By Meghana Gudluru
“I realise that it is not even about me or my skills of facilitation. If someone, anyone, is invested in creating some change in the community – there is a pull which they can have… a way in which they can bring others into the conversation without forcing them – and then, the whole community will come up with much more ideas for all.” – Catherine (name changed)
About the Practice Support Mentorship Program
Kshetra’s Practice Support Mentorship Program was piloted in September 2022 with 2 mentees. Catherine was one of them. The program was designed to help individuals who find value in Dialogue and the Dialogic Method, to be able to overcome multiple hurdles, tangible and intangible, to apply it to a particular situation. These may include inertia (hesitation to engage with the situation), feeling of or inability to apply the Dialogic Method effectively, difficulty in assessing the situation through a dialogic lens, situation-based discomfort, or even the need for a confidant when trying something new.
There was also an intention to bring about behaviour change towards fostering a dialogic orientation through the mentee’s consistent application of the Dialogic Method to the situation.
Sometimes, much like the experience of standing at the foot of a large mountain, one could be eclipsed by their perception of the magnitude of the problem. The mountain (situation) may look too big (like it may consume too much time and effort), too steep (too complex) or may just not feel ‘worth it’ (without noticeable reward for the risk/effort). Through the Mentorship program, which was designed with the Dialogic Method Engage and Enable framework in mind – a systematic, yet intuitive approach was adopted by mentors to catalyse mentees’ deliberate, habitual and spontaneous repetition1 of their practice of the Dialogic Method in a situation of their choice.
Catherine describes where she lives as home to many diverse communities, each with their own unique cultures and practices. She belongs to one such community, which believes in equal rights for all. However, a customary practice outlines that women in the community shall not inherit property from their parents in the absence of a Will. Catherine approached Kshetra for the mentorship program after being a part of one of Kshetra’s Dialogic Method workshops, to be able to apply the DM towards understanding the situation better and potentially change the customary practice of her community, in the hopes of increasing women’s social and economic security in the community.
Much of the initial sessions revolved around Catherine’s motivations, and what the ‘change’ she sought in the situation meant to her. Although her connection with the situation was deeply personal, she (and I) soon learned that what was sought was also a systemic change of the ‘process’ in which community affairs were conducted. The mentee wished for higher involvement of every native’s voice in the community, so that everyone feels like they belong while contributing to their best abilities.
Application of the Dialogic Method through Mentorship
After the initial planning and preparation of stakeholder maps of the community, Catherine’s journey with Kshetra’s Practice Support Mentorship Program started when she had started fully engaging with the situation. She did this by broaching the topic in focus with members of the community in various combinations, like married couples, single women, female children, her own cousins, etc.
A powerful learning both Catherine and I had, was the application of ‘genuine curiosity with a purpose’, without feeling it is wrong or ‘self-serving’. Catherine experienced this when she interacted with some leaders from her community. Her initial perception of the leaders was that they would feel ‘they know best’ and would not be open to discussing community affairs with a young person like her. She acknowledged her emotions in this regard and yet, chose to have hope when she reached out to them.
When they agreed to meet with her, she was already pleasantly surprised. It became a little easier for her to keep an open mind, instead of pre-emptively assuming the direction the conversation would take. When she walked through the door, she told them that she was there to learn, and wanted their thoughts on the community and how they are able to carry out their roles. Something clicked. Perhaps it was the activation of a dialogic approach in the leaders as well?
Catherine enthusiastically discussed her findings from the interaction – the leaders are trying their best to work with the community’s best interests, but are finding it difficult to reconcile some modern thought processes from the community’s development in recent times, with the customary law within the region and community. The leaders in turn, invited Cathering to meet them from time to time and discuss her perspective and share her observations from her work on the ground with them.
The departure from Catherine’s initial anticipation motivated her to continue exercising genuine curiosity with a purpose in multiple other instances in the field across the duration of her engagement with the situation during the mentorship.
It was also awe inspiring to observe Catherine’s adoption of the DM through intuitive actions. One such situation was where Catherine found it exceptionally difficult to manage and engage with a group of young members in the community who had convened to discuss challenges in the community and how they can contribute. The group’s conversation was getting thorny when multiple perspectives were at odds. Catherine, although prima facie had no stake in that particular topic, exercised her self-determination (her choice to engage in the situation) and requested the group to participate in an activity where everyone in the group took turns completing each line of a common community song/story, to showcase how they are all valuable elements of the community and that they are here to help each other in their challenges.
During the same event, Catherine engaged in a powerful exercise of self-transformation. When a participant had made certain bias-laden comments which had hurt her while also causing great disturbance to others in the space, Catherine managed the comments as a perspective – while acknowledging her own emotions internally (that she was hurt and angry) before working with the community to weave multiple other perspectives into the conversation.
I believe that the above events had a great impact on the group as a whole, as well as the sustainability potential of the future change that this ‘Dialogic pod’ could have.
Serendipitous Systems Change
It is clear that the situation at hand involves a system level change. For this, Catherine and I also understood that a large-scale systemic change should be seeded through repeated interactions and engagement with members of the community. As a mentor, although I was eager for the process to align to a systematic approach in which the stakeholder mapping would be followed by small group interactions in the community, which would later lead to a gathering resembling a convening of the community regarding the situation, I soon learned to let this expectation go. Catherine’s intentional and driven approach to her pursuit of opportunities to understand her community more and broaching the topic of women’s property inheritance rights only when she saw it to be a moment where the others were determined to work towards progress of the community – taught me that serendipity too has a large role to play in applying the Dialogic Method towards systems change2.
What we (Catherine and I) soon started working towards was impacting individuals through the merit of the Dialogic Method process, and engaging them in exercises of genuine curiosity and understanding. All this, while acknowledging that this is not an altruistic endeavour, but the pursuit of the peak of the mountain (the goal) – to be able to increase social and economic security of women in the community.
What I learned through this process is that much of the fatigue and inertia in engaging with a situation is not always due to a lack of motivation or a fear of failure, but oftentimes due to a feeling that one is alone in their effort. Due to these aspects, most actions one takes may look ‘right’ but continue to feel confounded or unnatural. It is important for changemakers to have a ‘mirror’, be it in the form of a person or a framework, so that they may reflect on their engagement in every step of the process.
What Catherine and I also celebrated was the pleasant departure from what we THOUGHT success looks like. At the end of the program, although the status of women’s property inheritance rights in the community remains unchanged, the community has collectively appreciated and decided that more views of the youth and women need to be included in their meaning-making and decision making processes for the community. The community leaders had requested Catherine and her friend (one who has strong interest in the youth leadership group in the community) to help create a collective of women and youth. Catherine and her friend are now discussing the various ways in which to organise the group for regular discussions on challenges which need to be addressed in the community through the application of stakeholder mapping and interests identification.
Success may not always look like glory and the achievement of every single outlined goal at the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. Sustainable change in a system can look like better listening, sharing of emotions, understanding that biases are pieces of perspectives, continuing a conversation even when you disagree, or even just agreeing to meet again, knowing fully well that you really mean it.
To me, this was a success. I believe Catherine feels so too.