Friday, April 23, 2010

Whitworth theology alum reflects on internship at the Center for Justice, time spent in Africa

Michael's story appeared as part of Tim Connor's article, "At Work in the World," which appeared in the Center for Justice's April 2010 "Justice Calling" newsletter

When he arrived to work as an intern at the Center for Justice is 2006, Michael Novasky, '07, had the classic immersion experience working with Suellen Pritchard. As she does with almost everyone who comes by to help, she threw him right into the fray.

"It grows you up in a hurry," is how Michael puts it.

"I learned a lot from it, absolutely," he says. "And what I learned at the Center for Justice, more than anything was the confidence I gained in having the experience and learning how to work with people."

By the time Michael arrived at CFJ, he'd already traveled to Africa with a contingent of other Whitworth students to learn about South African culture, history and government. He'd enjoyed it so much that he wanted to go back and as he approached graduation in 2007 he and two of his fellow Whitworthians decided to look for ways to return to South Africa to work.

"We didn't have much of a plan," Michael recalls, "It was pretty much that we wanted to do Peace Corps type work, but do it in our own way."

Their plans for South Africa unraveled but, in short order, an opportunity opened up for them in Uganda through their contact with a new Steamboat Springs, Colorado, based organization named Come Let's Dance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering African youth.

The new plan was for the three of them to go to Kampala and work with orphans and cast off children struggling to survive on the crowded streets of Uganda's capital. And they did. Much of the work for Michael was as a patient advocate for children who needed medical assistance. He would take them to hospitals, stay with them, advocate for their care, and make sure their bills got paid. It was, he says, a terrific way to get to know Ugandan youngsters and understand what their lives were like.

As per their plan, Michael's two friends from Whitworth chose to leave Uganda after a year. But he decided to stay. In simplest terms, he was enjoying the experience. Living in English -- speaking tropical Uganda was not, he found, "a huge culture shock," once he learned how to get by with less than he was used to in the states and enjoy staples like boiled plantain. He'd also made friendships among Ugandans who took time to care and look out for him. Among other things, they'd learned of his education in religious studies and invited him to visit their churches.

"I felt a lot was unfinished," he says about his decision to stay in Uganda and move from the inner city of Kampala out to a less developed (electricity, but not running water) village just on the outskirts of the city.

"I learned a lot about the value of human relationships," he says, "about the importance of dropping in and visiting people, about slowing your day down to make time to visit."

And this was also a part of the Michael Novasky that Suellen Pritchard recognized from his days working in Spokane at the Center for Justice.

"He was a very caring soul," she says. "He really was. He was never hurried about anything but a very smart, unflappable and very articulate."

And voraciously curious. One of the reasons Michael wasn't ready to leave Uganda is that "by accident," he says, he stumbled upon the literature department at Kampala's Makerere University. A religion and speech communications double-major at Whitworth, he says he was drawn to study African literature and was able to do so because the teachers at Makerere allowed him to audit their classes. This is how he was able to study novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, dramatist Francis Imbuga and a number of the continents poets, including Ugandan Okot p'Bitek.

For the next two years he lived on the outskirts of Kampala on a subsistence budget, studying African literature and, in general, learning about himself and the lives of the people around him.

Ask him the obvious question, "Why?" and he doesn't settle for an easy answer. Above all, he says, his experience in Uganda provided a learning experience on how to fit into a new society and, with that experience, reflect on how "I fit into my society."

"It's a hard question to answer," he says. "Inevitably some people see it as running away. Some people even cynically say 'you were running away.' The truth is that maybe there is some of that. I wasn't quite ready to engage my career path. To me it's about learning about yourself in a lot of different contexts, how you're adjusting, and how you're contributing."

Michael continued to think about the question after our interview and, a few hours later, sent me a note. He said he didn't want to be portrayed as having gone to Uganda for purely humanitarian reasons or on some exalted journey to find himself. He summed up his two "key lessons" this way:

1) The value of learning to continually, or at least periodically, challenge and question yourself…and even the people, society, or structures around you. This CAN be a healthy thing.

2) The need to build quality relationships and the skill it takes to maintain them.

"Many people may notice that this aligns with the Center's values," he added.