Lena Delchad, World Traveler Giving a Voice to Others

As part of our monthly series featuring the work of our colleagues at SecondMuse, today we learn more about Engagement Manager Lena Delchad. Lena joined SecondMuse four years ago from the international development sector. At SecondMuse she has managed social innovation programs, with clients such as UNEP, Al Jazeera, World Bank, and the LAUNCH partnership with USAID, NASA, US Department of State and Nike.

  1. How do you cultivate civic engagement through your work?

By making space for people’s voices to be heard, to channel others’ strengths for the greater good. Whether I am facilitating a group in a process of co-learning, mentoring a refugee fleeing injustice or coaching teams through an innovation challenge, the principle question on my mind is how to give others a mouthpiece so that their positive qualities and incredible ideas are amplified.

Traditional development has a paternalistic world view of what civic participation means, divided into camps of “we” and “they.” While programs are well-meaning, they emphasize a false separateness that underlies the competitive landscape of the industry. Civic engagement as I understand it should be about cooperative learning, emphasizing self-esteem, self-reflection and participatory decision-making. I try to exercise those principles on a daily basis, at work and at home too!

2. You recently returned from an internet freedom field project in Tunisia. How has your background in urban planning, racial equality and democratic governance informed the work you’ve done in the Middle East?

In my urban development work we focused on immediate issues facing American cities like “how does my street get revitalized? How can my city council address struggles of race in my district? How do we engage newly arrived immigrants in the democratic process?” The questions communities in the Middle East — and the world over — ask are similar, but extenuating circumstances often mean the discourse is more about satisfying basic needs.

For instance, while working in post-invasion Iraq, we were rehabilitating bombed schools and hospitals, mobilizing workers for massive reconstruction projects and strengthening civil society. In another place I worked — Egypt — we were focused on empowering and delivering skills to journalists in a country where freedom of expression is scanty. The interesting thing about the MENA region is that you have both some of the world’s wealthiest people and the worst emerging humanitarian crises sandwiched side by side. These types of inequalities compel me forward even while the problems seem increasingly insurmountable.

3. You’ve lived in and travelled to over 40 countries and speak four languages — English, Arabic, Spanish and Farsi. Is social innovation a global phenomenon?

The medieval Arab explorer Ibn Battuta said “Traveling– it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” I couldn’t agree more. From what I’ve seen people innovate out of necessity. Innovation is just as likely to happen in a rural hamlet as it is in the corridors of Palo Alto, only in developing markets it is more likely to happen without funding or advanced education. Entrepreneurs around the world rely on creativity to escape poverty. We can learn so much about the creative process from them.

About the author: Davar Ardalan is the Director of Storytelling and Engagement at SecondMuse.

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