Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Building Solidarity Through Storytelling

Guest post by Ayla Schlosser, Founder & Executive Director, Resonate

Ayla in Action: 
In the elections in September of 2013, Rwanda once again voted in a majority of women to parliament. With women holding 64% of seats, that makes the percentage of female parliamentarians greater than in any other country in the world. Rwanda’s government promotes women’s empowerment, even creating a Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion to focus on these issues specifically.

Despite the huge political gains for women, Rwanda, like most countries, is still working to close the gap between women in leadership positions held at a government level, and the skills and influence that women hold on a community level.  For example, many village councils do not have any female representatives to take part in making decisions for their community. In order to make progress toward gender equality there are many government initiatives, aid agencies, nonprofit organizations, and businesses that are working toward women’s empowerment and skill building.  That is where Resonate comes in.

Resonate empowers women and girls through storytelling, working with them to build confidence, agency, and leadership. By partnering with organizations that are focused on women’s skill building – education, social entrepreneurship, business skills, etc. – Resonate increases their capacity to develop comprehensive professional skill by offering a customized training designed to improve personal presentation and public speaking. Learning to talk about herself confidently and eloquently can help a woman translate her skills into qualities of leadership, and open the door for new social and economic opportunity.

Resonate differs from a typical public speaking course because it is rooted in storytelling. The women who participate in this course develop a narrative that draws on their past experiences, and tells a story about how the choices they have made in their lives lead them to where they are today. Through this process women are asked to open up – to themselves and to each other – about the challenges they have overcome. They are asked to identify their areas of strength, and present those strengths through the story they tell. The curriculum not only asks women to view themselves as strong and confident, but it helps others see them that way, too.

The first workshop I held in Rwanda was with a group of 54 female college students who were just weeks away from graduating. They had been in school together for three years, yet by the end of the week that we spent together they understood and empathized with each other on a different level. They knew each other’s fears and they knew each other’s struggles, and their ability to share those things with one another changed the dynamic of that group. “I have been in school with my colleagues for many years now,” said one student in our final discussion of the weeklong workshop. “Always, I just saw them as students. Now I see that each of them is a strong woman. Her stories inspire me and help me know that whatever challenge we meet, we have the opportunity to overcome it.”

The women in that classroom span ten years in age and grew up all over Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region. They came from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, and grew up eating different foods, and even speaking different languages. Through their stories, though, they were able to see themselves in each other’s shoes.

We cannot view someone as “the other” once we have acknowledged who they are, and what we have in common with them. Maya Angelou says, “human beings should understand how other humans feel no matter where they are, no matter what their language or culture is, no matter their age, and no matter the age in which they live. If you develop the art of seeing us as more alike than we are unalike, then all stories are understandable.” That is part of our work at Resonate. By sharing personal stories with one another, and allowing those stories to create genuine connection, we are developing the art of seeing each other as more alike than unalike.

Rwanda has one of the fastest growing economies in the region, their rapidly declining child mortality rate was lauded by Paul Farmer, and they are making steady progress toward their Rwanda Vision 2020 goals. These are signs of a nation well on the way to redefining itself and improving the lives of its citizens.

Resonate’s program is designed to accelerate this forward progress by encouraging women and girls in Rwanda to advocate for themselves, and to be leaders in their own communities. But it also asks them to believe in one another. Teaching leadership through storytelling invites women to know themselves, and through sharing their stories, to know each other.

I hope that Rwandan women, and people everywhere, can begin to create a dialogue in which even those with differing experiences can find commonalities and build solidarity through storytelling.

Resonate teaches leadership skills to women and girls through a training program rooted in storytelling. The confidence gained from developing a personal story, as well as the ability to articulate it eloquently, are essential tools for emerging female leaders.