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Thursday, August 14, 2014

What I Learned From "How To Change The World" (A Course Offered by Wesleyan University via Coursera.org)

Poster for Creek Clean Up by author


I thought the course, How To Change The World*, had an audacious ring to it. That was why I took it. I wanted to find out if it was possible for me to make a difference, wherever I happened to be in my life. I’m so glad I took the course, despite some hesitation (and distractions) at the start, because I ended the class with an actual project that will make a difference in my immediate community.

It directed my focus on action

The course was divided into six weeks, with the fourth week serving as “rest” week so students could catch up with the readings (which were voluminous!). These were the topics, in order, that covered the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth weeks:
  • social goods and the commons (resources belonging to a whole community, or even the whole world),
  • poverty and development,
  • climate change and sustainability,
  • disease and global health care and,
  • women, education and social change.
It was a broad coverage but it pretty much captured the biggest issues we face as human beings. I liked how the whole course started with the premise that we human beings share a commons, whether it is our biology, our planet, or our systems. It was a good springboard and context for tackling everything else. With every topic, the main questions that we were asked as students were:

What do I know?
Why should I care?
What can I do?

The course was not theoretical though it did not lack in theory. We were challenged to read the facts (I confess that I was really not able to finish all the PDFs and papers that were presented in the syllabus) but beyond that, we were challenged to take action. This, I believe, is where knowledge matters most: when it is put into practice. All the knowledge in the world will not be able to make positive changes. After learning new insights, new methods, new approaches, it makes sense to apply it immediately to one’s life. This was the value I saw in taking up the course. It was designed for application. At one point, I realized that I made a mistake in submitting a multimedia presentation for peer review. It meant that I would not get extra credit. I complained on the forum and one TA (teaching assistant) reminded me that doing the work counted more than the grade. What a wake-up call. Because I’m such a nerd, I wanted that “with distinction” certificate. But the certificate won’t matter if my participation won’t create any actual change in my community. I drew the line and, from then on, I focused on the quality of my work, whether or not I got a good grade.

I looked around with new lenses

All the topics were very relevant to me, coming from a developing country that seems to face all of the issues presented in the syllabus. While the course directed me where to look, what became clear to me were immediate opportunities in my own neighborhood. In the first week (when the commons was the topic), I was able to zero in on a polluted creek across the condominium where I live. I started contacting people I never thought to contact before: a foundation that helps rehabilitate rivers and creeks, the kagawad (local officials) in my barangay (smallest local government unit in the Philippines), and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction from my local government. They were very willing to work with me to organize a clean up. This initiative snowballed with the DPWH volunteering a crew, despite the fact that they work on a national and not on a local level, and a small business offering to donate effective microorganism (EM) solution to be applied to the creek. I was amazed at what actually could be done in my own neighborhood. Citizen action didn’t seem like such an overwhelming task anymore. My barangay eventually got in touch with a company that does corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, Li & Fung Ltd., a multinational supply chain management supplier, and, all of a sudden, we got 20 more volunteers for the creek clean up plus food donations. All in all, the project that will be implemented on August 16, 2014 will have 55 volunteers coming from both government and private sectors.

I appreciated the beauty and necessity of the grassroots and “the small”

In the course of taking up How To Change The World, a friend of mine (who also happens to be one of the volunteers for the creek clean up) introduced me to a book, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher. I immediately felt an affinity with the book. Schumacher believes that using economics as a measure for development or progress is a mistake. There must be better ways for measuring wellbeing. Also, these measures must take sustainability into account. This book was published in 1973 but I find that it is very relevant today. It pointed me to the answer to “how to change the world.” The answer is: one village/ neighborhood at a time. While sweeping movements do make a difference, touching hearts is very essential in creating lasting change for the better. This can only be done at close quarters. Modern technology favors the “mega,” the “big,” and “scale” but going back to the “small,” the intimate, the community-based is actually what will make the difference in creating a sustainable structure that favors actual people and our environment.

I now see that it’s time to change our measures

It made sense that the last topic that we took up in the course focused on gender equality. Empowering women and girls not only improves the lives of everyone but it gives women the opportunity to contribute from positions of leadership (either in private business or in government). They call attention to things like child care and the environment. From this topic, I discovered the work of Marilyn Waring, New Zealand feminist, politician and author of If Women Counted, a feminist analysis of modern economics. She advocates changing our measures for progress.

In business parlance, there is a saying that “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.” Even in matters of development, I believe the same thing also applies. However, our tools for measurement reflect the kind of societies we want to build. If we measure for economic factors only, we will not take into account such things as wellbeing and sustainability. I believe it’s time for human societies to change their measures. And once again, we do this one community at a time, until it becomes the model that we use for larger structures like countries and regions.  And so, to close, if you ask me: how do you change the world? My answer is: one community, one village at a time. It takes focus, it takes really seeing and observing what will make a difference to people in my immediate neighborhood, and it takes work at the grassroots. It takes you and me doing something about the things that matter to us most. When it comes to changes we want to see in the world, it will not be about GDP (gross domestic product) but about our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our kids, our planet.

Go take the next course and see how *you* can change the world. 


*Note: I took up a course boldly called How To Change The World offered for free by Wesleyan University (via Coursera.org) from June 21 to August 14, 2014.  The course was taught by Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan University President. It tackled major issues facing humanity and it was based on discussions brought up during the 2013 Social Good Summit in New York. There will be a 2015 version of the course based on the upcoming 2014 Social Good Summit.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

How To Change The World #2.2 Three Questions To Ask in Addressing Extreme Poverty

Question: Imagine that you have been put in charge of allocating a considerable amount of resources to address extreme poverty in one region of the world. Describe the three most important questions you would want to ask to determine how to use these materials most effectively.

Answer: Extreme poverty, while it seems so vast and sometimes hopeless, can actually be broken down into several key problems and, in turn, these problems can actually be worked on if we do it one step at a time.

If I were in charge of a considerable amount of resources to address extreme poverty, the first question I would ask is linked to what Joy Anderson (Founder of Criterion, Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University) said in video lecture 5.3 (Education & Risk Taking): What do people affected by extreme poverty need the most? In Joy’s example, a social entrepreneur decided that what Indian women in a certain depressed area needed were sanitary napkins because not having any was hindering women from participation in social and economic activities of the village. It was a good thing that she went around the village interviewing the women. It turned out that what they wanted was a blender / food processor because cutting vegetables ate up too much of their time. Good things come out of listening to people who need the aid. Many times, where aid goes is determined by the giver or by the organization that is organizing the aid without listening to the beneficiary.

Banerjee & Duflo book. Image from makewealthhistory.og

My second question is linked to methodology or what the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL) is doing (randomized evaluations as cited in the paper by Jessica Cohen and William Easterly, Thinking Big versus Thinking Small): What is the most effective and measurable way to deliver the solution? There are many ways to increase school attendance but which one is the best way, the most effective way? In the account by Esther Duflo of JPAL in her TED talk, Social Experiments to Fight Poverty, traditional ways of increasing school attendance were providing extra teachers, providing school meals or providing scholarships. However, when JPAL did a test that included other interventions like providing iron supplements and deworming to the mix, it turned out that deworming had the highest impact to prolonging school attendance. And now, this experiment has already guided policy for education.

My third question is related to sustainability and Jeffrey Sachs’ Common Wealth, Economics for a Crowded Planet: How can we put structures in place so that extreme poverty no longer becomes an issue in the future? Short-term interventions can only go so far. Long-term sustainability is required so that gains on extreme poverty will remain. This has to do, now, with the way a society is structured, how its government is structured, and how equal citizens are within that society. In Sachs’ example, Nordic countries where citizens have a high degree of equality and where social safety nets are in place, overall wellbeing for these countries are high. I believe, if we change the way we measure “progress,” across the globe, from GDP to human wellbeing, we will make great strides in not just alleviating extreme poverty but also in protecting and nurturing our environment.

To address extreme poverty, three questions to ask are: 1) What do people affected by extreme poverty need the most?, 2) What is is the most effective and measurable way we can deliver the solution?, and 3) How can we put structures in place so that extreme poverty no longer becomes an issue in the future?

Note: I am currently taking up a course boldly called How To Change The World offered by Wesleyan University (offered for free through Coursera.org) and taught by Wesleyan University President, Michael S. Roth. It tackles major issues facing humanity and it is based on discussions brought up during the 2013 Social Good Summit in NY. I am putting up all my assignments on my blog as well.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

How To Change The World #5.1 The Fight for the RH Bill: Gender Equality and Reproductive Health Care in the Philippines

Illustrate (using video, slideshow, visual art, song, text, documentation of a direct action, or anything else) an issue of gender inequality either in your neighborhood or in your life. Think about how yours or someone else's assigned gender identity has either opened up or closed opportunities for them, or think about ways in which an institution is structured to favor certain gender expressions.



I am currently taking up a course boldly called How To Change The World offered by Wesleyan University (offered for free through Coursera.org) and taught by Wesleyan University President, Michael S. Roth. It tackles major issues facing humanity and it is based on discussions brought up during the 2013 Social Good Summit in NY. I am putting up all my assignments on my blog as well.

How To Change The World # 5: Empowered Girls and Women Improve Overall Wellbeing of their Families, Their Villages, and Their Countries

Image of young girl from petition site, www.care2.com

Q: Describe at least two examples from different parts of the world in which building capacity for women and girls has turned out to be an effective strategy of enhancing health and well-being for a society more generally.

A: According to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of U.N. Women and former deputy president of South Africa in Guardian.com video on women's economic empowerment, a change that empowers women (such as education, where historically culture and religion made it unavailable for women, or providing her with small loans to start a busin
ess) leads to women (1) finding their voice, (2) gaining independence,  and (3) ascending to leadership roles, both in civil society and in government. Mlambo-Ngcuka stressed that these, and especially the third point, gives women the power to make changes on the ground, resulting in benefits that affect both men and women: the eradication of hunger and poverty.

I saw two particular examples of this. One example is presented by Jasmine Shah, in his article on Tehelka.com: Policy Can Bridge Gender Gap (March 23, 2013). Professor Robert Jensen of the MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab conducted a randomized control test to see if seeding a community with job opportunities, particularly for women (business process outsourcing or BPO job, specifically) would result in better outcomes for girls. The study worked. Young qualified women were more likely to employed by the BPO (by 5 percentage points). School enrollment for girls increased significantly (closing out 60% of the boy-girl gap in education). The study also resulted in better nutrition and health for girls. The study also resulted in young women showing a desire to work for pay outside of their homes (by 12 percentage points) which resulted in these women not marrying or giving birth within the three-year period of the intervention. This phenomenon will most likely lead to better economic prospects for the entire village (more income going into families because both men and women are getting jobs) and better well-being for the family with both boys and girls getting health care and nutrition.

Another example is the phenomenon of how women influenced the economic growth of Brazil, leading to better health and well-being for all its citizens. This was not in our assigned readings but I was very much interested in what happened in Brazil as I was researching about the RH (Reproductive Health) Bill in the Philippines. In the article by Cynthia Gorney in National Geographic (September 2011), she traces how a mix of female empowerment and steamy soap operas led to lower fertility rates and created the foundation for a new vibrant economy. Women, even though they were mostly Catholic, flouted their own religion and started getting tubal ligations or other kinds of contraception. “Everyone was doing it,” said one interviewee. This led to smaller families and better health and nutrition among the fewer children that these women were raising. According to the article, within two generations, Brazil’s fertility dropped from 6 children per family in the 60s to 2.36 in 2000 and to only 1.9 per family in 2010. Smaller family size has been credited for boosting the economies rapidly developing countries such as Brazil.

I’m not even talking about Scandinavian countries where women form roughly half of the legislative bodies of their governments. These countries (like Sweden and Norway) have high social security nets and they have some of the highest rates of wellbeing across the globe. It is clear from these examples that when women are empowered, they improve not only the health and nutrition of their populations but they improve the overall wellbeing of their families, their villages, their communities, and their countries.

Note: I am currently taking up a course boldly called How To Change The World offered by Wesleyan University (offered for free through Coursera.org) and taught by Wesleyan University President, Michael S. Roth. It tackles major issues facing humanity and it is based on discussions brought up during the 2013 Social Good Summit in NY. I am putting up all my assignments on my blog as well.



Sunday, July 27, 2014

How To Change The World #4.1: Barangay San Antonio Health Interventions, Seeing Positive Action in an LGU



Illustrate (using video, slideshow, visual art, song, text, documentation of a direct action, or anything else) an issue of public health in your neighborhood. In accordance with this week's readings, think about the intersections between economic inequality and different availabilities of healthcare. Consider visiting a community institution (a hospital, a nursing home, a recreation center, a restaurant) to illustrate either a positive response or a contribution to inequality in public health.

Note: I am currently taking up a course boldly called How To Change The World offered by Wesleyan University (offered for free through Coursera.org) and taught by Wesleyan University President, Michael S. Roth. It tackles major issues facing humanity and it is based on discussions brought up during the 2013 Social Good Summit in NY. I am putting up all my assignments on my blog as well.

How To Change The World #4: Acting on Global Disease and Health Needs A Combination of Effective Delivery and Moral Responsibility

Topic 1

Q: Jim Kim, president of the World Bank Group, ascribed much of the success of the fight against HIV/AIDs to a political movement that pushed powerful groups to deal with this health crisis. Describe at least two other examples in which political or social mobilization has had an important impact on fighting disease. How can you become a part of such a movement today?

A: In video lecture 4.4 of Global Disease and Health, I was very inspired to see a congressman (Gregory W. Meeks), a socially-oriented businessman (Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen) and an action-oriented young girl (Naomi Kodama) talk about what they were all doing about malaria, the third biggest cause of death among developing countries (200M suffered from malaria in 2010 and 650K people died of malaria just a few years ago, particularly young children under five, source: video lecture 4.4). This was an example of both political and social mobilization having an impact on fighting disease. Vestergaard Frandsen brought in the technology, Meeks raises awareness for the disease as part of the Malaria Caucus and Naomi Kodama (together with her father) is behind the grassroots campaign, NothingButNets.net which encourages funding for insecticide-treated bed nets being distributed in sub-Saharan Africa.

In video lecture 4.6 of Global Diseas and Health, I also saw how Dr. Neeraj Mistry, managing director of Global Network, David Harris, executive creative director of Draftfcb, and Peter Koechly, co-founder of Upworthy talked about how a U.S.-based institute collaborated with an ad agency and a website for viral content to promote action against something called neglected tropical diseases like worm infections (hook worm, whip worm and round worm), elephantiasis, river blindness, trachoma, and snail fever. These neglected tropical diseases affect 1 billion people in developing countries, mostly in rural and hard-to-reach areas. That scale is really staggering. However, the awareness campaign has really brought in a lot of awareness, which in turn brought in supporters and funding.

This work of fighting global disease truly needs a combination of effective delivery: this includes gathering support and putting the solutions in the hands of those who most need it (Jessica Cohen, Asst. Professor of Global Health, Harvard University, video lecture 4.4 and 4.5) and ethical/ moral responsibility, the continuing reason for people to care and create pressure (Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Earth Institute, Columbia University, video lectures 4.6 and 4.7). The immediate step I took after the lectures was to donate to both NothingButNets.net and GlobalNetwork.org. However, as mentioned in lectures 4.6 and 4.7, it’s not enough to “throw money” at an initiative. It starts with creating a social consensus, provoking care, marshaling resources, and designing patterns of intervention.

From Rappler.com

Closer to home, in the Philippines, I am also closely following and supporting the #HungerProject which is a collaboration among a news media website, Rappler, the Philippines’ DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development), and U.N.’s World Food Programme. Its aim is to fight malnutrition among our poorest. This is also one effort where my personal action can make a difference. First step: creating social consensus.

Note: I am currently taking up a course boldly called How To Change The World offered by Wesleyan University (offered for free through Coursera.org) and taught by Wesleyan University President, Michael S. Roth. It tackles major issues facing humanity and it is based on discussions brought up during the 2013 Social Good Summit in NY. I am putting up all my assignments on my blog as well.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Morning Meditation



Friday Morning Meditation

The sound of grinding brings
a certain satisfaction to me,
even the smell of wood
shavings gathering in a small,
clear plastic bin.
The tip will never stay sharp,
the pink nub of rubber
at the other end will constantly reduce.
There is something about
this wooden thing that
reminds me of my yearning,
errant self, something I cannot
quite catch even as I mourn
the smallest stub among the bunch,
wondering if it will survive
another sharpening.

edited 2014-07-18 11:59 p.m.

Friday Morning Meditation

The sound of grinding brings
a certain satisfaction to me,
even the smell of wood
shavings gathering in a small,
clear plastic bin.
The tip will never stay sharp,
the pink nub at the other end
will constantly rub out.
I count two inches
before its final
sharpening.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Day After



The Day After

That afternoon, we counted one
broken window and two
good things: running water
and electricity. That evening,
a hazy yellow moon hung over
our silent city. Just hours earlier, I saw
iron roofs flying toward the horizon.

The day after, my daughter asks me
where I am going. "To work,
my baby." She only remembers a whole
day huddled in blankets, reading books
to distract ourselves from the howling outside.

The day after, the sun is so mild, the air
so soft and cool. I can't believe
we had been pummeled by wind
and rain if not for the flagpole fallen
across our building and the leaves
and branches lining the streets as we make
our way to the office.

That morning, trying to stop
my ears, I watched a video
about disappearing bees.
And now it is all
I can think about. There's
another low pressure area
coming this weekend.


Monday, July 14, 2014

How To Change The World #3.1: Supporting Small Family Farmers and Addressing Climate Change Takes a Community



The Assignment: Assignment: Illustrate (using video, slideshow, visual art, song, text, documentation of a direct action, or anything else) an issue relating to climate change in your neighborhood or in your life. This could take the form of illustrating an institution or habit that contributes to climate change (a coal power plant, a long commute) or a project responding positively to climate change (a community supported agriculture project).

Note: I am currently taking up a course boldly called How To Change The World offered by Wesleyan University (offered for free through Coursera.org) and taught by Wesleyan University President, Michael S. Roth. It tackles major issues facing humanity and it is based on discussions brought up during the 2013 Social Good Summit in NY. I am putting up all my assignments on my blog as well.

How To Change The World #3: Personal Narrative (and Action) in Addressing Climate Change


Q: Many have reported on the difficulty of getting people to focus on climate change because it’s such a long-term problem. Describe two techniques you have found useful in getting people to either change the pattern of their own energy consumption or to advocate for public policies that address environmental threats.

A: Recently, I saw four sets of data that really struck me in this report on my country from the World Bank: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2013/06/20/survey-8-of-10-Filipinos-Personally-Experience-Impacts-of-Climate-Change
  1. That 8 out of 10 Filipinos personally experience impacts of climate change
  2. 52% have little to almost NO understanding of climate change. 
  3. Also, 63% have NOT personally participated in efforts to reduce the risks of reducing the effects of climate change. 
  4. And 68% have NOT participated in an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
And as a test of response, I posted the data on my social media page and got what I expected: zero response (no likes, no comments). That’s just the effect of talking about climate change. Prof. Daniel Kammen of UC Berkeley put it very succinctly in the conversation on energy, sustainability and solution science video (video lecture 3.8 of How To Change The World): a) quoting Prof. George Lakoff, cognitive linguist, there’s no verb form (pretty much, no language) for humans being affected by outside forces like climate change and b) there’s no currency for dealing with climate change.

Climate change is the elephant in the room. We all know, especially us Filipinos, that it is happening. But there’s no structure around which to talk about it without getting extremely polarized. I took a consensus among my office mates during a lunch break and they all believe climate change is real. What is hard to put into words and action is what to do about it that will actually make a difference.

The two techniques that I have found that are effective for getting people to care about climate change have to do with something that Prof. Kammen said and what Prof. Alice Haddad, political scientist (video 3.4 Grassroots Politics and Climate Change) said.

1) Prof. Alice Haddad talked about how art is one potent way to engage people. It’s because art creates narrative, something people care about. It is something that moves them and helps them emotionally engage with an issue or a concept.

2) Prof. Kammen talked about connecting a highly abstract thing like climate change to a deeply personal level of experience.

Overall, I’m also inspired by the work of E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. Schumacher advocates a return to small, appropriate technologies that empower people without destroying the environment.



For me, the personal story/ narrative, together with action, are far more effective than rhetoric and fear-mongering. My simple story about signing up with a local initiative called Good Food Community http://www.goodfoodcommunity.com/, which helps local smallholder farmers invest in, and continue to practice, organic farming is a small step in the direction towards addressing climate change (ex. organic farming practices and lower carbon footprint by buying local produce). It’s also something that people responded to positively. It’s an action that could easily be taken by a family and it’s connected to my daily life. It’s a very personal choice but it’s not exclusive. Anyone can make this choice. It’s about doing something that anybody could do without being overwhelmed.

Note: I am currently taking up a course boldly called How To Change The World offered by Wesleyan University (offered for free through Coursera.org) and taught by Wesleyan University President, Michael S. Roth. It tackles major issues facing humanity and it is based on discussions brought up during the 2013 Social Good Summit in NY. I am putting up all my assignments on my blog as well.

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