Breaking the SPEED Limit
A Participant Observation on the Organization of “No SPEED Limit” Fun Run 2013
by: Judge Virgilio R. Calimbahin III
SA 21 Section P
At around 5am in early February, a loud bang echoed throughout the area. Music was playing as the timer at the top of the huge arc started ticking. Just like that, the people began to run. Just like that, a multitude of men, women and children came darting along the empty roads of Ateneo, ready to face the rest of the route set along the busy highway known as Katipunan Avenue. They were off to the races.
It’s amazing to think how just a few moments ago, about 12 hours to be exact, there isn’t a race route to begin with. No traffic cones and rope to define the track. No people stationed in strategic places to marshal the runners. No people along the roads of Ateneo and Katipunan to get drinking water from. No loud noises from the energetic crowd. It all began on a quiet Saturday afternoon as the team headquartered in a tent beside the Blue Eagle Gym started prepping for the run.
As a non-member of the Ateneo Special Education Society (otherwise known as SPEED) and an inexperienced logistics crew member, I had no idea what was in store for me in the preparations. Coming in the project, I only had a brief idea of what SPEED really does as a sector-based organization in Ateneo. After helping out less fortunate children through my NSTP and student-leaders through my sector-based organization (Ateneo Consultants for Organization Development and Empowerment), I wanted to see how different it was helping special children. Furthermore, I also wanted to see how these fun runs are organized. Wanting to hit two birds with one stone, I volunteered to help out my best friend (a member of the organization), who also acted as my informant for this participant observation.
It should be of note that despite volunteering to help out SPEED, I had little interaction with special children. Most of the time, I focused on fulfilling my responsibility as a logistics crew member. Therefore, most of what I experienced is about the people of SPEED and SPEED as an organization; and not that much about the children that they work hard for.
Working with the Unknown
My main task for the run is to look for suppliers for tents, lights and sounds. This required me to show up that Saturday afternoon to oversee the tent set-up, as well as rising as early as 1am the next day in order to oversee the lights and sounds set-up. I’ve had experience contacting suppliers before so it should have been nothing new. What made it a bit difficult for me, though, was the fact that I didn’t know anyone from that organization besides my friend. Of course the work of a logistics crew member entails the help of different people as manpower: in setting up the tents, in preparing the traffic cones, etc. That entailed me to work with and even give orders to people I haven’t met before.
I was expecting an indifferent attitude from the people I worked with in that event. I would have understood given that I wasn’t part of the organization in the first place. They could have easily worked with me just to get it over with. I was preparing myself for possible awkward situations. Instead, the reaction I got from them surprised me.
Instead of strange and uncaring faces, I actually encountered many smiling and hyperactive people. Everyone bothered to know my name. Everyone bothered to talk to me whenever we’re not doing anything. I even distinctly remember the head of the project briefly stopping his work and chatting with me for a while. In short, I felt welcomed despite not being a part of the organization. By the end of the run, I found myself gaining new friends and having new people to interact with.
What’s Truly Special
Despite fully working for the run itself, I did have a brief experience with the people the run was for. After the run was over, the children from the beneficiary special education center had a short performance for the crew that stayed. In gratitude for the help by the successful run, the kids actually performed, singing and dancing to the best of their ability.
It’s very hard to describe what actually happened as they performed. The crowd of SPeple (SPEED members) were clapping their hands, joining the children in their tune of thanksgiving. The children were really trying their best to perform, singing as loudly as they could and dancing as well as they can. Having a bit of knowledge about their situation, I realize how hard it was for them to do those feats. Despite their possible fears and limitations, they still performed. Their performance in front of a crowd of people is a milestone in their development.
Seeing the tired and sleepless crew clapping and joining along, I finally saw what it was all about. Despite the all-nighter, the mountains of work that had to be done and the exhaustion that ensued, this made it all worth it. I realized, as a person who actually spent time working hard for this cause, that this is a cause worth fighting for: a sentiment I’m sure I share with all of the people I worked with in that event.
A Deeper Understanding
From this experience, I can see why the culture of SPEED became so welcoming and hospitable. Their work enables them to be happy and jolly despite the negativities of the world. They have to be for the sake of the children. Because of the nature of what they do, the values and actions that are required from the people of the organization trickle down to their ordinary interactions.
All in all, this participant observation allowed me to delve deeper into the ordinary interactions that I see every day. I was given the opportunity to see those interactions come into play and actually be part of it. As a result, I’m able to understand the rationale of these daily interactions.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
– As I mentioned at the end of my notes, participation gives the fieldworker a deeper understanding of the observations that he makes. Simple observation only comes so far as to describe the physical aspects of what is being observed: the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where” and “how”. One can make inferences about the “why”, but one can’t fully understand the context of an action without actually participating in it. A concrete example of this would be like learning to ride a bike. An observer can describe riding a bike all he wants, but he will never experience the thrill of the ride, the excitement of getting the bike to balance and the feeling of fulfillment after riding that first mile without actually riding the bike. Observing’s only half of the story. I experienced this first-hand in the activity as I was observing the people. Observing the people of SPEED outside of the event, I can never tell why they acted the way that they did. It’s only when I experienced actual SPEED work did I realize the nature of their work and how it affected their daily interactions.
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
– Having a key informant helped a lot. Knowing that I’m not part of the organization, it’s her insights that actually brought everything to light. Apart from actually experiencing the work, I also needed to contextualize the work I did into what SPEED does. Having an informant gave me a better understanding of what transpired by telling me how SPEED works in a way I can relate to, considering that we’re friends. I think I won’t make half of the realizations I made without her valuable insights.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
– For one thing, it would be the insights about the cause of the event: the special children. Even when I experienced giving to the children first hand, I had a hard time describing the full experience fully. If I can’t even fully describe the experience, how much more can a questionnaire or an interview fully describe it? I think that these experiential insights are really hard to quantify through survey questions or hard to describe through mere interviews. I think the pure experience of the event really leads to a deeper understanding that one cannot get through these other means.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
– In cases where quantifiable data is required, then questionnaires would be the better option. Questionnaires tend to be more exact and calculating in the results, producing outputs such as graphs that effectively show the relationship between figures.
In situations where qualitative data is needed but the fieldworker does not have access to participate in the activity, such as in Senate hearings or business meetings, then an interview would be most beneficial. Collecting qualitative data can be done through people who actually experience the activity and it’s a step closer to actually experiencing it.
For logistical and time purposes, a questionnaire or interview can be better if the fieldworker is pressed for time. Participant observation, as I’ve experienced, takes a lot of time AND effort. If one’s willing and capable of giving the time to actually participate then participant observation would be the way to go, otherwise a questionnaire or interview might be more beneficial