Kathy LeMay is the founder, president and CEO of Raising Change, an organization that “transforms philanthropy and giving.” Kathy recently visited Tostan in Senegal. She has since shared her thoughts on this experience in a poignant blog post which you can read in full here. Below is an excerpt that captures some of the inspiration she encountered on her trip, and her reasons for continued passion and dedication to this work.
These days remarkable doesn’t come around that often. So, when you’re in the presence of it you know it.
What I was learning and taking in—this societal transformation—not change, but transformation—one that has been applied for twenty five years is rooted in human rights, empowerment education, dignity, respect and love. This model was about to sweep me up, become forever a part of the work I would do and personally inform how I would live my life.
Our group talked for hours. Molly [Melching] effortlessly translated my English to Wolof or French.
[Those present] shared about their roles, how they each came to Tostan (most as volunteers), what they have seen, what still needs to be done. They were eager for my questions. I asked a lot. They were thoughtful, patient and listened deeply to one another. I always watch for this in organizations: do they live the values that they are teaching in their programs? Do they live respect and dignity? I know of course that people everywhere are on their best behavior when there is a guest. I understand this. I also know that none of us are always in our highest place even when we try our best. And, after twenty years of working with organizations and people throughout the globe I am a good observer. I watch closely—body language, facial movement cues—I’m looking to see if people are truly happy where they’re working, or if they have been told to be happy and are following orders.
At the Thies office, I was fully at ease. I drank the Nescafe sweetened with larger than life sugar cubes. I drank water. I took notes and listened. I was being told truth.
“May I ask the men, why are you a champion of women? There are not that many organizations serving women with so many men on the staff. Many times over the years I’ve heard men say, ‘Oh, I’d never work there. That’s a women’s group.’ So, may I ask, why women?”
One by one, each of the men answered. Not one opted out. Not one talked so long that the other men didn’t have a turn. They answered like this:
“My grandmother was my teacher. I am educated because she taught me. Women hold us all up. I am giving back.”
“I grew up in a village where I witnessed my mother, my sisters, my aunt getting beaten for nothing. It’s just what happened. I saw their suffering. I couldn’t take it. That suffering. I wanted it to be different for them and for all women.”
“I don’t just help women in the villages. I help my wife, too. I go to the market and shop. I cook. I am her partner in life.”
On this last one, all the men nodded. Molly asked more and said to me, “They all go to the market. They all help their wives. This is not true for Senegalese men overall!”
When I asked how they made this shift they each said the same thing:
“We learned about human rights. They are for all people. For men, for women, for children. For the elderly and the youth. Everyone has human rights and with those rights, responsibilities. I am responsible to my family and my village. I am responsible to help women have a better life.”
“What is your dream?” I asked.
“That we can bring Tostan to everyone in Senegal and then throughout all of West Africa. We can do this. We know it will happen.”
“That the continent will know human rights. That we become the continent we dream of.”
They spoke more. They shared more. I listened.
They shared about the transformational changes that can happen with a human rights model, with discussion, education and community action. I thought about my home state of Massachusetts. I thought about how many people really know their human rights. I imagined what it could be to bring this program to my community, one that like these villages, is striving to become the best version of itself. Not a version of what someone else wants or envisions, but the highest version a community can see for itself.
…On this Senegalese winter day in February of 2015, what these beautiful people showed me was respect and love for themselves, one another, their communities, their country, their continent, and a perfect stranger. Of course there are the outcomes, results, measurement tools, and evaluations. Those papered their walls and notebooks, and chronicled their drive to reach more. They have meticulously mapped and plotted with expert precision. In fact, there is an entire department devoted not only to monitoring and evaluation, but to exploring what should be monitored and evaluated. What is transformation? What does it look like? How do we know when it has happened? How do we know when there has been a shift in thinking? What constitutes reaching critical mass? How they monitor and evaluate their work is as impressive as I have ever laid my eyes on…
Driving away from this team, who had welcomed me as their own, given me sweet coffee, Senegalese art and a Senegalese name, I knew that the results happen because human rights, dignity, and respect root, ground and inform their work. These principles are what drive each action, decision, and program design. Each person is in service to these values, and each program is rooted in them, from Peace and Security to Empowering Community Education, to Grassroots Democracy, to Economic Growth. I don’t know about you but I have not often walked into my workplace or a meeting and thought, “Ah, I can feel my human rights and dignity being celebrated all over the place.” I felt it in Thies. I felt it in the car rides to villages. I felt it in ways I hadn’t imagined while sitting with villagers and listening. I felt it talking with an eighty-one-year old village Imam named Demba Diawara who told his story of walking for years to transform his country for women and girls.
As we drove away…I quietly pulled that experience closer to me. I wasn’t just at an office meeting; I had become part of a community. I knew sitting there in the car, that when I got home I would share their stories and work. I would bring my best and highest talents to bear for this model that is transforming societies without judgment, anger or rage, but instead with possibility, with listening and with understanding…These good people have championed a program that has already impacted 3 million lives. They deserve the next round of us to step up and reach the next 3 or 30 million more.
Photos by Kathy LeMay