At the end of February, my colleague Charles and I went to Kenya to meet with friends and colleagues who are part of an organization called Green String Network. We wanted to explore how we could, together, facilitate growing women’s leadership in peacebuilding.
Our colleagues have long experience working in Peacebuilding in Kenya and in the region more broadly. Due to the respect they have from their previous work and relationships, they were able to pull together three groups of powerful and dynamic women in short order.
We met with professional peacebuilders and healers who mostly work for Nairobi-based organizations; we met with women in Mombasa who were community organizers and those working for organizations promoting peace and well-being; and finally, we met with community activists and peacebuilders who live and work in Kibera and other informal settlements in Nairobi.
We met in an office; a hotel; and the yard of a small community organization – moving from the grass into the garden of Kale as the sun encroached on our circle.
In all of the circles, we started with prayer, welcome and introductions by our Green String Network colleague, Tecla and an overview of GSN from Angi. Charles was there for the introductions, offered his appreciation of women and their capacity to promote peace and social change and acknowledged the importance of ‘women’s space” – space where women could be together outside of patriarchal expectations. He apologized for the harm men have done and do to women, he committed his support to women’s leadership… and he left the room.
In all three circles, his act of appreciating what women have to uniquely offer, a heartfelt apology for harm of women by men, commitment to support, and leaving the room was a powerful experience for all. Most of the participants had never had an experience like that. If Charles traveled all the way to Kenya just to leave the room, that was worth the trip in everything it symbolized and invited from the women.
I then shared something about CFP, our connection with Green String Network and some observations that have been fueling my purpose and work. When women come together with the intention of sharing their authentic voices, supporting each other and collectively thinking through ways to improve the community, they are powerful and unstoppable. Huge untapped potential shows up and gets activated. I saw this in Sierra Leone where the Peace Mothers, who came together to attend to women’s unique needs in post-war reconciliation, then went on to create collective economic projects, support young people and start to employ the voice they were discovering in larger community forums with men. I had also experienced elements of those outcomes in my own life as a participant in an on-going women’s circle.
As such, we (CFP and GSN ) wanted to open a space for reflection with these women peacebuilders on what women uniquely brought to peacebuilding; what was needed to grow women’s leadership, individually; and what was needed to invite more women into peacebuilding.
Using a talking stick (a stick that invites open-hearted sharing), we sat in a circle and passed the talking stick around with the person who had the stick speaking or sitting in silence while everyone else listened. And here’s what happened… (I will not attribute statements to anyone because I did not get permission and want to respect that we were not in a public forum).
There was rich sharing. Participants shared the qualities they brought to peacebilding – an inherent desire for justice for all; ability to cooperate; patience; access to emotion and tears; empathy; humility; accepting others; spirituality – an ability to connect with spirit; passion; love; listening; inclusion; seeing human beings as worthy; toughness and determination. These were just a few but were common across all circles. One of my favorite statements was “When an African woman is determined, God is with her.”
Something many people said – even those who had been active peacebuilders for many years was, “This is the first time I’ve considered this question.” “We don’t have this kind of space to talk and reflect.” There were tears, there was appreciation for the space and for each other.
Along those lines, that was what people wanted more of – an opportunity to connect, not to feel alone. “I feel like I’m pushing a rock up a hill by myself.” “I need someone to hold my hand.” “We need to create community support.” These were just a few of the statements participants shared. There was also a request for training, which was then challenged in the Mombasa circle by other participants. “You say you need training, but you have been doing this for 16 years. YOU are the trainer.” For me that demonstrated a clear need for a space for people to remind each other of their strengths.
When everyone shared, it was so clear that the collective capacity in each circle was tremendous. If the participants leaned on each other and shared together, they had all of the knowledge that was needed. They were asking for someone to organize; and in one circle, a participant powerfully emerged to organize to the point where CFP and Green String Network said, “we will continue to talk about what we can do, but don’t wait for us.” We didn’t want to stifle or delay any of the energy and momentum that had emerged.
I left the circles feeling grateful and in awe of the positive potential of human beings and women specifically. The range and depth of work the women were doing was tremendous. These were women on the front lines, many of whom personally dealt with great adversity while committing to help others. The local organizer of the circle in Kibera had just lost her mother the day before and was making funeral arrangements when we arrived, yet she showed up, shared her grief and participated. Another woman, a community health worker, came to the circle having just had a baby die in her arms because the young, unexperienced mother had forced the baby to eat, and the baby choked. Visibly upset and overwhelmed, she still showed up to our meeting. In another case, a woman shared the struggle she had had with her son who had left the country for questionable reasons and her fear for her grandsons who were being targeted by the police because of their efforts to target likely “terrorist.” She was in a tough spot and was likely feeling blamed – by Kenya and global community – for not being in control of her male children and grandchildren. I personally could relate to being the parent (step-parent in my case) of a teenage boy who, no matter what we did, was not changing his behavior that was taking him down a road that could lead to a lot of harm and trouble. At that moment, after getting several phone calls with bad news about his decisions, I was in a moment of despair about what to do. I shared this and the next time we went around the circle, this same person spoke with such conviction in support of me in my parenting of him. Knowing what she was going through and then seeing how she was able to dig deep, in spite of her troubles, and share truth and convictions with me about how to approach the situation about the very challenges she was facing, spoke to me of how we help each other in our weaknesses as well as our strengths. When we are in community, we can start to see our weaknesses as strengths. Collectively, we are able to hold so much more than we can hold individually.
In reflecting on my role after the circles, I realized that most of the work I did in the circles was releasing messages that have been ingrained in me in my “professional” formation. Some of those messages were: I need to make something happen; I need to create a space that will lead us to some kind of effective conclusion that will lead to positive social change; I am more responsible than the group to make something happen; I will be a failure if something good doesn’t happen; I want people to think I’m competent, open, understanding, not a colonizing outsider. Instead, I replaced those messages with other deeper truths that came from my core knowing – everyone in the circle was intelligent, had experience and gifts to offer; the collective wisdom would hold the learning, sharing and movement of ideas to action; we were connected; we had good intentions; we were willing to offer our gifts for the greater good; we were able to sit with our unique contributions and appreciate ourselves for those and recognize their value; we could be guided by deeper knowing and spiritual inspiration. I was there to look for and witness those assumptions.
I also had to work hard to remain open-hearted. I have a long history of hiding parts of myself for lots of reasons. If I was there to invite the authentic selves of those in the room to be present, I had to be authentic and present. And frankly I am convinced that our greatest gift as healers and social change agents comes from our authentic selves. I don’t say this to discount knowledge, experience, and research that has been amassed to help us understand effective ways to build peace and contribute to positive social change. However, if those aren’t employed by authentic and open people who embrace their full humanness, they are ignoring the most powerful resources available.
I continue to process the fullness of the experience and look forward to continuing to think and plan together with our colleagues at Green String Network to identify next steps in our partnership to grow women’s leadership in peacebuilding.