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African Rural University: Systems Thinking to Become "Creators of Circumstance"

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 21, 2013

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 emphasis

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 data bases, 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 data bases 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.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  leaders 

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