Reflection on the First Atlantic Fellows Convening in Cuba

Guest post from Eléonore Bayen, Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at the Global Brain Health Institute

On May 5, 2018, 12 Atlantic Fellows, faculty, and staff from four of the six Atlantic Fellows programs (including the Global Brain Health Institute, Equity Initiative of Southeast Asia, Tekano for Health Equity in South Africa, and the Social Equity program of Australia) embarked on a one-week pilot learning expedition in Cuba. This experimental journey, organized by the Platform for Innovation and Dialogue with Cuba, included abundant field visits, meetings with Cuban experts, immersion in Cuban culture and economics, and reflection time.

Diving into Cuba offered Atlantic Fellows an intense and multi-domain learning experience that enabled us to discover and understand Cuban history; the current transition period; new emerging economies in Cuba; vibrant Cuban Art; sharp research in social sciences; the transfer of research into action; and the multiple roots of the very unique Cuban human capital and Cuban spirit.

The Cuba Platform facilitated and created the opportunity for constructive conversations with economists, sociologists, general practitioners, cooks, community leaders, activists, researchers, musicians, car and bus drivers, businessmen, and women. Immersion visits – for instance in the Lizt Alfonso dance school, Dr Funes’ farm, the VeloCuba bicycle collective, the house of artist Sandra Ramos, the restoration garage Nostalgicar, transformative workshops for women, the Cuban Literacy Museum, and the universe of young rap musicians from Havana among others – were very constructive.

These varied gatherings and settings provided multi-level discussions, sometimes in the form of a kind of ‘social living lab’, opening new doors for creativity and collaborations with Cuba and among the Atlantic Fellows. Bubbling topics that resonated intensively with the challenges of the Atlantic Fellows and the objectives of their respective programs were brought to the table. The discussions acted as sparks that kept triggering self and collective reflection. It was an occasion to share both common and opposing views, as well as mutual understandings among Atlantic programs and with Cuban participants.

Cuba is a perfect and timely place for an authentic conversation with all and each of the Atlantic Fellows because Atlantic Fellows are growing individuals aiming to gain leadership, courage and inspiration for their work for fairer, healthier, and more inclusive societies in their home countries. The Cuba Platform (and the many prior years of substantial background work carried out by Sarah Stephens and her colleagues) made it possible for the Atlantic Fellows to get a great dose of inspiration in a short period of time while listening to the lives and projects of exceptional Cuban people. This is extremely valuable and inspiring for Atlantic Fellows who aim at social innovation while facing diverse and intense challenges in their home countries.

Being exposed to the current Cuba reality, an incredible conglomerate of much more than the sole Cuban history, provided opportunities for Atlantic Fellows to step back and reflect on  personal versus collective leadership; to make a deep dive into their personal values, individual beliefs, self-commitment and life projects as growing leaders of their own country; to build cross-program friendships; and to begin to plant seeds of collaboration between Atlantic programs and Cuba.

At a time when values around courage, commitment, resistance, environment, solidarity, respect, and support to the most vulnerable populations of our countries are so valuable and at the same time so fragile worldwide, it seems that Cuba somehow questions us about possible paths regarding old-new ways to stay creative and regarding attitudes towards social change. It is surprising, it is paradoxical for some people, it is refreshing, for sure, and it is happening now in transitional Cuba.

I believe none of the Atlantic Fellows and participants were the same when leaving Cuba. Suitcases were packed with emotions, ideas, energy and courage. The conversation with Cuba and the Atlantic Fellows and the members of the Atlantic Fellowship programs will continue, everyone feeling more connected and ready to work more closely in the future towards Equity.

Click here for a compilation of photos.

Justine Williams