Engaged Scholarship

Parts Unknown

We are leaving a week filled with physical beauty, new colleagues, new friends, and the deep appreciation that comes when people allow you into their world. Together with two colleagues from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work, I’ve been in the Galapagos Islands listening to the struggles and strengths that undergird this paradise where sea lions are constant company; finches join you for lunch; and marine iguanas defy all you thought you knew about reptiles.  Our purpose was not to enjoy an academic junket, no matter what you may think. Rather, we wanted to understand the experience of people who live in the Galapagos, who have made it their home beginning in the mid 1800s.  Indeed, every human there comes from migrant stock; for some, their family history starts in a long defunct penal colony; for others the islands called more recently with economic opportunities that accompany the tourism boom. Regardless of their origins, together, they are defining what it means to be a “Galapageño.”

The Galapagos are far away from Chapel Hill and you may wonder what the connection is.  Always it begins with relationships.  About ten years ago, two professors, one from UNC and one from The University of San Francisco de Quito joined forces to create the Galapagos Science Center. Although the focus was the natural world, there was a stated goal of considering human interactions with the environment. You can read more here.  Over time, the center began recognizing the need for what we at the School of Social Work call “intervention research,” applied research to help individuals, families, and communities, thrive in face of challenges to their well-being. In the Galapagos, this idea is a bit fraught because many resources are aimed at preserving the natural world.  Indeed, the Ecuadorian National Park Service controls over 90% of the land in the Galapagos. For good or ill, humans and their complicated needs and habits come second to preserving one of the most undeveloped areas on earth.

For our part, each of us  came with particular knowledge that was relevant to what we thought we might learn. But the expertise we most needed was not on migration or n asset building or even domestic violence, which turned out to be a central focus of our conversations. Rather, for this trip, we needed the most basic of social work skills… what we say to our entering MSW students over and over: be curious; listen deeply; find out how they’ve made it thus far; find strengths even as you notice real challenges.  As we tell our students, these skills are simple to understand but difficult to employ. They require considerable self-discipline, self-reflection and awareness. In our case, we were each other’s supervisors. Our team leader, who has entered new communities all around the world, had to constantly remind us to wait before starting to thing about solutions or generating ideas for next steps. We had to remind each other not to get ahead of ourselves, not to start planning before we heard more of the stories, to reach saturation before drawing conclusions, to ask the next question, to make sure we understood the context, to ask who else we should talk to in order to understand better. The beauty of our team is that we ended up being good at different parts of the puzzle. Gina pulled us back from too much planning too soon. Cindy was the subject expert in domestic violence that ended up to be the concern we heard about over and over. I am good at asking questions to put what we were hearing in context. Together, we learned a lot.

On our last day, one of our colleagues from the science center, a PhD biologist who had joined us throughout the visit, told us  that our visit had changed her. I had a hunch this had happened when she became tearful at dinner with a community member the night before. She told us she had made some decisions about issues and organizations that she was going to become involved with as a result of listening with us all week. I imagine that happened more than we know. By design and some good luck our visit brought people to the table to talk, people from different agencies, different backgrounds, with different priorities and points of view. Getting the right people to the table is often half the battle in addressing most any problem. Deep listening and good questions get you at least another 25% of the way toward solid, sustainable solutions. The other 25% is where the design, adaptation, implementation, and evaluation of new approaches may get you to the finish line. But the hard part is on the front end. Truly, I would not be surprised if, upon the next UNC SSW sojourn to the Galapagos, substantial change has already been made.

Even in a place where the landscape stops the heart, human suffering is right below the surface. But solutions are not found by importing expertise, no matter how well-researched and successful it has been somewhere else. Outsiders can be a part of solutions for far away places, but only when we dive deep, discipline ourselves to listen with open minds and hearts, engage our curiosity and compassion, and respect that, although sometimes we have something to offer, most often we something to learn, as we walk alongside communities as they find their own way.

Photo Credit: Skylar Searing follow him on Instagram.  @raelyks

By Mimi Chapman: Writing about the intersection of personal and professional life

Professor, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I started this blog because I enjoy reflecting on different parts of life and work and sharing that with others.

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