I was in Salvador last month teaching a class on NGO capacity building and grant writing, sharing everything I know about building community and structure around a mission that makes the world a better place. On Friday, as all of the tools and tricks it takes to run an effective organization settled into the minds of class participants, one leaned forward and said, “Temos que ter coragem.” We have to have courage. She meant the kind of courage that would allow them to pioneer new ways of doing things, knowing that they will make mistakes in front of each other along the way.
Indeed, courage was on the minds of these women that day. A discussion about program evaluation shifted from graduation rates to measuring any gain in self esteem that might come through education and social support. They described trying to get young women to even consider taking a university entrance exam within a culture of presumed failure. Each of the women in the room had taken the Vestibular at least twice—several three and four times— before passing, and the young women they work with know that it is uphill battle to learn enough to pass this rigorous exam. Their dreams of achieving a university education required courage to march through the pain of endless study with no guarantee of success, foregone wages, and, for some, social stigma for even trying.
As it turns out, the inner demons that haunt young African-Brazilian women were in good company. The night before, a police strike began, resulting in violence and looting in the neighborhoods to which these women were returning to that night. By the time this conversation was happening, over eighty people had been killed, and the randomness of crime had uprooted any sense of public security for the poor residents of the city. The fear of what might happen was written on their faces. They left early to journey home on public buses, some traveling alone as far as the airport.
Courage was on their minds, and now it is on mine. These women are working in a space in which they have to muster together personal, professional, and social courage, battling internal and external demons around every turn. They have to lift the spirits of others when the same demons haunt them. The success they achieve in these circumstances is heroic and humbling.
There I sat, listening to their discussion, aware of the divide between their experiences and my reality. What was my role in this partnership? Encourage? No, encourage has someone else as its object. It is passive, distant, and possibly condescending. I was on a flight out the next morning. Who was I to tell them to keep up the great work?
What struck me about my week in Salvador was how open these women were to learn and to teach, how they had made a commitment to social change and were in this work for the long term, and how they intuitively understood that their big societal issues were made up of many small problems, all of which could be tackled with the right resources. They weren’t afraid to have the hard conversations.
Our alternative to encouraging them is to have courage with them. We can be partners in hard conversations that cross cultural and power boundaries, giving each other the benefit of the doubt along the way. We can challenge our own limits, professionally and personally, in solidarity with them. And we can build a long-term community in which to learn, celebrate, and labor together through whatever demons come our way. To make a difference in this world, they reminded me, temos que ter coragem.