell stories in an oral culture. I spent the first year scrabbling to find enough work to do, but I can tell by all the video requests flooding in that I'm going to be run off my feet for the final five months.
     Will I have created capacity at the end of the day? Ah, that's the question.
    The test will be if CASM has the knowledge, interest and tools to carry on with good communications after I'm gone. They will enthusiastically maintain their Facebook pages, update and improve their web sites, take better photos, share the work of their organizations, think a little more about design and readability when they're making their brochures, PowerPoints and how-to guides.
    But I'm still the only one who posts on the regions' Facebook sites. And I'm quite sure that administrators in at least three of the regions have yet to even glance at the web sites I made for them. Yes, CASM does have a national communications plan now, but I see no evidence that anyone is paying any attention to it. (It's kind of like all the nice laws in Honduras - pretty to look at, utterly ignored.)
     In some theoretical world, my workmates are newly motivated to take better photos, because the bosses really do love a decent set of photos of their projects to show the funders. But whether my co-workers know more about taking better photos doesn't matter much given their lack of access to decent cameras, computer programs for minor enhancements and cropping, or even a computer of their own where they can download photos.
     As for videos, even the most amateur undertakings require a better camera than any of them have as well as an editing program, a hard drive big and fast enough to handle those giant video files, and a strong enough internet connection to get the finished work on-line. It also requires an understanding of how to tell a story, a skill I've spent 30 years learning.
    And while I'd like to hound my pals to maintain their Facebook page and web site, I've also experienced for myself the hopeless internet services in some of the regions. I've seen the lone cellphone modem that my six co-workers in the Moskitia have to share. I know that "staying connected" in Honduras still mostly means chatting face to face with people, not posting something on-line.
    Lest this all sound like a lament, in truth I'm feeling all right about things. OK, the job has been nothing like what I'd expected, and I've had to modify my expectations many times over. But if nothing else, the work of CASM is a lot more visible. If nothing else, my relentless nagging about better communications will echo at least occasionally in the heads of my co-workers after I'm gone. If nothing else, they have seen that the stories of their work really are worth telling.
    The regions have their own web sites, and the power to post news of their projects without having to wait six or seven years (really) for head office to get funding together for a web site update. The bosses now know that better photos are possible, which I hope has set the bar higher for photo quality in the future.
     As for me, I'm practically bursting with new capacity. Wherever the future is taking me, I will arrive with new insights, skills, and real-life experiences that up until two short years ago I hadn't even contemplated needing or developing. I have felt the depths of frustration, and learned that I can crawl out of them still smiling  And I can speak Spanish to boot.
     Thank you, Cuso. Thank you, CASM. I hope it ends up being as good for you as it has been for me. 

1 comment:

Deb Nilsen said...

Thanks Jody. The work of CASM is incredibly more visible! For one, just think about all your friends and their friends - a lot of people, yes? Just think about the sparkle in the eyes of all those folks who see themselves in photos and videos. I think that kind of thing is inspiring for people, because it creates a colourful image of their lives and what they have accomplished. As for funders, I just hope that your colleagues find their way to building on the momentum you have created.