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Today’s post will be a little choppy. Generally my posts reflect both my state of mind and the type of work upon which I’m focusing. The bulk of my current project is analytical….but the deliverable is ultimately creative. Unsurprisingly I’m running into some challenges reconciling the two.

My goal for March 9-March 13 (seemingly an easy task) was: To create a visual guide to teach our girls 1) how to make jewelry, and 2) what details differentiate jewelry from “quality jewelry.” Background: All our girls have been making beautiful jewelry, some learning quickly, others still struggling after a year or so of learning the process. We have identified that one of the program goals is for the girls to learn how to make “quality jewelry,” measured by a series of metrics like consistent product length, proper wire finishing (not poking out, on necklaces the wire must run through the clasp and back through two beads so the clasp won’t slip off) etc. I developed a document on which our Bead Program Coordinator can record weekly production, if any or all of the quality control points were achieved, and whether or not a girl makes the jewelry correctly the first time (or conversely if she consistently struggles with one particular technique.) Although some of the girls have been making the jewelry for years, often even the veterans miss many quality control points. Thus, we decided to revisit the training materials in the hopes of creating a visual guide (again, some girls speak only sinhala, some have hearing disabilities, some are illiterate.)

I am by nature a creative person, and had only recently been exposed to a lot of visual communication techniques (I was recently enrolled in an Industrial Design program.) Consequently, I thought this task would be easy….it is proving to be otherwise. In addition to the requirements outlined above, we need the visual guide to show certain mathematical concepts. It is relatively straightforward to show a repeating pattern visually, and the girls have shown that they have thus far been able to follow along. However, we only recently implemented a voucher system where the girls order and pay for beads through a simulated store and bank in the workshops, and they are struggling with the basics. For some reason it had not occurred to me that many of the teens had not been exposed to basic math skills, like multiplication, subtraction, and even addition. This lack of a foundation has made it extremely difficult to explain how to go from ordering beads for one necklace to ordering beads for two with any understanding on the girls’ part. I guess I was unaware that the mathematical portion was so difficult because I knew the girls have been ordering beads “successfully” using the vouchers for several months (starting just before my arrival.) It was only when I started checking their vouchers and bank book entries that I realized they were ordering far more beads than were necessary for the products they were producing. I was under the impression (because the girls would bring their empty bead boxes to the workshop) that they used up the beads they ordered regularly. It turns out that my assumption was a false one, and that most have reserves going back at least several months if not more. It may seem insignificant to many that the girls have bead reserves….but it affects the program in several ways, only the most prominent of which I will mention below. We are incorporating budgeting into the standard curriculum so that the girls who are interested in starting their own businesses at a later date will have been exposed (and ideally have become proficient in dealing with) business basics. Inventory management can make or break an organization, so ideally the girls will understand that their personal businesses will benefit if they maintain the least amount of inventory possible while still reaching their jewelry making goals. (The intention is to free up cash flow in order to buy more beads.) Unsurprisingly, since we haven’t truly emphasized the business factor, the girls have thus far been more interested in maintaining a variety of beads that they like than in ordering only what they need each week. Conclusion: Ultimately, I believe that my “developer’s block” (my self-coined equivalent to writer’s block) experience this past week had a much deeper source. Although I am absolutely passionate about our cause and about working with the girls, I find it hundreds of times more difficult to achieve my goals here, than when I was studying, working and living in the US and in the short periods I have spent abroad in other countries. I could identify numerous contributing factors, but I believe that the primary factor is the disparity between Eastern and Western concepts of independence and autonomy.

This disparity manifests itself in various ways, some of which are basic and tangible and unique to our (Emerge’s) situation in Sri Lanka, like depending on trishaws for all transportation rather than having the independence of traveling where you want on your own terms. Otherwise personal space (which I had mentioned in a previous blog entry) is really non-existent, and the absence there-of can truly abrade Western sensibilities (like my own for example.) I am unsure if it is because Sri Lanka is a small island, or because it is an Asian country, or if there is another cause, but each and every person one meets seems to assume the encounter is merely the beginning of a long relationship, and that you are now in some sense, “involved.” This occurs in all walks of society and is evidenced by the utterly incessant questioning, “where are you from,” “how old are you,” “are you married,” “do you speak Sinhala,” “how long will you be here,” “how much does your apartment cost,” “where are you going,” “can I have your email address,” “can I call you later,” “will you be my friend….” “I want to be your friend,” “I want to be your friend,” “I want to be your friend……” I believe it is my unfamiliarity with the culture and my yet underdeveloped coping mechanisms that keep popping up and frustrating my work efforts. I have been trying to care for my mind body and soul in order to keep motivated and engaged, yet feel that I am constantly struggling to protect my personal space- in coffee shops, in restaurants, at the doctor’s office, in my own apartment building- from people who would enjoy nothing more than to engage you in conversation, hear your life story, and share a bit of gossip.

Today, Monday March 16th marks the day I have designated for a turn-around…. a day in which I hope to resolve some of my cultural attitudes in the hopes of pushing forward with Emerge’s mission and allowing myself some sense of achievement. I am unsure of what my approach will be, I am just sure that change is necessary.

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