Program inspires staffer’s push to ‘go beyond’

Special to Western News

Michele Parkin, director of the Office of Faculty Relations, spent many days working the tea fields of Malawi, part of her experience through Western’s Leave for Change program.

How do you promote gender equity and workplace equality in a tribal community in southeastern Africa, particularly when the view of women is so dissimilar from your own?

That was the monumental task facing Michele Parkin earlier this year as she spent a month in a rural community in Malawi, as part of Western’s Leave for Change volunteer program. Using personal vacation time, the program allows staff members to gain exposure to social development issues in a developing country by contributing skills and advice to local partner organizations within the host country.

For Parkin, director of the Office of Faculty Relations, the trip was long overdue.

“I’d been waiting three years to do something like this,” she said, noting her involvement as co-chair of the Staff and International Engagement Committee, that created the program three years ago, impeded her participation. “I am an avid traveler. Seeing other parts of the world and living in different cultures just grabs me.”

Such adventures are nothing new for Parkin who, as a Rotarian, has a strong service-oriented background. At Western, she participated in Alternative Spring Break in Nicaragua and, through a separate program, took students to the Dominican Republic to help build a school.

“All of those experiences were life-changing for me,” she said. “I find myself when I go out and do these things.”

For her trip to Malawi this past January, Parkin used her skills in law, business, human resources and labour relations to provide advice to the Tea Association of Malawi (TAM), made up of nine producers and 22 tea estates.

“In Malawi, they are losing their tobacco industry, and this is a community that is highly dependent on agriculture,” she said. “With tobacco dying, they are looking at a secondary industry to take that primary position. But the problem with tea is, most buyers in the external market are looking for fair-trade treatment of the workers and Malawi’s tea industry has never been successful enough in that area.”

The non-profit Ethical Tea Partnership, and other international labour organizations, are saying Malawi is not treating the workers fairly; companies, therefore, are not buying from local producers until they straighten out their human resource practices.

“The association wanted me to go in and talk to the insiders as to how they could change their practices to meet those better standards, in a way that is affordable to them,” said Parkin, who admitted it took a couple weeks to get the lay of the land.

“At the end of the second week, I started thinking it was so big and complex and how was I going to fix it, or even suggest fixes, because there are roadblocks everywhere,” she added. “But the start of my third week, I was driving back from one of the (tea) estates to the city and I had this vision in my head of this structure, that all of my ideas would fall into, in a sensible way. From there, it was ‘let’s go.’”

It was a hectic final two weeks for Parkin, who would have loved to stay an additional week to tie up some lose ends. She did continue to assist the TAM on her own time after she returned to London.

Lori Dengler, Education Coordinator for Postgraduate Students (Anesthesia & Perioperative Medicine), and Sylvia Kontra, Graduate Affairs Assistant (Modern Languages and Literatures), are the latest staff members to be selected to participate in this year’s Leave for Change program.

Parkin offers some advice to the pair, both of whom will be heading to Vietnam.

“The biggest fear people seem to have is that they don’t have enough to contribute, that they’re not going to make that difference. It’s a false fear because we all have something to contribute,” she said. “Even just growing up in the developed world gives you an advantage in terms of thinking and the knowledge base above the developing country. What seems very simple and straightforward to us can be an ‘a-ha’ moment to them.

“When people come to understand other people in the world a little bit better, it really does enhance world peace and understanding in some small way. One person can make a difference if we connect our lives in ways such as this. Don’t feel you’re lacking on that point. I encourage people to push their own envelope because that’s the only way in which we grow. Go beyond your current experience.”

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Lori Dengler, education coordinator for postgraduate students (Anesthesia & Perioperative Medicine), and Sylvia Kontra, Graduate Affairs Assistant (Modern Languages and Literatures), are the latest staff members to be selected to participate in this year’s Leave for Change program.

To learn more about the program, visit the Western International website,