Monday, 7 January 2013

Pathfinders Project: Interview With Project Director Conor Robinson

Conor Robinson on left with project supporters
Irazema (left) and Josh (right).
I can remember talking to some of my McGill University colleagues back when I was taking my first degree.  Some of them went travelling for a year   between high school and university - a gap year.  I did not.

I was always annoyed with these people - mostly because I never got such an opportunity!  But I think I would have felt far less annoyed and more happy and proud to know them if they had spent their year doing meaningful service for humanity with the  Pathfinders Project!

Want to really make a difference in the world?  Want to help people in other countries?  Want a life changing experience? You should consider becoming a Pathfinder!

A mutual friend, Paul Chiariello, passed the word on to me about this awesome program.  He also forwarded me the founder and director Conor Robinson's e-mail address.  Conor was gracious enough to answer some of my questions about him and his new project to make the world a better place.  Here's the information straight from the horse's mouth.  Here's how it all went down.

GP: Where were you born, raised and went to school? What was the religious climate at your home, school, community? Were your parents very religious? What would you consider yourself?
CR: I was born in rural Northern California, in a town called Redding. I grew up in Cottonwood, population 2,900, then moved for high school to the only slightly larger locale of Red Bluff. My family was an anomaly in these conservative Christian cow towns because we were liberal and not very religious, but we did attend church most Sundays.  
This attendance was important to my dad, though he himself was not much of a believer. Looking back, I've come to the conclusion that he probably wanted to believe, but required his family's credence as tacit approval and reinforcement of his faith. He was never very good at justifying his belief on his own.
I can clearly remember the series of conversations we had when I was ten and announced that I was agnostic. My dad had to seek advice about how to persuade me, and he came back with the blind watchmaker argument. Even then I found it unconvincing. By the time I was asked to give the sermon on "Youth Day" when I was 12, I already called myself an atheist. I delivered a sermon about striving to be a better person in all of my interpersonal relationships - as a son, brother, student, and teammate. I was already on the path to Humanism, though I didn't know it at the time.
GP: What is Pathfinders Project?
CR: Pathfinders Project is a yearlong international service trip with clean water, education, sustainability, and advocacy projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The trip is sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief, a non-profit organization created to focus, encourage, and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of secular humanists.  
Pathfinders Project has three primary aims: to provide humanitarian service and address specific regional needs in each country visited, to foster dialogue across religious, cultural, and ethnic boundaries, and to evaluate and compare countries and partner organizations for consideration as the launch site of the Humanist Service Corps as an ongoing program of Foundation Beyond Belief.
GP: When did you come up with the idea for Pathfinders Project? When and how did it start up? What has it achieved so far? What are it's goals for the future?
CR: Straight out of college, I joined Teach For America and committed to teach in Los Angeles for two years. After my first year of teaching, I knew that I wanted to travel the world after I had completed my commitment with Teach For America, and I knew that I wanted my travels to be as meaningful as possible. For me, that meaningful travel meant three interrelated things: engaging in service, forging genuine human connections, and seeking out authentic cultural experiences. 
The original idea behind Pathfinders Project was to build a foundation for open interaction with locals by working alongside them on projects that directly benefited their communities. By sharing in their work, I hoped also to share in other aspects of their daily lives. 
You might say that Pathfinders Project hasn't achieved much yet, since we won't embark until July. Then again, Pathfinders Project has built a service program that is now sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief and endorsed by the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. We aim to build from that platform toward a permanent Humanist Service Corps, which will become an ongoing program of Foundation Beyond Belief and will draw nonreligious volunteers from around the world.
GP: Is Pathfinders Project only for Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics or can anyone volunteer? Which diverse faiths (or non-faiths) have been in Pathfinders so far?
CR: Pathfinders Project is for nonreligious volunteers, but it does involve interfaith work. Our partner organizations are not necessarily nonreligious organizations, and the vast majority of the people alongside whom we work will certainly be religious. This is one of the aspects of Pathfinders Projects that excites me most. As I explained above, one of the reasons I want to engage in service as I travel is because I believe it will allow me to connect with people of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds who might otherwise hesitate to open their lives to me.
GP: How can someone sign up for Pathfinders Project? When is the deadline? How much would it cost?
CR: The application for Pathfinders Project is simple, straightforward, and may be found on the website. February first is the last day to submit applications. We are asking each Pathfinder to raise $10,000, which represents approximately half of the total cost of travel, food, lodgings, and materials for our work. Pathfinders Project will work to fundraise the rest.
GP: I would love to post experiences of Pathfinders ... or else link to a blog created by Pathfinders while on site. Would this be in the works?
CR: This will definitely be in the works. Each Pathfinder will set up a blog before departure and maintain it throughout the year of travel. These blogs will be linked from and will relate what the Pathfinders learn about themselves, each other, and the people they meet.
Conor also tells me that there is some interest in Pathfinders someday partnering with Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda, a project near and dear to my heart!  Watch this space!

Dear Readers: Remember that February 1st is the application deadline!  If you are a reader of this blog and would like to apply, I would be happy to pass the word along and help you out best I can - little blogger that I am! Just let me know!

A big thank you to Conor for agreeing to be interviewed for the blog!

And here's the link to the website again!

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