Burying Brother "I Can’t"

Claudia Liebler


Editor’s Note: In the article that follows, readers will find an account of a unique start-up activity carried out by participants in a workshop designed and facilitated by Claudia Liebler, project director of the GEM Initiative, and Gregory Roche, education program specialist with Peace Corps/South Africa.


What are some ways we can support the government and people of South Africa in transforming their educational system and overcoming the legacy of apartheid, particularly the effects of Bantu education? That was the issue facing the Peace Corps program in South Africa when it asked the GEM Initiative to conduct a workshop on assets-based, appreciative, participatory approaches to change. One critical task for the country is to reestablish a culture of learning, teaching, and service in the historically underserved rural and township schools. For parents, teachers, and students to take up the positive role they must play in today’s South Africa will require a massive and sustained uplifting of students and teachers. It was hoped that Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approaches could offer some compelling ways to meet those challenges head on.

Peace Corps/South Africa hoped to gain a number of benefits from the AI workshop. For the primary target group—school staff and community members, and the Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) with whom they worked—two major goals were identified. The first was to share the Appreciative Inquiry approach so that principals, teachers, community members, and PCVs could use it to build/empower schools with an active and vibrant culture of learning, teaching, and service. The second goal was to create stronger partnerships among those with a role to play in transforming schools.

Recognizing the importance of solid partnerships within a school and between a school and its surrounding community, Peace Corps volunteers were asked to mobilize teams encompassing a broad range of actors. The "ideal" team was defined as a PCV and at least one principal, one teacher, one community member, and one student representative; in reality, however, team composition varied. Because the school term was just beginning when the workshop took place, only one team was able to recruit a student representative. One team included several school principals, another several teachers. And two teams were made up entirely of host-country participants. Despite the varied composition of the teams, or indeed perhaps because of it, the workshop activities generated a number of positive discussions. Differing viewpoints and opinions were shared to the benefit of all.

A highlight of the four-day workshop was an activity that participants led themselves. Carrying out a practice established on the first day of the workshop, each team signed up to begin a morning or afternoon session in a creative way that the team would plan on its own. To open a session designed to share and celebrate the dreams created by each team, the start-up team chose to conduct an activity adapted from the book, One Hundred Ways to Improve Self-Concept in the Classroom.

Passing out sheets of paper, the start-up team asked participants to write as many sentences as possible enumerating things that could prevent them from reaching their dreams. [I can’t organize teachers’ meetings because I’m afraid no one will show up. I can’t improve my school because we are overcrowded. And so on.] After participants had written for a few minutes, the team asked people to share one or two such sentences with the entire group. After everyone had a chance to speak, the team passed around a small box into which participants placed their papers. Inviting everyone to go outside and gather around a previously dug hole, the team placed the box in the hole. While the box was being covered with dirt, a team member read the eulogy:

Friends, we are gathered here this morning to bury the memory of I Can’t. I Can’t was with us for a long time, and he was especially present when things were difficult. He affected the way we did things, the way we lived, and the way we worked. It is not easy to let go of I Can’t, but it is time for us to move on. I Can’t is survived by his brothers, I Can and I Will, and by his sister, I’m Doing It Right Now. Although his siblings are not as well known, we hope they will become more important as time goes on. Today, we lay I Can’t to rest. Let us all try to get on with our lives without him. Amen.

This activity elicited a powerful reaction, one enabling participants to design and plan to implement their dreams with a marked sense of commitment and resolve and that demonstrated to everyone the creative spirit and talents inherent within the group.