Saturday, April 24, 2010

Reflections on life as a social alchemist

It's sometimes odd to reflect that I have been planning events since way back in high school. It's quite a rollercoaster of a job, but somehow there's something magic in what can happen when you add structure to people interacting with each other. I think I am addicted to whatever that thing is. I have often described myself as a crazy social scientist who loves to experiment with human behavior. Tweaking social alchemy is a thing I'm good at.

In high school, I was the commissioner of activies and the homecoming committee chairman and the graduation ceremony organizer. What a lot of thankless work, but I fell in love with social alchemy even then. In college I organized a group fundraising event system for people (like me) who needed financial help to go and work 3 month internships in Washington DC. In Geneva, my 4 housemates and I threw great theme parties - Mexican Fiestas and champagne only formal holiday fetes. By the time I returned to DC to attend grad school, I had moved with some vigour into hosting dinner parties that brought together people I knew, but who didn't know each other well. I talked about them as my personal social experiments.

One of the best parts of my early married years in Brussels was also the events we threw - from a weekly open sunday brunch to huge backyard barbecues for 100 people, and lots of more intimate dinners with friends in between. In Uganda that changed, because I couldn't wrap my head around the role of servants and all matching china in the expat culture I was meeting people in. Nor was I able to wrap my head around the expectations of many Ugandans whom I invited home. My housekeeper Zarina was so helpful in that aspect, but we made some crazy mistakes together in organizing events that tried to break down the servant/employer hierarchies among the Ugandan workers at our home. Turns out, it wasn't just the expats in Uganda who had high expectations at parties.

I did host one really great party at home in Uganda that brought the diplomatic crew I knew through my husband's work together with some of my microfinance program clients, for a cook it yourself Mongolian Barbecue (ah yes, the food issue!). The crowd was entertained alternatively by a DJ and lively African singers in traditional costumes. At one point in the evening I could see people standing and dancing in place on 3 levels in our 4 level garden. Then my husband and I split, so that was the end of that.

With the change in living venue, I moved more into developing small learning groups and creating contexts for community planning dialogue. Life in Africa's history during my later years as Director is dotted by national events I convened, to see what could happen if the communities I had initiated in Kampala and Gulu planned together. By far the most interesting event I ever organized was a face2face meetup of a global online community in Northern Uganda. With financial support and online infrastructure from The Omidyar Network, we managed to get 100+ people from 13 countries to a weekend conference venue in an African post war zone. (Here are the photos.)

When I started my new social enterprise, Evolutionize It, with friends earlier this year, I wasn't thinking specifically about event planning as a business model. Inevitably, as I attend more and more social enterprise events, my mind is going there... and entertaining all sorts of exciting possibilities.

Stay tuned! I am imagineering some international social alchemy these days that could turn out to be lots of fun.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Nothing like a Volcano to kick off a party!

In the background as I work this afternoon, I've got TedxVolcano rocking in the background.

What an amazing thing. A group of Social Entrepreneurs and big money who want to invest in Social Change got stuck in London after the Oxford Jam and Skoll World Forum last weekend. Their first thought, put together a spontaneous Ted event in 24 hours. Way cool. I'd managed to get home from the weekend's events with a previously booked train ticket, but it was enough to make me wish I could go back.

Meanwhile, last week's overarching theme was collaboration, so my inbox is overflowing with emails from people I met last week, who are still stuck in London and organizing post conference meet-ups among the stranded. I have a feeling they are getting some amazing things done right now. I have to wonder when they actually will be able to leave, and can't help but marvel at how powerful this volcano will end up being historically, in both destructive and constructive ways.

On the destructive side, there is the disruption in global trade. Thousands of air cargo planes are also grounded, with thousands of tons of agricultural commodities from sunnier parts of the world laying in wait for export. The long tail of this particular volcanic disaster is going to hit Africa very hard.

On the constructive side, I find it incredibly interesting to think about the implications of thousands of people taking an unplanned extended break from their lives in a foreign culture. What an incredible opportunity for Governments to collaborate for global security; what a terrific non-military challenge to spur innovation in the aerospace industry. What a fabulous gift of unanticipated time for deepening collaborative relationships among the Better World Builders who got to be part of TedxVolcano in London.