Dare to Believe: women change their lives in Chile
“At the end, the shy ones always end up speaking a lot. Why does that always happen?” So asks Jordana Armstrong, rock star volunteer who’s been program assisting for 5 days. We’re in the taxi from the middle-of-nowhere in Chile to another middle-of-nowhere in Chile, where we’ll catch our flight back to the capital. She asks it looking out the window and twirling her hair (as always) and smiling with the satisfaction of a job well done.
I nod and look out my window, reflecting on this. Not why it happens that the insecure ones gain impressive confidence in the course of these 5 days, but why it seems to us that this happens “always”. Because in fact, when she says “always” she means twice, because that’s precisely how many times we’ve run this program in exactly this way—that is, in the form of a five-day intensive entrepreneurship boot camp which aims to support women to develop skills to run their small business.
And yet, it also feels true to me—it feels inevitable that women who are shy and retiring and see themselves as “just a mother” will participate in this demanding program and will emerge at the end of the week as expressive, confident women waking up to the contribution they can make—in their lives and in the world around them—and beginning to see themselves as so much more.
Take Gladis. She’s a young new mother, who was teary-eyed on the first day when she talked about leaving her 14-month-old at home with her partner for the week. I remember being surprised, as I watched her speak—hunched and quiet and teary—that she had actually shown up that rainy Monday morning. There are so many reasons for these women to NOT take five full days out of their lives to attend this training. The program is residential, so the women are on site from Monday morning at 8 (and they were on time!) till Friday at 5 pm—they eat together, bunk together and have their ‘aha’ moments together. We deliberately seek out a location which is accessible for them, but far enough away from their homes and other distractions so they can’t sneak back and spend the night at home, or fix dinner for their kids, or tend to the sheep. We decided early on to do the program this way because in previous workshops in Africa and Asia, women were often late. A turning point for me was in Zimbabwe when one woman showed up three hours late for a workshop because there was a cow in her fields, eating all the corn, and she’d had to get him out. I remember wondering a) how this tiny meek woman managed to get a cow out of her fields and also b) would her family and farm have managed without her had she not been there. When we launched the ASSET program, we bet on “yes”, and so far, 40 families have managed just fine.
Gladis’s family is no exception. I expect that she and all the others must feel a little touch of sadness when they realize their children can survive for 5 days without them, but that’s not what comes across as we go through this learning together. Over the course of the week, Gladis and her shy uncertain peers begin to laugh and joke around, and even volunteer to do uncomfortable activities (like role-playing a cold call to a potential customer) in front of the class. By the end of the week, they’re almost downright outspoken. When participants were asked what they had gotten out of their week, Gladis put up her hand–not first, but second–and shared her takeaways with the class. Francisca, did too (see my last blog post), as did Selma, both shy, retiring types themselves. Sometimes, the revelations they share are not as perceptive or majestic as we as trainers might have hoped— as educators, we like it when learners recognize that they’ve learnt not only concrete skills, but also that they’re capable of doing so much more than they thought. (At the risk of seeming naïve, what really gets me is when they come away believing—as I do—that they can do anything they choose.) But if we focus too much on the words, we miss what’s really meaningful in what they express: the fact that they now see themselves as individuals with a message worth sharing. It’s a pretty significant change.
During the events of these 5 days in July of 2015, I’ve had occasion to remember how important some of these foundational beliefs really are—You are capable of anything. You have a message worth sharing. We are lucky and grateful to be here, in your light. As a long-time educator, I know that real learning comes not with the acquisition of knowledge, but on the heels of a shift in the perception of self. After that, anything is possible. I once had a student tell me I was the best teacher he’d ever had. Flattered, I’d asked why, wondering which of my innovative approaches, latest methodologies and well-researched techniques had been effective. “You believed in us,” he said simply. “Every day. You believed we could do it.” He paused. “And after a while, we believed it too.” Then a recent PhD, trained in the business of harnessing my brain to find solutions, I’d been disappointed. Anybody can believe in you, I’d thought to myself. But in the almost 20 years since then, I’ve come to learn that in fact, that’s not the case. And it is precisely this belief, it strikes me, which assures that the shy ones will always end up speaking a lot. The inevitability of that transformation—from weakness to strength, from insecurity to confidence, from inaction to action–becomes possible when we believe that it is. Believing is a risk—let’s dare to take it.
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