The second Homeward Bound voyage has been gone for over a week now, carrying the 78 women in STEMM. They’ve visited research bases, made island landings and seen some incredible landscapes. We’re bringing you the stories of more than 20 of those women, plus members of the leadership team, in their words and pictures: our #TeamHB2018 correspondents. You’ll hear from them about how the past 12 months of working together has influenced them. You’ll get a visceral sense of life on the ship as we post stories crafted from some of the most remote and fragile parts of the planet, by some of the most talented women scientists on the planet. And you’ll hear what happens for them when they return.
Today’s #HBCorrespondent is Alice Ruhweza, Executive Director of Vital Signs, an integrated monitoring system for sustainable development in Kenya.
When my friend, #TeamHB2016er Deborah O’ Connell, first encouraged me to join Homeward Bound’s second program a little over a year ago, I was reluctant. First, I did not really think of myself as a scientist. When I read more about Homeward Bound, I saw that they were looking for women with a background in science; that is a degree in a “scientific field or equivalent” covering a broad range of professions, occupations and career levels. The women would be selected based on their potential to use scientific knowledge and methods to have an impact on decision-making as it relates to the state of the planet. This I could relate to so I signed up.
Deborah was part of the inaugural Homeward Bound expedition and as we talked some more about the program, I saw its value. There was the enhanced leadership capability; strategy development and execution, and visibility: learning how to tell a good story to the right audience. All very important and useful for the work that we do at Conservation International. Most of what I do is about how to effectively communicate our science and tools to policymakers, businesses and other key stakeholders at various scales; and supporting them to use them to inform their policies and decisions towards a sustainable production pathway.
Having answered that question, the second hurdle was going to be the cold. I am really not at my best during cold weather. In 1994, I left my home country Uganda to go to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. It was my very first experience of winter and it left me traumatised! I remember one December, the wind chill was minus 55 degrees. I put on every piece of clothing I had and I still felt cold!. Despite having enjoyed the program, when I graduated on May 19th, I left the very next day on May 20th! How was I going to handle Antarctica for three weeks?
The next hurdle was to tell my children. Their reactions ranged from “Mummy, can I go with you? Mummy is it possible to bring a penguin? to “Awesome! I can’t wait to tell my whole school about the trip!”. But the clincher was “Mummy, do you know what that TV program I watch says? “If you want to change the world, you can’t let a little cold stand in your way.”
However, one nagging question remained. Did I really have to go all the way to Antarctica to learn this? I have reflected on this question for the last 12 months and the answer is a resounding Yes!
Homeward Bound is more about why rather than the how of women’s leadership. It is about personal insight and collaborative intent. While I understand collaborative intent and have led and been part of many collaborations, I have not spent enough time on personal insight or self-reflection. Who am I? Why am I here? How did I end up here? What makes me different? How do I shape the environment around me? Research has shown that “structured reflection” – conscious hours and effort spent on genuine introspection and self-examination – has a highly positive impact on leadership development. This kind of reflection requires that I clear my mind of the chaos associated with modern organizational life (work, homework, deadlines, social media, etc.) to allow in new thoughts and new experiences. And what better way to get out of this comfort zone than to go to the most remote place on earth, colder than I have ever imagined, far away from my friends and family, with people, most of whom, I have never met? The uncertainty is exciting and scary at the same time. But as they say, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough!”.
The location of this expedition in Antarctica is intentional because regions of Antarctica are currently showing the fastest responses to climate change seen anywhere on the planet. The study of Antarctica, therefore, will provide us with critical insights into global-scale of climate change, and the influence of human activities.
Conservation International’s climate strategy will benefit from some of this rigorous and robust science; and this opportunity allows CI to leverage the strengths, capacities and relationships with the global thinkers above to enhance our global reach and the climate program.
Last but not least, as the only African born woman on this expedition, I have an obligation to ensure that I use what I gain from this opportunity to support and mentor more women and girls from Africa to become better leaders and advocates for our planet. I look forward to partnering with the many other efforts underway upon my return.
I am very grateful to Conservation International and my many friends and family who have made it possible for me to participate in this expedition. And thank you Deborah for encouraging me.
Alice is the Executive Director of Vital Signs, an integrated monitoring system that generates data on agriculture, ecosystems and human wellbeing and transforms them into decision support tools for managers and planners to enable better decision-making in support of sustainable development. Before Vital Signs, which is led by Conservation International, Alice worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) team leading the Environmental Finance Unit in Africa. Hailing from Uganda but living in Kenya, Alice is Homeward Bound’s first African participant.