Scene 3: Planning with the Community – Shared Action Learning


During our third year at WPI, every student is required to complete an interdisciplinary project called the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), in which student apply their science, technology, engineering and math backgrounds to address societal and humanitarian issues. This project is just one demonstration of WPI’s motto in motion, Lehr and Kunst, meaning theory and practice pushes students to fully engage in the classroom experience at WPI but put this knowledge to further use within project work. The Cape Town Project Center (CTPC) begins the IQP on campus in A term for a whole 7 weeks, researching the given project topic, the process continues as students travel to Cape Town during B term for another 7 weeks of research and on the ground work. Overall, the CTPC takes a very different approach to the IQP, using a concept invented by our WPI project advisors called Shared Action Learning (SAL).

This concept uses a different method of approaching problems in research by actively engaging the community in which your IQP takes place. Instead of the standard IQP in which student complete a project for a sponsor, the CTPC students complete projects with their sponsors, the community in which they work as well, as multiple other stakeholders involved in each project.

Through the IQP, like most other research projects, students identify the project objectives, conduct background research on the given topic, create methodologies, execute the project and analyze the results. Minor changes can be made along the way, but as most project centers offer fairly stable environments, changes are usually minimal. The Cape Town Project Center, however, provides a much more dynamic work environment in which students establish project objectives, conduct background research, establish a methodology and hit the ground in Cape Town, to most often find that the project they had anticipated to work on has been altered. The approach of SAL allows students to adapt to this dynamic work environment by actively engaging with the community, doing the bulk of the project learning and work, on the ground. Through the 5 branches of connecting, planning, acting, observing, reporting with the external environment of social, cultural, ecological context, all while reflecting, sharing and learning, students are able to complete sustainable and deeply meaningful projects in the CTPC.

Our project team was eager to engage in SAL with the community of Mtshini Wam. Working in the community, there was sense of team-work with an emphasis on group consensus, that was apparent from the very first day we set foot in the informal settlement. We were greeted by not only the Head Reblocking Coordinator, but also by the rest of the community leaders. Once introductions had been done, not one, but all of the community leaders walked us around the settlement to help us understand the lay of the land and the progress of the reblocking efforts thus far. On the second day we were again introduced to more members of the community, this time to the group of EPWP paid workers. Each of was given the opportunity to see the dynamics of the cleaning team, building team, demolition team, and compacting team as they went about a typical days work, by allowing us to get our hands dirty with them working for a few hours. From that point forward, our team knew that the community was in no way for the individual, but the group as a whole. They wanted to learn from, but more importantly, they wanted to teach us about their lives and work.

Although the concept of Shared Action Learning was clearly a subconscious quality of the community leadership from the beginning of our work, one day in particular stands out to our group as a clear demonstration of this mindset. We were sitting in the office shack discussing some of the possible project opportunities before we left for the weekend. The retaining wall, a point of contention for the community, was being discussed as a viable project for our group and we were deciding on which steps should be taken first. We had mentioned doing research over the weekend about the wall and bringing in some of our ideas on Monday to discuss with the group. One community leader, Roots, quickly said that it would be more effective and beneficial to work together as a group, researching in the office on Monday, rather than bringing in ideas daily to be discussed. He said that this would ensure that the group was on the same page from the start. The idea of Shared Action Learning has become a daily practice between the community and our group.

Summary Notes of Scenes Below:

  • Creative Gardening Plans with Community Leaders
  • Planning Water and Sanitation Piping for Future Upgrading Efforts
  • The Retaining Wall Problem and Possible Planning Solutions

Cast of Characters:

WPI Student Group: Zachary Hennings, Rachel Mollard, Adam Moreschi, Sarah Sawatzki, Stephen Young

Mtshini Wam Community Leaders: See Day 2 Scene


Creative Gardening Plans with Community Leaders

Over the past week the community leaders have, on multiple occasions, stated that gardening has the potential to be very beneficial to the whole community, providing food and job opportunities. During a recent meeting we posed the ideas we had for gardening outside the shacks, having some vertical gardening up the shack walls, not only saving space, but also providing aesthetic appeal.

The day before this meeting we had learned from the community specifically what types of vegetables that would like to see grown, and from there we were able to brainstorm some creative growing solutions. We drew up some of these ideas and showed a few of the community leaders. Roots drew inspiration from this and he started drawing up his ideas as well, and then he asked us to follow him outside to show us his ideas. He brought us to one of the courtyards in a finished reblocked cluster. He showed us how he imagined a garden with different vegetables growing in milk crates to be located in the center of the courtyard. He envisioned a screen around the vegetables to prevent the children in the community from tearing the plants apart, as they have been known to do in the past. We explained how we wanted to put the vegetables against the houses to keep the courtyard open for activities, and how we even considered gardening on the roofs of the shacks as an option to get the gardens out of the courtyards, but the ultimate decision was that the roofs were not strong enough to support the plants.

Roots was silent for a while, and then he said we had given him an idea. He pointed at the narrower path into the courtyard, and he asked, “what about gardening on raised platforms above those paths?” We went back inside and drew up some ideas for gardening on raised platforms, and the ideas about space saving gardening techniques began to flow. Sia came up with an idea to have shelves against the shacks and have the crates of plants growing on those shelves. Then we expanded on the idea further to have moveable shelves with netting on the sides to prevent children from getting to the plants. We went back to the office and drew up plans for how these shelves would look to show the other community members. Everyone was throwing around ideas together to make improvements to the ideas we drew up. Our group then gave our ideas for how gardening could make a living for those in the community that chose to be gardeners. The gardeners could give or sell for a low price to the community members, and then sell the excess for profit outside Mtshini Wam. These community gardens, if maintained properly by key community individuals along with help of all community members, have the potential to provide some income to the gardeners and possibly the entire community in their savings pool. Depending on the community’s decision on the business scheme of the gardening, the vegetables would be locally grown for a reduced or no cost to community members. The community seemed very excited about this prospect..

Planning Water and Sanitation Piping for Future Upgrading Efforts

Being highly influential in the technical components of Mtshini Wam’s upgrading, Roots was keen on explaining how the piping scheme for the community was drawn up.  We understand that updating the reblocked shacks’ actual specifications is an important aspect in the engineering details of the upgrading initiatives, and the sewage and water pipes are an essential piece of this task.  Last week we had some down time in the office and Roots decided that he wanted to show us the retaining wall and explore some the piping options. There was one shack in particular wedged in a corner with little space for a pipe to come in and connect to toilet. Through discussion with Roots and our group, we were able to strategize a solution to the problem by extending the length of the pipe into the shack ensuring room for the toilet. Our group asked Roots who had the final decisions on how the piping is currently laid out, to which he replied that the community leaders worked with CORC architects on an agreed upon plan, which was then sent to the City’s engineering department for approval.  Although this may seem like a simple process waiting to happen, we have come to the conclusion that we could be influential in ensuring the engineering details of this scheme are sound by the time it comes into effect.  What materials are these pipes made out of?  Is there going to be a septic tank?  What angles and measurements will best prevent clogging?  It is questions like these that we need to speak with a City representative about, so that we can serve as a long-term asset to the community of Mtshini Wam.  Zach had said in one of our group meetings, “we have something unique to offer.  We want to help you out with things that you would not be able to produce otherwise.”  In this piping scheme, we need to strategize in figuring out how our contribution can factor into the community collaboration at hand while not stepping on anyone’s toes in the process.  We feel as though Mtshini Wam’s pride and motivation in their service upgrading are admirable, but we also want to ensure that there is not simply a short-term fix to what they have been waiting six years to receive and will hopefully receive from the City of Cape Town Municipality in the near future

The Retaining Wall Problem and Possible Planning Solutions –

Speaking with community leaders regarding our “project choices”, we felt it would be best to help them create the retaining wall they desired. Stated as their top priority, the wall was to prevent erosion that could compromise the shacks perched above as 10-foot slant. Also by preventing the erosion of sand from underneath these shacks, rats would not be able to enter them through holes in the bottom of the shacks created by erosion. The team felt this would be a significant technical challenge that would only be successful with high levels of collaboration, communication and community involvement. Therefore we began to discuss how we could accomplish the building of this wall. Immediately we saw a disconnect between our thoughts and the community leaders thoughts when they asked if we could start construction of the wall on Monday. This would give us the rest of Friday and the weekend to research wall construction, design the wall, find materials to build with. This incident showed the community did not fully understand the engineering complexities that go into the analysis, design and construction of a large retaining wall.

This way of thinking was only emphasized by our trip to see the eroding slope. They had already built a retaining wall – but it was falling apart and clearly not fulfilling its requirements, since stopping the erosion is now their top priority for us. The community placed so much emphasis on short-term gains that long term planning was clearly secondary. It is challenging for engineering students to accept this way of thinking, doing our best to explain that our work needs to culminate in a well-done, sustainable product. Our message appeared lost, however, so we met with our advisors in order to figure out how we should approach this situation.

It was decided that we should meet with Sizwe, the leaders and our advisors to discuss the wall project. We spoke of requirements, design possibilities and other issues before returning to the conversation regarding planning time. It was repeated that in order to create a wall that would not crumble in a few years, like the last one, a multi-week planning phase would need to happen. There was notable resistance to the idea of slowing down the rate of deliverables to Mtshini Wam. It was also discovered that the government was already committed to erecting a wall for the residents. In the following days it became clear to the team that we had not communicated the objectives of this project clearly enough. The purpose of the project was to help improve the reblocking process, to accomplish things that we are in a unique position to do as a “third party”.

Our meeting with the City’s Project Manager, Leon, effectively ended our considerations for helping with the wall. He was already gathering the resources for the project before we even knew about the erosion. This highlighted a serious lack of communication that runs deep within the upgrading process between the stakeholders involved. A contracting company, GVG, was already on sight to help with the compacting and leveling of the shack platforms, and it was previously agreed upon that GVG would also also rebuild the retaining wall. A possible solution to these miscommunication issues, among others that have and will arise in the future, could be to set up a weekly or bi-weekly meeting between all of the different stakeholders involved in the reblocking and upgrade of Mtshini Wam. In effect, this would eliminate this minute miscommunications that lead to larger problems.  At this point, serious reconsideration of project goals and process needed to happen on our part. It was decided that a new approach had to be taken for our work in Mtshini Wam to be successful.

Plans, Ideas and Challenges:

These individual planning exercises with the community members serve to highlight the ingrained sense of SAL already in place in Mtshini Wam. Although SAL is an effective research and learning tool, it also presents some challenges. There is a language barrier that exists between the community and our project group, which at times causes conversations to run in circles. For this reason it’s key to draw and write out ideas to effectively illustrate the points being addressed, the statement “pictures are worth a thousand words” has really proven true with our interactions with the community members. Challenges are also presented with miscommunications among different stakeholders involved in the upgrade process. The community, municipality, CORC, ISN, GVG and our student group all have different responsibilities and motivations, which at times causes messages, ideas and directions to be lost in translation. These instances have taught us to use visual aids in all planning exercises and we plan to implement calendars and relationship mapping to aid in communication efforts between all stakeholders involved and to ensure forward progress with upgrade of Mtshini Wam and our project.