Practicing Rigorous Humility

Practicing Rigorous Humility

The excerpts below are from my presentation to the congregation of the First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond in November.

Being open and willing to say “I don’t know” is one of the key characteristics of what my good friend Jennifer Lentfer calls rigorous humility. This is a concept that she finds central to being truly effective in the fight against poverty. This humility is about listening effectively and balancing power between grantmakers and grant recipients; between those giving, and those asking and receiving.

In my job as Executive Administrator I have many, many opportunities to practice and deploy rigorous humility.

Let me give an example. A few years back I had this great idea to be in contact more with the local SIA coordinators on the ground. I wanted to build a stronger relationship with them, and there were also some donors that were wanting more feedback and more reporting on how the things were going on the ground. So I figured that I would just start writing more emails, even weekly, to the coordinators in an attempt to spur more connection.

Considering from the other side

Of course, I hadn’t really thought about what this would mean for our partners. I hadn’t thought from their perspective. For me, sending an email is a simple as typing and then hitting “send” from the comfort of my own home. For Canaan in Malawi, it means traveling dusty (or muddy) roads to the nearest internet café, paying for access to a computer, paying to scan any documents, etc. You get the idea.

Coordinators walking on the muddy road.

SIA partners walking on the muddy road in Kenya. It was too muddy and steep for the van to take us on this part of the journey.

And so even when I sent more, I didn’t get more back. Because I hadn’t taking that extra time and money into account. So, the questions became: How can I rebalance the power so that it’s not my demands that are disproportionately impacting others? Also, how can reports be designed to give feedback to the coordinators and entrepreneurs, as much as they report to the SIA office? How can reports be mutually beneficial?

It was a moment to acknowledge that I hadn’t fully understood and that I’m always learning. How can we do this better? Who else has ideas to try?

Listening for Solutions

Even after I realized that more emails were not going to be the solution, I kept searching and trying things. I created a group email for the coordinators. I created a phone list. Nothing panned out. And then the solution came Jeremiah Mzee, Nairobi coordinator.

He wrote: “Kindly can you create WhatsApp Small Business Fund group. I feel that most of us will be comfortable to learn from each other as far as reporting and management of SBF is concerned.”

Of course! Yes! Let’s do that!

What is WhatsApp? (Read my blog post about it!) It’s an application available for cell phones, which facilitates cheap international texting. So rather than paying high costs per text, we can text for free. The app can use wifi or data. But it takes very little data and it widespread (more widespread than email, for sure) throughout Africa.

cell phones charging

Grace’s shop in the Manyamula Market is connected to the new electricity lines in town and so she provides phone charging services for a small fee.

Another amazing feature of WhatsApp is that it can send files too. So now, a coordinator, instead of having to pay for internet time and scanning fees, can simply take a picture on their phone of the report and then WhatsApp it to me, and I receive it immediately! Amazing!

For now, we have found a mode of communication that really does foster connection, without being burdensome for anyone to use.

The waiting; the listening; the faith I have in my partners’ expertise brought us to this new place of connection. This happens with rigorous humility.

Sparking hope this Christmas!

Sparking hope this Christmas!

Pictured above are members of the Namayiana Women Group. The group is based in Archer’s Post, Samburu County, Kenya, and has a membership of 25 women. The women make beaded jewelry and accessories, wooden artifacts, and souvenirs for tourists on safari. The Self-Help Group received a grant from Spirit in Action to build a roadside shop. Through the shop they will generate income for their families and provide assistance for more girls to attend school.

The store will be located close to the entrance of the famed Samburu National Reserve. The women are prepared to take control of their financial situation in a collective effort to improve the lives of their families and community at large. This new business venture comes from their realization that self-employment creates self-empowerment. The decision to start their own business was sparked by their community’s participation at Pastoralist Child Foundation workshops and learning about the importance of formal education. The construction will start next week.

Merry Christmas!

We are honored to spark hope and support the self-empowerment of these women! This Christmas, let us celebrate the good that can happen when groups of committed individuals come together to work for change.

Merry Christmas from Spirit in Action and our international partners!

Five years in the making…

Five years in the making…

Reposted from my co-editor, Jennifer Lentfer’s How Matters blog. “Co-editor?” you ask. Read on…

This is how it began…

From: JENNIFER LENTFER
Date: Wed, Oct 5, 2011 at 5:29 PM
Subject: invitation to join “Small is Big” Writing Collaborative
To: Tanya Cothran

Dear Tanya,

As people making small grants internationally, you are part of a growing number of people that specialize in offering direct funding to local initiatives and community leaders.

You have vital expertise to share with the aid and philanthropic sectors as many are wondering  what more can be done to enable grassroots movements to emerge and gain strength.

Therefore I am inviting you to share your experience via the “Small is Big” Writing Collaborative, which aims to gather varied grantmakers’ approaches and experiences as a collective source of knowledge to share widely via an online or printed publication. In the collaborative, you and/or your staff will be engaged in a reflective learning process with my support and that of participants from other organizations…

***

5 years, 22 contributors 

And five years, 22 contributors (and many other supporters and friends along the way), here is where we ended up…

smart risks book cover

Coming April 2017

from Practical Action Publishing!

In a rapidly changing world and after decades of failed international aid, it’s high time to build the dialogue about how international actors can build their own skills and institutional processes to accompany and support community-level leadership and systems, rather than overpower or co-opt them.

Luckily there is a growing number of small NGOs and foundations that specialize in offering direct, responsive funding to grassroots leaders and small, often “informal” initiatives, groups, and movements. And over twenty of them have come together to write this book!

Compared to the old-school, donor-controlled, large-scale, project-based international aid funding, the authors use the concept of “smart risks” to build upon existing human and social capital to unleash people power and social innovation. International grassroots grantmakers are adept at keeping their minds (and perhaps more importantly their hearts) open to the possibility of results when the common good is tapped in unimagined and unanticipated ways.

People in poor countries or communities who want to make change should no longer tolerate an charity-modeled system that makes them struggle and wait endlessly for funding to trickle down to them, marred by burdensome requirements and restrictions from donors. Pushing the sector forward needs smart risk-taking, and the authors’ experience is an untapped resource for the international aid and philanthropic sectors as a whole.

Smart Risks contributors came together because they each have a professional – and perhaps more importantly a personal – resolve to build solidarity with people not as passive recipients of aid, but as whole people and active leaders of their own lives. We know that radical shifts in thinking, attitude, and practice are required and we hope that this book can contribute to shifting the power and charting new paths ahead!

Tanya’s note: It has been my honor to contribute to this process and co-edit these inspiring essays. I also wrote three essays about Spirit in Action that are included in the book! I’ll keep you update on our progress in the next few months!

Business updates from Nairobi, Kenya

Business updates from Nairobi, Kenya

Over the past three years Spirit in Action has supported 33 small businesses in the informal settlement of Korogocho in Nairobi, Kenya. The local coordinators Wambui and Josephine continue to train and mentor the groups, helping them improve their current businesses and expand their enterprises with the SIA $150 grants.

I received these updates on some of the latest business groups there:

Expanding businesses 

Amos and Dorcas took their existing grocery business and used the SIA grant to buy at a wholesale level, reducing their costs. Amos reports “I’ve been able to increase my stock and get many more customers. I have also been able to pay school fees and buy food and clothing for my family.” They have two boys, aged 8 and 4. Together the family sells arrow root (also known as taro), tomatoes, onions, and kale.

“Life has changed for the better”

Monicah is the kind of dedicated, smart woman who seems like she will go far in her business! She cooks and sells cashews, mabuyu and coconut. Mabuyu is a Swahili delicacy from Baobab seeds. She also has eggs and simsim (sesame seeds) at her shop.

Wambui reports, “Monicah no longer hawks around but got a place around the area of her house and built a structure. She bought all she said she would buy and has managed to reinvest 20% of the profit into the business. Life has changed for the better. She can now afford school fees, buy textbooks, feed her children well, and attend any medical need.”

Saving and Investing

Patuli buys cakes and mandazi (donuts – yum!) from bakers and resells them. She has been ill in recent months, and even so she feels her life has changed for the better. Patuli was able to join a chama (micro-savings investment group) for the first time and has saved a bit. She is grateful that now her children (aged 11 and 13) can eat three meals a day, like never before.

As you may be beginning to see, most of these small businesses are helping to pay for basic needs. They help parents pay for school fees and rent. They help families stay healthy by enabling them to eat enough food and pay for medicine when necessary.

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