mercredi 31 juillet 2013

Citizen engagement to transform education

Portraits of locally active young Europeans who contribute towards reinforcing communication and cohesion among inhabitants. Different initiatives – social, cultural or linked to citizen participation – which require to carry out a project, to use resources, to summon energies. Stories and testimonies about the paths of “ordinary people, endowed with an extraordinary willpower” as said by a former karate champion, who became an advocate for the values of courage and respect in the secondary schools of the Marne.

This is the kind of things I have been writing about since early spring. It is summer now and I keep on telling you these stories, hoping that they captivate and inspire you. But I should maybe put all of this into perspective again. What am I actually looking for? What are the questions I am asking myself? And how do these young project holders help me to progress in these questions?

Our changing world triggers challenges for our education

First, it is about observing that something is missing in our education. I had a quite successful school and university career; I acknowledge all its benefits, but I also know that I lacked some things.  Among other things, without any doubt, learning how group dynamics work.

A lot of studies agree on the point that nowadays, our educational model is not optimally adapted to the world. To have an idea about the different studies on this topic, I recommend you to read the excellent note “Training creative and collaborative knowledge-builders: a major challenge for21st century education”, written in 2009 by François Taddei in the framework of the OECD Innovation Strategy.

Our educational system does not take into account sufficiently at least three kinds of evolutions:
  • The evolution of information transmission. The Internet is now considered as a revolution as important as the introduction of printing.
  • Globalization and its impacts linked to mobility, meetings of cultures and the emergence of new cultures.
  • The evolution of the crisis. Its economic, social, environmental, political (crises of democracies) and – in some countries – demographic aspects have become structural.

These evolutions have many consequences. Even by looking only at their repercussions on sociability, one can notice the redefinition and the growing complexity of relationships among people. 


The action spectrum of interactions is now potentially unlimited, quantitatively and spatially. This triggers real opportunities. In parallel, one can notice a wilting of traditional forms of sociability and a lack of references to create new ones.

In our fast changing world, there are more and more possibilities, less and less recipes. The only recipe that seems to count is exactly the ability to live without any recipe: to adapt oneself, to show ingenuity and flexibility. These strategies are not always intuitive: one can learn and practise them.

Information, relationships to others and vocation

School, higher education and lifelong learning have obviously a role to play. First of all, through education, everyone could be perfectly aware that a changing world triggers both opportunities (and strategies in order to know how to seize them) and threats (and strategies in order to know how to protect oneself from them).

An education that would offer everyone a framework and tips to adapt oneself, to be creative...  This is an interesting prospect, but it also gives vertigo. To echo the three kinds of evolution I wrote about, education could attach more importance to developing strategies linked to:
  • Information. How could one learn and teach better while optimizing huge (and, in my opinion, slightly frightening) flows of information?
  • The relationships to others. To be oneself, to be with others, to be part of a group, to enjoy similarities and differences...
  • Vocation. How to find one's placeone's “element” as Ken Robinson says? What one likes to do and what one has a talent for, the field that gives one the feeling of usefulness and well-being.


Information, relationships to others, vocation: three fields that still require a lot of exploration, experimentation and creativity. In that sense, the theory of multiple intelligences can certainly help.

Education, project process and citizen engagement

To get back to my investigation, why do I interview young adults committed in citizen projects? What is actually the link between their stories and education?

First of all, it is about questioning the link between project process and education. From this point of view, I could also interview artists, performance creators and entrepreneurs working in any kind of field. The common point of these paths: they help to understand what the experience of an ambitious project can provide to one's self-development.

Some schools across the world have made the choice of offering “project-based learning”. By developing a project – from its original idea to its collective implementation and its impact measurement – pupils assimilate knowledge way better than through theoretical learning. In that way, they also have the possibility to develop other talents, such as the abilities to communicate well or to work in a team. These methods aim to give young people a taste for experimentation and creation, in order to trigger their wish to take initiatives.

Then, being interested in the paths of young Europeans whose action has effects on reinforcing the “living together”, I add a variable. Beyond the project process, I try to understand what may be the educational value of a commitment in favour of general interest, of an action towards others. This echoes my hypothesis that one has to learn the sense of otherness.


When I started my investigation, I had one word in mind: “skill”. And more precisely, “human skill”. This is quite a blurry concept, I admit... Today, I prefer to talk about “lessons in life”. Not in the meaning of lessons that one has to learn by heart, but in the meaning of “memorandums”, of “observations” made out of the stories of brave and inspiring paths.

Discover these life paths linked to projects in Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, and soon  in Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece. In these paths, you may find some elements that would invite you to take a new look on education.

Because my approach is exploratory, I will not develop more today, despite the fact that I did not explain everything. Thank you for your attentive reading. I would love to know your opinion: feel free to use this blog's Facebook page.

lundi 22 juillet 2013

Technologies to get around handicaps and to make talents grow

To give people with severe disabilities the possibility to communicate better and to be in a learning process, Simone creates A.I.D.A, a firm that offers software products adapted to each person's abilities. Simone became a computer engineer and an entrepreneur, despite his handicap. Therefore he wants to show people with severe disabilities and their private, educational and medical circles that anything is possible if one is convinced and equipped with a few well-conceived tools. Here is the story of my encounter with a young and passionate Italian, in the beautiful city of Modena. 

In September 2010, my Japanese friend Eri tells me that she is moving to Modena. When I was living in Milan, I was sharing a flat with Eri. My former flatmate will now work in the social company of a certain Simone. One and a half year later, Simone and Eri get married. I am really happy for my friend, but this news also raises questions. Simone is about thirty years old. He is a computer engineer. And he has a rather severe motor disability. 

Thanks to Google, I discover dozens of articles and videos about Simone Soria's incredible path.  Simone always has a gigantic smile. Despite all the difficulties that he has to face, he considers himself as a privileged person.  As such, he wants to use his private and professional expertise to help other disabled people to communicate better with their surroundings. I do not need long to decide: when I pass through Italy, I am going to visit Eri and Simone. 

Adapted tools to offer freedom

On the Via Emilia, Modena is halfway between the Po valley and the Adriatic sea. Eri is waiting for me at the station and drives me in a van to the house, which is also the office of Simone and his colleagues. The team is talking to a family, a young man in a wheelchair and his parents, who have come from Rome to discover the different software products and services offered by the firm. 

A bit later, I meet Simone. His eyes sparkle with curiosity towards me; he ponders on my investigation. The young engineer tells me about the visit of the family I have just seen: “I asked them a few questions to understand their needs: to use a computer, to study... Then I showed them FaceMouse, one of the software products we offer, conceived for severe disabilities”. By that he means disabilities that are more severe than his own. Simone assures that he conceived this software for others, just like a game. 

Little demonstration: Simone, sitting in front of a computer equipped with a web cam, sets focus; a few seconds later, his nose becomes a mouse. Small head movements steer the mouse on the screen, breaks are equivalent to selection. 

The first aim of this software is to give people the possibility to communicate without voice or hands. However, all the functionalities of a computer are available: word processing, Internet browsing, games... The key point of the program: it can be entirely personalized, from the command to the contents, according to the user's motor and cerebral abilities. 

Will power and love for others

Simone is proud of his path, which is understandable. To become what he is today, he came across “a lot of positive circumstances, some also negative, or at least seemed negative in the beginning”. Above all, Simone is particularly talented to create a favourable context around him. 

Born with an infantile cerebral paralysis, Simone suffers from spastic tetraplegia and from other problems, particularly regarding verbal expression. In Italy, since the end of the seventies, there have been no specialised schools anymore. Like most of the disabled children who go to school, Simone was integrated from an early age into an ordinary school, with a “teacher for support”. 

In a text that he writes after his school time, Simone analyses his relationships with the adults who were around him and with his school mates. Simone quite early understands  a fundamental thing : the degree of autonomy that he would be able to reach depends on the quality of his relationships with the others. First of all, for practical reasons: being able to study in good conditions requires the consideration of his particular needs and the adaptation of the work places and tools. But also and mostly for motivation: feeling good with one's surrounding is essential to keep up efforts over time and to forge ahead.  

At the end of elementary school, Simone starts to use a computer. He can type thanks to a helmet with a kind of antenna. He attends the same classes as his mates and, during the breaks, practises this tedious typing technique. In secondary school, Simone starts to play chess and wins some provincial tournaments. “Thanks to sports, one learns to behave with others, to fight in order to reach a goal, to suffer, to react in order to be happy later... These are important elements for anyone's life, but even more for someone who experiences difficulties due to his or her physical condition”, writes Simone. 

The will to surpass himself and, more than anything, the will to be and to do like the others: two prime movers for Simone who goes to high school, to university and who finally graduates in computer engineering. 

Computer science, revealing communication and learning abilities

In his final thesis, Simone writes about the use of new technologies to improve communication between people with severe disabilities and the outside world. With a friend, he creates the company A.I.D.A. (“Ausili ed Informatica per Disabili ed Anziani » / “Tools and computer science for disabled and elderly people”). In the beginning, a help of the European Social Fund gave them the possibility to develop their flagship program, FaceMouse. 

Year after year, Simone contacts families all over Italy, sometimes abroad. He welcomes them in Modena or visits them. The products and consulting services are for people with motor disabilities, and also for people with Down's Syndrome or autism. The idea is always to rely on computer possibilities to use the person's resources at best, to push back his or her limits. The aim: to give this person the possibility to be more connected to the world, for a richer life and an easier everyday life

Change opinions, aim higher

All together, 300 to 350 people have benefited from A.I.D.A services. “In eight years of activity, this is not much”, deplores Simone. “The main barriers are linked to the opinion society has on people with disabilities. They are not encouraged to do things by themselves, to make themselves understandable. In some regions, people are even more narrow-minded”. Really fast, the concerned person adopts this point of view: convinced that he or she does not have any ability, he or she does not see the point in trying. Simone holds up as an example a young boy from Verona who, after using the software for one minute, declares that he does not like it. 

Despite his impressive CV, Simone also has to face these negative prejudices everyday. They particularly come from medical and educational professionals who often do not consider him as a valid interlocutor.  “Some of our programs are the only ones on the market and concretely improve disabled people's life; however, during all these years, only two doctors in Italy really accepted to work with us”, explains Simone. Our inventor is impatient, because he knows that, with more goodwills, it would be possible to go way faster and to improve the way of life of more people. 

So Simone applies himself to encourage and advise parents, teachers and all the people who may help in revealing the abilities of the young disabled person they support. 

In the meantime, stories like his also make mentalities evolve. When I ask to Simone what the most beautiful thing in his story is, he smiles and looks at Eri: “To have met her, of course”. Simone decided to make a success of his life, and it seems that nothing can stop him... That is maybe the reason why a newspaper nicknamed him “the disabled guy who is not afraid to fail”. Why would you be afraid when you know, like Simone, that “a disabled person is only a person differently skilled”. 


  • For all the people who use the software products and who got supported by A.I.D.A: they have the possibility to communicate more easily, to write, to discover, to learn. 
  • The fact of being able to take the initiative in interactions with others may be the starting point of a more blooming life and of making projects of education and professionalization.  


  • Between people with severe disabilities and their surroundings, thanks to improved communication. 
  • A wider sociability: new connections can be created. Easier expression makes some activities (trainings, leisures, travels...) possible. 

What can we learn from Simone's experience?

  • How important humility is, and how dependent one is on the others: to accept to depend on the others to better realize one's potential, acquire autonomy and become then able to support others.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy: to assimilate and convey a demobilizing speech amounts to refrain from trying and consequently from improving.  On the contrary, will power and hope to succeed always have a positive impact on results. 

For more information, visit the website of AIDA

mardi 16 juillet 2013

Care and links to get off the streets

In Brussels, Infirmiers de Rue (Street Nurses) coordinates a health and hygiene network in order to help homeless people regain self-confidence and to empower them so that they can look forward to social reintegration. Health professionals and social workers, but also station officers, park keepers, pharmacists, shop owners and other volunteers from all backgrounds are trained to ensure regular follow-ups, prevent critical situations and help people in need to build back their life again. Emilie and Sara created and developed that efficient network, building on the homeless person’s resources and the urban environment. Emilie tells me more.  

A map stands in the walls of Emilie’s office – it shows the network of drinkable water fountains and public toilets in Brussels. Emilie explains: “At the basis of our organization, there is the belief that we should build on what is positive, and encourage what is efficient already”. The same is true for homeless people, politicians, or doctors: when one receives compliments, one wants to do better and more.

Emilie and Sara have a breakthrough when they are 24: by reintroducing hygiene in their daily routines, homeless people can learn to love themselves again. According to Emily, this goes for everyone: “The days we skip the shower are the days we are tired and don’t feel like seeing anyone. When we have plans, we want to make an effort.” Thus, encouraging someone to more hygiene is like saying: “You are worth something, we know it – you just need to rediscover it.”

A calling: Street nurse

How does one end up tacking that kind of issue? Let’s go back a bit. As a little girl, Emilie feels attracted by both the street and abroad. She has vivid memories of being encouraged to help out people in the street with a coin, and have a chat with them. About going abroad, that is something that grows with the stories of her godfather, a humanitarian doctor in Africa.

Emilie grows up in Namur and then studies nursing in Brussels. Slightly before graduating, she goes to Burkina-Faso with her friend Sara. They work on hygiene education. When she comes back, Emilie decides to help the not-for-profit organization “La Fontaine”, which offers hygiene and health services to homeless people. Her calling grows stronger. “I liked the communication with people, what we were bringing to each other. In a simple and authentic way.”

She then specializes in community health, goes back to Burkina-Faso then to French Guyana, works in Brussels on street issues: prostitution and drug-addiction.

Facing the facts and going for it…

Emilie is hired at “La Fontaine”. She likes her job, but something is missing. It is during a holiday with Sara that she puts her feelings into words: she wants to develop a new way of helping homeless people. Sara is enthusiastic. “It was really amazing, because I don’t think I would have known where to start, without her I wouldn’t have been…” She snaps her fingers and smiles…

Throughout 2005, they both spend half their time meeting with professionals who could help. They are still amazed at how some people living on the street do not realize anymore how severe their condition is, and, thus, do not visit the dedicated association – and yet there are many in Brussels.

Infirmiers de Rue is born to cater for their needs, and to help professionals who often find themselves powerlessly faced with extreme situations. After the creation of the legal body, the work on the streets starts early 2006.

They get financial and media support from the beginning. Emilie summarizes: “Two girls who had just completed their studies, and worked with homeless people… it moved a lot of people”. In 2008, they take part to the Contest “Impact” organized by Ashoka, which allows them to explain better how specific their action is: they help homeless people rediscover hygiene and rebuild the connexion with medical care.

Take care of oneself, regain control on one's life

« In everyday life, these people try to survive: to eat, to sleep, to be safe. If they go to the doctor, they may suddenly think that they could still be alive in five years, that it is worth to look after oneself”, explains Emilie.

The team of Infirmiers de Rue is surprised by the speed of the process. Emilie testifies: “When a person enters this process, he or she becomes more self-confident, wants to visit the doctor again, to make new projects... And therefore we cannot limit our help to access to care”. Consequently, the method evolves. It is now about following up a limited number of people (40), but more intensively, until they find an accommodation where they feel good.

To achieve such a reintegration into society, three kinds of activities are implemented:
  • The follow-up itself, on the street first, in the accommodation afterwards: accompany the person when he or she goes to the doctor, make sure that he or she takes his or her treatment... Then, once the person lives in his or her accommodation, some volunteers visit him or her every two weeks.
  • The trainings, which are organized for all the professionals involved in the social and medical support and for the people who are in daily contact with the person. In these trainings, they learn how to simply talk about hygiene. They also ensure that everyone is feeling like a link of a guard and solidarity chain to support each person in extreme precariousness.
  • The creation of prevention tools and tools that highlight the possibilities given by the surroundings, such as posters explaining which behaviour one can adopt in case of intense cold.
Working on motivation is one of the association's focal points: to motivate the team, the whole network and, above all, the followed-up people who have to make significant efforts. Everyone owns a passport with a nice picture of himself or herself, a list of all of his or her talents and tastes (“really resourceful”, “likes gardening”, etc.) and, on the back, the medical objectives that the team of Infirmiers de Rue sets every week.

Two team seminars are organised every year, in order to continually improve the project and to reinforce the team cohesion. In 2013, the team plans to improve its support on finding an accommodation.



  • 40 people living on the street are followed-up every week. Between 60 and 70 people are followed-up every year.
  • About 30 people now live stable and autonomous in their own accommodation. 
  • 12 other people have their own accommodation but the team of Infirmiers de Rue still follows them up intensively, in order to support them in their transition to autonomy.

All these people spent 8 to 20 years on the street. When the team of Infirmiers de Rue starts to follow them up, they are really vulnerable and have a high death risk. At that moment, the professional network is often disheartened.
  • Brussels, a dense network of people and organizations works on this project.
  • More than 100 people are trained every year (mainly social workers, medical workers and security officers).
  • About 20 volunteers work on this project. Eight of them regularly visit people in their new accommodation. 13 professionals work in the team (all together, their workload is equivalent to 11 full-time jobs).


Between social and medical workers, shop owners, security officers, volunteers of all ages and people living on the street for years, extremely vulnerable and isolated.

              What can we learn from Emilie's experience?

  • How important diagnosis and empathy are. Emilie and her team-mates try to really understand the others (the homeless people and the professionals) and to take time to establish trust.
  • The team strength, the link between confidence (in oneself, in the others) and organization: the perpetuation of certain values in the team permits to establish an effective communication and a good coordination.
  • Everything is possible”. In the premises of Infirmiers de Rue, the atmosphere is relaxed. Emilie reveals the recipe: “Obviously we sometimes get bad news. Therefore we always try to remember all the things that work well. Everything is possible, but the person has to be supported and valued”.

For more information, visit the website of Infirmiers de Rue