I recently attended an unusual graduation ceremony. The graduates were fellows of iLEAP, an organization based in Seattle, with a mission of of training NGO managers how to be better, more effective leaders so they can return to their countries and affect the change their organizations are dedicated to making. This group of twelve graduating women was selected from over five hundred applicants wanting to enter the eight week iLEAP course, and came from nine countries spread across four continents.
I met these women a month ago when I was invited to one of iLEAP’s functions, and they were such a dynamic, engaging bunch (as was the organization), that I decided to return when they opened the doors for their graduation ceremony. I was told it would be emotional for these fellows who had spent eight weeks together to split and return home. I was told the tissues would pass around the room. But what I didn’t anticipate was hearing in their own words what they had learned.
The director, Britt Yamamoto, opened by explaining that the organization uses fire as a metaphor for the way the group works to ignite social change through teaching leadership. Then each graduate stood in front of the crowd to speak in English rather than their native language. As I listened, I noticed each one selected words that echoed their own native language and culture. In short, they shared an experience, but all had different things to say about it because of their background, language and the cause they are working on through their own organization back home. Their varied word selection and cultural differences made it a treat to hear. The audience got a glimpse into the way each fellow processed the group experience they shared during the past eight weeks.
The messages of Micheline, Hotlin and Nicole resonated with me most. This is some of what was said (relayed the way I heard their words):
Micheline from Congo – Hope needs power and love. Now I know you know about my country because you keep asking questions. Now you know who is my president, when my war ended and began, things like that. But most important you know there is hope.
Sophea from Cambodia – People here are showing they care about the world, about our countries. I am a skeptical person and was skeptical about this program, and searched [everyone at iLEAP]… But we will take this knowledge and rock the system. This is a grassroots community and our governments and corporations will hear from us! Must be change, to shift power of whole structures. Before I did not think in these terms. I thought not of myself. I care for self now. I am not just an activist with fight, but will work through love also.
Johanna from Nicaragua – I will be ok because I met the Seattle community. I will be ok because this is not the end. This is a life trip for me. We continue sharing in all capacity even after. We are a movement, changing the world. It’s changing because of women. Thank you for sharing the power of community with me.
Mariana from El Salvador – I am a happy feminist! I found power and love in my host family, my fellow sisters, the feminist movement, and I found words to change my society at home.
Ohnmar from Burma (Mynamar) – I will reflect on fire as a metaphor, as I can now see that my role as a leader and mother bring responsibility which block our fire. Here I was able to see what was blocked for me. I have a deeper connection to self, community and experience for social change.
Tamara from Nicaragua – We all come in with assumptions. Experience like this gives the opportunity to go deep and go past assumptions. Through this experience and the homestay, you learn a new country, and you learn you.
Ha from Vietnam – A meaningful moment. I will bring home memories of cold weather, snow, and warm people. Will take home the fire of power and love. I am inspired through love. Trust and love. Growing as an individual, I can now better keep contributing to becoming a better society.
Maritza from El Salvador – I learned that you have very cold weather, but very warm people. I learned I love Costco food! But mostly I learned about life.
Fabiola from Bolivia – [She brought a backpack and unpacked it as she spoke] I have learned skills! [pulls out chopsticks] I can now use these! Thank you Seattle. These are just one of many tools we have learned. We have gained family, friends and tools. Thank you for helping me raise my voice.
Bernarda from Guatemala – This was my first time out of my country ever. Unexpected surprises and gifts. I learned a lot from the moments we shared, and I learned that tissues are a very important part of the program.
Hotlin from Indonesia – I am from a very different culture than the Latino ladies here. I used to be not expressive, I was always a hard, tough leader. Now I have more fun because of them. I have been to the US a lot, but this is first time in the US that I feel community. I feel part of the iLEAP community. Seattle taught me, at home sunny means warm, here, sunny means cold. The connection, to sisters in this group, and the coaching I received opened me up. My favorite food is rendang, a traditional food from my home. Uses many spices and it takes a long time, patience to make. It is a metaphor for being a leader. Leader must be authentic, but what do you add to effect other people, enjoyed by other people. Also, I learned a proverb from Africa: if you don’t believe small things can make a difference, sleep in a tent with one mosquito.
Nicole from El Salvador – El Salvador is the land of eternal smile but also a land of problems. Violence against women in El Salvador is a problem. I can do the work now. I was fighting a monster with nothing – no weapons or even pots or pans. I still believe in kindness of strangers, magic of human beings. Your struggles are now ours. I believe it is possible to take these struggles of others because people have the power to heal each other. We are the crazy people who think social change can happen. And cuidado! [The fellows echoed back, Cuidado! Some fists raised in solidarity] Beware! Because now there are twelve more women with tools and our countries are going to deal with us!
Did I mention that the gathering was a potluck? There was curry from four continents. And there might have been some rendang on the entree table.