Whichever way you can

Monday, June 2, 3:00 PM

Exhaustion allowed me to sleep uninterrupted for ten hours last night. Back home now, so far I’ve cut the grass, played cards with my sick son, eaten foods I haven’t tasted in 2 weeks, and had only 2 cups of coffee to keep me awake.

The workshop is over, and everyone seemed satisfied. In the end, before handing out certificates, one of the facilitators asked each of the participants to say something. The mike was passed around, and I heard sentiments I often hear in workshops, such as I learned a lot or I am even more committed to fight for human rights. But I also heard messages not often expressed during workshops: I feel a sense of solidarity, You are my family, I love you all.

For many of the participants and facilitators, the conditions in which they live are unimaginably harsh compared to those most of us find ourselves in. The hardships, the fear of being attacked, kidnapped, or killed, and the tremendous sense of insecurity is as palpable and encompassing for them as it is for the people whose rights they defend. It is humbling for me to be part of their lives and to be witness to the dedication and strength they show to improve the lives of others in a country devastated by war but rich in culture, traditions, and solidarity.

We often talk of measuring the impact of our human rights education work. This measurement is essential in order to identify the (hopefully positive) social change our programs create and also allows us to identify ways in which we can improve our work. Problem is, evaluating a long-term impact like “contributing to advances in democracy and good governance” are a bit tough to pin down (but we try anyway). Change at the individual level, in comparison, is a little easier to figure out. Our framework for change refers to an increase in knowledge, the development or skills, and the changing or reflection on personal values and attitudes. During our programs, we have participants think in this frame of mind. In other words, we ask them, “Once you have finished a human rights education activity, such as a workshop, how do you evaluate the change among participants?”

Less obvious (but equally important) is to identify our own change as a result of our work as human rights educators. At the end of this workshop in Istanbul, once the last goodbyes were said and the last debrief took place, I met someone from the group who was sitting alone in the lobby. Usually jovial, a smile erupting on his face whenever he would see me, he seemed quiet and contemplative as I approached him. I shook his hand and thanked him for the work he’d done, and he hugged me and told me that Christine and I had changed his life. I didn’t know how to respond and stood silently in front of him, and he repeated what he’d just said. His words were sincere and touched me deeply.

And so most of the participants are now home, back to reality. Some of the workshop participants have posted in this forum in English and Arabic. For those of you who do not read Arabic, I’d like to relate to you the content of one of the posts (and for those of you who do speak Arabic, feel free to correct me). The post relates the story of a man who, in his twenties, set out to change the world. After 10 years he realized that nothing in the world had changed, so he set out to change his country. Another 10 years pass, and his country had not changed, so he decided to change his city. Another 10 years, no change in the city, so he focused on his immediate neighbourhood, and after no change there over 10 years, he focused on change in his home. And then he realized that change in his home could bring about change in the neighbourhood, the city, the country, and eventually the world.

Fifteen years ago I left Montreal to live in Africa with all the dogged determination of youth to change the world. I quickly realized I couldn’t. A few years after that, living in another country in Africa, I sat on a friend’s porch one day and told her I wanted to quit my job as a policy advisor on girls’ education because the system in which I was working grossly mismanaged funds and it depressed the hell out of me. Her eyes bore into mine and she told me that I wasn’t there to change the world, but if the work I did made a difference even in the life of a single girl, then I owe it to that one girl to continue my work. And that thought kept me going, and some days those words still give me the boost I need, just like hearing “you changed my life” at the end of a workshop.

So go ahead and change the world, in whichever way you can…


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