Interview with Diana Engel Gerbase, AC4 Fellow, 2015 Cohort
Diana Engel Gerbase, one the 2015-2016 AC4 Graduate Fellows, is a social entrepreneur, currently in her second-year of the masters program in Public Administration at the School of International & Public Affairs. She has a concentration in Urban and Social Policy and a specialization in Management. For her AC4 sponsored project, she travelled to Brazil, her home country, this past summer and is working on the development of civic education there.
How did you get interested in the field of civic education?
I’ve always felt very linked to civic engagement– I think it’s from my family! Both my parents are very entrepreneurial. My father started his own company and my mother worked as a professor in a federal university, and both are very concerned with public issues. My grandparents as well were very active civically, being engaged in their communities and in public matters. I grew up being taught that our decisions and attitudes matter and that we must get involved. I think it was this background that called my attention to the fact that, in order for democracy to work, you have to be involved and informed, you have to be proactive.
I was also very fortunate to travel quite a bit from a very young age with my family and it always called my attention how the quality of public services was higher in developed countries and the role that the citizens had in that. In certain countries in Europe and North America, people seemed to take better care of what was public and understood this concept in a very different way than in Brazil.
In school, I’ve always liked history and social sciences in general and for my senior year in high school, I came to study in the US. There I took classes in Government & Law (which was a mandatory 1-year course), Current Events, Mock Trial (where you learned how to judicial system worked), etc. I was amazed at how Americans learned in school about the institutional and political systems of their country; that was something that I had always missed in Brazil. It was preparing young people and giving them the tools to be citizens and exercise their power and influence public debate.
Today, Brazil’s school system still does not have a solid and mandatory discipline in civic education for democracy. We had a very bad experience during the military dictatorship when this discipline was established in a very biased way to foster support for the regime. Unfortunately, this left even the term “civic education” extremely tainted in the country. The enormous majority of the youth leaves high school without understanding how democracy functions in Brazil, including: the relationships between institutions and the divisions of power, what buttons they can push to urge a change and how to better express their views to the elected officials and continuously push for reform, not just every four years.
I always had in my mind the thought that something needed to be done about this. After the initial years of my career, I decided that I wanted to dedicate myself to this issue. Everything came together when I decided to apply to SIPA and to use my degree as an opportunity to develop the idea of bringing quality, democratic and scalable civic education to schools in Brazil. I’m very pleased with the decision. The road has been great so far!
What motivated you to apply for the AC4 Fellowship?
I think that when you are starting a new venture finding the right partners for this specific stage is key. The AC4 Fellowship seemed right for me for many reasons. First, it is always extremely valuable to be part of a network of individuals who are conducting similar initiatives and with which you can exchange insights, learnings, etc. Even more than that, it is extremely good to know that you are not alone! It gives you more confidence to go ahead. Second, AC4’s support is amazing and helps give it visibility to our work. Being associated with a renowned and serious institution when you are starting your own research also helps you build legitimacy for future steps. Finally, I can’t not mention the financial support. The areas for which we do research and implement initiatives tend to present results in the long term (for their inherent characteristics) and that means that sometimes it’s hard to find funding. I am extremely glad that AC4 understands this and created this fellowship.
What were the biggest challenges in applying to AC4‘s Fellowship?
I think developing a case for support for something that involves many complex social variables and that takes a while to produce its impact can be quite challenging. You need to be able to clearly communicate what you are doing, why it was important and show relevant data and arguments.
AC4‘s focus on cooperation and conflict is complex. My case is very long term and there are many variables involved, but I think I was able to show how they are connected. Having civic education in schools is critical for variables such as increased engagement and civic knowledge and awareness. These, for their turn, have a big impact in strengthening a democracy’s institutional infrastructure. A democracy that works is, among other things, one that helps to prevent all sorts of violence, and civic engagement is needed to build this democracy.
Your proposed your project as a pilot for a long-term program. Please tell me more about the process involved in conducting your pilot. Did any unexpected things happen?
I think the most important thing in conducting a pilot is being able to define a scope that is manageable and that, at the same time, includes the activities that are critical to occur for the future development of the organization. Balancing these things is key.
In terms of unexpected things, yes, it always happens. You have to be flexible and open for adaptations on the ground. One example is that I ended up working with five different groups of students, while I had initially planned to work with only one when I applied for the fellowship. We also had to continuously adapt the activities planned in order to be in tandem with the students’ rhythm. In addition a significant amount of time was consumed in the governance and management of the project and I had to bring in another volunteer to help with some of the activities.
One thing I did to mitigate too many changes was to take a risk and go to Brazil in March. I went before I had funding secure, to visit the schools and to talk with teachers there and explain my project. I think planning ahead while being open to changes are very important things while conducting something new.
Let’s talk about the impact of your project. In your reflection “Promoting Active Citizenship in Brazil” you talk explain the tools you used for learning and evaluation. Tell us more about this process.
I had it very clear in my mind that the most important thing from this project for the future of the organization was the learnings that we were going to have from it. Given that, I tried to measure and register everything that we could for further analysis.
I used both pre and post questionnaires covering socio-economic information, civic knowledge, skills, attitudes and behavior, as well as interviews with the teachers, and satisfactions questionnaires and focus groups with the students.
I think what was most gratifying though was to see the satisfaction in their faces and how both students and teachers took charge of the program and made something theirs. We had great feedback from the students and we could see that many of them felt more empowered, connected to each other and the school, and willing to further engage in activities that would improve their surroundings. They seemed to have a better grasp of why it is important to pay attention to what people call simply “politics” and what that has to do with them.
In spite of the challenges, at the end, the students and all of us were very emotional. The school director and teachers gave compliments, such as “We had always wanted to do something like that but we don’t have the time or resources.”
The greatest success was that the teachers decided to continue the activities by themselves and expand it to the whole semester. In December, students had a presentation and now we are in the final arrangements, which include delivering a prize to the best performing group of students.
I now have a HUGE amount of data to analyze and I hope to present it at the AC4 conference and will certainly use them to inform my next steps.
How has this deeper understanding from your fieldwork impacted your next steps for Praxis, the long term program and enterprise you are on your way to developing?
In general, I think I have a much better grasp about how things happen on the ground and clearer vision of the challenges ahead. Giving some concrete examples, in terms of developing the organization, I intend to dedicate a larger amount of time during the startup phase for needs assessments. Another example is that I know much better now what works and what doesn’t work in terms of methodology with the students and within the school context.
The most important aspect of the pilot in this sense, though, was that it confirmed my hypothesis that the need and the desire for civic education is real and that the transformation that we can create is a major one. This will certainly help me with the next round of fundraising and I hope we can keep on growing.
What advice or general pointers do you have for fellow students applying for the AC4 Graduate Student Fellowship or wanting to do original research?
First, make sure you enjoy what you are doing. We tend not to be resilient enough for the tough times if we don’t find pleasure in what we are building. Second, define a scope that you can actually handle. Finally, learn to communicate to various audiences, participants, or potential partners. You need this if you want to show them the importance of your work and make your initiatives grow.
Photos taken and provided by Diana Engel Gerbase, from her AC4 sponsored fieldwork in Brazil, summer 2015.