Teaching Opinion

Service Learning in Action: The International Bank of Bob

By Anthony Jackson & Jennifer Manise — June 14, 2013 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Earlier this week, we posted on the Five Stages of Service Learning. Today, Jennifer Manise, Executive Director, Longview Foundation, shares an idea to put service learning into action in your classroom.

For those of you compiling your summer reading lists, I highly recommend that you not only add The International Bank of Bob, but also push it to the top of the list. Bob Harris is an intellectually curious, self-deprecating, globally competent writer on a quest to determine if microloans really make a difference in peoples’ lives.

The book is about a freelance travel writer who embarks on a journey around the world visiting microloan management organizations who partner with Kiva and microloan recipients—many of them are his actual loan partners.

The International Bank of Bob got me thinking about what advice Bob would have for educators who wanted to either use Kiva in the classroom or engage with his book as a summer read in their schools. Last spring, I met Kyle, a teacher in Northern California, who told me how she uses Kiva as a part of her yearlong global studies fifth grade curriculum. Students in Kyle’s class are required to earn or raise money to support Kiva loans and choose partners in countries they are studying. She found Kiva to be a great tool to deepen student understanding and engage their learning far beyond the typical country report.

What would Bob think about Kyle’s approach? Why did he choose the countries he did? Is it really that easy to connect the world to home? As my imaginary list of questions continued to grow, I decided to interview Bob to find the answers.

JM: Bob, thank you for writing such an engaging book. Tell those who haven’t yet read your book a little about how you decided to connect to Kiva and the impact it has had on your life.

BH: I won the birth lottery about 49 years ago—I was born within a prosperous country, living in a peaceful time, and back then, if you worked hard enough you got ahead. I didn’t really appreciate that growing up.

As a luxury travel writer, being paid to stay in ridiculously wealthy hotels was an easy and conscience-free assignment in England and France. But when I got to Dubai I realized these palaces I was staying in are being built by people making $6 to work 12-hour days, on temporary visas from some of the poorest areas of the world, living in labor camps in the desert. The divide between rich and poor seemed nonsensical and heartbreaking. Talking to the workers, it became clear they were making the sacrifice because it makes a huge difference for their families at home. Kids have a better life even if you never see them. It is a small step up—doing difficult labor out of love for their families.

For me, I needed to do something with my good luck, so I took all of the travel money from my travel assignments and settled on using using Kiva to invest in small businesses, hoping to help grow economies in the developing world. Microfinance was getting a lot of press around then partly because the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and its founder had recently shared the Nobel Peace Prize. The Kiva platform makes microlending so compelling. I got progressively more hooked, but I wanted to know and experience more and that led to the book.

JM: Based upon your examples with different lenders, you are a pretty globally competent person. When did you first feel your world expanding beyond your upbringing in Ohio? And when you were going around the world, how much time and energy did you commit to understanding the cultures you were about to enter prior to getting on the airplane?

BH: As a curious kid, I read a lot. I had traveled for years as a comic, but a big change occurred when I appeared on the television show, Jeopardy. I crammed really hard for Jeopardy, learning about great novels and Shakespeare’s plays. I learned about places, too—Madrid, Istanbul, and more—landmarks and history that maybe I wouldn’t have read about otherwise. That stuff stayed interesting after the show. It was an odd education—trying to cram for a trivia game—learning about and wanting to experience the world. Thus, when I was 40, I bought a cheap around-the-world ticket. This ended up being the most fascinating, life changing trip. At that time, if you had told me then what I’d be doing at 49, I wouldn’t have believed you.

JM: There are multiple instances—maybe even every chapter—where you connect the Kiva partners to your life experience in the United States. Was that a deliberate writing technique, or was it really that easy for you to make those local-global connections?

BH: The way we process the world is through our previous experience. Sitting in a bar in Breza I challenge anyone to not relate it to Cleveland. Losing sports team on television, beer, eastern European fans defeated—how can I not think of the Browns? The Bureti district in Kenya felt so much like the small town in Appalachia where my parents are from: the dirt roads, the dairy farms, the rust on the cars. They are probably superficial things to notice, but it was an overwhelming feeling that happened all the time. It is also a way to connect my experiences to an American audience.

JM: The Longview Foundation was begun by a single person—William Breese—who had a vision for a peaceful society that could be obtained by deep understanding of other cultures. Forty-six years later, we’ve seen some excellent progress and new challenges. What advice to you have for us in the philanthropic world as we try to work with educators and policymakers?

BH: Educational projects are richer and deeper when they involve personal human stories. Minds are more engaged when stories are told. It is how our minds relate to things. We need to know each other’s stories before we know the facts.

Another observation is that American education spends way too much time dividing up subjects. When you are in high school, you can’t study political history without understanding how technology is evolving. My book emphasizes through stories that everything is interrelated.

JM: Let’s think about teachers like Kyle, who are using Kiva in the classroom. What advice do you have for them? Can you share anything about Kiva’s plans for their education work?

BH: Give your faculty or students the freedom to look at projects on the Kiva site until they find a story that is interesting to them. Once they’ve found that spark, branch off of other things related to that partner: the region, their profession, or religious beliefs. If a Kiva website can get a kid interested in the first reading, amazing learning can occur.

A huge strength of Kiva is the empowering mindset. This isn’t donations. This is just pitching in, joining with others, and helping another person with an idea. It’s an important shift with regard to mutual human dignity.

We are all experiencing a global revolution in human connectedness in our lives today. The current generation of teenagers is seeing the world in a truly different way. I feel enormous hope. There is an inherently interconnected mindset among the young people in the world right now. I’m hoping we are going to move in the direction of understanding.

I wonder what a kid will learn today that is going to transform the world tomorrow? There is potential far beyond anything any of us can imagine.

Follow Bob Harris and Jennifer Manise on Twitter.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.