What sounds like an oxymoron in view of the current political landscape in the US became reality in a workshop by the Accountability Lab, an NGO that aims to improve accountability in public sectors worldwide.
I love notebooks. They facilitate reflection and the creation of memories that can be reviewed for years to come. At the beginning of the Integrity and Collaborative Leadership workshop, which took place in Washington, DC from 28 to 31 March, the participants, including myself, each received a notebook that was made by a South African art project. Upon explaining the background story to the brown-purplish notebook with important buildings and monuments of the US capital on the outside, I was struck by how gently yet distinctly we were educated about the importance of the social value of labour activity.
But let’s start with the reason why I, as a public servant working in the German federal state of Saxony, wanted to participate in a three-day workshop about collaboration and integrity in Washington, DC. As a project coordinator at the regional coordination office of the “Democracy Center”, my daily job is to bridge the gap between migrant and non-migrant parts of society. I work with a special emphasis on relations with Muslim communities in a local context. This is indeed quite challenging. Although Muslims have been part of Saxon society for over 30 years, hardly any state-led dialogue took place, although some Muslim communities themselves reached out to society at large during the mid-2000s as a response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in the US. Since 2015, this has finally changed with the arrival of refugees in increasing numbers, of whom an estimated 80% have a Muslim background. Another development is a rise in islamophobic tendencies in Germany. Sentiments against Muslims have been on the rise throughout Germany since 9/11. However, in Saxony, a citizen-led movement called Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA) mobilised at the end of 2014 in response to a PKK demonstration in the state capital Dresden, as stated by the group. The number of participants spiked when refugees entered Germany in significant numbers in 2015 and the movement caught international attention. This gave rise to an open discourse about societal polarisation in Saxony was a result. The goal of my work is to overcome polarisation and to build collaborative relationships on a local level between Muslim communities, civil society organisations, social welfare organisations, security offices and the municipalities in Saxony. Applying for the workshop in Washington, DC funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and organised by the Accountability Lab, was therefore a no-brainer.
The workshop, which had 22 participants from a range of diverse countries such as China, Tunisia, Brazil and Azerbaijan, got off to a chaotic start. Upon arrival, we, the participants, were (more or less gently) invited into a small room, where there weren’t enough chairs and a projector was set up because the leader of the Accountability Lab was stuck at the airport and we had to hold a Skype conversation. Of course, all of that was a setup. And I still struggle to wrap my mind about the question as to wether, in hindsight, I consider this experience to be a positive or negative method. Currently, I tend towards the former: realising that you are being exposed to manipulation doesn’t feel great. But it created a possibly necessary distance between participants and facilitators while of course elaborately explaining the reasons behind the method. Furthermore, as some of us participants (like myself) facilitate opportunities for dialogue, we were able to reflect on what a lack of hosting skills could lead to at an event that was intended to build trust and collaborative potential. Thirdly, we also experienced that chaos is not by definition a bad thing as it creates certain limited opportunities for collaboration between willing participants (organising chairs, discussing individual expectations of the programme etc.).
Finding the positive core of a community and dealing with chaotic circumstances are the two key lessons I took away from the workshop. What probably best encapsulated these two aspects was the method the facilitators used to visualise our appreciation. With a ball of wool in our hand, everyone walked through the room approaching other participants and telling them why we appreciate them and then wrapping the string of wool either around them, or preferably around their chair to lower the risk of accidents. With over 20 participants, lots of wool and a lot of people showing their appreciation, you can imagine the creative mess on the floor after we finished. The conversation helped to get closer to our positive core as a group, but also led to chaos with a complex network lying on the ground that made me curious as to the potential valuable conversation I could have with others who already had an appreciative connection to people I approached. But that was just the official end of the exercise. Wendy Pascual, an incredibly engaging participant, knitted a circular carpet out of all the colourful wool overnight. It blew our mind and taught us a lesson about passionate leadership.
Communities are a source of solutions to societal challenges. If a diverse community is on the lookout for its positive core, it may be able to appreciate the different perspectives that are necessary in order to tackle increasingly complex local challenges. In order to use that source, we have to disrupt spaces to get conversations with a broad spectrum of society going. We have to create situations where individuals feel appreciated. We need to ask ourselves: what keeps people from dealing with the problems that affect their community. Who should be responsible for solving the problems in the respective communities? Asking the right questions is important because questions guide the way we learn and therefore in the way we overcome challenges.
Group work and flip-chart presentations were, of course, not the only methods we were exposed to during the workshop. We went outside and explored Washington, DC and visited, for example, the former headquarters of the National Association of Negro Women. In our leisure time, we enjoyed dinner at a Spanish wine bar, held personal conversations at a piano bar and – of course – went shopping (more or less successfully – in my case the latter).
So, how did I implement the workshop experience in my day-to-day work? For example, the lead facilitator Jaco Roets told us a story of a method for resolving conflicts in an Afghan community in which the participants draw a map of their village in the sand, using it to explore the lines of dispute in their community. I use that approach in a modified way during the local events I organise. Maps of the city as large printouts are placed on tables around which eight to ten participants sit. With felt-tip pens, they draw places of joy and concern in their city on the map. This interactive visualization mehtod facilitates an informal yet earnest atmosphere of collaboration and is, in my opinion, a great tool for lowering the threshold to creating trusting relationships.
On a final note, the facilitators were keen to emphasise the importance of sustainable relationships. That’s why they gave us participants the opportunity to get to know each other better and to think about ideas for future support and exchange. The seed was planted at the workshop, and I can already see the plant growing to create a strong network of experts who are passionate about leading communities to use their collaborative potential in favour of their positive core.
Once again, thanks for the notebook, which became way more for me than just a book of notes, but a reminder to continue my practical and intellectual efforts filled with wonderful memories.
About the author:
Khaldun Al Saadi is a project coordinator with strong experience and interests in the fields of immigration, equality, integration and radicalization prevention.
Published on July 23, 2019.
Photo credit: Jean-Baptiste Hounsou