Saturday, April 24, 2010

Reflections on life as a social alchemist

It's sometimes odd to reflect that I have been planning events since way back in high school. It's quite a rollercoaster of a job, but somehow there's something magic in what can happen when you add structure to people interacting with each other. I think I am addicted to whatever that thing is. I have often described myself as a crazy social scientist who loves to experiment with human behavior. Tweaking social alchemy is a thing I'm good at.

In high school, I was the commissioner of activies and the homecoming committee chairman and the graduation ceremony organizer. What a lot of thankless work, but I fell in love with social alchemy even then. In college I organized a group fundraising event system for people (like me) who needed financial help to go and work 3 month internships in Washington DC. In Geneva, my 4 housemates and I threw great theme parties - Mexican Fiestas and champagne only formal holiday fetes. By the time I returned to DC to attend grad school, I had moved with some vigour into hosting dinner parties that brought together people I knew, but who didn't know each other well. I talked about them as my personal social experiments.

One of the best parts of my early married years in Brussels was also the events we threw - from a weekly open sunday brunch to huge backyard barbecues for 100 people, and lots of more intimate dinners with friends in between. In Uganda that changed, because I couldn't wrap my head around the role of servants and all matching china in the expat culture I was meeting people in. Nor was I able to wrap my head around the expectations of many Ugandans whom I invited home. My housekeeper Zarina was so helpful in that aspect, but we made some crazy mistakes together in organizing events that tried to break down the servant/employer hierarchies among the Ugandan workers at our home. Turns out, it wasn't just the expats in Uganda who had high expectations at parties.

I did host one really great party at home in Uganda that brought the diplomatic crew I knew through my husband's work together with some of my microfinance program clients, for a cook it yourself Mongolian Barbecue (ah yes, the food issue!). The crowd was entertained alternatively by a DJ and lively African singers in traditional costumes. At one point in the evening I could see people standing and dancing in place on 3 levels in our 4 level garden. Then my husband and I split, so that was the end of that.

With the change in living venue, I moved more into developing small learning groups and creating contexts for community planning dialogue. Life in Africa's history during my later years as Director is dotted by national events I convened, to see what could happen if the communities I had initiated in Kampala and Gulu planned together. By far the most interesting event I ever organized was a face2face meetup of a global online community in Northern Uganda. With financial support and online infrastructure from The Omidyar Network, we managed to get 100+ people from 13 countries to a weekend conference venue in an African post war zone. (Here are the photos.)

When I started my new social enterprise, Evolutionize It, with friends earlier this year, I wasn't thinking specifically about event planning as a business model. Inevitably, as I attend more and more social enterprise events, my mind is going there... and entertaining all sorts of exciting possibilities.

Stay tuned! I am imagineering some international social alchemy these days that could turn out to be lots of fun.

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