Solidarity Organizational Health Episode 7March 19, 2021

7. What do human rights leaders need?

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

An old proverb says that a trouble shared is a trouble halved. That idea underlies all aspects of the work of the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights, but particularly the Symposium itself – a twice yearly conversation between people who carry leading roles in human rights movements and organizations.  Some 20 participants recently met online for eight days to discuss their work and the challenges they face. In this episode, the Symposium’s team of moderators talk about the encounter and what they learned. And in this episode’s Coda, veteran Israeli activist Jessica Montell tells us about a poem whose message she has finally embraced.

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The Interview

A space for human rights leaders to talk – and support each other

In February- March 2021 some 20 leaders and activists attended the Symposium – eight days of conversation about tasks like finding new funds, managing good leadership transitions, or building solidarity – all in increasingly hostile conditions. Participants used cases histories about actual organisations, and readings from past struggles as provocation and compared with their own experience.  Discussions were supported by four moderators – Akwe Amosu, Chris Stone, Innocent Chukwuma and Nani Jansen Reventlow who reflect here on the meeting.

The Coda

A veteran activist in Israel on a poem she has come to cherish

Jessica Montell is a veteran human rights activist in Israel, where she leads HaMoked, an organization dedicated to supporting Palestinians in the occupied territories whose rights are being violated by Israeli government policies. She is a past leader of the human rights organization B’Tselem and of SISO, an Israel-Diaspora partnership against the occupation.  She shared her reflections on a poem by Marge Piercy, called To be of Use.

“To be of use” by Marge Piercy Copyright ©1973, 1982 by Marge Piercy From CIRCLES ON THE WATER, Alfred A. Knopf. Used by permission of Robin Straus Agency, Inc.”

Transcript

Akwe Amosu: Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity.

Strength and Solidarity is a podcast about the ideas driving and disrupting human rights movements around the world.

In this episode:

  • What human rights leaders want to talk about when they get some time alone
  • And a veteran activist in Israel tells us about a poem whose message she has finally embraced

Part One: Studio discussion

AA: Regular listeners will recall that this podcast is an offshoot of the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights. It’s a five-year project intended to give leaders in human rights movements and organizations a chance to reflect with each other on their changing context. Earlier this month, some 20 leaders and activists dived into eight days of conversation about tasks like finding new funds, managing good leadership transitions, or building solidarity, all in increasingly hostile conditions. With the meeting over, I decided to invite my co-moderators in the symposium to share their reflections on how it went. Innocent Chukwuma is a veteran of Nigeria’s civil society sector based in Lagos, who until this past month led the Ford foundation’s work in West Africa, Nani Jansen Reventlow is the founder and director of the Digital Freedom Fund based in Berlin. And Chris Stone is the Symposium’s principal moderator. He teaches at the University of Oxford Blavatnik School. Here’s our conversation.

AA: Chris, Nani, Innocent. Welcome.

Chris Stone: Great to be here.

Innocent Chukwuma: Same here.

Nani  Jansen Reventlow: Good to see you, Akwe.

AA: So before we get started, let’s just establish one thing, Chris, What actually is a symposium. What actually happens in one?

CS: Oh, well the original Greek symposiums were drinking parties. So people drink and talk together, but in our symposium, there’s an opportunity for people to debate, to talk, to both have fun and engage together, but really to challenge each other, to talk together and compare ideas. And this one is all about human rights movements, human rights organizations, and the strength and solidarity they need to survive and succeed.

AA: So Innocent. Why bring a group of human rights leaders together like this? Why is that a helpful thing? Are we trying to solve a problem?

IC: Well, I think actually the whole idea stems from an open secret for people in leadership position in general, but more particularly for those who are in the human rights movement. It’s actually a very lonely place to be. You know people outside admire you, you appear in newspapers and radio. But like every human being, there are issues you’re struggling with that you don’t even discuss with colleagues in the office. You don’t discuss with families because you don’t want to panic them, but at the same time they are worrying you. Take, for instance, the issue of a transition, when is a good time to leave an organization?   You won’t discuss it with your colleagues because they will think you are leaving the next day. You wouldn’t discuss it with family because they don’t want to lose an income stream to support them. So you want a place where people who are dealing with the same kind of situation will hear you out in a non-judgmental manner and share ideas with you that can actually help you deal with everyday issues associated with leadership.

AA: So Nani, we had 20 people in this virtual room who joined us from all over the world. What were the issues that they wanted to talk about? What did they bring into that room?

NRJ: Well, the one thing that always kind of like surprises me about these conversations is that there are so many shared interests and so many shared issues across these very different organizations who work in very different contexts and were very different individuals. We spoke about so many things, of course, the big theme of solidarity, how much unity do you need to have within a movement in order to be able to act in solidarity? Can you act in solidarity with a strategy that you might disagree with? What does that really mean in human rights, but also really practical things that you have to struggle with when you lead a human rights organization or a movement. Like how do you create the right organizational culture in which not only can you get the work done, but can individuals also thrive and, and kind of feel safe and supported, as well as other specific issues, such as identities in leadership, what does it mean to be a woman leader? What does it mean to be a leader from a marginalized group and how do you deal with that? And participants really brought, you know, not only stories to share, but also, you know, good opportunities to challenge each other and question each other on, on approaches to really think these things through.

AA: So maybe then Chris, to pick up on both those comments from Nani and Innocent, it’s not just a sit down in a bar and sharing one’s problems. There’s something more intentional going on. Like if I take that case that Innocent just mentioned about transitions, you thought about a way to have that conversation about leadership transitions. Could you say something about your approach? How is this helping people to have those conversations?

CS: Well, I think there are two things that we do in these symposium discussions that I think are particularly helpful. One is we limit these conversations to people playing leading roles in human rights movements and human rights organizations. So this is not a training program for people running a nonprofit organizations or even broadly social justice organizations. These are all people deeply committed and deeply involved in struggles for human rights around the world. And they are facing problems that are just different than running a music society or a school or a healthcare clinic. Those are all important community functions. They’re important structures, but they’re just facing different kinds of problems. The attacks today on human rights activists are really severe. And so we’re dealing with those existential questions, those life and death questions for people facing prison sentences, for people facing ostracism, for people facing surveillance and harassment from the government in a way that many movements are facing in so many different countries.

So that’s one thing. The other thing we’re doing is we’re starting from documents, from essays, from speeches, from writings of different kinds that capture the history and the lived experiences and lessons from past struggles. Sometimes those struggles are just a year or two old, the founding of a social movement in Senegal, the struggles to deal with Sisi’s regime in Egypt, or they may be much older texts, essays, or speeches given by veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in the 1970s and eighties, or even earlier struggles for civil rights and human rights for black Americans in the 1960s. Those texts, those materials, ground our discussions and debates and share a history that people find really provocative and useful and powerful.

AA: So let’s dig into that then.  Nani, I mean, if you think about watching a group going through a case of an organization, that’s going through a major upheaval because of government hostility and internal leadership, what’s happening in the group, do you think?  Why is that a good thing to do with the group?

NRJ: I think because there are, um, certain participants who kind of relate to this at a very direct level, they’ve gone through a situation like that, and they have very concrete similar experience to share and therefore, a very specific way of looking at the situation. And then there are others who come at it from a very different perspective who will have questions that actually sometimes also help the people who have lived through situations like that to rethink the experiences that they’ve had. And maybe also think about alternative ways in which they could deal with similar instances in the future. So I think that that exchange of people who have both been more directly in types of situations and people have a slightly more distanced from it or have experienced similar things in slightly different settings, really enriches everyone’s view of how to approach certain challenges like that.

AA: Yeah. One thing that really interests me, Innocent, is how intensely people experience these conversations. It gets very personal, it gets very intense. We see people sharing things that you don’t really expect in a group of people who’ve only just met each other. And yet there’s something about the process that nanny just described that makes people want to lean in. Do you share that?

IC: Yeah, because these are relatable issues. These are issues we’re all struggling with in our organizations. Whether we are young leaders entering the movement, or veterans, because you don’t know when they will hit an organization, you will look at an organization from the outside, you admire them. You want to build your own organization after it, but then after many years, something comes from nowhere. Then you sit back and say, Oh, actually, if this is happening to this organization, why am I holding back? Why am I not sharing with others who may be going through these issues? And also the realization that some of this may be systemic. It may have nothing to do with a particular leader, running an organization at a particular time. They can also be contextual. So we don’t just engage in plenary conversations. We also break out, where people come to a smaller group where they build relationships, build partnership, open up their vulnerabilities to one another in the understanding that these people will not go and use it against me. And we also assured confidentiality, the Chatham house rule – whatever you share here stays here. We are all here to learn from one another. If we all know how to do it, we wouldn’t be in this conversation in the first place.

NRJ: I think that’s a really nice thing to flag actually because it’s a nice complement to what you mentioned earlier, Innocent, about how leadership roles can often be really lonely positions. It kind of makes it such a conducive setting to really be open and really share because there’s an opportunity for learning that you don’t come across very often for the reasons that you said before. Like, you know, it’s difficult to confide in your team, your board and your friends, and your relatives might not always really understand. And yeah, so it’s really great to actually be amongst peers for those types of discussions.

AA: So this was the second group that we’ve brought together. The first group actually now –  thanks to the pandemic – it’s nearly 18 months since they met, but this is not just a one-off thing, right? They are still feeling closely connected with each other.

CS: I’m really surprised actually how long those bonds have held, how deep they’ve gone. This is much more, I think, than you see when people go to a conference together or a workshop together and stay in touch for a month or two or sometimes a couple of people stay in touch longer. But these groups I think have found in each other strength and inspiration and a common cause that is much more than just the friendships that develop in a one week course together. I think the groups have stayed together and I think they’re going to be staying together. They’re supporting each other, they’re strategizing with each other. And when somebody gets in trouble, they’re there to help.  And people get in trouble in this work.

IC: And I can also add that each of the participants for this program come with something they are contributing. They come with real life issues they are dealing with. If you remember, when we were in our mind, one of the participants was facing a court trial in which she might end up in jail and the others were also seeing the way things are unfolding in their countries, that it might get to a stage where they might need to move. So if we’re in that conversation, sharing this week-long, or in this most recent eight-day stretch of conversation and hearing these challenges people are going through, you are drawn into follow up to find out how they are doing.

AA: One of the things I found quite surprising was that these things worked despite the fact that we had to meet virtually.   The first group met in person and they were able to do a lot more than just talk. They cooked together, they hiked together, they nearly missed a plane together. Yet this group definitely seemed to connect despite the fact of having to do it over Zoom.

CS: I think we’re all discovering how much you could do online as well as the things you can’t do. But then it’s also something about what’s going on with human rights struggles in this particular moment. People need each other in a way that’s particularly deep and powerful I think right now, it’s a funny time in the world where national governments that have in past decades stood up for human rights and been there to defend people in trouble are missing in action. They’re becoming involved in their own nationalism and sometimes populist agendas and abandoning their human rights commitments. And yet particularly young people today, but people everywhere around the world are becoming more active, are in the streets more, shouting at their governments more, demonstrating and demanding more. And so there’s a shift in where you look for support. People who used to look to governments are looking to each other and you can see that even in this group. And I think part of what’s happening even an online meeting is people are recognizing the value in mutual support and the solidarity that has always been the strength of the human rights movements, for centuries.

NRJ: To build on that a little bit. I mean, a successful online meeting is only possible if people are really committed to actually being there and being present and engaging and, not only taking but also giving. Right? And I think it shows that there’s a need not only for all the reasons that Chris just outlined, but also because of the extra pressures that operating in this current context within the pandemic also brings with it, right? It’s kind of a double bind – it increases and it enhances the pressures that are there on civil society, on human rights organizations and movements. And at the same time, the possibility to actually connect with others who could be in similar situations, you know, who can be of support is all the more difficult.

AA: I mean, I think people listening to this might say that sounds nice, you know, support, mutual support. That sounds great… but I don’t want us to under-value a different dimension of the conversations, which is something that’s a lot more analytical. Like, you know, we saw the group of people really have to dig into a reading of a speech by Audre Lorde, which really took on questions of power and individual avoidance, fear of facing up to your own prejudices, a bunch of really quite tough topics, but which we thought were germane to the question of whether you really are serious about building solidarity with others. And so the rigor of some of those conversations, I think, is an important element as well as the mutual support that you get out of being with other peers.

CS: So one of the, one of the powerful things about Audre Lorde’s work is that even after decades, people who haven’t ever read it or heard it find it striking how much it speaks to this moment, this is someone who’s challenging, the sexism and racism and biases and narrowness of thinking among liberal feminists of the 1980s in ways that resonate as if they were spoken today. And I think it’s shocking, it pulls people out of their immediate context and helps them think more deeply about some of the challenges we’re facing today. And I think you see that over and over again, people do that in ways Innocent was saying about, you know, we’re challenging each other, we’re drawing on each other’s experiences, but we’re also just drawing on the history of these movements. And as you say, Akwe, actually having to question more deeply than we might have situations that you deal with on a daily basis, but sometimes recognizing how long these struggles have been going on, how little progress we’ve made on some issues, is a reminder of how tough the questions are and how much work there is to do.

NRJ: And I think this kind of reflecting on like, wow, Audrey Lorde’s speech from 1979, could have been written yesterday, right? And that applies to a number of their meetings that we did with Biko, and Tutu, and readings on SNCC [Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee], et cetera. I think it also forces us to ask really tough questions as to why we haven’t made more progress now. And what is it actually that we should perhaps be doing differently in our movements in order to actually make that progress that we haven’t been able to make to the same degree as perhaps we had hoped at the time that these texts were written

CI: Precisely. I think you’ve touched it, Nani. And for me, it’s also the power of learning through case studies discussion, which you cannot overstate in a setting like this, where you are dealing with leaders in the sector. So no other approach could have elicited the kind of engagement and heated discussion that we had other than the case approach,  the case study approach has a way of drawing people into the conversation, relating it to their experiences in the context where they’re coming from. So even though I was one of the moderators, reading Biko, particularly Tutu, where he said the whites have to step back,  made me relate it to the #endSARS movement in Nigeria which we dealt with in October where young people basically said to all the older ones, all the leaders, we just want you people to watch and support from the sideline. We don’t want you to come and hijack this leadership. We want to be able to design our own process, implement it and learn our lessons from it. So the readings and the careful selection of them makes them, if you like, timeless in terms of their richness and how you can connect it to contemporary issues we’re dealing with in our societies.

AA: So Chris, what happens after the meeting ends? This is not just about one meeting. I think that the vision is that two of these meetings happen a year and that people stay engaged. So what’s the vision for what’s being built here beyond the end of a meeting?

CS: So part of this is staying engaged, keeping the groups together with each other and, and having each group actually have an opportunity to talk to those who follow them about what it’s like to try and practice this, not just study it, not just talk about it, not just share these stories with each other. And so even online, we were able to bring many of the earlier participants in this Symposium together with the new participants to talk about what the time since their meeting together had been like, and this latest group will come back and, and I hope in person be able to share with their successors what they’re going through now, how they’re acting in their own struggles and their own movements on what they’ve learned from each other. And that process, you know, in some ways it never ends as long as you’re in this fight, as long as you’re standing up for rights, you’re going to be succeeding in some ways you hope and probably failing in others, and I hope valuing the opportunity to share that with others in struggle alongside you. So this is building a community as well as a set of ideas and learning from each other, not just when we’re together, but over time.

AA: So we should probably bring this to a close, but before I do, I want to know from each of you, whether this is in some way impacting you? Are you yourselves in some way, changing or responding to this process? Innocent?

IC: Yeah for me, having participated in these two editions, each time I leave it, I learned something new. There was something that struck me in this particular one, which is the whole issue of when we are asked how we’re doing in our places of work and we pride ourselves of creating an environment in which all our team members can speak up if there are things they are concerned about, and then we hold it as the gold standard.  From this last edition, I actually think that’s the minimum standard! How about every member in a team being there for one another to speak up and lift the burden of the person who feels aggrieved being the one to raise it. That’s my takeaway from this. And then in Amman the whole issue about rendering solidarity with deference. Each time we go out to support people in their struggle, we bring our own values and way of doing it and  be judgmental. I learned from there, you need to step back and support them in the areas and the ways they want you to support them. If not, it wouldn’t be a real solidarity. It would just be positioning or actually imposing yourself in the struggle of other people.

AA: Excellent. Nani?

NRJ: Yeah, I think for me, the process of continuous learning along with the process of the Symposium started when we started doing the preparations, right, and testing out the different case studies. And it has struck me so much that with revisiting the texts every single time, that your perspective on it changes. And some of that has to do with your own changing situation, like where are you with your organization? What are you thinking about, what are you focused on at that particular point in time? And that means that different things stand out for you. But also the conversations with the participants and, what they bring to it and their perspectives. And every time I’ve just been impressed with how many different ways you can look at the same set of set of words and read completely different things into it.  So I’ve learned on many different topics. Things have been particularly engaging within the organization that I run, uh, you know, how do you build cultures of respect? Like, what is regulation? What is culture? Where do you draw the line? How can you actually put systems in place that encourage best practices? Leadership transition is a thing that they’re going through right now so that’s something to think about. So yeah, I think from every different element from the Symposium, there’s always something that’s relevant in some way to what is going on at the moment.

AA: Great. Chris?

CS: Yeah. I think for me, I feel like I’m getting to immerse myself and see a generational transfer, a handing off of leadership and lessons from one generation to another, that is not visible, at least for me in the daily struggles and the news of the day. The thing I take away is just listening to a 22 year old leader of a new human rights organization in one country, learn from and value the lessons of a veteran organizer and activist who’s been at this for decades, been in and out of prison and still taking from them lessons and feeling a respect and a gift almost from them  of lessons learned, that that’s happening across time, across distance. Where else do you get to see that? I don’t see it anywhere else. And in my life, I get to see it every time we get the symposium together.

AA: Okay. Thank you so much to all three of you. Innocent, Nani, Chris, take care.

IC, NRJ, CS: Thank you so much. Thank you.

AA: You heard from Nani Reventlow Jansen, Innocent Chukwuma, and Chris Stone, all moderators with me, of the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights. If you’d like to know more about our work, there’s lots on our website, strengthandsolidarity.org. And if you’d like to take part in one of our programs, you’ll find forms there where you can get in touch.

 

Part two: The Coda

AA: Time for our Coda in which someone active in the human rights field shares something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do. Jessica Montell is a veteran human rights activist in Israel, where she leads HaMoked, an organization dedicated to supporting Palestinians in the occupied territories whose rights are being violated by Israeli government policies. She’s a past leader of the human rights organization, B’Tselem and of SISO, an Israel-diaspora partnership against the occupation among other activities. She wanted to tell me about a poem that has become much loved among activists.

To be of use

By Marge Piercy

 

The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.

 

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,

who do what has to be done, again and again.

 

I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm

when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

 

The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.

 

Jessica Montell: I first heard this poem 30 years ago and it was actually read to me by the author. Marge Piercy was in an award ceremony where B’Tselem, the organization that I directed, was awarded an honor, and she dedicated this poem to us. And that’s the first time that I heard it. And honestly, it didn’t speak to me at all. I mean, I found it so unglamorous, uh, you know, she actually called me a water Buffalo! So I mean, it, wasn’t my idealized image of the human rights activist. And it’s only this past year that I really have come back, you know, I’ve read this poem again and again this year. I’m not looking for that sort of glamorous image anymore. And partly it’s this pandemic year when so many people are out of work. So it’s also, you know, to be grateful to be doing work and doing work that is real.

JM: The work of my organization, HaMoked – we’re giving legal aid to Palestinians. So it’s really providing the individual assistance to the people who are suffering.  You know, it’s just rolling up your sleeves and really getting into the muck and the mud and doing the work, you know, again and again, another person and another person and another person that needs help. And I think for that reason, this poem, it really resonates with me. You know, that’s what the work of human rights activists is all about.

JM: My view of the work of doing human rights in Israel-Palestine has also changed and maybe changed because we have such a pessimistic view of the possibility of some grand resolution of this conflict. I mean, in the short and medium term, the situation looks really hopeless. The small steps that we do again and again, and again, of course, that feeds into this big picture where we hope there will be reconciliation and justice and accountability. I mean, we have to believe there’s a connection between what we’re doing in the muck and the mud and realizing that vision, but it’s very hard in the day to day to see the connection. And for that reason, I think it’s also really important to take satisfaction in the actual day to day.

JM: For me, the sense that we’re all in this together really resonates in the poem and also my experience in human rights. And there were several years that I tried to be, you know, sort of an independent consultant in between B’Tselem and HaMoked and I realized that the sense of this collective effort is so important to me, to be part of the team, doing the work. You know, you think the problems out there need us, but we need this work also. It’s a gift and a privilege to be doing it. The pitcher cries out for water. and a person for work that is real. We need real work.

 

AA: That was Marge Piercy’s To Be of Use.  Thanks to Jessica Montell for sharing her reflections with us.

 

AA: That wraps up this seventh episode of strength and solidarity. If you’re liking what you hear, please do subscribe and give us a review because that will help others find their way to us. And suggestions or feedback are really welcomed. Wherever you accessed us. You’ll find a link to send us your comments for now, though, thanks to our producer, Peter Coccoma. I’m Akwe Amosu. Until next time.