Catching the Wind: A Seeple’s Professional Life on the Move

Toby Itinerary.jpeg

Toby Childs, a second year Development Practice Student, explored all the stars on the map above during the roughly two months between June 5th to August 12th, 2017. The heavy travel last summer, however, is just a microcosm of a professional life on the move, in a long search of how he can give back.

Since graduating from Bates College in 2010, Toby knew that he “wanted to be living a global life for something that had [him] traveling or exploring”, which initially meant traveling abroad and teaching English. After living in Boston and San Francisco, he started teaching English in Thailand and then Middle School Art in Shanghai, China. This brought him into the global sphere, working and living abroad – learning how to engage with communities through different cultural differences.

A major change happened when a friend of his, Petra Teslerova, brought Toby on board to help build a public health development program in Rwanda. He went back to San Francisco and used that as base to launch a nine-month fellowship with the organization, MAMA HOPE.

The first three months of the fellowship was a crash course in the “MAMA HOPE philosophy of empowerment and partnership,” as well as fundraising. Toby was required to raise at least $20,000 for his partner organization. This meant organizing events, speaking at forums, asking individuals one-on-one, and email campaigns. “It was very tough, very challenging. About three quarters of the energy of those first three months was in that.” The work paid off, however, since he successful raised over $26,000 around the country, including San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

The remaining energy went into a crash-course in international development, namely focusing on grassroots, community partnerships devoted to enabling and empowering “change makers that already exist within the community;” this is in contrast to the traditional view of a large, heavy-handed organization taking more directional roles in implementing change. It is about recognizing that people are more alike than different, “to stop the pity and unlock the potential” from the ground up. 

For example, one of their programs is “Stop the Pity Program”, which is an attempt to change how development practice is marketed in the Western World. The webpage with the video, called “African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes,” on the front page has four African men explain Hollywood depictions of them:

One African man: “we shoot our machine guns from trucks” [cut to scene from Black Hawk Down, in which, you guessed it, there are a bunch of Africans on the back of a cheap Toyota pickup with a 50-caliber machine gun taped to the top];

Another man: “we shoot our machine guns from boats” [cut to scene with African men shooting from speedboats]

“We only speak in one liners, and when we speak, we sound evil” [cut to scene from Casino Royal]

“Staying calm is stupid” [cut to scene with men in prison yelling and taking off their shirts]

The message of the video is that people around the world are more alike than different and should view others for how they really are. 

After being trained in this philosophy, Toby traveled to Moshi, Tanzania, where he was partnered with the St. Timothy’s School, grades K-7, for three months. The $26,000 raised went to building two new classrooms, two new offices, and a new school bus for their school. Over the three-month period, a lot was accomplished: “That was pretty amazing because on the first week I was there we broke ground on the classes and on the last week…there were new students in the new semester in the new classrooms. There are very few times you actually get to see the full project be built, especially in a three-month period, but the man I was working for just knew how to get sh*t done, and he did, and it was awesome.”

 Toby revisits St. Timothy's School in Tanzania. 

Toby revisits St. Timothy's School in Tanzania. 

This experience at MAMA HOPE compelled Toby to get a Masters in this field of work, Development Practice. He entered SIPA in 2016 and, as per their curriculum, had to take DP-Lab 1 and DP-Lab 2. In DP 1 he met Laura Budzyna, who runs the Monitoring and Evaluating (M&E) department at D-Lab, a development program at MIT. D-Lab partners with several non-profits around the world and, with these connections, Laura and Toby were able to compile a ‘laundry list’ of different ongoing projects Toby would be able to contribute to while in Africa.

The plan called for six countries in two months, which, at the planning stage, sounded really exciting. In practice, the constant traveling would leave a toll. The first stint was in Uganda, where he was going to help provide a qualitative assessment of D-Lab’s Creative Capacity Building program teaching design and engineering to local farmers in an attempt to help them build technology that would save them time and money. Although the researchers were able to gather quantitative data (growth rates, etc.), qualitative data was lacking in the RCT presentation. This is where Toby came in:

“I went with the goal of building a case study…to give some kind of qualitative feeling, human nature….That had me traveling through ten different villages all over the country. I went to six different districts in all four regions. It was a lot of travel, I was changing location every 2-4 days, it was exhausting. Chatting with 6-12 people every day, doing in-person interviews through a translator. Yeah, it was a lot. And that’s how I started my summer. [laugher]”

Arusha, Tanzania was next. He worked with a partner of D-Lab, Twende, which is an engineering hub. The giant open space did a lot of work in pedal power, including getting corn off the cob, milling techniques, washing machines, among others. Irrigation system prototypes are also under development. He was only in Arusha for only two days, so he spent most of the time training their new intern in M&E techniques.

Then, it was Nairobi. He met up with Global Minimum and Foondi, two innovation education programs. He was there for four days providing M&E consulting for both programs as well as exploring other organizations working in design and engineering such at AB3D, a business building 3D printers for schools in East Africa.

After Nirobi, he wanted to check up on the Rwanda program, which he and his friend were involved in before SIPA (pictured above). Training two new employees and running treatment and education program at two different schools, the 5 days were a great success in both programmatic action, but also in reconnecting with a community he has been working alongside to for over four years.

After a relaxing five-days in Cape Town, going on “the most amazing hike of [his] life”, he headed off to Lusaka, Zambia, which would host him until the end of his trip. In Lusaka, he worked with another D-Lab partner, World Vision, following up on a Creative Capacity Building project they had implemented. Toby applied more of the M&E skills he learned in DP-Lab to make an impact assessment.

Upon reflection of his whole trip, Toby said the following:

Honestly, the drudging and down parts almost overshadow the good parts in a way. This summer was a big lesson in knowing my limits as both a working professional in the field and as a traveler in general. I was basically for the first two months traveling non-stop. Every 2-5 days I was changing location, fully living out of a suitcase, which was a very exhausting lifestyle. One, because you are constantly on the move, and also because you have no community and no connection with people. I’m talking to people all day in these interviews, but when you are in an area for only 2-3 days, it is not like you have the opportunity to become friends with people. So I was very much alone.

So some of the good parts was definitely getting in this scene of innovation. I’m not an engineer, I don’t know how to weld, I don’t know how to do all that work with metal or handle wood and whatnot. I’ve never seen that, so to get really in there and see what is begin done in East Africa was really, really cool. So that was awesome. A lot of the conversations I had with people throughout Uganda were super inspiriting. People that are creating second businesses with the skills that they learned, or approaching sales in these new ways because they are seeing all this opportunity now. There was a lot of inspiration which came out of that.

So the work itself was really nice, but it was laid within this really, really challenging, exhausting travel itinerary that I think 25-year-old Toby would have been super into, but 30 year-old Toby is not that into. I’m pretty exhausted. In setting up with Laura beforehand it sounded great, I would be able to travel, I’m going to six countries, awesome. And then after Uganda I just like ‘oh my gosh, I really wish I was just staying in one location.’ Because it was just exhausting and expensive.”

Looking forward, Toby is now starting his second year at SIPA with this experience shaping his perspective on life after grad school. He wanted to learn about the social sector as a whole, and, in particular, grass-roots development. Now, having seen the NGO and non-profit world, he thinks the needs of the future are best met from the government level, which can cut through to the core of the problem: “I believe education is a human right, public health is a human right, and I think that should come from the government. For me, I want to explore how to really get to the heart of it and I think that’s looking into the public policy side.”

This year, Toby is going to be learning more about data and data management. We will see how this next year shapes his future career, both from a skills and directional standpoint. We will have to wait and see where the winds take him.