Can we get into VIP?
If you’re at an event like Botswana’s Desert Race, you might think that saying this means we’re trying to get over on event planners. Admittedly, in a way, we were But, we weren’t doing it to enjoy the event’s talent, or to enjoy the good life. We had essential research to conduct.
We needed people, pictures, and stories about the event and getting into the VIP area offered the space to learn about who — and how — it was designed. However, gaining access didn’t require a PhD, or hundreds of dollars. What we needed was to be a decent human being.
Let’s find out how.
Botswana is in the throes of an entrepreneurship revolution.
A strong cadre of entrepreneurs in data, culture, networking, airfare, and a litany of other sector opportunities are working tirelessly to shape Botswana’s next generation. A week before the Desert Race, I helped to facilitate the country’s first Policy Hackathon, where over 100 people brainstormed, deliberated and pitched their own spaces to spread entrepreneurship.
However, a few of those entrepreneurs are asking one of the most important questions: who gets to take part in the revolution?
In early June, I partnered with the social entrepreneurship agency, 750ML, to develop an entrepreneurship workshop for the communities in Phikwe, an ex-mining town four hours north of the capital city of Gaborone. The group has been partnering with local grassroots organizations for months after the mine closed down in 2016 and its citizens are struggling to find a way forward. So, the event — The Change Room — offers opportunities to offer resources, strategy, and community for new entrepreneurs.
To catalyze their activity, we made sure our event would run right before Phikwe’s biggest event: the 1000KM Desert Race. If we’ve done our job effectively, then the entrepreneurs can use a few of the tools we’ve developed to plan their next business. The Desert Race, supposedly, was the perfect catalyst.
Held since 1981, it’s the premier event of the South African Rally Cross Country Series. It’s been known as an event held at Jwaneng, Botswana’s most famous mining town, but they shifted the race to Phikwe to offer a new perspective, opportunities for the locals, and the like. Through this activity, we found a great opportunity: How does the Desert Race support local entrepreneurial activity?
We came to the event to ask, to observe, to learn. None of us had been to the event like this, so we knew the event has countless unknowns to uncover. Turns out, we found how important it would be to enter the VIP area, to learn about rider’s perspectives, experiences, and how the race was managed from the inside.
Turns out, running the Change Room was in our favor. When we wanted more access to the park, one of the people that attended happened to win a tender for security, and could get us VIP passes. Through months of preparation, and days of workshopping, turns out the relationships we built offered the slim opportunity to collect data from the inside.
He wasn’t even only one. Later in the day, when we needed food and water, we found another Change Room participant serving food to patrons; who gave us the food for free. I’m still picking out the seswaa from my teeth.
Sure, there were countless other preparations we needed to conduct good research.
- We developed a plan for analysis.
- We clarified our research goal.
- We documented everything we heard, saw, smelled and tasted,
But, kindness is what got us the data.
Did you know that my dissertation research almost fell apart?
Six days into a long-term design workshop, I was told by the event facilitators that I couldn’t do my research until I acquired a national permit and a second IRB accreditation. It cost me thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of miles of travel, and thirteen extra months before I was allowed to do the work. Once I started, I basically had to start the research from square one, and build new relationships to build my amended project. So, every single day, I cold-called, cold-met, and cold-emailed innovators across the country.
Did my research background, my tools, and my consent forms help when the chips were down? Of course, but not by themselves. What really made sure that my research didn’t fall apart?
Now, I don’t mean a demure and passive kindness. To keep my research alive, I used active, tenacious, active compassion. Every time I entered a space with people related to the innovation ecosystem, I had to do at least four things:
- remain transparent about what I needed,
- respectful of their time and expertise,
- make sure I added value to them in some way,
- and use their network to keep the process of data collection moving forward.
Of course, other skills are essential to make a cogent research project. I had to develop an effective question, to remain flexible and prepared in the field, to document every morsel of information, and remain vigilant for data gathering opportunities.
But, if traditional research skills built the ship, compassion fueled the journey.
In fact, my kindness continues to impact my relationships today. It was through the relationships I built that gave me the opportunity to facilitate the Policy Hackathon and Change Room you learned about above. Whether in research, in business, in government, or the nonprofit space, involving people to do great work requires you to learn more about how to remain actively kind.
Social change moves at the speed of trust.
Like the nerd I am, I saw the Desert Race research as a teaching opportunity.
As social researchers, we’re constantly thrust into situations we don’t fully comprehend. To be prepared, we need to be constantly searching for opportunities to gather data: numbers, stories, pictures, and the like. When you don’t know what you’re looking for, or where to go, one of the most important skills is constantly cultivating trust.
Some researchers believe that to do valid research, you must do everything you can to rid bias from the data you collect. By corollary, they believe researchers should be disconnected from the communities you aim to learn from.
However, that principle assumes that we understand, and want to control, what we’re looking for. The narrower our blinders, the more likely we’ll lose valuable opportunities to learn from the larger context.
Remember: descriptive and exploratory researchers are people, connecting with people. While conducting research in the field, remember to always keep this in mind:
How can I add value to the people I connect with?
Do this, and they’ll find ways to add value to yours.
Remember, kindness is not only a means to an end.
As a researcher, you have a cultural cachet that sets you apart. When you flash that badge, people understand you’re smart and educated, and that creates an allure of productive objectivity. Some might let you into VIP areas, others might view you as a privileged outsider, and still, others might view you as another exploiter of indigenous culture.
What is important to remember, is that the kindness you use to access that information gives you a power others lack. Through you, people expect a rigorous collection, prospecting, and communication of a truth. And, while collecting, analyzing, and communicating that data, your narrative officializes the story of the community you research. You have a responsibility to the people you’ve learned from; If you don’t use the story for ethical purposes, it’s very easy to disrespect the trust you’ve been afforded in the first place.
You’ve gotten this far by being kind. Don’t corrupt the kindness by being unethical.
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