In mid-January, Catalyst for Peace (CFP) co-hosted a retreat with Kenya-based Green String Network (GSN) to Celebrate and Nurture Women’s Leadership in Peacebuilding.
Women came – and some men (invited for selected sessions) from many corners of Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, the United States and Zimbabwe. Some led organizations, addressed policy, while some gathered friends, family and fellow community members to heal their trauma and make their communities better. Some of us had advanced degrees while others had not been able to finish school. What I experienced was that we were all powerful and had something to teach and something to learn.
In our week together, I felt surrounded by wisdom and experience. I saw that, if invited and given space, it is natural for women to do peace work and build strong communities where everyone can thrive. I got in a very embodied way that when we, as women, are in our power, we have so much to offer, formal education or not. And part of our power can be leaning on others and creating a collective power. When we set out to intentionally support each other rather than compete, our individual and collective efforts become stronger. I also saw how important it is for me, especially as a woman with European-heritage, to not shrink from my leadership but do it in a way that fully invites and values the leadership of everyone in the room.
At CFP, we have been leaning into practicing and embodying values and experiences that have been undervalued and often unseen by the prevailing patriarchy, which singularly values male practices and experiences. We are not looking to supplant male orientations but complement them – bringing balance. This doesn’t just happen. Great intention is needed, part of which is unlearning the assumptions of imbalance, separation, and hierarchy and instead breathing life into those undervalued ways of being- valuing relationship, offering nurture, and collectively listening are a few.
It is with this intention that we set out to co-create space with our friends at Green String Network to nurture and celebrate women’s leadership in peacebuilding. It wasn’t about identifying ways that women can contribute to peacebuilding as defined in the current hierarchy, but how women (and men) can start to create the spaces that we need in the world – these spaces of nurture; of inclusion; of seeing and drawing on each other’s gifts and best and bringing wisdom to the surface to show up in decision-making, organizing and governance.
We knew that before we got into the room together on Kenya’s coast, that we would have to be intentional about co-creating the retreat by clearly setting intentions, a vision and a clear invitation to others so they would know what to expect. Through many months of calls we talked about our hopes and listened together in silence. The vision included celebrating (a step above acknowledging) the women who were doing peace work, many of whom have been on the front lines of peace and community building without a break. It also included honing in on what women and the feminine contributed to peacebuilding. It would be a time for retreat and reflection; a time to bring people together and break down divisions between those in organizations and those working in their own communities; a time for everyone to learn from each other; and a time to take a break from male-normed spaces. We wanted it to be a space where everyone would feel valued and invited to speak.
When we sent the invitation, it invited participants to come as whole people (personal, professional, accomplished and questioning) with the intent of strengthening everyone’s leadership (organizers included). We invited everyone’s roles as both teachers and learners with a focus on practice and lived experience. The invitation outlined the purpose of the retreat and asked everyone to come ready to bring our experiences, encouragement and support. It was going to be our space – all of our space. Poems, songs, stories, prayers and rituals were all welcome.
When we finally came together with those intentions, the retreat offered a space for self-reflection, reflection in groups, community visits, singing, dancing, powerful storytelling and learning from each other. We shared tears and surrounded people who were healing through tears. We heard each other’s stories and experiences. We are able to meet with more community leaders who led trauma healing circles in their communities through a program called Kumekucha (New Dawn) and to go to some of those communities to meet with people whose lives were transformed by having a space to share their selves and stories and understand that they were not alone.
Kumekucha, GSN’s signature trauma healing initiative, was a powerful grounding in how people are able to create healing space in their own communities, which turned into spaces of healthy action. Theses circles invited people into their power and capacity, which wasn’t limited to their own healing processes. One participant mobilized her Kumekucha healing group to prevent revenge killings after a young man was killed in their community near the election polling place. This story and others pointed to the importance of collective healing to societal transformation.
Complementing the experience of Kumekucha, Peace Mothers from Sierra Leone shared their experiences of creating social space where healing and organizing could take place. Their intentional efforts to draw women out of the house and into their power by encouragement and setting up structures that they could lead were transforming communities in Sierra Leone and preparing women to go into spaces formally inhabited by only men. The organizer of the Peace Mothers program described how she literally followed a woman into her house who she saw as having leadership potential, held her hand and encouraged her to speak to the women. You could see the power of that encouragement. That young woman who had hid in her house was there at the gathering and had become a powerful and outspoken leader in her community and her whole district.
Many other women who represented different initiatives and organizations were also present and shared their peacebuilding work, broadly defined as efforts to build healthy community, with the rest of the group. There was discussion, mentoring, planning, and new supportive connections made. People felt renewed and refocused in their commitment. Individuals asked questions and were met with a surround sounding board. The answers were in the room and came through experience.
Part of creating feminine spaces is intentionally inviting learning all around. Everyone is a learner and teacher. My most significant learning was how to be a participant able to relate to and learn from other participants while also facilitating, holding the space for others. This required a foundational understanding that while I was bringing space holding skills, I was not separate from the other participants. We were all in a process of healing, self-realization and growth in order to help create a world that works better for everyone. It also required an understanding that we all had something to contribute in creating and holding the space. I had to show up in a way that invited co-creation, offered my vulnerability rather than expertise and truly invited others into owning the space through invitation, example and structure.
There was an opportunity to facilitate in this way the first night when we gathered together. As I was offering a song we could sing to learn each other’s names, my colleagues from Sierra Leone, representing the Peace Mothers, stepped right in with another name song when they saw some were struggling with the one I was suggesting. I stepped back in the circle.
In spite of some having limited formal education and economic opportunities, the women from Sierra Leone offered power, spirit and experience throughout the gathering. By stepping aside, I wasn’t just making way for a much better song that was going to get everyone moving, comfortable and connected, I was stepping aside so they could offer their leadership. Their presence, power and enthusiasm set a tone for the whole event. They powerfully demonstrated that in spite of many of them having limited education and falling into demographics that would put them in the “recipient” category in development and peacebuilding efforts, they had lived leadership experience that was tremendously important and they had much to teach the rest of the group.
This new way of demonstrating process leadership, encouragement from my sisters’ stories about stepping out in difficult situations, and the lived experience of true support and appreciation across many lines of difference were transformative experiences for me. I will hold this experience as encouragement as I continue to step into my authentic voice and leadership. I also will hold a deep appreciation of the women who were there and how they are transforming their communities. It was so clear to me that women are powerful peacebuilders, but it’s not just that women are needed in positions of traditional leadership and hierarchy but that the feminine is honored in traditionally male spaces and new spaces are created that intentionally invite the feminine – inclusive, creative spaces. These are the kinds of space we need – everywhere- as we figure out how to make the dramatic shifts needed to bring balance, connection and draw on our collective human capacities. I will look forward to seeing how we all will continue to grow and develop those transformational spaces along with the leadership needed to hold them.