Friday, February 29, 2008

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cultural Note 3: never underestimate the artists behind posters and calendars

Living in a culture of mass production, it is easy to underestimate the creativity and talent that is behind the products we buy. There is not better example of this that the super wide variety of posters and calendars we find in bookstores or local shops. We don't think much about the artists behind, not until you visit the Museum of Posters in a lovely area of Warsaw called Wilanow. Polish artists have taken the quality of artistry behind posters and calendars to the next level.

I had a couple of hours between meetings to visit the Museum of Posters. At the beginning, I was a bit reluctant to go, didn't think it was very interesting, not very appealing. Once again, ignorance is our worst enemy. The Museum, although small, is an amazing display of the quality of artists that this society produces. I won't think about the art quality behind posters and calendars in the same way.

When you visit countries while doing research it is easy to forget how important and necessary is that cultural immersion. You learn about societies in a different way, not better not worst, simply in a different way since there is no much chance to spend hours in museums, cafes, and architectural tours. But we shouldn't forget that through history, urban design, and food many aspects and qualities of societies surface... this is just as important for our work as our endless meetings.

If you come to Warsaw, definitely visit this museum if you have the chance

e-skills and employability | An integrated approach is the way to go

Regardless of the target group, something is becoming very clear to me: NGOs working on e-skills and employability programs need to design integrated approaches that help their beneficiaries from A to Z in the employment path. Ad hoc programs that only tackle A or Z of this path are not as suitable for increasing employment opportunities for marginalized groups, regardless of the type of group and regardless of socio-economic context. I know that for many of us this is not new, but I still think that is valuable to remind ourselves and others of the importance of an integrated approach. It is not an easy approach, but it is possible.

From my experience in other research and from all the things I learned from the Foundation's work, I believe there are three building blocks that are crucial in employability programs:
  1. Training programs and workshops | to provide the tools that allow people to literally do their job.
  2. Employment services | to provide the links between employer and employee or between beneficiaries and credit and government institutions in case of entrepreneurial programs
  3. Counseling services | to provide career and legal advice to beneficiaries. One of the most innovative aspects of the Foundation's work on this front is the provision of legal advice to educate disabled people about their rights related to the labor market and otherwise.
I am not suggesting that "all" the e-skills and employability programs must have these components in order to succeed since context and locality matters. The government disposition, the business culture, social and economic factors are all necessary conditions that must be taken into account for designing these type of programs. However, I can't underscore enough the importance of an integrated approach that tackles different aspects of the employability path. This is definitely the way to go.

On the importance of education in employability programs | Lessons from EdukON online

Many of the organizations working on e-skills programs, offer different types of training: official certified programs such as ECDL, NGO certified programs such as Digital Literacy or the UP Curriculum, to name a few. However, few of them have training programs for professional development that reengage target populations with education and those who provide this link often simply connect beneficiaries with some classes in Community Colleges or Vocational Institutes. In the United States, some NGOs offer this type link.

What is missing, are programs that re-engage individuals not marginally but fully in the educational path for vocational degree for example, or even for a University degree. Although not an expert here, the reasons seem obvious. On the one hand, it is expensive and difficult for NGOs to co-create programs that have the stamped of academic institutions, but offer "specialized" training or are adequate for groups such disabled or senior citizens. On the other hand, people feel intimidated by the idea of attending for the first time or returning to a brick and mortar institution. One must remember that in many countries, this is definitely the case in Poland, these institutions failed to offer this "specialized" educational opportunity for disabled people in the first place.

It is difficult, but not impossible! The experience of the Foundation Supporting Physically Disabled Matemathicians and IT Specialists may have some relevant lessons that other NGOs interested in providing this link can use for their own programs.

As part of the program funded by the European Structural Funds (EFS), the Foundation is developing together with four partners an e-learning platform: EdukON online. Through this project, 10 educational packages were created using ICT as the platform to deliver the training and integrating some face to face training as well (blended method). As part of this educational package, the Foundation will offer vocational training for disabled people, and the opportunity to earn a two-year University degree in Graphic Design.

Patrycja ┼╗ytkowska, the program coordinator, explained that this program is very important for disabled people because graphic design is a career you can pursuit regardless of the physical limitations one may have. Embedded within this program is the constant motivation for disabled people to be active, to increase their self-esteem. It is a form of "critical pedagogy". The program will be implemented soon and I look forward to see what lessons we can learn from it. It is definitely very innovative.

Personal motivation | key ingredient for employment

During our interviews with trainees and trainers, something became really clear: Personal motivation is a key ingredient in the employability equation. The key for organizations like the Foundation is to help people find that motivation or incentive those to exploit it more when already present. I must admit that I never worked on a research project before involving disabled people and the Foundation, its staff, and beneficiaries really educated me about their potential, their needs, and their professional and personal goals. Ignorance is definitely our worst enemy.

Many of the trainees we interviewed during this field research had something in common: They all had a career and professional life before they got sick and felt into the poverty and activelessness track. Danuta was a teacher in primary school, before she felt ill 17 years ago with an extreme form of rheumatism that caused her to loose her job. As she bluntly put it: "They [the government] scratch me from the teaching profession for life. For them, I had no place in schools despite all my experience and dedication". Maciej (not actual name), another trainer and former trainee, was an art curator that felt sick and also lost his job. "I even tried to learn some ICT programs that could help me stay in my job, but to no avail". Another lady, was a classical musician. And the stories go on and on.

The motivation of people that previously had an active and professional life is very different from those that have been living under the "culture of unemployment" for a long time, if not all their lives. NGOs need to recognize this important difference and exploit the motivation of the former, and incentive that of the latter group of people. This is a subtle but an important difference that must be taken into account when designing training and professional programs for disabled groups, and for other groups as well.

If the Foundation wants to know if it is succeeding in changing perceptions in society about disabled people, they definitely changed mine, they definitely educated me all right!

Changing perceptions from within | the beneficiaries are your best promotion campaign

Changing perceptions of disabled people in relation to the labor market in society is not an easy task. From the NGO perspective, it requires an integrated approach that targets simultaneously employers, the government, and people with disabilities themselves. The Foundation Supporting Physically Disabled Mathematicians and IT specialists does this in a very innovative way, promoting the "professionalism" of disabled people in different fronts.

On the employers front, the Foundation actively engages in awareness campaigns to educate companies about the benefits from hiring qualified employees pointing out that their disability is not an impediment to perform in stressful environments and to have professional responsibilities. As I discussed in my previous post, a there is a misconception among business circles about the type of jobs that people with disabilities can do; the Foundation is active in changing these misconceptions. For employability programs that target this group, it is not enough to recruit employers as possible sources of jobs for disabled people (which by the way, the Foundation also does), it is necessary to change the perception of the types of jobs they can do. As of the trainees explained, "I don't want any job, I want a challenging and rewarding one"

On the disabled people front, the Foundation promotes among the beneficiaries a culture of professionalism and "active minds" as one of the counselors described it. For them, the best promotion campaign is getting people employed in positions that were outside their boundaries because of the misconception explained above. For many disabled people, specially older generations, it is not uncommon to think that they don't have the right to work. The Foundation needs to constantly remind people about this right! The training programs they have are challenging and thorough (the ECDL training is 140 hours long) and embedded within them is the value of professionalism and the latent option of having a "normal" job. I believe this is very innovative and a good lesson for other NGOs working with disabled groups.

As one of the trainees clearly stated, "I don't want special training or special treatment, I want specialized training. One that allows me to constantly challenge myself. One that incentives me to want to get to the next level. I don't want to feel "special" I want to feel specialized".

The Foundation is taking this to the next level. Once the new network of e-Centrum (distance learning community technology centers) and the regional offices open, the Foundation will open their doors to the general population. Among its most experienced trainers, the Foundation will have people with disabilities training people without... what a best way to fight the misperceptions of what disabled people can achieve.

Defying a cultural perception | disabled people in the labor market

One of the most interesting topics that kept surfing in almost all conversations we had, is the perception of society about disabled people. In Polish society, disabled people are not considered capable of having an active and professional life. At the family level, they face a strange form of overprotection that heavily impacts negatively their self-esteem and feeds the perception of themselves as incapable of having an active life, professional or otherwise.

Danuta, one of the ICT trainers in the Foundation and a disabled person herself, explained to us that some disabled people still believe today that they are not entitled to work. This "culture of unemployment" is specially present among older people because for most of their lives they were not given the same opportunities in education and at work, even when they were perfectly capable doing it. Among younger generations this is changing. Today, there are more people with disabilities attending four-degree colleges, working in companies, but cultures are slow to change, there is still a lot to do

In the labor market, there is a slowly changing business culture that prevents employers from considering hiring disabled people for career-path jobs because of the perception that they can only perform certain type of tasks, certain type of jobs. This often leads businesses to offer them only low-skilled, low-paid jobs that are not rewarding and without a professional path.

But things are changing, and some people are making these changes possible however small they are.

Setting the context | Transformation of the economy and labor market in Poland

First is first. In order to engage in any discussion about e-skills and employability, it is necessary to understand the basic context of the Polish economy in the last twenty years and the effects of those changes in the labor market. I am not claiming to be an economic historian! The discussion of these changes is simply the product of some basic research and the interviews we had with the NGO staff, trainees, and private sector reps.

Three transformations are crucial to understand the role of e-skills in the labor market in Poland: 1) The shrinking of the industrial and agricultural sectors in relation to GDP accompanied with a rapid growth of the services sector reaching 65% of the GDP in 2006*; 2) A decrease in the unemployment rate that started together with the accession to the EU (estimated at 14% compared to 20% in 2003). This decrease is also the result of a big migration of Polish qualified workers to other EU countries and 3) A swift of bargaining power from the employer to the employee.

In relation to e-inclusion programs targeting employment for disabled people all these transformations are incredibly relevant. The increase in the service sector generates an array of job positions that are highly suitable for people with physical disabilities since they don't require people to be physically present in an office (i.e. telework, web design, data bases programming, etc.)

Qualified employees are in such in demand in this country that employers are almost forced to offer good salaries and benefits to attract valuable human resources to their companies and this includes people with or without disabilities. Although as my next post will explain, this is far from perfect since there still exists in the business culture a pervasive prejudice against people with disabilities, the business environment is changing and with it so the misconceived perception of what a disabled person can achieve professionally.

As with all transformations, there are factors that affect possibly and negatively the labor market, but in general there seems to be a momentum to increase the participation of disabled people in the workforce.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cultural Note 2: On architecture as a symbol of power

Meet Stalin's lost daughter. A grandiose, magnanimous, visually intimidating structure located strategically in Warsaw's City Center and in front of the main train station. The grandiosity of the building had a very powerful symbolic purpose: remind the Polish people during communist times "we are big, we are powerful, and we are here to stay" as my friend Pawel elegantly put it.

He told me that Stalin ordered the construction of 7 identical buildings of this kind in Moscow, and probably with the same symbolic connotations. These buildings are known as the 7 daughters of Stalin. . There are daughters of Stalin in every major city that were part of the Soviet Union or its circles of influence. In Warsaw, the locals call it "The Lost Daughter of Stalin"

I bet your Lonely Planet Guide didn't offer this information! The value of sight seeing with the locals

e-inclusion and disabled people in Poland | the work of the Foundation FPMiNR

During the last day and a half, I had the opportunity to visit the Foundation Supporting Physically Disabled Mathematicians and IT specialists. The organization's main mission is to foster professional and social development of people with physical disabilities. Currently, the Foundation has 2 operational CTCs in Warsaw and plan to expand their network to 40 regional rural centers around the country. As posted before, the Foundation, in partnership with other entities (MIcrosoft, ECORYS, Ministry of Education, etc.) received resources from the European Structural Fund to set up 340 e-Centrum in rural areas of the country

As it name suggests, the Foundation was created in 1990 as an initiative of the Polish Academy of Science to improve the technical IT knowledge of scientists with disabilities. One must remember that in the early 90's personal computers were prohibitively expensive and the goal was to provide the computers for the scientists. As the initiative mature, the Foundation realized that the demand in the labor market for scientists was quite high and decided to broaden the scope of the program to reach the general disabled people population.

Today, the Foundation offers a very interesting comprehensive approach to employability offering counseling (psychological and legal), employment services (Internet job search, link to employers, etc.), and training and workshops (from basic to advanced ICT skills, SMEs, soft skills, to name a few).

During the field visit to the Foundation, we interviewed the director, 1 chief program coordinator, 1 program manager, two counselors, two trainers, 5 individual trainees, and conducted a group interview with 14 trainees during an ECDL training session. Tomorrow we will have the opportunity to participate in a workshop with the Foundation staff where they will discuss different strategies to improve the employability of its beneficiaries. It is going to be quite an interesting experience.

Everybody that we interviewed during the visits were amazingly kind to us and shared so many interesting insights that it is almost impossible to write it in one post. A series of posts between today and tomorrow will follow addressing some of the most interesting insights from our discussions. The richness of these conversations made the last two days unforgettable

A big Dziekuje (thank you) to all the people that despite busy schedules and family commitments were kind enough to spend time sharing their knowledge, sharing their stories.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The role of the private sector in e-inclusion initiatives | Microsoft UP CTSP program in Poland

The work day started at 10:00 AM in Microsoft meeting with Joanna and Justyna from Community Affairs. It was a very productive meeting where we discussed the achievements, challenges, and future plans for the UP Community Technology Skills Programs in the country. The new partnership with the Foundation Supporting Physically Disabled Mathematicians and IT Specialists will allow the UP CTSP program to have, for the first time, a truly national reach. The Foundation, together with other social partners, plans to open 340 e-Centrum covering all regions by June 2008.

Discussing the relationship between e-skills and employment, both pointed out that improving people's IT skills is only one step of many needed in the path towards employment. They explained the way in which the "culture of unemployment" hampers in many cases the willingness of people to improve their skills and find jobs. More so when the jobs available for low-skilled workers offer 20% more income than what they receive from collecting unemployment.

On human capital, Joanna mentioned the importance of having a CAM working 100% on the UP program. As a marketing manager as her primary role, Joanna was only able to assigned a limited percentage of her work to manage the community affairs program. She strongly believed that the program needed somebody committed full time in order to build solid relations with the grantees and make the program more relevant for the communities they target. 6 months ago she got an additional head count to hire a community affairs manager, Justyna, devoted full time to citizenship programs.

We continue our discussion during lunch and I must say, there is something about talking business and sharing a meal that makes the process very productive and definitely more enjoyable (may be my Mexican genes are talking here)

After lunch, Pawel and I went to the Foundation and visit one of its CTCs where we observed an ECDL training for physically disabled people. More on what we learned tomorrow

Cultural Note 1: on the multiple meanings of symbols to describe gender in bathrooms

Symbol for Men's bathroom

Symbol for Women's bathroom

Don't ask me why! I was to embarrassed to ask for explanation of symbol after I discovered the gender of the geometrical figures myself when opening the wrong door.

Something about the triangle been more feminine, I guess (my feminist friends are going to kill me for this comment)

My first night in Warsaw | Polish dinner + a walk around Old Town

I finally arrived in Warsaw on Sunday at 7:00 PM after 3 hours of delay in Heathrow. The city was very quite , it almost looked like a ghost town... no cars, no people, no nothing except a straight black cat.

This is my first visit to a former communist country and the architectural scene is quite powerful. A strong reminder of the legacy of communist public housing... homogeneous, squared, grey, and some of the buildings, in daunting decay. Few minutes later, I
experienced the "modern" Warsaw. Shopping malls, highrises, and a faster-growing culture of consumption that visually clashes with the soviet fingerprint.

Although young compared to other cities in Poland, Warsaw has a rich and very symbolic history. It was in this city in 1791 where the first constitution in Europe was signed (second in the world after the US). It was in this city where a powerful social resistance movement paved the way for the Ghetto Jewish uprising in 1943 and for the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. It was in this city where many of the historical buildings destroyed during WWII were rebuilt exactly as they looked before using Canalleto's paintings to replicate the design.

My friend and interpreter Pawel took me for tasty Polish dinner and sigh seeing to Old Town. It is hard to believe than 1945, there were only a couple of buildings and a mountain of rubble standing in this very same location. The place is amazingly beautiful with a combo of Renaissance, Gothic and touches of something else making the scene mesmerizing. Polish dinner was very tasty and very meaty and very lemon vodki... thankfully we walked for a long time after this plentiful meal so I was able to burn some calories and sweat must of the lemon vodka.

We talk about the plans for this week's work... a lot of interesting work ahead

Friday, February 22, 2008

The journey begins tomorrow

I am leaving Seattle tomorrow for the Republic of Poland

I am excited, psyched, thrilled, nervous, anxious... a whole array of emotions going on right now.

I arrive in Warsaw at 5:00 PM on Sunday and have few hours to walk around the city and have some dinner with Pawel, my friend and interpreter. He works with the Responsible Business Institute, a social enterprise that collaborates with other organizations in Podlasie to bring e-skills training to rural communities of this region.

My work starts on Monday in Warsaw visiting the Foundation for helping Physically Disabled Mathematicians and Computer Scientists. This organization provides professional and social rehabilitation to physically disabled people and offers, as part of its services, basic and advanced e-skills training to prepare them for the demands of today's labor market.