Cultivating Social Spaces: A Networking Workshop for Social Development Societies and Entrepreneurs

28 Sep 2016 - 21:45

In line with the Global Citizenship Programme’s aim of connecting with more student-run organizations, we were invited to co-facilitate a networking event with Ubunye, a student development agency here at the University of Cape Town (UCT). On 27 August, individuals came together to address themed topics relevant to the experiences of their specific organisations. As GC, we were asked to facilitate the breakaway discussion groups on the topic Getting Community Buy-In and Avoiding Creating Situations of Dependency. The workshop used the World-Café conversation style, so participants moved around from group to group, adding to the discussions.

As an introduction to the topic, Sarah from GC stressed the importance or recognising the fact that the spaces of engagement between universities and communities are inherently unequal, and issues of power are always present. It is with this in mind that we can begin to interrogate the processes in which university based initiatives work with different community stakeholders. Participants then raised very interesting questions and concerns with regards to how student development organisations engage with community spaces.

The conversation began very broadly around the role of the development sector and NGOs, and whether or not the ‘end goal’ is for NGOs to become obsolete, in terms of eradicating the issues that become the focus of the organisation. This led to a conversation around different approaches to ‘problems’, and how these are addressed. We problematized the top-down, saviour mentality, of coming to ‘fix a problem’, and unpacked what it meant to be running these projects in a sustainable way.

Around ‘buy in’, we explored the economic connotation of this phrase in relation to the ‘product’ being offered by NGOs, and the problematic assumptions that come with this framework. Questions were asked around how people form commitment to projects, and how transactions of skills, values and knowledge occur. In terms of values, there was a sense that different stakeholders in a project can value different parts of the work being done, and if there isn’t an awareness of these differences it can lead to misunderstandings, or a sense that things aren’t being achieved as intended. Particularly in the case of tutoring where funders are wanting to see quantitative results, whereas for learners the outcomes are often things like improved confidence, or even just a connection to someone at an institution of higher education who opens a door somewhere down the line. So how do you measure the success of a project when different stakeholders have different expectations? It was suggested that if you understand what the different stakeholders see value in, you’ll be able to get more ‘buy-in’. It’s important to see eye-to-eye in terms of the value of the work being done, or to be able to work with the differences in what people feel is most important in a project.

In terms of dependency, it was important to recognise that structurally we’re already working within a dependency framework, and it’s these assumptions that need to be challenged. By this we meant the assumptions of what the ‘problems’ are, need to be challenged.

Identities was a theme as well, as participants raised concerns about the perceptions that come with being from a university. Particularly in the context of working with younger learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, there are assumptions from both sides that enter the way the relationship happens. Being leaders of student organisations, there was also a conversation about the way that these projects are communicated to attract student volunteers, and so once again the theme of language came up as an important point to address in terms of how communities/universities/students/volunteers/learners are spoken about.

What seemed to be most valuable about the conversation was the chance for people from different organisational backgrounds to listen to each other, ask questions and learn from each other. Also, it was an important space to interrogate the language used in these contexts, and think about new forms of action that encourage community engagement done with depth and integrity.