“I don’t care how much you know if I know that you don’t care.”
Every year the Skoll Foundation puts together the Skoll World Forum in Oxford for a week. The event is marked by the coming together of social entrepreneurs, activists, artists, innovators, community leaders, individuals and organisations working towards social change to help create a world that is more peaceful, sustainable, equal, just, without discrimination and with human rights at the very center of its existence.
The theme of this years’ Skoll World Forum was ‘The Power of Proximity’. There is no way to disrupt the status quo around injustice and inequality without the communities who actually face these biases being at the center of all solutions. Attending this year’s forum as part of their Emerging Leaders Programme, I spent seven days with social entrepreneurs from across the world, talking about critical issues, addressing the need for human centric design and above all the intention and importance of people and communities being at the core of any solution.
For me, the quote above summed it all up in one line. Shared as part of the closing ceremony, it also gave me a lot to reflect upon.
At Breakthrough, we work with communities to try and shift norms that promote discrimination and violence against women and girls. This, by no means is an easy task. Going into and working with communities, challenging age-old mindsets sometimes requires disruption. But disruption is not always an option. There is the risk of antagonizing the very people who we are there to engage with. In saying this, the power of proximity and the need to understand and engage sensitively with people has been a key component of our work all along.
The human in human centric design is the community and this should never be forgotten. Very often in our single-minded endeavor to “do good” we tend to forget that the people who we are hoping would benefit from our solutions also have their own voice that needs to be heard. In fact, very often, they have the ability to come up with their own path for change. All that is required is some direction and encouragement.
Chutiyaro is small revenue village in Jharkhand, one of the states that Breakthrough works in. About 15kms out of Hazaribagh, the problem of alcoholism is something that the women in this community have been struggling with forever. Shops sold alcohol in the main market area, liquor stores were located on the way to a school, men squandered all savings on drinking, cases of sexual harassment were on the rise and the need to tackle this issue emerged directly from the women who were the worst affected by this. Fed up of these problems, the women wanted a solution. Working together with these women, the idea of a community designed, led and owned campaign on the ground took shape.
Facilitated and moderated by the Breakthrough team, the women themselves designed the campaign, the messages, the activities and the plan of action. A street play with an all woman cast was developed, walls were painted, slogans were coined, rallies organized and open public dialogue initiated. The women brought the men into the conversation. They knew exactly how the issue affected them and they were clear on what they wanted. No one was talking for them. It was participatory design and ownership at it’s best.
Proximity breeds strong human connection. It breeds a deeper understanding of each others’ intention, culture, challenges and environment all of which eventually leads to creation of a more empathetic space. This space is useful in finding solutions that take all point of views and feelings into consideration. A space where the people of the community feel represented and heard is critical and needs to exist if completely unbiased and comprehensive outcomes for goals are solicited. Working with and side by side with people who are actually affected by the issues that we are trying to resolve is imperative and it isn’t just one of the ways but the only way.
The biggest learning in all of this was to find a way to be disruptive but with inclusion and respect being the driving forces. Understandably, it’s easier said than done. A number of mental and social barriers need to be tackled. The idea however is to slowly chip away at the seams, taking one step at a time, working through the problem, meeting people where they are and taking them along on the journey that will hopefully lead to a better world.