by Abbie Fielding-Smith
As my friends were dressing up for a night out in Brixton, I was packing my bag for Beaconsfield, Bucks, and not in the best possible humour. Although I had worked in the PBI office for 7 months and should have known better, for some reason I couldn't help thinking the PBI orientation weekend was going to be an awkward experience. Despite such feelings, and since I was keen to learn more about PBI's work in the field, I resigned myself to the unknowns in the process.
My pre-weekend nerves couldn't have been more wrong. The weekend was quite simply a revelation which made me completely revise my views about teamwork, the power of international solidarity and see-saws.
The people who came were from across the spectrum of ages, nationalities, and political affiliations, but they all had intelligence, understanding, and a sharp sense of humour in common. Which was just as well as we soon realised we were going to be living in pretty close quarters throughout the weekend.
In fact, we suspected the organisers of having engineered the weekend to make conditions as similar to those in the field as the tranquil Buckinghamshire countryside would permit. For three days we all cooked, slept, ate and worked together, and even in this short a space of time we were able to learn a truth which is fundamental to PBI's ethos: people working together can create something that is more than the sum of its parts.
On the first night Sean, one of the trainers, made us agree upon 'groundrules' for the weekend. Things like 'try not to be judgemental', 'try to maintain a sense of humour' came up, and whilst applauding the sentiment I wondered whether going through that exercise would actually have an effect on people's behaviour. But because it was something we had all decided upon and all agreed to, people did seem to feel an obligation to follow it up. This was the first of many lessons I learned that weekend.
The next day was fairly information-intensive, with a series of talks about the principles of PBI's work and the political situation in some of the countries it operates in. There were more participatory activities as well, such as physically positioning yourself on the axis of 'agree, disagree' in response to various statements, and then justifying your position to the rest of the group.
The second day enabled us to put some of the things we had learned into practice. Divided into teams, we had to come to consensus decisions on a series of hypothetical situations which might arise in the field. This culminated in a role play in which the three trainers, Stewart, Susi and Sean acted the parts of interlocutors of the sort that field volunteers might have to deal with (peasants, military commanders and ambassadors, etc). A long lunch break allowed some of us to walk into the nearest village and let off steam for half an hour, enjoying a thoroughly good session on the swings and see-saw until local 3-year-olds reclaimed them.
The last day was about self-assessment, involving one-on-one assessment sessions with the trainers. I'm sure everyone took something different away from the weekend, but from conversations on the train back to London, everyone seemed to have an intensified desire to volunteer for PBI, either in the office or the field. The trainers' descriptions of life in the countries they had volunteered in really made vivid to me the awfulness of what was happening there, and there were points at the weekend where I felt like crying. At the same time, I gained faith in PBI's capacity to change that situation, and began to see what it would feel like to be part of the solution. Which certainly beats a night out in Brixton!
Susi, Sean and Stewart all did a fantastic job of running the weekend, and office volunteer Emily Von Oppen more than deserved the box of chocolates she was given for organising the whole thing.