Guatemala: the Nature of Business

I visited Guatemala this past Spring break. The Ross School of Business sent my cohort and I for a service trip hosted by International Samaritan and fully-funded by the Royal Bank of Canada. The purpose of the trip was to work at a school in a landfill community in Escuintla, Guatemala, one of Guatemala’s more financially disadvantaged cities. Our ultimate aim of the Spring break trip was to better understand the nature of business in Guatemala, better understand the culture of Guatemala, and to help build a soccer field for the school in Escuintla.

Our advisor, Katie, held morning and evening reflections, a chance to think about our experiences each day. The reflections allowed me to analyze the ways every experience of each day, whether big or small, affected my ideas and changed the way I thought. Fortunately, my fellow cohort members were all willing to partake in the dialogue; such a willingness allowed us to receive the most benefit from the sessions. We even took the conversations outside of reflection and continued them throughout the day.

Ultimately, our discussions led to similar conclusions about mission and service trips: mission and service trip groups have much learning to do, as there’s so many hegemonic, racial, and societal insensitivities that could occur and often do occur. These are aside from the fact that mission trips, specifically, help others while representing a certain religious sect, an outdated and pompous form of spreading religion. (Believing your way in America is always the “best way.” Showing signs of cultural disrespect. Taking pictures with babies and children you don’t know—just for Instagram likes. Even becoming friends with one of the local children only to leave them a week later.) These issues go unchecked most of the time and continue to be a problem on mission and service trips. Consequently, understanding the complexity of helping others in different countries is one of the most important insights I’ve gained.

By Omar Uddin

WeListen​ ​at​ ​the​ ​University​ ​of​ ​Michigan

After the 2016 presidential election, deep divisions appeared on campus down ideological lines. American politics had split our country, and the University of Michigan. A common national narrative began to appear about students who were unwilling to engage with their political foes in a constructive way. But those weren’t the Ann Arbor students we knew.

We founded WeListen to create a place at Michigan for the curious and engaged students we had met — studying humanities, music, engineering, public policy, and business — to discuss and learn about politics in a non-debate setting. The goal of WeListen is to bring students from across the political spectrum — liberal, conservative, and everywhere in between — together to engage in discussions about difficult political topics.

Thanks to a BLI Small Project Grant, we were able to host eleven discussion sessions over the 2017-2018 academic year on topics including immigration, gun control, abortion, and free speech. Our first session, on Refugees in America, attracted just fifteen participants. As we improved our methodology and word spread, WeListen grew. Our first session of second semester brought 93 students together to discuss Free Speech, while maintaining strong conservative presence, and keeping discussion civil. Soon after, a group of University of Michigan staff members formed a committee to start the WeListen Staff Series — a monthly, staff-only set of WeListen sessions.

In 2016, there was no place to go after the election to find out why someone voted for the ‘other side.’ After the midterm elections this year — thanks to BLI’s generous support — students can attend a WeListen- and CSG-led discussion to get to know students who don’t think (or vote) like they do.

By: Gabriel Lerner

Civic Dinners: Opportunities to Learn Through Connection

It was a Saturday night, and like many Saturday nights, I just wanted to relax with my friends. This night, I was especially exhausted, though – I had just wrapped up the Net Impact National Conference, a 3-day conference in Phoenix, Arizona on the intersection of business, social impact and sustainability. The conference had consisted of 7 breakout sessions, 4 key note speakers, and a career exposition. There had been thousands of attendees from Net Impact’s 380+ chapters in over 40 countries, so there had been numerous opportunities for networking as well. I, along with the other 10 attendees from the University of Michigan, felt content but exhausted.

But instead of heading back to our lodgings or going out to celebrate, we challenged ourselves one last time through a Civic Dinner. Civic Dinners is a national organization bringing together strangers to discuss hot button issues, like race, gender, politics and more. The dinner consists of one volunteer host (who receives training from the organization), 6-10 guests, 3 big questions on the pre-selected topic, and an ensuing conversation. It’s a special opportunity to meet new people and hear diverse opinions – the attendees are more comfortable sharing intimate experiences and perspectives, both because of the mutual intentions of the group, and because sometimes it’s easier sharing with strangers. I had gone to a Net Impact Conference-affiliated Civic Dinner the year before, and invited my peers to sign up with me.

The topic of my specific dinner was Common Ground. This aimed to encourage participants to grow more comfortable sharing their political beliefs, to get outside of their echo chambers and hear something new, and finally, to recognize the humanity in all people, no matter their political affiliations. The specific questions addressed how we formed our political opinions, times when we’d change our mind, and one potentially controversial opinion we held. Due to the polarized nature of politics in the US today, I was excited to engage with the other participants, but nervous to share and hear diverse political beliefs.

My dinner was different than expected. There were actually 12 participants due to a sign-up glitch, so it was less of a discussion and more a series of short presentations. However, this did allow a greater variety of opinions to be shared. Due to the social impact/sustainability focus of the conference, our political beliefs were all pretty close; however, hearing different stances on different political issues was still exciting but stressful. Each time I presented, I was trembling a little and very nervous – it took a lot of courage to share political beliefs, due to their inherent personal and intimate nature. However, it was a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and learn from the strangers around me, and I’m extremely glad I went.

This dinner was more than one conversation – it was an experience that challenged my leadership skills and developed new ones. I literally engaged the world by meeting and talking to Net Impact students and professionals from around the US, and even some who’d travelled internationally to be at the conference. It was amazing to hear the differences between the places we’d grown up, and to find our commonalities despite them. Learning about these new opinions gave me more context for why some people have the strongly help political beliefs they had, and prepared me to better engage with a variety of stakeholders going forward, since I can now be more empathetic. I also improved my active listening skills, since I had to be engaged to encourage other participants to be vulnerable, but couldn’t show my support vocally due to the large number of participants. I’m excited to apply these active listening skills and my strengthened empathy in my leadership roles and positions going forwards.

So while it wasn’t the wild celebration most students might have liked on a Saturday night, the Civic Dinner was an integral part of my conference experience. I was pushed to meet conference attendees from other states and even countries, and heard about the role of politics in their lives, and how they’d formed their political beliefs. I grew more comfortable with difficult conversations, and with asking difficult questions, through pushing myself to be uncomfortable. I also heard different political beliefs and the reasons behind them, which pushed myself to learn from the participants’ different experiences. I am very glad I was able to participate in this Civic Dinner, and am grateful to the Barger Leadership Institute for funding this opportunity.

 

By: Charlene Franke