Thursday, September 13, 2012

Compost Building Competition

To test the students ability to build a compost pile quickly and correctly, I held a compost competition. Four families competed at break-neck speeds over 30 minutes to win the prize: ice cream. Some words that the students are shouting include: "Nâu" which is the color brown - what they refer to as brown materials. "Nước" is water, the final ingredient to add to the compost pile.

How Do you Know a Topic Excites your Students?

When it makes it to the dinner table!

The context: I’ve been planning a classroom debate for the last 3 weeks. In my head I envisioned 4 community stakeholders for the kids to role-play: the community worker trained in environmental health, the municipal government, the city developers, and the farmers.
The scenario: a disputed 2 hectare plot of land that’s prone to flooding during the monsoon season and is critical to Hué’s ecosystem. Which group can justify their claim to it?
The Debate: started off slow but once it gained momentum the kids couldn’t stop arguing.
- What about the farmers? If you take the land away, how will we make a living?
- We’ll compensate you for the land and train you in construction. It’s a better career…
- The farmers have a better proposal, let us us the land for growing rice. We’ll feed Huế and all the ethnic communities.
- Do the ethnic communities eat rice as a main staple?
- How will the developers protect the ecosystem?
- It’ll be a green building. How do you propose Huế handle the huge influx of tourists every year?
- Homestays to service tourism.
We went well into the lunch hour and during lunch, they were still talking about how there were so many unresolved arguments! My work here is complete…

The Half Way Mark

(As you can already tell, I'm posting my journal entries after the projects have ended.)

1 month in and 1 month left

How’s my work progressing? What sort of metrics am I using to assess my progress? Is the glass half empty or half full? Am I willing to find out if the liquid in the glass is potable?
Questions my higher ups would welcome answers to. I still need to measure how much waste becomes compost – we’re at day 15 of composting using a protocol that assures compost in 14-21 days. Judging by the look of things and our frequent additions to the pile, we may need several more days before we can declare the compost officially ready.

The mushrooms have finally been delivered to the other site where I sometimes work, an elderly home housed within a Buddhist nunnery. The nuns have started growing the mushrooms, a practice which requires muscle memory and some background knowledge. The process of scaling up this enterprise uses up the most brain power and will most likely keep us busy for the last leg of my time in Huế.

The expectations I had are changing
The goals I set out to achieve have changed. I’ve been asked to come up with a curriculum on climate change for the shelter kids in addition to showing them how to compost. Now, I need to figure out how the nuns can generate income from the mushrooms. Admittedly, I did not come into these projects as prepared as I thought I was: I didn’t firmly grasp the importance of building relationships and I underestimated the necessity of mental flexibility. I’m working much harder on this front and making time to abandon my plans and planning for a much less structured experience. It’s not a stressful time but there are certain things which nag at me to complete.

On a more celebratory note, the students are accepting me into their family and – perhaps with some reservation – the task of cutting grass and gathering materials for compost. I daresay some of them even like me.

We're on Youtube!

A re-post of a previous video but, it is worth a second watch.


I would like to thank Alan Do for putting this video together for our shelter's project. Notice: at the beginning of the video while I'm lecturing, there are several confused faces in the crowd!

A video recording of the students turning and watering our compost pile, in Vietnamese:

Teaching in Broken Vietnamese is a Funny Experience

It was my first week teaching students at the Xuân Phú shelter about compost and waste management when I realized the reaction on my students’ faces portrayed a deep confusion. I had tried to make the material we were covering as accessible as possible but language was a difficult barrier to overcome.

Fortunately, within the next few lectures I picked up a technique: ask the students to find the word for me. Chi Dung, my boss, defuses the situation through questions. “Các em, cái nài là cái gì?” Or “Hôm nay các em làm gì?”  (“Younger siblings, what is this?” or “Today, what did you do younger siblings?”)

Asking questions is great for another reason: it gives the students a chance to participate. There is one boy in the class who always has the answers.

“What in manure can be harmful to human beings?” I asked on one occasion.

While most of the class maintained an air of silence, he replied most sensibly, “The smell.”

I almost fell over with laughter.

Mistakes have the property of providing comedic relief if we let them. This one student was unafraid to try. So, the next time I am in discomfort over finding the right words, I’m going to channel his charisma and try my best to get a laugh out of the experience.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Help Support FHF

For the past years, VASF has partnered with Friends of Hue to create a fellowship program that sponsors university students and young professionals to go and work with under-served communities in Hue, Vietnam. The great work that our fellows do is just a portion of FHF's overall mission.

FHF is committed to providing award-winning programs to the most underserved and under-resourced community in Vietnam. FHF provides education and empowerment to disadvantaged youths; mobilize schools and communities around public health initiatives to build healthy communities; enable businesses with pay-it-forward equipment capital loans and engage them in rebuilding communities through philanthropic services.

To date, FHF's integrated and holistic development services have impacted over 79,000 lives in the provision of sheltering and education to orphans/victims of social unrests, health services to people in rural areas, scholarships to disadvantaged students, health education/prevention to students in impoverished schools, job training and placement, and loans to struggling businesses.

Please join VASF in supporting FHF's mission by visiting their iFoundation page:

Composting Project

Dan Huynh, one of VASF's Fellows in 2012, has been in Hue educating and working with children at the FHF shelter on composting practices to address regional issues on waste management and as a solution to replace deplete soil due to flooding. This composting project will be replicated at other shelters in Hue. Please watch her work with our children here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Trials and Tribulation of Global Trade and Village Development

VASF Cultural Bridges Report by Rachael Carson

As a VASF Cultural Bridges Fellow, I spent approximately 3 months working on the ThriiveCapital Loans project and the Mending Communities Initiative (MCI) in Hue, Vietnam. Prior to the Bridges Fellowship, I spent 9 months working with the Friends of Hue Foundation as a Development Analyst on the ThriiveCapital Loan project, and following the Fellowship I began working as a staff member of the Friends of Hue Foundation. Although my formal VASF Fellowship timeline was from mid June through mid September, this report will describe my work experiences through October 2011.

My project proposal for the Bridges Fellowship was largely focused on working with the MCI project to establish an Artisan Center. As soon as I started my fellowship in June, the ThriiveCapital Loan project took priority due to the imminent opening of applications for the ThriiveCapital Loans. For the next month and a half, my time was largely spent on Thriive contributing to the Biannual Report, drafting the Operational Guide, rewriting the Thriive Loan Application, Marketing Message, Marketing Flyer, surveying potential charity goods recipients, and developing survey’s to 1.) Examine growth within business and 2.) Evaluate the effectiveness of the vocational training programs with the other VASF Fellow, Traci Pham. Due to my experience with Thriive, I was able to contribute feedback based on last year’s success and failures and provide a critical take on how to further improve these different components. It was extremely beneficial for me as a team member and for the project in general to have Traci, an experienced lawyer who can transfer professional skills such as consistency, streamlining and operational efficiency into our project’s at FHF.

The second half of my Fellowship focused on a different component than planned of the MCI project. FHF partnered with the CEO of Fashion 4 Freedom, Lanvy Nguyen, to develop, manufacture and export abroad high quality goods from Thriive businesses and Village Co-operatives based in Hue. Due to a host of reasons- such as Hue’s inhospitable climate and the conservative local government- the central region of Vietnam has fallen behind socioeconomically and missed out on all the manufacturing opportunities which have brought development to the other regions on the country. The political capital in the North and the fast paced international hub in the South have fostered an environment for international investment and development, while the central region has stayed stagnant and it’s small and medium enterprises and village co-operatives have felt the price.

An opportunity arose to provide promotional gift bags at the TEDx Sanjoaquin Conference, which was being organized by a Board member of FHF. LanVy Nguyen was invited to speak, organize and design the promotional gift bags at the TEDx Conference. This provided a great occasion to experiment wit the Village Co-ops and Thriive businesses to design and manufacture their products to test on an international market. So for the next month and half, I worked directly with LanVy through email and Skype to manage the product development and manufacturing of product’s for the TEDx Conference.

The original plan was to capitalize on our network of Hue Thriive businesses. We first approached Lin’s Tailor, one of our most developed Thriive businesses, and requested them to make a sample canvas bag. The owner was hesitant since he specializes in suit making and custom dress clothes orders. Then, we realized how difficult it would be to source the canvas material in Hue. Although this material is plentiful in Saigon and Hanoi, one of the many challenges of working in Hue is finding the right materials locally. The idea of this project is to promote all local businesses and local materials, so we moved on to another idea. While meeting with another Thriive business, a young lacquer artist who runs Then Studio, we discussed the idea of creating lacquer pins with a ‘techy’ theme for the participants of the TEDx Conference. We presented him with small j-peg images of a keyboard, computer mouse, floppy disc, clock, a hand and a bicycle. He worked with a carpenter to carve the images into thin wooden objects, then placed thin stickers on each pin to design the inside content, which was finally covered by a lacquer enamel, darkening the wood.

While working with Tuan, the lacquer artist, he showed us a bamboo pillow he designed with another one of the Thriive businesses, Bao La Village Bamboo Co-operative. This pillow sparked the idea to create bamboo promotional gift bags for the TEDx Conference. LanVy then designed a bag based on the bamboo pillow, but gave the team in Hue creative freedom to change whatever was logistically necessary. There turned out to be quite a few changes!

Working with Bao La became the most frustrating part of this project, yet taught me a tremendous amount about global trade and village development. We primarily worked with the designer of Bao La, Chu Hong, a 60 year old, High School graduate, with no formal design education, but who has carried Bao La Village to win prestigious awards at Handicraft Festivals all over the country and to the well-respected reputation Bao La has today.

After providing the design picture and describing in detail the best we could, the designer Chu Hong, seemed to understand the idea of the bag. We spent the next month driving the 20 km strip on the highway back and forth to Bao La village more times than I can remember. We set deadlines that were not met. We discussed fabric, bamboo weaving styles, dimensions and dealt with trials and tribulations of the harvest season. While being on a tight schedule and after many late deadlines, we learnt that the slow pace of work was due to a few reasons, but primarily the fact that the harvest season (September/October) takes priority over the work done at the bamboo co-op. All of the chairpersons, members and employees of Bao La Bamboo Co-op are farmers as well, and work in the bamboo co-op since due to the village tradition, extra source of income and can fill the time when the fields do not need to be attended to. Although Bao La was making strives and improvements to the bag we requested, we realized there was just not enough time to have 150 bags ready to be shipped to California by the beginning of November. We instead ordered 5 sample bags and moved on to Plan…C

We began working with a straw village 50 km outside of Hue as soon as we realized the bamboo bags would not be done in time. Straw bags are simple, cheap and easy to make. Yet similar to Bao La, all the co-op members were preoccupied with finishing the harvest and working on the fields before they could complete the order with the straw co-op. Tuan, the lacquer artist, then got referred to a family friend who sells straw bags at the largest market in Hue, Dong Ba. We approached the woman requesting an order of 100 straw bags (which she sourced from the straw village) within 1 week. Due to the short time period, we paid 12,000 VND per bag instead of 8,000 VND ($0.60 cents vs $0.40 cents) but received them right on time. We then sent the straw bags to another Thriive business, Minh Thi Printing, to have the TEDx San Joaquin logo be printed on the bags. Within another few days, we had the finished product!

Although the components of the MCI project are shifting based on the needs and situation on the ground, the philosophy behind the project stays the same; providing small and growing businesses with the knowledge and resources to produce high quality goods as well as expand their product line and clientele internationally. This project was a learning experience for the FHF staff and the small businesses and village co-operatives involved. The experience provided me with a thorough understanding of some of the operational obstacles that hold back village co-operatives with beautiful and easily marketable products: unmet deadlines, misunderstanding of a ‘finished’ product and lack of knowledge of the foreign market. In addition to the operational obstacles, the real trials and tribulations arise due to development and cultural issues such as heavily relaying on the harvest each year and the working culture which doesn’t stress taking creative risks, strict timelines, and thorough questioning when one doesn’t understand. Challenges aside, we managed to export a beautiful finished product to California in time to showcase the creative and well-crafted product’s Vietnam, and specifically Hue, has to offer the world.