“It’s a serious business being a clown,” says Franchie the Clown.
He wasn’t joking. He had spent months in Afghanistan attempting to bring smiles and hope to a part of the world affected by violence and strife through free performances as a professional clown, a mission encompassed by the larger humanitarian organization known as Clowns Without Borders.
His first piece of advice? “Never stay in a hotel in Kabul.” He wasn’t talking about a terrible check-in experience or a messy room with dirty towels in a region deprived of free, travel-sized soap. He was referring to the Taliban. “I heard explosions in the night, and I couldn’t help but think to myself every time as I tried to sleep if one of them was going to hit me.”
He must be crazy! Right? What in the world could ever motivate him to become a clown – a ridiculous choice by itself – and then go to Kabul? The answer is quite simple: he has a passion to be of service to others. He is not only a clown; he is a clown and a social justice advocate who brings psychological relief to communities in need.
It is this same passion that led Franchie the Clown, a.k.a. Bernard Amadei, to become the founder of Engineers Without Borders (USA). Just like clowns, he believed, engineers must hold the public welfare paramount, or above any other responsibility. The difference, however, is that engineers have the capacity to bring about tremendous physical change as well as a smile.
Amadei stressed that this world is not going to be improved through politics or charity. Peace is not going to happen if you don’t have water, energy, food, roads, shelter, etc. Prosperity will not perpetuate itself if you don’t give individuals the necessary tools and knowledge to become self-sustaining. The problem is that five billion people struggle to survive every day because they don’t have access to necessary infrastructure – sanitation, education, transportation, nutrition, health care. The problem is that there are borders without engineers.
If all the problems in the world were technical, however, we would have already solved them by now. There are many social problems tangled with the technical problems mentioned above, so engineers that are capable of coupling their technical expertise with the ability to interact, connect and collaborate with people from different cultures are the ones who will pioneer the movement of massive global change. These people are not just engineers. They are engineers without borders.
As you might have guessed, this is where Engineers Without Borders comes in! When he visited our campus to have a conversation with the Engineers Without Borders – USC Chapter, Amadei reiterated the mission of our organization and gave new flame to our shared passion. In EWB, we strongly believe engineering is the driving force behind international development because it offers empowerment, not just improvement, as we develop technology alongside the people who will benefit from it. We use engineering as a tool for the well being of a community so it can become self-sustaining. We never forget that our purpose is not only to complete a project, but more importantly, to create a better living experience for people around the world and ultimately satisfy the essential conditions to foster peace.
This is not easy. Amadei told us a story about the time he spent with a community in Mauritania that needed electricity to light up their homes. After managing to bring seven solar panels for installment, Amadei spent 4 days convincing a dictator not to use two of of them for his personal satellite dish so that more people might benefit from this new source of energy.
While the task at hand might be messy, tricky and unscripted, the effect always makes the hardship and effort worth it. In Belize, a team of EWB members figured out that girls would be able to go to school by simply building a water pump. So they built it. The consequence isn’t simply opening access to a nearer water source, but rather, it is allowing children to receive an education. This is how EWB can change the world.
It isn’t only a one-way street of influence, however. On the contrary: EWB changes you more than you could imagine! International development is an opportunity for exposure to different ways of thinking in all areas and to foreign traditions and cultures. “You don’t have everything figured out,” says Amadei. “Do you know how to grow potatoes and raise chickens? I didn’t think so. Be humble and learn to listen.” When a team arrived in Mali to start working on a project, they wanted to get straight to it, but the locals replied: “Work? We haven’t even seen you dance! Until we learn how to sweat and dance together, we cannot work together. First dance, then we can talk.”
This environment that forces you to adapt and reevaluate your presumptions and social constructions allows for tremendous personal growth. These situations will make you work hard, fail, and learn important lessons. You will be built into a leader who knows how to work in a team, interact with complex cultures and deal with limited resources. And while you do this, you will learn a foreign language and be forged into a global citizen who understands the social problems in the world today. “Who wouldn’t want to hire you?,” challenges Amadei. “EWB guarantees that your experience will change you or your money back.”*
While this message is certainly very powerful, attractive and inspiring, I believe that there is more to it than changing yourself as you change the world. To those of us who have chosen to study or practice engineering, we often tell ourselves that we can’t go wrong being engineers. But why is it so? Is it success and financial stability that we feel we deserve? Is it reverence and prestige that accompanies the title? I don’t think so.
I would like to modify that statement: we can’t go wrong being good engineers. This distinction is immensely important. It is not enough to be a technical expert who can secure a job; we must also be bold and compassionate so that we may bring about the change that only engineers can. We can’t go wrong because we are the only ones with the necessary tools to physically alter society and its organisational structures in order to bring about social change.
The best school for this is not a classroom – it is life, so you have to put yourself out there, travel, explore and adventure, in order to discover how you can make the world a better place. After all, like Amadei says, “There’s a lot of beautiful people in the planet that you need to meet.”
So be a good engineer. Or a clown.
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