Friday, 30 March 2012

How to Identify Autism? The Computer Game that Could Change Your Life … and the Way Autism is Diagnosed!

I met Freena in Cambridge, when she
came to speak to Simon Baron Cohen
What would you do if it took 7 years to get a diagnosis for your health problem? Would you feel frustrated, angry, depressed? Would you start a complaint or a petition? Probably you wouldn’t even bother doing anything because the system you are trying to change is far too big. But, there is someone who did do something about her frustration towards a slow autism diagnosis…
In January 2012 I met via Twitter a fantastic young woman called Freena Eijffinger from Holland who developed an app to help identify autism in 1h… not 7 years!
Freena was really frustrated it took doctors in Holland 7 years to diagnose her brother’s autism – being an innovative and entrepreneurial woman, she got off her back side and decided to do something about it! She didn’t try to change the health system in Holland, instead Freena used her skills - programming computers, to solve a frustration felt by her whole family – identifying autism!

She realised it was difficult for doctors to identify her brother’s autism for two key reasons: 
Freena decided to develop an app to help identify autism
  • one – every time he was tested he kept copying other people’s behaviour so he appeared he was fine and 
  • two - for every different test he was seeing a new doctor, so the pattern of “copied” behaviour went unnoticed.
She decided to take a year off from her job and try to do something about this. She soon got a SBIR (Small Business Innovation and Research) grant from TNO (Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) who then put her in touch with an autism professor at Free University of Amsterdam. In partnership, they carried out research and identified what sort of app to build. It goes to show, if you have initiative and commitment what you can achieve in just a few months!

They developed 4 apps to help identify autism which they tested on 300 children:
  • one app measures TOM (Theory of Mind) and encompasses stories with questions and answers. Through this they measure reaction time, motor skills, motion; whether the answer is right or wrong and if a child can view things from someone else's perspective (a key issue for people with autism).
  • one app measures the participant’s ability to feel emotions, their response to pictures and questions. Through this they measure reaction time, whether the answer is right or wrong and why.
  • one app measures perception bias by showing pictures with questions. Through this they measure reaction time and the way a child can emphasize with another person.
  • one app measures collaboration skills, through a specific protocol of collaborative drawing. 
One test measures collaboration skills,
through a drawing exercise
All of these tests help identify any signs of autism, removing the participant’s temptation to copy others’ behaviour or behave differently in front of a doctor, because they are interacting with a computer programme, not with a doctor …
When I met Freena, she was in Cambridge at a seminar with Simon Baron-Cohen (who is well known for developing the theory that autism is an extreme form of the "male brain"). He was particularly impressed that her team tested this new app with so many children (over 300), as usually not many parents agree to have their children part of autism tests.

How does this test help identify autism, comparing to the other tests?

This test is a tool which can help identify in only 1 hour if someone is more likely to have autism than someone who may not! This is a huge step forward in the diagnosis process, keeping in mind it took doctors 7 years to get a diagnostic for Freena’s brother, because getting the first few symptoms right is often the hardest job!
When taking the test, the doctor can observe the patient’s reactions and behaviour towards the various situations the test poses. The computer records all of the answers, so the doctor is not distracted by writing down answers to questions, like in the regular autism tests.

This tool helps identify in 1h if
someone may have autism
They get the results immediately as the programme gives an instant report when the tests are finished. This means it is quicker to share or make statistics out of the results. There is no need to get a computer system upgrade (so no extra expense on the health system), as the results come in a PDF document.
At present, this app is going through a validation process with the Dutch Government. If it gets validated and introduced as part of the diagnosis process of autism, it will not replace current tests, but it will help guide the path a doctor takes to establish an autism diagnosis.

They won 2 innovation prizes at the
Rabobank Herman Wijffels Awards
At the moment there is no sole test which tests autism related characteristics; this could lead to establishing a standardised test for initial stages of identifying autism.
For this app, Freena and her team won two innovation prizes at the Rabobank Herman Wijffels Innovation Awards in the Netherlands. Out of 470 applicants, she was the only female in the top 10 and won two out of the five prizes up for grabs, worth €15,000. I look forward to May 2012 when we find out if the Dutch Government validates this new app for mainstream use in the Dutch health system and perhaps later in the whole world!
(Thank you to Freena Eijffinger for providing the photos for this article.)

Sunday, 11 December 2011

How to Deliver a Memorable Presentation?

In Beverly Hills - Hollywood
taught me a lot about excellent
presentations, surprisingly!...
I have just come back from spending nearly a month travelling around the United States of America and although it may seem that I have abandoned this blog on cases of good practice, I have in fact been working on some case studies from the US, which I am still processing. In the meanwhile (whilst waiting for some information from my contacts in the charities I met around the US last month), I have decided to write about a subject I am personally very passionate about - public speaking and presentations! One thing I noticed during my travels was that... no matter which continent you are on, most people seem to constantly appear to deliver presentations which bore the audience to such extremes, people feel no shame in starting to snore in the middle of someone's speech...!

So, how can you stop people snoring during your speech? How can you actually make them remember you not only after you left the room, but next week, next month or even for the next few years, applying the knowledge you shared with them throughout their work? 
The attendees from the first "A
Presentation to Remember Training"

At the end of November 2011 I delivered a training day on how to give memorable presentations called "A Presentation to Remember". This is a training course about making presentations more engaging - the sort of presentation which keeps you awake as you absorb the information presented in a fun and entertaining way! 
In this course, I didn't just tell people how to do this, I showed them, almost like a BEFORE and AFTER session on the teleshopping channels! I got the attendees involved! They didn't just sit behind a desk listening - they got be up on their feet and in front of everyone, they started improving their presentation technique.

What are the key aspects of an exceptional (and memorable) presentation?
Presenting at +RESPECT Conference
in Rome, May 2011 - the real message
is not spelled in the title...

1. Figure out the message you really want to convey
The first step towards an exciting and entertaining presentation is to determine what it is about. What it's really about! It may sound like a simple and daft thing to say, but most people in fact don't know what their actual message is when they are delivering a presentation! Find out what message you want to put at the core of your presentation, the message you really want your audience to take home with them! Then use this message to build a story which will firmly hold the audience's attention.

2. Wrap the message into a story
You can grab and keep hold of the attention of an audience by using the age old of techniques of storytellers - the same techniques which underly ancient myths and Hollywood blockbusters. Turn statistics into something people feel - not just read. A story will make your speech memorable, because it sticks to people's minds. 

3. Speak with your body as well as your mouth
There are 10 ingredients to impeccable stage presence and delivery: posture, eye contact, voice, tone of voice, position on stage, movement, breathing, speed of talking, gestures, facial expressions. If you use these to emphasise the key points in your speech people will not only remember what you said, but also the way 
Moving around the room when you
speak is important - it helps
you emphasise a key point

you said it!

4. Avoid distracting from the message
When you deliver a speech or a presentation, you are the most important person in the room. You have to ensure your audience's attention never strays - and that nothing distracts from your message. Most people distract the audience's attention without even realising it, by adding slides with bullet points behind them which... do nothing more than to distract from their presentation!

5. PowerPoint - use it sensibly!
PowerPoint is a tool that most of us find ourselves having to use - but is it always the best choice? The way most people use PowerPoint hampers their message rather than helping it.  There are times when it might be better not to use PowerPoint at all, one example of this is if you use PowerPoint to show bullet points of what you are saying, whilst you are saying it!

6. Give Prezi a go!
I often use photos to emphasise a
surprising point in my presentation...
this speech was about community work!
Prezi is a different type of presentation software which lets you construct presentations which follow the structure of your story and which impress visually. Have a go at !

If you would like to learn more about presentations, please go to

Friday, 9 September 2011

CLARITY Employment for Blind People - A sustainable and holistic approach to helping disabled people into employment!

CLARITY Head Office in
London, UK

Whilst I was putting together some final details and getting all the partners on board this European project on Roma communities’ education, I got an email from my husband (Ben Chalmers) saying: “Stephen Fry just mentioned on twitter this inspirational charity, I think you should look into it for your blog”. I immediately looked up their website and called the organisation to arrange an interview; within 10 minutes of Ben’s email I was on the phone with David Sore, CLARITY – Employment for Blind People Marketing Manager who was very happy to speak to me and arrange an over-the-phone interview about their inspirational organisation! It goes to show the power of Twitter and other social media sites!

David Sore - CLARITY
Marketing Manager
I am a big fan of good news stories (hence this blog, I guess) and I love learning about people who despite considerable challenges get to achieve what they want and make their life a success! But what I love even more, is finding out about the elements, the people, the projects, the organisations that were key to these people’s success and from what I can see, CLARITY is clearly one of them!

What do they do?

One of the things that impressed me most about this charity is not only that they help people with disabilities (visual impairments & blindness) or that they do this in a sustainable way (without depending on grants and funding), but the fact that they have been in existence since 1854! They must be doing something right to be around for over 150 years!

They produce soaps & cleaning
products to fund their projects
CLARITY – Employment for Blind People does ... what it says on the label - they produce various toiletries and cleaning products in order to fund the charity’s aims of helping blind people to obtain meaningful employment and become active members of society. One of the things that makes CLARITY different is that all of their factory and call centres staff are disabled (mainly visually impaired or blind) and they are a charity that basically self-fund by selling their products and services – which is a model I think in the new funding climate all of the charities and NGOs should replicate in order to survive and continue to do their work.

How do they do it?

Staff can get NVQ Qualifications,
literacy, numeracy and IT classes
CLARITY takes the time to get to know each employee or trainee who then is given a Personal Development Plan built around their specific needs. I looked into what a typical Development Plan at CLARITY entails and something I found particularly interesting is the holistic approach to employment and training that they have. They don’t just say: “here is some training, here is a job, we have made some adjustments for you, now get on with it!”.

The Development Plan does indeed include workplace training, but then they also offer NVQ Qualifications (mainly in Manufacturing and Performing Manufacturing Operations/Customer Service and Team Leaders) as well as job search/career support (because they want people to be able to move to other employment they would like to do). What’s more, if an employee wants to improve their reading, writing, maths or computer literacy, CLARITY offers such classes during the working week.

Visually impaired staff read orders
with an electronic magnifier
One of the things I liked most about this Development Plan is that the organisation acknowledges that people are... human and problems outside work can affect their performance; so they have a Welfare room where employees are able to meet with a welfare officer to talk through any concerns or issues they may face.

I was rather surprised to hear that the organisation did not need to make many actual adjustments in order to employ disabled people, they basically keep the factory tidy (which is a good thing anyway) so that people with visual impairments don’t trip over and in the Pick & Pack area they have an electronic magnifier and an overhead projector to enlarge the writing so that visually impaired staff can read the order list.

Elizabeth Gilbert set up
the organisation in 1854
What is impressive is that most of the people who come to work at CLARITY have never had a job before and because this organisation opens for disabled people a window of opportunity to build their confidence, their skills and knowledge as well as their wellbeing in such a holistic way, there are countless success stories of former and current employees who have now gone on to do amazing things, such as Mohammed Shaikh who now started his own car repair garage in London!

CLARITY 75 years of soap making
anniversary soap box
CLARITY have had a history of famous people that saw the value in supporting their cause (from Queen Victoria in 1856 to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra and even Charles Dickens) and recently they have even been mentioned in the Vogue Magazine Beauty Blog as well as receiving a visit from Vision Australia, who wanted to look into CLARITY’s model as something they could replicate back on their continent. 

Even the new British Coalition Government recommended CLARITY as the way forward for the civil society in the UK as they were showcased as an example of a successful social enterprise in Government's report "Growing the Social Investment Market"; even Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society, visited their offices in London in 2011 to see this success story for himself.

It is nice to give something to charity and feel you are helping in some way, however it is sometimes nice to also get something back and I absolutely adore CLARITY’s approach to funding: they don’t ask for money, they just suggest you buy from them the sorts of things you would buy anyway. I
definitely know where I will be purchasing my Christmas presents this year!

I would like to thank Pratyush Nalam of ReflectionsPN in India for re-publishing this article on their website.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Hotel Panda – One of the first hotels in the world run chiefly by disabled staff!

Hotel Panda - Budapest (Hungary)
Mentioning Central-Eastern Europe prompts in most people’s minds images from TV news reports of the 1989 revolutions that took place, or even the grizzly blocks of flats of the Communist era; yet today some of the most innovative things on the planet happen in this part of the world!...

Living in Britain, I am used to thinking most of the time we are the “know it all” experts of Europe, yet discovering companies such as Hotel Panda in Budapest (Hungary), reminds me that the world is not quite what we created it to be in our minds and there is always more to learn from any part of the globe – in fact, that’s actually one of the reasons I decided to start to this blog on cases of good practice.

I first heard of Hotel Panda when I was talking with Dacorum CVS (Community and Voluntary Sector) CEO (Chief Executive Officer), Mark Mitchell, about a Pan-European project we were putting together last year and he happened to mention this amazing hotel he heard about at one of the conferences he attended in Europe.

95% of Hotel Panda's staff are disabled
Hotel Panda is raising the bar in terms of business models which address social inequality and disadvantage – they decided to employ mainly disabled and now fully-abled employees are a small minority in this business, accounting for only 5% of the workforce! In fact, it is claimed they are the first hotel in the world (if not, at least  in Central and Eastern Europe) to be run almost entirely by disabled staff!

I had the opportunity to interview the hotel Sales Manager, Zoltan Fancsali, who thankfully speaks fluent English (my Hungarian is rather limited... to zero!) and who is physically disabled himself, being in a wheelchair.

It all started with Mr. Bela Kocsy who, together with his family, in 2007 bought Hotel Panda in Budapest. One of his friends developed a brain tumour, causing him to lose his sight. Bela decided to help his friend get out and about, doing things, by giving him the opportunity to work a few hours in the reception of the hotel he now owned. He noticed that his friend’s self-esteem was improved by working at the hotel, doing something and interacting with people. In fact, I think this applies to all of us, as everyone wants to feel useful and valued, especially when one has such a life-changing experience...

Bela met other disabled people &
decided to employ them at the hotel
Through his friend, he met more disabled people – all of whom possessed various skills which Bela thought he could make good use of in the hotel, so he decided to focus his staff recruitment only on disabled people! He then found out that the Hungarian government offers between 10 to 80% of a disabled person’s salary if they are employed so this also was an incentive and helped him start this off.

Don’t be hasty to think that this hotel is now mainly run on government subsidies for disabled staff, because when employing disabled staff, businesses have to make reasonable adjustments and buy-in training to prepare them accordingly.

To begin with, one of the things he stumbled on was the difficulty to find disabled people that had all of the skills he needed in order to run the hotel (mainly because the education system for disabled people was not up to par when these people were young) – so he began employing and training them so they could learn the skills he needed. Now, Hotel Panda employs people with various disabilities, from people with hearing impairments to senior staff who are wheelchair users as well as people with various physical (polio, amputations, spine injuries and so on) and mental health issues (severe depression).

How do they do it?

The hearing impaired chambermaid
used to get a written task list
The hotel management take into account each person’s disability and use different communication methods that work individually for them: such as speaking slowly (so staff can lip read), or writing down instructions (if they get side-tracked, they can go back to the list) or actually physically showing them exactly what needs doing (e.g. how the tables & chairs need to be arranged in the restaurant or conference room).

The hotel is disabled accessible which means that not only staff with mobility issues but also potential clients with disabilities find the hotel particularly sensitive to their needs – disabled accessible venues are not very common in Hungary (or in other Central and Eastern European countries).

He found disabled staff to be very committed and keen to do their job (something that Andy’s Kars also found in his repair garage in Cambridgeshire), as well as having excellent interpersonal skills, which of course helps when dealing directly with guests at the hotel.

Disabled staff working in one of the
hotel's renovated rooms
Yet, what I liked most about this hotel is that they did not stop at having the business run entirely by disabled people, but they also organise additional events and run apprenticeship placements for them.

The hotel works in partnership with NGOs covering numerous disabilities and disabled people’s needs, such as:
All of these organisations send disabled people to the hotel for 3 months apprenticeships and the hotel then issues each apprentice a certificate that they have been trained at Hotel Panda. This scheme has proved effective in finding disabled people jobs in other hotels.

People doing apprenticeships at the
hotel are awarded a certificate
But, these guys are also very keen to open the wider job market to disabled people – they organise Disability Open Days where they invite multinational companies operating in Budapest to meet local disabled people looking for employment opportunities. A few disabled people found jobs at companies such as IBM in Budapest through these sorts of events, where they would have probably never had this chance before!

They also give presentations to other companies on how they work with their disabled staff. Initially companies had many questions and were afraid of employing disabled people, but Hotel Panda organised subsequent events where government officials came and explained the legislation and the support the Hungarian Government offers to companies employing disabled people.

Needless to say, this hotel won numerous awards for business innovation both in Hungary as well as in Europe.

I would like to point out a few things that Hotel Panda do which help improve the situation for disabled people in Hungary and opening up the job market to these potential new workers which others could apply:

1. They pay attention to each member of staff when they join them and are fully aware of their disability, this way they can make reasonable adjustments to help staff carry out their job.

2. They work in partnership with civil society organisations and offer apprenticeships to disabled people to improve their job prospects.

3. They use their position in the private sector in Budapest and organise Disability Open Days with members of the community and private sector businesses to break down barriers to employment of disabled people.

4. They organise training events for employers to inform them of all the government legislation and support with regards to employing disabled staff.

5. They invest in their staff and use the cash available from government for staff’s salaries to get training and put in place reasonable adjustments for them.

Thank you to the Business Insider in New York (USA) for talking about this article in one of their articles!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

How to repopulate a village...? An innovative and sustainable example from Spain!

The Church Tower in
Castelnou, Spain
When I came back from Rome (after speaking at the + RESPECT Conference I mentioned in earlier posts) like any other proud parent, my mother asked how it went. Amongst other impressions I shared with her about Italy and its’ amazing food, I told her about the lovely Spanish group I met from Murcia. This prompted her to question whether this region was anywhere near Castelnou, a village she had heard was running an interesting repopulation project. I didn’t pay too much attention to her comment initially, until later on, when I was writing the article about the Spaniards from Murcia and I was thinking of interesting cases of good practice... And then it hit me: I have never heard of a repopulation project, in fact when I decided to start the blog on cases of good practice, it never even occurred to me that repopulation could be the subject of one of the innovative community projects I was going to talk about... I decided to find out more, so I put my Spanish language skills to good use and I read almost anything I could find online about repopulation in Spain and especially about Castelnou.

Castelnou is looking for young
working families to live in the village
I discovered Castelnou had an aging population and wanted to get young families, preferably with children, to move to and live long term in the village. Yet, instead of just saying: “we need more population, let’s get people moving here by attracting them with nice state benefits and houses”; the Council in Castelnou actually thought this process through! The more I read about it, the more I loved it! 

They started a Repopulation Campaign with a website called Elugardondesiemprepasancosas (The Place Where Things Keep Happening – with a title like that, they were definitely headed for success!) and they got Maria Sentias, a person with lots of interesting ideas, to do a Repopulation Strategy. From what I have seen of him online, the mayor of Castelnou, José Miguel Esteruelas, also appears to be a rather ingenious individual who is also very active and full of ideas!

(Below) The Mayor of Castelnou, explaining the process (in Spanish).
I have had the pleasure of speaking directly to Maria and from what I hear, she has done innovative work before: she was the one to set up Spain’s first national telephone line where people could call and access legal advice and support. The way Castelnou is repopulating is interesting because they are building the infrastructure first and doing it in a gradual yet sustainable way.

What did they actually do? 

Castelnou is a rural village which
offers many benefits
Step One - they put out an open invite to companies welcoming them to start businesses in the village. They did this via their website as well as through numerous (about 70) videos on YouTube. This was not just about people who said they wanted to start a business. They were interested mainly in businesses which could create jobs for others and could show their business was viable, especially considering the small size of the village population at the time. In order to attract businesses, the Council also was open to and offered financial incentives for them to start up in Castelnou. This attracted a house building company called Modul-System to set up in the village. This company turned out to be the main driver to the repopulation process. 

Everybody works together  and forms
part of the community in Castelnou
Step Two – the Council offers numerous benefits to people living in Castelnou (a full list is available on their website), however people who were attracted by these had two options: either to submit a business plan for a business they could start up or they could send the Council their CV and a covering letter introducing themselves so they could be matched to potential jobs coming out of step one above (i.e. When a business that created jobs started up in the village, any people whose skills fitted the jobs available were contacted and employed by the company.). They also made it very clear through their videos and regular updates in the News section of their website that only people who genuinely want to contribute to and be part of the village would be welcome (e.g. through volunteering and active participation in the village festivals such as the San Valero Festival).

People at the Children's Caravan
enjoying food & drink with the locals
Step Three – They organised on 25th of August 2010 a public event called Caravana de los Niños (Children’s Caravan) where they invited people from all over Spain who considered moving into Castelnou to visit the village, enjoy free food, drink and music with local people. It was an opportunity for the people attracted by Castelnou’s benefits to see the village and meet the locals. Over 400 people came to this event which gave them coverage in the national news in Spain and suddenly put Castelnou on the map! Articles appeared about this village in the press and websites around the EU, including national newspapers in Romania and the UK.

House Built by Modul System and
the workers moving into Castelnou
Step Four – Modul-System employed a number of the people who sent their CVs to the Council and with their help built 20 new houses in the village. On 25th of August 2011 will be the inauguration of these houses where 20 families (about 60 people) will move in. However, because the Council offers to families with children 100% free land to build their own house, these families are only to live in these houses temporarily and are expected in time to build their own houses in Castelnou. These people will continue to work for Modul-System in the prefabricated-house factory the company is building in the village. Once these families have built their own houses, the current houses are to be filled in by more workers coming to live in the village in the future.

Hoping this year's Caravan will
bring even more families to the village
Step Five – Now that the village population has increased to over 200, the Council together with Modul-System are planning to create a commercial centre which can make Castelnou the shopping centre for near-by villages as well, attracting even more people to visit Castelnou on a regular basis. Now, at the one year anniversary of the Caravana de los Niños (Children’s Caravan), Castelnou is hoping to have a Caravana de los Empresarios (Entrepreneurs’ Caravan) as at this year’s event they will explain the details to anyone interested in setting up a small business in the village – because now Castelnou is inviting business proposals from people who want to start enterprises such as butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, hairdressers and so on, which will fill up the commercial centre they will build.
(Below) Carolina - New Resident of Castelnou speaking about living in the village (in Spanish)

What I loved about Castelnou was the logic behind everything they do! To begin with, they only considered those that helped build the village from the ground up: prioritising businesses that created jobs in the village (i.e. a house building company was an excellent step to start off with as they could easily create jobs whilst also building houses for the families they wanted to move in Castelnou in the future) and then getting small businesses to start up. I also loved the fact that people who move to Castelnou have to prove themselves as being valuable members of the community, willing to become part of the village and participate in the village activities (e.g. volunteering, the various festivals, etc). I was very impressed to discover a place which basically says: “There are many benefits to living in Castelnou, but you have to deserve and show yourself worthy of the investment we make in you by not charging you tax and giving you free land. We need you to come here, work with us and help build a community we are all proud of!”...

Friday, 5 August 2011

How to educate a village... about education? An impressive example from India!

Sue & I talking about GEN's work
How does it feel like to not be able to read and understand what is written in front of you? I don't know, but I can merely assume that looking through a book when you are illiterate is like biting into a juicy nectarine without being able to taste the sweetness and wonderful moist texture this fruit has to offer. I am used to speaking and reading multiple languages and I am physically uncomfortable in places where I don't understand what's being said or written in front of me. So... not being able to read or write ANYTHING truly scares the life out of me just thinking about it! Yet, there are millions of people around the world who are illiterate and live their entire lives without being able to read or write. Most of them mainly because of the complete lack of resources for education and, some of them, because they are stopped from learning because they are...girls! What magical power would one have to have in order to be able to change people’s minds and traditions they’ve had for generations against letting girls study?!
Rachna, Sue and Vinod with the girls

Well, my friend Sue Burke, the Chair of GEN (Grassroots Empowerment Network) and her colleague Vinod Kaushik from EP (Ending Poverty) - GEN’s partner organisation in India, certainly must have a magic wand, as I can’t see how otherwise they could have achieved what they did in such a short amount of time (2 ½ years) in some of the poorest villages in the world! GEN was set up to help people in India - but is based in the UK. It shares its tasks with EP in a very simple yet efficient way: GEN does the fundraising and networking in the UK and EP delivers the work on the ground, with real people, with real problems, in India! Without EP, I would think GEN would find it rather difficult to do grassroots community development via SKYPE with rural communities... in India! 
Discussions with the village

So, how do you change the minds of whole villages?

First, you have to speak to them and find out about their issues, what bothers them and what they feel they need and create a relationship with the community. There is no point going directly into a village and telling them what you think their issues are when they don’t even know you. Unless you can read minds to know exactly what they are thinking of, they won’t care about what you say (even if it’s completely true!) and will probably take you for the village idiot or the local joker at best!

Plus, “people sell to people” and relationships are important, even (more so!) in community work. One still has to be able to “sell” (a new idea, a new concept, a change of some kind) as everyone is interested in “profit”. In community work, I call it “social profit” – for me, this is a community’s <what’s-in-it-for-me> unasked question and in order to work with them productively we have to find the balance between what we think is “good change” and what they want.
Girls from the village

Vinod and his team from EP initially went into 5 different villages and spoke to villagers to find out what their needs and issues were. He formed relationships with the locals, particularly the people whose opinions and advice others respected and followed in the village. He then encouraged them to form Village Development Groups (VDGs) of about 10 members – one in each village, made up of people thought highly of from that village, who were willing to work with EP in tackling the needs and issues identified in the initial surveys.

So far so good, but by this point EP and GEN still haven’t brought up the issue around girl’s education, let alone change the villagers’ minds about it...

Eye camp
Second, you show a sign of good will, a sign that you are trustworthy and people can rely on you and
that your word is worth something! First things first – people won’t care about a few girls’ education until at least some of their basic needs are met, so you address these first - it’s often a way into the community and an easy quick win! So in March 2010 Vinod, Sue and their teams organised a stakeholder meet for all the VDGs and local leaders (around 70 people) to get to know each other better, and to do more work on identifying village priorities and plans and explore how these could be met.
A big surprise to them all, including the villagers, was how many of their priorities could already be met by themselves, without any external help! In these cases it was more than anything else a question of getting organised, something the VDGs could do themselves. I find it astonishing how sometimes just looking at the same issues in a different context, with different eyes and perhaps with external input, we can often find unexpectedly simple solutions!

Stakeholder Meeting
The stakeholder meeting encompassed a traditional water ceremony (by which all attendees committed to a fruitful meeting) as well as raising key issues through entertaining and engaging methods (such as role-play) and this helped immensely to build understanding and trust between GEN, EP and the villagers. Moreover, a local political leader attended and was able to facilitate finding practical ways of meeting some of the villagers' identified needs. All of these things helped to build GEN & EP’s credibility because until then the area had been at the very edge of the political map. GEN and EP took the opportunity of this successful event and raised the prospect of a girls' education project.

With GEN's support, EP also organised two eye camps where nearly 800 people, including children, had eye examinations, sight tests, were given glasses as required and were checked for cataracts. Then 70 people, mostly elderly villagers, underwent successful cataract surgery. Now, how’s that for a first promise kept?!

Girls with Teacher in the village
Third – Involve the community in your objectives (The WHAT)
Having got villagers' agreement to proceeding with the girls' education project, members from the VDGs helped recruit village women with some education as teachers to deliver the training to nearly 30 girls in each village. 

EP provided these women with basic training and support in taking on their new roles. Teachers are supported by regular visits from the EP team. They are not only responsible for the girls' education, but also for keeping a track of the girls' progress and finding out why they do not attend classes. This makes the teachers responsible not just for delivering the curriculum, but also to maintain a relationship with the girls and their families. 

Because GEN and EP wanted to ensure the education was relevant to the girls' life situation, they designed a curriculum to cover basic literacy and numeracy, but also other areas of interest varying from women's health to legal rights and sewing skills.

Fourth – Methodology and Approach (The HOW) 
Most things in life that truly work are about the proper approach and methodology: it’s often not what you say, but THE WAY you say it
Learning in this class is engaging
But how and where do you start to educate girls aged 10 to 14 who have never, ever had any kind of training or education? This was the challenge faced by EPs education expert, Rachna Singh who designed the 6 month programme which is delivered through fun and entertaining classes in a semi-structured way. They use various creative teaching methods which linked the classes’ content to things that the girls know (or carry out in their daily lives), such as storytelling and sharing traditional knowledge. 

Her design was based on the following principles: 
  • deliver basic literacy and numeracy which uses material from their village world; 
  • teach them about women’s health  - because the teenage girls who participated are considered to be of marriage age in rural India, 
  • teach environmental education covering: tree planting, composting, tree garden development – because they all work and take care of households 
  • teach them new skills - sewing - so they can make clothes and other things for theirs and their families' needs
  • use art as a creative contrast to the more rigorous work of literacy and numeracy and 
  • know your legal rights - in a community where others try to decide for you the most important things in life, it is quite an asset to know about your fundamental legal rights, your rights related to education, child marriage/dowry, parental property rights, Atrocity Act and so on.
Sewing classes: learning and earning!
What GEN and EP aim to do is empower these girls; not just tell them about their A-B-Cs (or equivalent letters in Hindi). They want to help the girls understand, critically analyse & recognise their life choices, hence the wider curriculum developed to address social (health, legal rights), occupational & environmental education especially tailored to the situation and the needs of the girls.

A new and initially unplanned outcome is that the sewing skills learned by the girls have led to the development of them producing marketable craft work – bags, pouches, table mats and quilts – which can be sold thus bringing the girls an income, and reassuring their families that participation in the classes has been worthwhile. GEN provided funds for purchase of good quality materials, plus an opportunity for the girls to go and look at craft items produced by other village women. EP provided advice and guidance on how to produce desirable items for sale, and increasingly GEN and EP are helping to find marketing outlets both in nearby cities in India and in UK.

Girls asked for dancing sessions
For me, a clear sign that GEN and EP are achieving this key aim of theirs (empowerment) is that after a few months in the course (this course lasts 6 months, 6 days/week, 2h/day - at times that fit in with the girls' other family and agricultural responsibilities) the girls themselves started asking for other things they wanted to learn about or do during classes, for example dancing, games and sport sessions. Before, the teacher could barely get them to say a few words and now it’s like they’ve been given the key to finding a new side of themselves, something that happened because of this relatively small education initiative.

Quilt built by the girls in the village
What I truly love about this project is not only that those girls have (as a result of even basic education) a new outlook on life, but also that they have been able to show the adults that they were able to bring income into the family by using skills they learnt in class. Moreover, the adults in the villages have now asked for evening classes for themselves! This shows a complete shift in their attitude around education, not only for their daughters, but also for themselves! What was the magic sparkle that changed their attitudes? Perhaps seeing all the wider benefits that came out of this initiative, not only for their daughters but also for the rest of the village:
Bags made by the girls
  • as a result of learning new sewing skills, the girls were able to create craft work (some bags and quilts) which generated income for them and their families 
  • the girls who have finished the 6 months course now asked for more advanced education and some of them have gone back to do the 6 months course again in a more senior position, helping the other student girls. 
  • as a result of the AGM where all the VDGs were brought together by GEN and EP, the MP (Member of Parliament) representative for the region spoke personally to members from all the villages involved and was able to bring practical changes into their villages which improved their quality of life (government installed water pumps and it is now looking at developing education committees in each village). 
  • other NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in India have asked GEN and EP to provide support as paid consultancy (thus generating income for these NGOs to do more work) so that they can replicate GEN & EP’s learning model 
  • now 15 more villages want education classes!

Monday, 18 July 2011

How to drive change with... spare change!

Michal and I talking about the
volleyball project in Hatfield
When one speaks about promoting examples of good practice, most people will imagine something that has a big, significant impact in a community; but actually small things drive change and more often than not, a lot of projects which are successful do not cost much to implement. Whoever invented the proverb “The best things in life are free” was not necessarily an idealist...

I mentioned in a previous post about how to get charities or NGOs in newspaper articles, my good friend and colleague, Michal Siewniak. I have decided to write again about Michal and his work in Hertfordshire, as he continues to amaze me with the amount of things he does and how he does them!

Krzysztof loves playing volleyball
Michal met by chance at a mother and toddler group set up by the Polish Association a man called Krzysztof who was passionate about volleyball. During their chat, Krzysztof mentioned to Michal that he loved playing volleyball but he noticed that in Hatfield this is not such a popular sport like in Poland. He then said that there were no Polish or people of other nationalities playing volleyball at the club where he played.
People of various nationalities
came to play volleyball
This lit a light bulb in Michal’s mind, as he saw the opportunity to get a volleyball event together where local English people as well as individuals from various minority groups would be invited, which could raise the profile of volleyball as a sport to play. But this was not the end of it, as Michal saw this as the perfect opportunity invite public services providers, such as the Police and the Fire and Rescue Service in Hertfordshire to the event. 

This event would indeed help get more people from Hatfield into volleyball, and it would also help break down barriers between the minority communities and local communities, and what's more, it could create links between local communities (be them indigenous and/or minority ethnics) and the statutory services, such as Police and Fire Service. 

Michal then realised that he had £150 left over from a Hertfordshire Community Foundation funded ESOL 
Young and old, everyone participated
(English for Speakers of Other Languages) Classes project and he could use this to organise the event. With the funder’s approval he used the money to pay for a sports hall and buy refreshments for the day. 

Michal was able to get a local employer (Ocado) to promote the event to their employees. Flyers went out through various community groups, such as Welwyn Hatfield Polish Forum, which reached Polish communities even outside Hertfordshire, as members of the Polish community in Bedfordshire (Sandy) also attended. 

On the day, not all the people who said would come actually turned up – which disrupted the way the teams were going to be organised. This actually led to people from the audience, including staff from the Fire and Rescue Service and the Police to join the teams, so in the end, new teams were formed and police officers and firemen played volleyball together with members of the community.

Michal encouraging others to join in
The event not only helped get local English people to get to know better Polish, Spanish, Chinese and Indians living in Hatfield, but it also got all of the local people to get to know better the police officers and firemen who serve their area.

The event was the launch-pad of the volleyball mini club for Polish families with children and the attendees requested the event to be organised on a regular basis, and now this event runs quarterly in Hatfield.

What made it work?
I would like to draw attention to a few learning points which came out of this story:
Links were created between
police & firemen and communities

1. Keep an Open Mind - from a simple chat, Michal identified a person with the skills and passion to support a potential community project

2. Use Existing Skills and Strengths - he made use of Krzysztof’s passion for volleyball to run an event that through sport, achieved breaking down barriers and facilitated communication between communities

3. Use Existing Networks – there is no need to reinvent the wheel – Michal used known contacts from previous work to promote this event

4. Notice what we have in common - he looked at things that unite people and facilitate communication without necessarily using language (things such as sport and food are great for community projects where the various actors involved speak very different languages and come from diverse backgrounds) 

A Team made of Police, Firemen and
Local English & BME Communities
5. The Original Aim May Not Coincide with the Final Outcome – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing!  In Michal’s case, to begin with, the initiative started with the aim of increasing minority ethnics’ involvement in volleyball (this was at least Krzysztof’s interest) but... it not only achieved an increased interest in volleyball, it also got people from the minority ethnic communities to mix with the indigenous population and in addition it facilitated communication and built relationships between public sector officers and the communities they serve (be them indigenous or minority ethnic).

Photos by: Artur Filip Lezny