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Thursday Complexity Post
November 21, 2013  

African Rural University:

Systems Thinking to Become "Creators of Circumstance"


Rose Asiimwe wanted to help families in her rural Ugandan village keep their children in school, so she mobilized students, parents and community leaders into a group that formed a new primary school. The school is functioning, fewer kids drop out, and the school has initiated some income-generating projects to support the poorest students. She also sparked formation of a women's development group that focuses on sanitation and hygiene. Rose Asiimwe is a sophomore at the African Rural University (ARU), an unusual institution that encourages students to bring their academically acquired technological and entrepreneurial skills back home.

ARU is a women-only institution with a vision of its graduates as change agents who can help people of Uganda and beyond make their own communities better places to live and thrive. The ARU website explains the school's core beliefs. Among them: "Lasting change comes only when people shift from reacting or adapting to events and circumstances and become creators of events and circumstances." Another core belief is that when people share a common vision they can transcend barriers caused by tribal, religious, political and gender differences.  


Patricia Seybold, a consultant and CEO of her own consulting group, has written a story of the university's founding and achievements. ARU is part of a continuum of educational institutions from primary school through college. The Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme (URDT), founded in 1987, in Kagadi, had taught children and adults of both sexes, as well as entrepreneurs and farmers, and had started a girls' school. All the students had academic grades, but primary and secondary students in the Girls School were also graded on their ability to get their families to improve living conditions while their daughters were away studying. The URDT Girls School graduated its first high school class in 2007, and those young women were already community leaders. Read an article by Robert Fritz on URDT emphasis on processes and system dynamics.   


Mwalimu Musheshe, named an Ashoka Fellow in 2001, founded ARU with URDT. Ashoka considered his concept of the school a system changing idea. The country's first all-women's university would create a core of visionary women leaders and role models, aid gender parity in education, and reduce infant mortality.


ARU began in September 2006 with 29 researcher students in a five year pilot program with three years of study and two years of field work in a dozen communities where they performed as "rural transformation specialists." Students visited hundreds of households in their communities, creating a baseline survey on such matters as income, health, sanitation and nutrition. That information helped identify projects people wanted, and students used their training and access to expertise to help people carry them out. ARU and its feeder schools emphasized creative processes, community learning, entrepreneurship, sustainable development and creating social capital. ARU rural transformation courses draw on science and humanities, Seybold writes, and inspiration from "traditional wisdom specialists," old men and women who know and share traditional knowledge.  


Part of ARU's goal was to foster systems thinking in every part of the curriculum. As Seybold writes, it wasn't the students' job to fix the system, but to understand it thoroughly enough so that they could help community members identify and collaborate on their shared vision. Some resulting projects have included new roads, schools, savings societies, market places and farmers' co-ops. Students also worked on how to measure impact of their work-what information to collect, how to establish databases, and how to get feedback from community members, who were asked to play a key role in evaluating projects.  


The teamwork of school and community were in play when ARU needed its own library as a condition for certification as a university. There were national standards for space and academic content, Seybold says, but planners wanted a deep understanding of who the library should serve and how. A group of students, staff, faculty, librarians and media personnel explored ARU's expectation that the new facility would be a magnet for scholars, government officials, the local community and a broader region of 10 million subsistence farmers with low literacy. They planed databases that would be used by all, and a rich collection of agricultural samples on seeds, plants, soil and access to successful agricultural practices. Read Seybold's article here.



Remember PlexusCalls!   


Friday, November 22, 1-2 PM ET

The Oscillating Narrative and Resilience in Children  

Guests: Robyn Fivush and Bruce Feiler    



We continually create, annotate and revise the narratives of our lives. Robyn Fivush and Bruce Feiler are preeminent thought leaders and writers who have deep insights on how the shape of our narratives influences us, our children and our communities.

Robyn Fivush, PhD, is Samuel Chandler Dobbs Professor of Psychology at Emory University and Director of the Family Narratives Lab, which is part of the university's Child Studies Center. Dr. Fivush has researched how family narratives are created, and how they help define who we are and how we interact with other people. Dr. Fivush received her Ph.D from the Graduate Center of The City University of New York in 1983 and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Human Information Processing, University of California at San Diego. She joined the Emory faculty in 1984 where she is also a core faculty member of the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, associated faculty with the Department of Women's Studies and a Senior Fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. Her research focuses on early memory with an emphasis on the social construction of autobiographical memory and the relations among memory, narrative, identity, trauma, and coping. She has published over 100 books, book chapters, and articles.


Bruce Feiler is one of America's most thoughtful, popular, and versatile voices on contemporary life. His latest book, The Secrets of Happy Families, is a bold playbook for families today. It collects best practices for modern-day parents from some of the country's most creative minds, including tops designers in Silicon Valley, elite peace negotiators, the creators of Modern Family, the Green Berets, and Robyn Fivush and her colleagues at Emory. The book was a Top 5 New York Times bestseller. He writes the "This Life" column about today's families for the Sunday New York Times and is the writer/presenter of the PBS series "Walking the Bible" and the forthcoming "Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler." He is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including Walking the Bible, an account of his perilous 10,000 mile journey retracing the Five Books of Moses through the desert. He has devoted thought and research to the role of religion in contemporary life, and his engaging book Abraham describes his personal search for the shared ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims. His book Where God Was Born describes his year-long trek visiting Biblical sites through the front lines of Iran, Iraq and Israel, inspiring an Atlanta Journal Constitution reviewer to call him a "real life Indiana Jones." America's Prophet, which describes the influence of Moses on American history, and Council of Dads were also best sellers. He is a native of Savannah, Georgia, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Linda Rottenberg, and their twin daughters.

Audio from all PlexusCall series are available by searching the iTunes store for plexuscalls. Or, visit under Resources/Call Series. 


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