Thursday, August 14, 2014

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

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 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.

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