Listening and Empowerment Through Community and Self
Guest Post by Alanna Ford
I believe that women are the key to development, and that by investing in them we are ensuring a more promising future for their children and wider communities. This belief has taken me around the world to foster female empowerment and social justice by listening with the communities around me.
From living with a rural community of artisans in the Ecuadorian Cloud Forest to designing new products with the craft division of the Self Employed Women’s Association in India, this passion has taken me around the globe. Earlier this year I returned from Kenya where I conducted a social impact evaluation for a social enterprise connecting female African artisans to the global e-commerce marketplace. By visiting people in their workshops, homes and markets throughout Nairobi, I heard many stories, allowing me to build relationships with individuals in order to understand the collective community and make recommendations to the organization. This, for me, is the first essential step. It all begins with listening. And I don’t mean simply hearing, but a more holistic and proactive way of being with a community.
Listening is the key to creating sustainable, powerful solutions – whether you’re working in international development, starting a business, or creating an art piece – because it ensures you are filling a true need. The most successful projects I’ve launched began by listening to and with the communities I’m in to identify gaps and build solutions around them. When I was in Kenya recording people’s stories this year, I remembered back to how my listening-centric framework was formed.
When I was 17 years old, I visited the Florida coast with some family friends. While heading down to the beach a bright sunny morning, one of the young girls in our group told me how uncomfortable she felt wearing a bathing suit because of the shape of her body. She was 9 years old. I decided to listen to her, and translate her need into my own action.
But first, I checked in with myself. What did I feel was right? How was I related to this girl and the issues? You see — listening doesn’t just take place on the community level, but also with the Self. I wanted to discern if there was an intersection of the community’s needs with my own experience and heart. I can’t respond to all of the world’s challenges, but I do want to take action with those that resonate with my own journey. After journaling and reflecting, I decided I had to do something about this problem, which I knew extended far beyond just one girl. But I wasn’t sure exactly how to tackle such a big challenge.
So I brought it back to the community. At school, I set up a gathering to see what ideas my classmates might have. Would anyone show up? Were people interested in talking about body image and health? The answer, it turned out, was a resounding yes. Thus LULA was born, a club that united girl activists around positive self-image and healthy living. Over the course of two years, LULA grew to become a network that extended beyond my high school to schools across my state, including hundreds of girls its network of positive activism.
Since starting LULA, my female-centered community work has expanded out of my hometown to take me across five continents working for social justice and gender equity. It has allowed me to see problems as opportunities by listening to communities and myself, finding where I can contribute the most good to the world.by