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Posts Tagged ‘Conscious Social Change’

An Inspiring Start to My Visit with Global Grassroots’ Teams

Monday, April 25, 2016

Working for Global Grassroots this last year has been an extraordinary experience – and one that has just been ‘kicked up a few notches.’ I am incredibly fortunate to now be in East Africa, getting to better know our dedicated local staff and visiting many of our women’s teams. Most of these meetings with teams have taken place in iconic Africa settings, mats spread under large shade trees amidst thatched roof huts with mothers wearing skirts and head scarves of brightly patterned kitenge (fabric) and nursing their babies. My colleague Francis Kumakech and I began my Gulu, Uganda visits with a group named Cing Ma Wabu (Initiators).

Monday, 11 April 2016
It rained heavily for most of last night and, since the rainy season also means the planting season, everyone in the group was scattered throughout the area surrounding the village planting their crops. It took some time to retrieve some of the team from their fields so our 11.00am meeting got started just around 11.45 with five team members: Helen (Chair of Cing Ma Yabu), Katherine, Grace, Polline, and Pasca.
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Pasca, Polline, Katherine, Helen, and Grace

Cing Ma Yabu works on helping couples strengthen their relationship in an effort to reduce the divorce rate. They use drama and role playing to educate couples about such issues as sharing household responsibilities, women’s rights, and conflict resolution. Not long ago, a woman came to the team looking for help. She said her husband was not sharing in the household tasks nor was he taking care of the things ‘a man is supposed to do.’ The wife had been asking her husband to construct a door to their home; they had been living with a blanket hanging over the opening for quite a long time. In addition, he was prone to spending their money on alcohol and there was not enough left to pay school fees, so their children were not attending school.

Four team members went with the woman to her home to meet her husband, do some role playing, and mediate while the couple discussed their issues. The husband began to understand his part in managing the household and, after a few sessions with the group, there was real harmony in that home. The husband has since built a wooden door for their home and the children are back in school. The husband has been much less likely to go off drinking every day – a change that the group sees with men throughout the village since they began their work. In the last year, Cing Ma Yabu has worked successfully with 15 couples who otherwise were heading for divorce.

When they first completed their training through Global Grassroots’ Academy for Conscious Change, there were 20 members. Their success in improving life throughout their village enticed others to join, particularly some of the men and women whose marriages they helped save. They now number 40 and have set that as a cap for membership. Helen, the team’s chair, acknowledges that a team larger than that will be too difficult to manage.

Cing Ma Yabu faces two distinct challenges in their work. The first is transportation. There are few cars where they live which is approximately 20 kilometers outside Gulu along rutted unpaved roads and plenty of dirt track through the brush. Some of the couples seeking help live five or more kilometers away that the group must walk. There are those who live further out in the sub-county that the group is unable to get to.
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The second challenge the team faces can be more dangerous: when they show up at a household to mediate, the husband can be “wild,” often because he is drunk. The team knows they must tread carefully, working very hard to calm him down. Grace commented that, when that happens, “it is not fun” and sometimes all they can do is return when he is sober and able to listen and learn.

Cing Ma Yabu sustains their project by cultivating gardens for those who are either physically unable to do so or have jobs that take them away from home each day. They have managed their funds well and now have a savings account through a nationwide savings and loan association. Through this account, members can both save money and borrow funds should a need arise. Helen remarked that, in addition to seeing the impact their work is having on their community, the savings scheme is a great benefit that helps keep the team together.

A group of grassroots women with little to no education have built a strong, committed team that is bringing domestic harmony to their community, reducing the divorce rate, increasing the number of children who attend school, and improving the economic status of its members. To say I left their village both inspired and humbled is an understatement.

Ugandan roadtrip

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Over Valentine’s week, Heidi and I took nearly a week-long road trip across Uganda to visit girls in our program in a partnership between Cornerstone and Global Grassroots. Eleven of our girls who are in their gap year between secondary school and university are part of a program with Global Grassroots to train them in “conscious social change.” In January, the girls attended a 3-week training where they each identified issues that concern them in their communities and developed ideas on how to confront these issues. They have now been back in their villages for a few weeks to study their issue in more depth, so we visited each of them, went over their proposals, and gave them a small amount of money to implement their venture ideas.

It was an incredible joy to see where each girl comes from and I swelled with pride at the difference they are already making in their villages. The power of seeing our girls gain the confidence to lead in their communities and work with others to find local solutions to local problems nearly brought me to tears with each visit.

Women Leaning In and Leading from Within at the “G-Level”

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women Work and the Will to Lead rightly encourages women to engage more intensely in claiming their place at the table on the road to leadership positions in corporate America. Granted, more female leadership at the highest echelons of the private sector would go a long way to transform the institutions that drive our economy. But readers would be amiss to assume from Sandberg’s chosen spotlight that to achieve widespread gender equality the primary driver is for more women to aspire to the C-Suite. In fact, women can and do lead in whatever endeavor they have chosen. Sandberg’s call for women to rise to their potential is applicable far beyond our stereotypical vision of corner office success. There is no better example than that of a disadvantaged woman rebuilding her country after war.

I founded and run a global non-profit, called Global Grassroots, which is focused on identifying change leaders at the grassroots level, shall we say “G-Level”, among the world’s most marginalized women and girls. We operate a social venture incubator in Rwanda and Northern Uganda that provides mindfulness-based leadership practices and social entrepreneurship skills to help these women develop sustainable micro-non-profits to advance their own ideas for social change. Some of the most extraordinary leaders I have ever met, I have found among the ranks of undereducated subsistence farmers, war widows, the rural poor and survivors of horrific violence. There are three reasons why grassroots women’s leadership is crucial for gender equality: First, women have inherent wisdom and insight into what is most needed to evolve society especially with respect to issues that directly impact women and their families. Second, once women have a successful experience leading change, they are likely to continue solving problems especially benefiting the most vulnerable. Finally, true gender-equality will be built on women achieving parity at all levels of society, especially among the most marginalized, because that is where women are most deeply affected by inequality.

Take Global Grassroots venture “Hard Workers” for instance. In 2007, in a rural and mountainous Rwandan community called Gahanga, a team of 19 women including their leader Seraphine Hacimana, were troubled by the three mile journey women embarked upon each day down a hillside to collect water at a contaminated valley creek just to meet their family’s basic needs. Collecting water at remote access frequently points puts women at risk of sexual assault. Further, many of those who were left physically disabled by the war and those who were elderly, blind, pregnant or HIV positive were too weak to make this journey. Some would send their daughters to collect water instead of school. Others would hire men to deliver water on a bicycle. But for those too poor to pay for help, many ended up being pressured to exchange sex for water delivery daily, just to provide for their children.

With our training and an initial $2600 seed grant, the team designed their own non-profit water solution. They installed a water tank next to a church within close walking distance to collect and purify rainwater from the roof. Hard Workers launched their operations in August 2007 to serve 100 households (totaling between 800 – 1000 people) with fresh clean water daily. The organization is focused not only on ending sexual exploitation for water, but also ensuring the elimination of water-borne disease and protecting girls’ ability to attend school. The revenue generated from those who can afford to pay ensures the most vulnerable always have water for free. Further, the team uses any profits to pay orphan school fees and provide annual health insurance for women and their families. Given women were now freed up from water collection for other economic pursuits, the organization later established a small revolving loan fund for the poorest women to start their own businesses. Today, the venture is operating sustainably, has expanded to three additional sites and now serves close to 9000 people. To save the cost of hiring guards, team members, some even widows in their late 70s, sleep on the ground alongside their tanks in shifts each night to prevent people from stealing their water.

Gender relations have already begun to change. Village men have asked to join the project, and occasionally when a woman is sick, her husband will take her shift guarding the tanks at night. Women from as far as three hours away have since traveled to visit the team to learn from them. Project leader Seraphine Hacimana has spoken on the radio about water issues, was been invited to Kenya to share their work, and was recently recognized by government officials as an example of women serving other women. But what is most remarkable about this team is that of its 19 members, only seven are literate. Founder, Seraphine is a mother of eight children in her 40s with only a first grade education. Once living on the edge of survival, Seraphine is now a community change leader. This is the potential of G-Level leadership to transform individual lives and whole communities.

Hard Workers succeeded because they not only leaned in, but they led from within. They identified what they felt most passionate about, then leveraged their own skills, capabilities and courage to initiate a solution of their own design. Most of all, they were united by a common vision that came not from aspirations defined by dominant culture, but from an inner sense of purpose. Anyone who wants to lean in and lead from within can start by identifying what issue or realm of work you are most passionate about, what you are uniquely capable of doing, and what your exclusive insights are from your unique life experience, and then cultivate and contribute these assets in partnership with others who share a common purpose.

Sustainable, systemic change has to be driven by women from all levels of society, especially given women’s inherent wisdom as marginalized care-takers of community. In order to achieve gender equality, it is thus critical that we facilitate leaning in at both a grassroots level and at the top of the economic pyramid for women’s future leadership worldwide.

Change Agent Profile: Perpétue, People of Love

Thursday, March 31, 2011

by Christina Hueschen

On her family plot in Rwanda’s Kamonyi District, Perpétue grows cassava, soy, bananas, beans, sweet potato, and mangos. And papaya – lots of papaya. Each morning she rises, washes her face, checks on her animals, cleans her house, grabs a hoe, and heads out to the fields.

Perpétue’s days are jam-packed with farming and domestic work. “When I have a little free time,” she adds, “I practice the consciousness practices that I learned from Global Grassroots’ training, and I help my grandchildren with those practices. They like most to lie down and practice breathing, but their second favorite is stretching their arms as part of yoga.”

Perpétue lost her husband years ago, but she has seven children, many of whom have families of their own. She looks the part of a grandmother: the smile creases around her eyes and the dusting of moles across her cheeks are clues to her cheerful warmth. Her most important piece of advice for a child or grandchild: “To be honest – using truth in anything, in whatever she does.”

Perpétue has thick, powerful hands, which she crosses in her lap – left clasped over right wrist – whenever seated. She believes in hard work. Unless she is upset about something in particular, she enjoys her daily labors. “[As long as] there is nothing hurting my heart and making me feel bad, I just feel good about any task.”

Last year, Perpétue took on a big, new task. As one of the team leaders of People of Love, Perpétue is working to bring a clean water access point to her community in Kamonyi. Water access – supplemented by the team’s educational campaigns on gender-based violence law, gender equality, and nutrition – will reduce domestic violence, keep more girls in school, promote gender-equal families, and increase female participation in community affairs and development.

Giving up her usual daily tasks to work with People of Love has been tougher than Perpétue anticipated. When the team gathers to work on the project, they are neglecting their responsibilities at home and in the fields. “We are going back home without any income… Nothing replaces our time.” But the sacrifice is worth it to Perpétue. She explains that she and her team are looking forward. “We believe in many changes in the future. That’s why we are still motivated. Also we’ve learned a lot from Global Grassroots.” Perpétue smiles. “We want to use those skills to change the future.”

Her fellow community members share her hopeful vision: irrigated green vegetables growing on the mountainside, not just in the valley, and even in the dry season; no more malnutrition; enough produce to sell some extra at the market. Everyone is happy about the water project, and that fills Perpétue with joy. Even the kids are talking about it; they will no longer have to miss mornings at school to trek down into the valley to collect water.

“We realized that if we have water, the children can attend school on time,” Perpétue says. “And we realized that the biggest problem in our community that women face is not having access to clean water.” She explains that currently, water scarcity is a trigger for gender-based violence in her community, where women spend a huge portion of their time and labor fetching water. “Women face domestic violence because they didn’t accomplish their responsibilities, their tasks, at home. Women are staying behind in development. They don’t have opportunity to participate… in whatever things are happening in their society or their umudugudu or their community. They feel like they have to spend all their time on water – they are late in anything – because of the scarcity of water.”

A clean water access point will change Perpétue’s own life in many ways. She will be able to improve her hygiene by washing her body and clothes regularly. Her cows will get water more than once a week. She will grow crops in the dry season. “I will be able to do things quickly,” she explains, “because water is the main trouble point for everything happening in farming.”

But mostly, Perpétue talks about the impact of water access on the collective “we” – the women of her community. ‘We’ will have the opportunity to participate in local assembly meetings. ‘We’ will no longer suffer from miscarriages during the uphill struggle from valley wells or streams. “Everything I mentioned – the struggles women face that I mentioned above – will be changed in the future.”

Perpétue is a change agent with a resolute belief in her theory for social progress: “if we have water, we can remove many obstacles that stand in the way of women and allow us to move forward to where we want to be.”

Day 4 Women’s Inner Wisdom

Friday, June 18, 2010

The last two days of our Academy for Conscious Change have been full of tiny miracles and awe-inspiring moments. Thursday we began a journey with our women that started with yoga, continued with a short session of deep breathing and then a short meditation.  Out of the meditation, our participants responded to a simple invitation:  What is one thing you know to be true?  I was deeply moved by their wisdom. Here are a few of their responses:

  • There is no difference between love and compassion
  • Everyone thinks that animals are ignorant, but when you take care of them every day, you realize that they can recognize you outside and know when you are inside your house
  • Love is more powerful than war.  Forgiveness is more powerful than punishment
  • You can be rich without security and peace of mind, but the poor can be free without stress
  • Life is short. Don’t pay attention to the problems you can’t control
  • Bananas take five months to grow from the flower
  • You can’t succeed when you feel afraid
  • Families of alcoholics can’t progress
  • Reflecting before reacting is better and can help you to have a better relationship
  • There are no wild animals that will eat you if you go outside at night
  • Women taking care of children alone are overworked
  • Even if you are rich and can buy nice clothes, that doesn’t mean you look good

I’m working on a few of my own truths:

  • Each moment is always new
  • Breathing can heal
  • Anyone who enters your life (whether they love you or challenge you) is there to teach you something
  • Real outer change is inner-directed
  • Animals generally don’t want to be eaten
  • The things that really need to be done don’t need to be on a list
  • Food tastes better when you grow it yourself
  • I feel more grounded when I’m barefoot
  • At our very smallest components, all things are the same
  • The only thing that exists is now

Principle FIVE: Leveraging Inner Purpose to Create Social Innovation

Monday, October 12, 2009

This is part 6 of 6 in a series of posts about the Five Principles and Supporting Practices of Conscious Social Change.

Principle FIVE: Leveraging Inner Purpose to Create Social Innovation
Have you ever been asked what you really wish you could be doing?  How many of us can say “I’m doing it!”  The final key principle in initiating conscious social change is to listen for an individual calling and then explore how to leverage it to create social innovation. Bringing this same presence to our social justice work allows for radical creativity. Clarity among conscious change agents allows for personal agenda to make room for the best ideas to move forward.  As an inherently interconnected and systemic approach, conscious social change invites collaboration with both the target population and the perpetrators. Finally, it ensures those working together are inspired by a common cause, and it energizes collective efforts by honoring individual needs for renewal.

Supporting Practice FIVE: Leveraging Gifts and Assets
I’ve actually posted this exercise as a downloadable workshop on this website under resources for Change Agents. The exercise is a simple method to engage teams in reenergizing the creative-problem solving process. Groups can work collectively to assess the specific gifts, capabilities, passions and assets the individual participants and larger community possess.  It can be used with youth, educators, organization staff, community activists, and change agents.  The first objective is to help participants see what tools they have to use in solutions-building by tapping into individual capabilities and passions. The second objective is to release the creative ideas of the collective body. By coming from a place of inner strength, the participants will be more likely to generate solutions that they will find inspiring and meaningful to pursue.  Having understood the gifts, capabilities and assets they bring to a solution, they then will be more likely to design solutions which will be sustainable long-term and which maximize social value creation.

Even without a structured exercise, you can take a moment to close your eyes and sit in silence.  As your mind quiets, then ask yourself a few of these questions and see what arises:

  • What do I really want to be doing with my life one day?
  • What am I seeking that I don’t have in my life right now?
  • What do I feel most passionate about?
  • What do I feel called to do right now?
  • What are my unique gifts?
  • What issue, activity, industry, type of work really moves me?
  • When do I feel most satisfied?

I do believe that we each have a gift or gifts that we can choose to cultivate and make use of in contributing to the common good.  When we do, in some way, we know we’re on the right path.  We feel more alive, we experience more joy and meaning, some people even reach those “flow” states.  Ultimately, we find out that we have everything we need to take each step forward.

But one of my teachers once shared a powerful teaching, that is worth keeping in mind:  You must practice deep listening to hear how you are called in every moment.  Because the calling could change.  It’s not about finding our single purpose on the planet.  It’s about listening to what feels like the highest truth or action (or non-action) in every moment.

If you are committed to creating change in the world, leverage this passion or gift to bring innovation, energy and creativity towards solving the issue you feel most passionate about.  I’ve met a number of people who have done this when they were horrified to learn about the Darfur genocide taking place.  Leslie Thomas, an architect and designer, saw a photo of a toddler who had been shot in Darfur.  Having a child the same age, inspired her to take action. She used her design talent and network to develop the Darfur|Darfur Exhibit, a digital photography exhibit about Darfur which has since traveled globally to raise awareness by projecting images on the sides of buildings.  Rebecca Davis, ballet dancer, choreographer and founder of the Rebecca Davis Dance Company, read The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur. She felt compelled to produce a ballet called Darfur, which offers a haunting and potent perspective on the crisis, and which is now touring college campuses.  A group of university students who loved video games designed Darfur is Dying, in collaboration with mtvU,which allows people to experience what it is like to be a Darfuri woman trying to escape from Janajweed militia members.  The possibilities are endless, when individuals combine deep personal transformation work, the cultivation of a gift or passion and societal transformation efforts.

Those of us who are called to advance a more just society, also have a responsibility to create change while embodying the same principles of integrity and justice we hope to see in the world. Conscious social change invites us to cultivate self-awareness for greater understanding of and compassion for suffering – even among our opposition.  It asks us work on the unexamined parts of ourselves that cause us to act unconsciously to avoid or end our discomfort. It necessitates that we engage in self-care to protect ourselves from fatigue and disillusionment.  It reminds us to use deep practice to stay attuned to the needs of those we serve before our own agendas. It allows us to transform oppressive structures by examining the underlying collective shadows. Finally, it opens us to our unique calling, and inspires innovation through an ever-deepening awareness. Thích Nhât Hanh, Buddhist monk and activist said, “Non-violent action, born of the awareness of suffering and nurtured by love, is the most effective way to confront adversity.”Consciousness-based approaches to social change, learned through direct experience, enable change agents to advance social justice more effectively, creatively and transformationally.

5 Principles of Conscious Social Change

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I’ve been working to distill and articulate what I have come to define “Conscious Social Change” and its core principles and supporting practices.  In the next five posts, I will describe each of these five principles.  But first an overview.

CONSCIOUS SOCIAL CHANGE: A DEFINITION 
Conscious Social Change is a process led by responsible and ethical change agents, who engage in their own practice towards deeper self-knowledge and personal transformation, while striving to advance positive change for the common good.  When an individual chooses to serve as a change agent, the experience of making a unique contribution to a greater whole can be deeply meaningful and can also accelerate a person’s self-actualization.  In turn, when an individual interested in creating social change chooses to deepen their self-awareness, they have a greater likelihood of making mindful and wise decisions, undistorted by personal agenda or abuse of power.  These two components of inner and outer transformation are integral and essential for a whole, just and compassionate society.

Who needs to know this?

Activists and people serving the traumatized need to be able to know when there is a need for self-care and to reground self and intentions to protect against burn-out, disillusionment, attachment to agenda, abuse of power, demonizing the enemy and violence.

Women and those working on women’s rights need to be able to allow for deep inquiry around structures that have been established by patriarchy and which have come to legitimize or even tolerate violence against women by exploiting women’s inclination for self-sacrifice on behalf of community and others.

Social innovators have the opportunity to discover radical new innovations and creative possibilities through embracing consciousness and personal transformation principles, because they will be unobstructed by self-limiting paradigms.  

Why is it needed? Why does inner change and outer change have to happen at the same time? 

Those of us who are called to be change leaders to advance a more just society, also have a responsibility to create that change with the same principles of integrity and justice we hope to see in the world – even with regard to our perceived enemies or opposition.  That requires that we work on the unexamined parts of ourselves that cause us to act unconsciously out of anger, impatience, disillusionment, resentment, fear, envy, or a sense of superiority or separation. Through our direct experience cultivating consciousness in ourselves, we develop a deep understanding of the path of conscious change, which we can use to advance social justice more broadly.

The overarching practice of the path of conscious change is being fully present in every moment.  There are five steps that change agents can take to cultivate presence, and it begins by practicing self-awareness. The more we look deeply into ourselves and listen to our emotions without reacting, we come to understand with clarity the underlying reasons for our anxiety, pain and fears. As we begin to see the root of suffering and the path of change in ourselves, we can find compassion for the difficulties of suffering and the challenges of change in others. [1]  

The second step is to be proactive in addressing our own wounding, fears, limiting beliefs and shadows that can distort our perspective and cause us unconsciously to harm others while protecting ourselves. The unexamined self has been at the root of many activist movements that have turned violent and leadership attained through oppression and prejudice.

The third step is using presence for self-care.  By committing to ongoing personal transformation practices, we can more easily attend to our own need for balance so that we avoid burnout, but stay whole, grounded and completely available to do our work in the world.

The fourth step is using presence to stay attuned to the changing needs of those we aim to serve, so we do not stay stuck on our own agenda or abuse our power. This presence also helps us determine the wisest response (which may include no action) in any moment so that we not only avoid harm, but we transform suffering.  This transformational paradigm is inner-driven with a focus on serving the highest common good.

Finally, the deeper we listen to our inner wisdom, the more likely we will find our unique purpose, which will guide us in manifesting change towards social justice and a more conscious society.

This overarching process of cultivating presence invites a balance of engagement with the outer world, which is always providing opportunities for learning, and an investment in inner inquiry, which allows us to integrate and utilize each lesson. The journey for consciousness is something that we must do every day of our lives, especially if we aim to advance social change for a more just society.

In my next five posts, I’ll go deeper in exploring the five principles and supporting practices that support consciousness and presence in social change.


[1] Rothberg, Donald. The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.


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