[This article was written by Alex Rodriguez as part of the paper he wrote for the Labdoo Conference held in Barcelona in September 2016. You can download the booklet where you will find this and other stories from this link.]
“Se hace camino al andar”:
A personal journey from noble ideas to hands-on social activism
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it by yourself. It is not far. It is within reach. Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. Perhaps it is everywhere - on water and land.” ― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Hi, my name is Alejandro (Alex) Rodriguez and I come from Madrid, Spain.
Since the end of July 2016 when my family relocated to California, I have been living close to San Francisco. I am now 15-years-old and two years ago, I became the founder and hub manager of the Balder School Labdoo Hub in Las Rozas de Madrid, Spain.
How did I end up founding and managing a Labdoo hub for my school? What could move a 13-year-old boy like me to take on something like this? How was the experience? Was it worth it? Do I have any advice for other young kids who might be thinking of trying to do something similar? I will try to answer these questions by recalling my own Labdoo journey made over these past two years.
As far back as I can remember, I have always liked learning new things especially in maths, science and technology and since I was 10-years-old, I have habitually enjoyed working with computers and software as well as building and programming robots. My dad has constantly encouraged me to spend any spare time on these activities whilst also forever reminding my
sister and me how lucky we are. Lucky to have been born to live in this age (he keeps repeating “I envy you so much” and I would keep wondering “Why?”). Lucky to be citizens of a country like Spain at a time when almost everything that we might need or want, was available to us. In addition, my dad often retells us the story of how his parents and my mum’s parents (my grandpas and grandmas) had only been able to attend school until they were 12-years-old because they had to start working at that young age. Healways talks about how tough life was in post-civil war Spain and how his parents worked extremely hard for him, his sister and his brother to give them the education that they themselves, could not have. Each time, I have listened to my dad as though he was talking about an old, black and white movie.
Yes, we had everything that we could possibly need or want including a good education: in good schools with good teachers; plenty of books and well-equipped school laboratories. My mum is a teacher so I guess the idea that a good education is the foundation for every kid’s future, runs in the family. I also remember my parents invariably calling me to watch the news on T.V. whenever there was an item relating to education or schools in developing countries or even in poor areas of Spain. I would see classrooms and students without computers; without books; even without desks and chairs; some schools were even without a roof. I did not understand why those children could not have all the resources that were available to me either for learning and/or just having fun. Still, I could see in their faces and in their eyes that they enjoyed going to school.
Maybe it was all of this (if even from the comfortable distance of my little bubble in a wealthy family; in a wealthy neighborhood; in a wealthy country) that formed a keen sense in my mind that education is a fundamental right and that every kid, no matter where he or she is born (a decision by the way, not of his or her own making), deserves a good education. Although, I must confess that I do not remember this idea extending much beyond the uneasy feeling I experienced each time my parents roused me to watch those news stories on the T.V. Perhaps during that period, I was simply focused on being a happy child; going to school; playing with my friends and doing the things that I enjoyed the most, like playing basketball!
Fast-forward to the beginning of the 2014/2015 school year, one that would turn out completely differently for me from previous years. Up until that point, I had been going to one school but my parents decided to moveus to a new school called Colegio Balder. So at just 13-years-old, the September of 2014 felt like a new start for me.
As I got to know my classmates and make new friends, the school year carried on. In late November, the Balder Foundation whose charitable activities included building schools in Togo, was running their second "Annual Young Social Entrepreneurship Contest". This competition was open to any student with a viable idea for making the world a better place and the Foundation would help the winner turn his or her idea into a reality.
I thought that making the world a better place was something I could readily do; perhaps it simply required fixing some of the things that adults had got wrong. How difficult could that be? But what did they mean by “viable”?
Upon hearing about the contest, I talked it over with my dad. He told me to think rigorously and come up with an idea; that even if it was half-baked, he would help me to give it shape. I deliberated long and hard, over and again. I wanted to participate in the contest but I could not imagine a sure way of making the world the better place. Now that I actually had to think about it, all that came to mind was this: how could I, a mere 13-year-old boy make a difference? The only notion I could dream up was the lofty intention of helping other children (probably in far, far away places) to get a better education. But how could I achieve this? How could I turn this noble objective into a real project?
With the deadline just three days' away, as I was running out of time and almost ready to give up, my dad told me about Labdoo which he already had some knowledge of. Perhaps because he suspected that with computers, software and education in the mix, it would be of interest to me. My dad explained how anyone could make an individual contribution by donating old laptops and/or their spare time to sanitise the laptops and install educational software. He told me how this large project was already up and running and making a real difference across the world. In a single day, I read all the information (and there was a lot) that I could find about Labdoo.
Then, I told my dad that whilst being an individual contributor was fine, I really wanted to take on something bigger that would be sustainable in the long run: I would propose setting up a Labdoo hub hosted by my school and supported by the Balder Foundation. We would receive laptops from the north-western area of Madrid, sanitise them and send them to impoverished schools around the world. We would help bridge the digital divide in the world, help improve education in other countries and help reduce e-waste (that was Labdoo’s mission which I instantly found amazing!). There, that was my idea; we would build that hub.
My dad looked at me and said “Sure, that's a piece of cake. Go write the proposal and I will help you with the details.” So that was the first step in my journey. They say that "Every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". (Is this supposed to be a piece of wisdom? If so, then it should also warn you about how painful that step can be!) For me, the first step was to truly convince myself of the (bold?) notion that I could actually win the contest with this proposal, turn my idea into a reality and with that goal, help make the world a better place.
The second step was to write the proposal in just two days and for this, I had to stay up very late at night! I composed the submission with Word and Powerpoint in case I made it to the last round of the contest and my dad helped me (as he had said he would) to make it "more precise; with quantifiable objectives, tasks and a budget”. I thought “Bah! When you are on a mission to make the world a better place, those details should not be necessary.” He was sure to remind me of this presumption a year later.
I submitted my entry and was called a few days later to present it before the committee-in-charge. I was really excited but so nervous. However, I also had the feeling that everything would go smoothly because I had prepared my 10-minute presentation diligently. When my turn arrived, I was told that I only had 5 minutes! I had to rush through my proposal and I went home believing that it had not gone well. With a disappointed face, I told my dad what had happened and about all the things that I had not been able to explain to the committee members. He told me to take it easy. So then, I waited and waited. As the days passed, I went back to my usual routine and after a couple of weeks (which seemed more like a couple of months) as I had not heard anything from the Balder Foundation, I assumed that I had not won the contest.
Then, one Friday afternoon, all the students at school were assembled for the announcement of the results. I went along with the idea of congratulating the winner and maybe even volunteering to help with their project. When the moment of truth came, Lourdes Atrio, the president of the Foundation, called my name. I thought “Wait, what? Did I hear that right?” and immediately proceeded to shake hands with everyone who was congratulating me. I had thought it was going to be the other way around!
That weekend, my parents told me that I looked like a shiny balloon ready to burst. My friends told me “Dude, that’s sick! But it looks way too hard...” but I didn’t care. I was ready to make the world a better place and I was convinced it was going to be easy. I was 13-years-old; I was naive.
The early days
It was early January 2015, cold and windy. I started to set up the Labdoo hub in a 20 square metre storage room next to my technology classroom.
The stories that my dad used to tell me about people who had started their companies or social projects in a garage (like “the Steves”: Jobs and Wozniak who founded Apple) came to mind so I was cool with having my little "garage" for establishing the hub.
By early February, with help from my dad and my technology teacher (thanks Alfredo, for everything!), I sanitize our first laptop. Learning the technical process for how to sanitise a laptop and install all the Labdoo software was not difficult. But my dad and Alfredo kept pointing out that
this didn't mean the entire undertaking would be easy. The first hurdle was discovering that getting the hub up and running would be so time-consuming. I would have to skip some breaks and classes; make up for missed school work later and then, also work at home on the weekends.
This sudden awareness that turning my idea into a reality might not be so straightforward after all and that it would require extra work and effort beyond my daily routine, made me wonder “What have I gotten myself into?”
But I did not want to quit; I had to keep going and finish what I had started. Besides, the warm feeling of that first laptop reaching status S2 in readiness to be transported by a volunteer to a needy school somewhere in the world, helped me get through those first few months. Then, I finished preparing the second laptop and Jordi Ros found a volunteer to take them both to Mexico. This was only 5 months after I had presented my idea to the contest committee and I was already helping some students in Mexico. All this with simply my determination and effort and some help (okay, a lot of help!) from my dad and Alfredo.
I thought of those students in Mexico; I could picture them with their brand new, I mean used laptops; I felt proud, even relieved and I started to believe again that everything would be reeeaaaally easy and that all you need to make things happen, is hard work. Hey, I had just turned 14-years-old; how could I know any better?
After that delivery, the development of the hub seemed to come to a halt. I had received some more laptops but around May of that year, they stopped coming. I guess that's when I realised that a hub needs to actively reach out to its local and wider community otherwise, it can easily fail. This question suddenly became a pressing one: how could I make the hub more visible beyond my school?
On top of that, the lack of space and volunteer time (I had no real volunteers, it was just me and two “forced” volunteers) also became a major problem. I myself, was willing to put in the required, extra time on the project but this meant that I had to catch up with all of my school work later and I could not really ask my dad or my technology teacher to do more since all of this had been my idea. At this juncture, I had the strange feeling that the hub might turn out to be a short-lived adventure. I had no volunteers; only a small stack of laptops; almost no space and barely any time to work on solving all these problems. But this was not how I had imagined my project to turn out; I wanted the hub to keep functioning and grow. My dad kept trying to cheer me up, pointing out how much I had accomplished since he had first mentioned Labdoo to me back in December but I could not get over the sense of disappointment.
The school year came to an end and I approached summer with the intention of focussing on how to improve the slow developmental pace ofthe hub. But the truth is that after a few weeks, I could not find the time nor energy to do so. I'd like to think that I decided to recharge my batteries (although my parents made sure that I did not spend the 10 weeks idle!) and aimed to return to school in September with new and fresh ideas on how to fix all the issues.
Moving up and on-wards
After a busy summer (hey Dad and Mum, I need more time to do nothing!), the beginning of the 2015/2016 school year was drawing near and I came back to school with the following two resolutions:
1. I would continue as the hub manager instead of trying to turn the job over to someone else (maybe a teacher?) because I felt that I had not finished my job there (come on, only two laptops delivered and only one volunteer, namely myself?).
2. I would not suffer the same time and space constraints that I had experienced during my first year. There, I was clear and firm but I did not have a clue about how to achieve this.
Fortuitously, while I was thinking about that second resolution (and of course, getting nowhere), my school, through Lourdes Atrio and the Principal, Carmen Serrano (thanks Lourdes, thanks Carmen!), offered me the opportunity to turn the Labdoo hub into an official school project for other students to participate in as an elective, extra-curricular activity. This would enable those interested pupils to join the hub by registering for the project and we would all work together in a full class period every Monday.
There were many other projects and elective activities available to the kids so I had to give an inspiring presentation about the hub to the whole school To persuade them to choose this project over another. In my speech, I basically explained the whole idea behind Labdoo, how our hub was contributing to it and how this was an important mission to make a better world.
I do not know why (everyone probably thought that as I was the one in charge, they wouldn’t have to take it seriously) but my presentationseemed to convince many students to sign up for the hub. Suddenly, we even had a waiting list for volunteers!
This turned out to be a great help; our team grew to 10 volunteers and the donated laptops started piling up. This was likely because these students talked about the hub when they went home and also, presumably thanks to the efforts of the whole school in spreading the word about the project.
However, I soon faced two new issues:
1. How do I organize a team of 10 people (all new to Labdoo) effectively in order to move ahead with all the tasks and activities? After an initial
attempt to educate everybody about the whole Labdoo process (which failed miserably - why did I even try that in the first place?), I decided to create two sub-teams within the hub, namely for technical and marketing.
The technical team would take care of anything technology-related, in other words, the sanitizing of laptops and installing of software. The marketing team would be responsible for publicity-related activities: informing greater numbers of people about the project and developing events for reaching out to the local community.
2. How do I assign the right students to each sub-team? Then, how do I train these volunteers in all the specifics and activities necessary to a Labdoo hub and furthermore, how do I keep everyone interested and engaged? I really did not know how to go about all of this (do adults really know?) and later, I understood that what motivates you might not be
exactly what motivates others.
By this stage, the hub’s routine was so different from just a few months' back – it was even a bit chaotic. To be honest, I liked being the boss or at least playing that part. However, it was really laborious to ensure that everyone understood their role on the team and occasionally, I was
conscious that all the time I was spending on managing the team was time that I was not actually working on the many laptops that were coming into the hub. But I guess this is what the word “leadership” means..... After a couple of months, with the increased numbers of volunteers and laptops, the lack of sufficient physical space became a major obstacle. Fortunately,
we were able to move to a new classroom by the end of the school year which had plenty of space so that we could stop looking like that scene from the Marx Brothers' movie.
It began to seem as though most of the main concerns that I had suffered with the previous year (lack of volunteers, lack of resources, lack of time and space) had been resolved. The hub was now functioning at full capacity with laptops coming in; getting sanitised and loaded with educational software in readiness for transporting to those deprived schools possibly in a remote corner of the planet. Nevertheless, I still wanted to see if I could also get the hub involved with the final objective of the whole process, that is to help needy schools get connected to the Labdoo network.
I talked this over with Lourdes at the Balder Foundation and she suggested that I contact an NGO program called Acción Alegra which the Foundation was helping to build a couple of schools in Togo. A few days' later after speaking with several adults (who were a bit puzzled by this 14-year-old) and collecting all the necessary information, I set up and registered two Labdoo edoovillages for the schools in Togo. Finally, I had the sense of experiencing the whole Labdoo process from obtaining a single used laptop to setting up an edoovillage that would benefit from the donations plus the efforts of the thousands of volunteers all around the world. I felt an enormous pride although my dad still says to me that one day, I should go and visit those schools in Togo to see "the real deal”.
Around April, a small summary of my endeavours over this period was published in the Labdoo Global Newsletter and a couple of weeks' later, I was invited to be a speaker at this conference. Now here I am after this journey of almost two years.
Some do’s and don’t’s
I have been asked to think about the following question: what advice would I give to other young kids who may be thinking about setting up a Labdoo hub in their schools? I thought that I would summarise the lessons that I have learned during these two years in the following list of do’s and don’ts.
1. Try to know at all times what you’re doing: if you don’t really know, just ask around (the Labdoo global community, teachers or your parents).
2. Be prepared to put in sufficient time and effort: it will pay off although in the beginning, it may seem otherwise.
3. Think early on how to maintain a steady inflow of resources: from the outset, start planning publicity/marketing strategies or you may end up with no laptops to work on.
4. Get other people to work with you: friends; students; parents; teachers; school staff. Spend all the necessary time and use your charm to persuade them. A hub is a joint effort and there are many diverse activities that need to be undertaken so everyone can contribute (it is not only for geeks!). Besides, (cold) pizza in the hub room tastes better when shared with others!
5. Celebrate with everybody when your first laptop arrives at a needy school (wait, I forgot to do this!).
1. Be lazy: things will not happen just because you want them to.
2. Do important stuff without planning: this includes trying to organise a team without knowing who you will assign to each sub-team or what each one's strengths and weaknesses are.
3. Think that everything will go smoothly and easily: expect both some serious bumps in the road and some serious roadblocks.
4. Despair: a hub’s first year may make you feel frustrated at times; just keep thinking about the future and why you got into this in the first place.
5. Consider that there are activities in a hub (for example, the “technical stuff”) that are more important than others (for example, the “marketing stuff”): each and every activity, no matter how small it may seem, is crucial to the development of the hub.
Looking back and looking forward
Now that I have left Spain and moved to California, I have had some time to reflect on what I achieved in those two years. I believe that my hard work and that of the many people involved in the creation and development of the Balder School hub have paid off; I feel that the hub is solid and sustainable enough for me to make an exit (although I did not want to quit it yet!). I am confident that I leave it in good hands but I feel a bit sad about not staying with the team.
This journey of two years hasn’t been easy but I think it has been an enriching experience. I have learned so many things; it has helped me to grow as a person as I have managed to face and deal with a number of (hard) problems. It has also enabled me to develop as a citizen because I feel that with every step I took, I was building something for the future and that this whole adventure has been a step forward in helping other children around the world to have a better education.
I hope that the Balder School Hub will continue into the future for students, teachers and parents to come and participate in its activities. Please make it grow and keep helping students in needy schools around the world. I promise that I will help the hub whenever you need me or call me.
I am thinking that perhaps, I will set up another hub in my current high school in California.
“Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.”
― Antonio Machado, Proverbios y cantares XXIX
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