Dana Giacobbi was the Montreal Chapter’s Professional Fellow in the fall of 2010. After an initial 4 months in Burkina Faso, Dana extended his stay by an additional 6 months before coming back to Montreal and taking on the role of chapter President.
What made you decide to work overseas with EWB as a Professional Fellow?
“At this juncture in my life, and starting with this placement, I hope to resolve the direction in which I am headed: will I use my engineering background to tackle development issues, or will I use the lens of human development to redefine what it means to be an engineer?”
I applied to be EWB Montreal’s Professional Fellow in February 2010. The above quote is taken from my application that year and is a truthful answer to what made me decide to apply.
What drove me towards Engineers Without Borders then was the failure of what I’d experienced in engineering thus far to reflect my most important values. I was looking for the best way to serve human development as an engineer, and, with its culture of asking tough questions, EWB proved to be the most effective space to search for the answer (even if I was soon disappointed to realize that applying my technical knowledge of fluid-structure-interactions in Africa was unfortunately not it).
My going to Burkina Faso was the culmination of that search – the end of the beginning, so to speak. I went to find out first-hand what it meant to work in development, to apply engineering thinking to human issues and to find out what that really meant for me personally. Through my placement, I did resolve the direction in which I was headed.
How would you describe your placement in one word?
Valuable. While I was overseas, I often thought about this question. Every returned volunteer dreads it: “How was your placement?” … I mean, how do you answer that? So I came up with a one-word answer that I felt truly described what I felt.
Valuable, because I believe the work we’re doing is extremely important. The systems we impact in Africa, the understanding we bring back to Canada – I believe these have the potential to be game-changers. Disruptions in the system that put the power to create change in the hands of those people who need it most, shifts that break paradigms of aid and charity and move us towards those of local leadership and empowerment, transformations that create a more just world with greater opportunity for everyone.
Valuable for me, for my own personal development – I learned a great deal about myself, about the questions I was asking, about life, about different perspectives, about working in challenging environments, about human development, about developing my strengths, about leadership, about looking up to amazing people fighting for what they believe in, about being true to my passions, beliefs and values, about justice, about having a vision for myself and for the world… It’s not that you do something like this to “find yourself.” It’s more that I did it to start becoming who I was meant to be.
… Sorry, that wasn’t one word.
So, three years after that juncture, what is the direction you’ve taken? How has your placement changed your course? What’s the result of all this?
As I’ve said, my placement in Burkina Faso was incredibly valuable to me. It had a profound impact on how I see the world and my role within it. However, it also made me realize that my own place was not in Burkina. I spent months speaking with Burkinabes my own age about how their fate was within their own hands, how it was up to them to become change agents in their own system, to lead what they most cared about, to make their own country move forward towards their collective vision.
It turns out that I believe what I told them. What I’m passionate about is creating change here, around myself, in my own profession and in my own society. Change in the way we do things in Canada, but whose impact and implications are global. Right now, I don’t believe engineering industry in Canada is addressing the world’s most important problems, but I think it could. I don’t think we’re optimizing for the right solutions – efficiency which we waste, growth for growth’s sake, instead of sustainability and a thriving society. I believe we should.
After living in what seemed like a different world for a year, I’ve come to realize two things. The first is that, actually, it’s not a different world: human development is not just an African thing, or an Asian thing, or a Canadian thing – it’s a human thing, and it’s everybody’s thing. We’re a part of it, whether we want to be or not, and the question is just whether to be a participant or a protagonist. So which will it be? I want to be a protagonist.
The second realization came much later – a few weeks ago, in fact – but regarding a change in perspective that probably occurred much earlier, sometime while I was still in Burkina. T. S. Elliot said “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” When you see the world through a different lens, you realize that things do not need to be what they are right now – because in many places, they aren’t! Assumptions are made to be challenged. What others take for granted as “just the way things work” becomes “the way things work, for now.” Indeed, the changing of systems and societies becomes not only possible or desirable or even necessary, but inevitable.
Read more from Dana’s time in Burkina and the people who changed his life at http://danaburkina.wordpress.com