Some reflections on the Forus Leadership Development Program – Cycle 2, Santiago, Chile, September 2018.

By Doug Reeler, facilitator, the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA).

What is the real work of social change leadership in the world today?  

It’s a big question, not for the faint-hearted. But eleven civil society leaders were not daunted when they gathered for the workshop of the second cycle of the Leadership Development Program (LDP) in Santiago, Chile, in September 2018. They set out to explore this question and see if they could find some answers.

I was the lucky facilitator for the process, fortunate to spend four days in the company of experienced and committed people who have dedicated their lives to contributing to a more equal, freer and human world, despite the enormous forces that are pulling us apart and over the brink. 

A diverse and experienced group  

The group was quite marvelous: diverse, experienced, from 10 different countries, open and honest with each other, with no ego issues. From the beginning it was clear that several of them were stressed, facing overwhelming challenges back home and in need of a dash of hope. As the process developed, they welcomed an empathetic space to tell their stories, to share their burdens and to get some perspective. It may have also helped that they were all women and could more easily provide a safe and deep listening space for each other. Over the four days I felt the room become lighter and the interactions more energetic as they turned to each other for support. 

The language issues had some interesting impact. There were three groups of participants: those who spoke only English, those who spoke only Spanish and those who spoke both. The interpreters did a good job and were pleasant and helpful in every way. Language differences do diminish personal interaction somewhat, but there were enough people for good connections and the mixed language group played a hugely helpful role in bridging between the two other groups and in enabling the group works to have flexibility.  

The kind of processes, we, at the CDRA use, emphasizes reflective dialogues, grounded stories from real experience with a disciplined action learning orientation, a focus on finding good questions rather than quick answers, horizontal learning rather than teaching, creative play and embodiment exercises and working with metaphor, images and color 

The whole preparation process, held by Forus was smooth and effective, with a human approach - we all felt well supported. 

Reflection on the whole process 

One of the big reminders for me of this process is how like “herding cats” is platform/networking amongst civil society organisations. CSOs are so diverse, often caught up in their own particular challenges, that they are not easily attuned to the needs or ways of connecting with others. 

I do think that the immense value of learning processes like this lies in laying tracks for collaboration: from co-learning to co-working. At a global level, for organisations so focused and overwhelmed by their local struggles, there may be less opportunity to collaborate, but it might be worthwhile emphasizing to national platforms the value of bringing their members together for learning engagements of various kinds, to sow the seeds of collaboration.  This is one way they can help to gain perspective on their own stresses, and in some cases, find ways to work more systemically. 

Leaders are often isolated, stressed and worn down in their own organisations, sometimes by their staff, sometimes by themselves. This is a major challenge.  Leadership gatherings like this, at all levels, can help to break the isolation and relieve the stress, providing a creative space for them to renew themselves and reimagine their leadership. It might also be interesting to think how can Forus help to take this kind of experience into the countries, bringing CSO leaders together, not only platform leaders. 

Four days (plus the research, back home projects and webinars), is precious little space to secure lasting gains. For some this might be just enough at the right time to make a big difference, while for others it may have seemed helpful but easily washed away by other urgencies and forces. And, of course, there may be lasting gains that are simply not measurable. 

Most of the process was focused on what is the “real work” of both social change and platform roles. Pursuing these two aspects is the key work of leadership. But there is so much more around approaches, strategies and creative methods that can be shared and explored, especially around cultivating learning, creative organisations and platforms. The process continues. 

As a facilitator I was, once again, humbled by the commitment and wisdom of participants like these, and gratified to be enriched by them as they enriched each other. I was also reminded of the immense power that committed activists can bring when they take time to reflect and join with their peers in facing the dangers and hopes that the future offers.