Finding Strength in the Vulnerability of Collaboration
When I was nine years old my parents split up, and as I was just beginning to discover myself, I watched my mother struggle to find herself again. I have never been married myself, but I learned from my mother that when we wed our dreams to another’s, we have to make sacrifices. Sometimes we make so many sacrifices that we lose ourselves.
After the divorce, I watched my mother search for a job that would give her purpose in addition to a paycheck. I watched as she rebuilt her home and community. I watched as she slowly opened herself up to love again. My mother is my definition of strength — the type of strength that comes through hardship and hard work, but also humility and vulnerability.
Sometimes the pain we experience in life hardens us. My mother told me that I should never rely on someone else to provide for me, because one day they might leave, and where would that leave me? My mother taught me the value of self-reliance.
The summer after my parents separated I went to an all-girls sleep away camp in Maine. At camp I learned to build fires and weld metals; I learned to classify plants and read weather patterns; I canoed long distances and sailed in high winds; I plunged toilets and moped floors. I spent ten consecutive summers at this camp, and as I grew from a young girl to a young woman, I began to discover that I am strong, smart, and capable.
But I also learned that I can’t do everything alone; that there is a difference between relying on others and working with others; and that it’s okay to ask for help.
We live in a society that celebrates the individual and measures its success against others. In school, I was taught that if I studied hard, I would receive a grade that would distinguish me from my classmates and help me get into college. I was taught that competition is good, because it encourages us to work harder and achieve more.
At camp I learned the value of collaboration. I learned that when we work together, we can do far more than we ever imagined we could do alone; but even more than what we physically achieve together, through the process of collaboration we build connections, relationships, and communities of support.
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After my own positive experiences at summer camp, I went on to work as a counselor at the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine. This is a camp that provides leadership training, intensive dialogue, and trust building activities for young women and men from the Middle East, South/Central Asia and the U.S./U.K.
At Seeds of Peace I led a special activity, called, “Super Woman: Endurance Training,” which provided an opportunity for the young women to build physical and mental strength through running and canoeing. The women participating in the “Superwoman” elective gained self-confidence by improving their athletic skills, and simultaneously, grew to trust one another as they worked together to conquer physical challenges and later rejoiced together in their strengths and accomplishments.
The “Superwoman” elective also provided an important opportunity for dialogue: the young women discussed gender stereotypes in their societies, shared stories about their female role models, and dreamed about the types of leaders they wanted to be in the future. At Seeds of Peace, these conversations happen intentionally in an open and supportive cross-cultural environment. The young women build relationships, based on their common dreams and values, which act as a foundation for future dialogue and collaborative efforts to resolve conflict.
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I have never thought of myself as a feminist, in fact, I am still unpacking the many layers and meanings of that politicized term; however, I often find myself working with groups of women.
I feel that something magic happens when there are no men in the room. It’s as if the weight of our socially-constructed gender is lifted like a veil and I experience a certain type of freedom. I am more able to be myself and to see others for who they are, because everything I say or do is no longer judged as aligned with or counter to my gender role. (I recognize that women also judge other women according to socially-constructed gender roles; however, I think the judgment is more pronounced when men are in the room).
From this position, I am better able to act authentically, share freely, and connect deeply. I am better able to collaborate. Now, I am not saying that it’s impossible to collaborate with men, but it’s different. Perhaps I am better able to collaborate with women because collaboration requires humility and vulnerability, and the type of trust that’s built through shared struggle.
When we collaborate, we give up a part of our identity as an individual on behalf of the collective. Like a marriage, we may have to sacrifice some our individual vision for the collective vision. But this doesn’t mean giving up our values or silencing our voice. We must have the courage to share our dreams, knowing that they may not be fully realized in the ways we initially imagined them.
The power of collaboration is that through our humility and vulnerability, we create something better than we could have ever imagined on our own, and through that process, we strengthen our relationships with others.
Collaboration is particularly important for women’s empowerment, because we cannot fight systems of oppression alone. We need everyone’s voice; everyone’s experiences. The vision of what we might be fighting for will change as we bring in more voices, and it might get more complicated, but the end result will be more meaningful because of the relationships we’ve built along the way.
When attempting to collaborate, you may want to ask yourself some of the following questions:
- What voices are being heard? What voices are being left out?
- Am I balancing my listening and participation?
- Am I being my authentic self?
- Do I feel accepted and respected as my authentic self?
- Do I trust my group enough to share with them?
- What sort of experiences or values do we have in common?
- What am I willing to compromise? What for me is non-negotiable?
- What am I valuing more: the goal or the relationship(s)?