Emotion, Nonprofits, Reflection

Courage. Coragem.

Two weeks ago, nonprofit and community leaders gathered together in Yakima, Washington, to work in teams on hard issues. In several different conversations, people used the word “courage.” They described some people as having it, others as needing it, and a general hope that the community could muster the courage needed to do things differently.

I couldn’t help but think back to a time when a different community of leaders used the word “courage” to describe what they needed to have. I wrote about that experience in 2012, and the lessons from then seem as relevant now.  

As we go into the Thanksgiving holidays, I am tremendously grateful for the women I got to know in Salvador, Brazil– and the nonprofit leaders and partners across Washington I work with today. 

Coragem

Originally posted in February 2012

NancyTeachingSalvadorI was in Salvador, Brazil, last month teaching a class on NGO capacity building and grant writing, sharing everything I know about building community and structure around a mission that makes the world a better place.  On Friday, as all of the tools and tricks it takes to run an effective organization settled into the minds of class participants, one leaned forward and said, “Temos que ter coragem.”  We have to have courage.  Courage that allows them to pioneer new ways of doing things, knowing that they will make mistakes in front of each other along the way.

Indeed, courage was on the minds of these women that day.  A discussion about program evaluation shifted from graduation rates to measuring any gain in self esteem that might come through education and social support.  They described trying to get young women to even consider taking a university entrance exam within a culture of presumed failure.  Each of the women in the room had taken the Vestibular at least twice—several three and four times— before passing, and the young women they work with know that it is uphill battle to learn enough to pass this rigorous exam.  Their dreams of achieving a university education required courage to march through the pain of endless study with no guarantee of success, foregone wages, and, for some, social stigma for even trying.

As it turns out, the inner demons that haunt young African-Brazilian women were in good company. The night before, a police strike began, resulting in violence and looting in the neighborhoods to which these women were returning to that night.  By the time this conversation was happening, over eighty people had been killed, and randomness of crime had uprooted any sense of public security for the poor residents of the city.  The fear of what might happen was written on their faces.  They left early to journey home on public buses, some traveling alone as far as the airport.

Courage was on their minds, and now it is on mine.  These women are working in a space in which they have to muster together personal, professional, and social courage, battling internal and external demons around every turn.  They have to lift the spirits of others—giving others hope for a better tomorrow—when the same demons haunt them.  The success they achieve in these circumstances is heroic and humbling.

There I sat, listening to their discussion, aware of the space between their experiences and my reality.  What was my role in this partnership? Encourage? Encourage has someone else as its object.  It is passive, distant, and possibly condescending.  I was on a flight out the next morning.  Who was I to tell them to keep up the great work?

What struck me about my week in Salvador was how open these women were to learn and to teach, how they had made a commitment to social change and were in this work for the long term, and how they intuitively understood that their big societal issues were made up of many small problems, all of which could be tackled with the right resources.  They weren’t afraid to have the hard conversations.

Our alternative to encouraging them is to have courage with them.  We can be partners in hard conversations that cross cultural and power boundaries, giving each other the benefit of the doubt along the way. We can challenge our own limits, professionally and personally, in solidarity with them.  And we can build a long-term community in which to learn, celebrate, and labor together through whatever demons come our way.  To make a difference in this world, they reminded me, temos que ter coragem.

Action, Reflection

Reflections on a Graduation

CaeMy daughter graduates from high school this week. Nearly 18 years anticipating what she will become, and now she is.

It seems like just yesterday that we sat at the dining room table, me sewing on my machine surrounded by shapes of fabric, she leaning over her textbook swearing that geometry had no practical use in real life. Much of a child’s education is focused on amassing knowledge for a future that is impractically elusive. In many ways it is like the other class about which we argued its practicality, physics. Our kids gather potential energy to one day to shift into the kinetic energy of doing something bold and important. That day always seemed far in the distance.

Being a parent during a child’s graduation year is like observing the water’s edge as the tide recedes. First one spit of water, then a second, a hermit crab pokes out of a hole, and then the whole beach quivers with movement. Within a year, our transition started with a college application, then drivers ed, soon moving out, voting, and getting a first job. A new anticipation sets in as we see our child’s learning turn into practiced, practical action.

Action, Reflection

The Inseparability of Reflection and Action

reflection“We find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers.”
– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Sometimes you give people time to think about something, and things get a lot deeper than you were planning on. You stop for reflection, and they dig into something so deep that even they seemed surprised. As much as you might prepare, you can’t anticipate when this is going to happen. And when it does happen, it is very cool.

In a session on turning learning into action, I asked people to think about a time that they had reflected on something. What was that like. They thought silently for a minute then shared with a neighbor. One woman had journaled about a newspaper headline and ended up writing a book. Several women talked about the reflection that comes from loss, driving them to start a statewide advocacy group or make serious life changes. Across the board, people recounted experiences that showed how a time of reflection yielded a time of change.

“Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.”
– Paulo Freire 

Silence was not an option for the author driven to write a book. She said that she couldn’t stop herself once the idea took hold. She described the fear that comes from taking on a project that involves new skills showcased in a public way, and yet that fear wasn’t enough to deter her. The resulting book is the only documentation of a local asylum that defined that era of mental health services.

Reflection and action are inseparable. Each is needed to keep the other on track, and yet too often we rush to action because so much needs to get done. What if we stopped– and those supporting us funded us to stop– so that we could reflect alone, with colleagues, and our community?