Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – October 2012
Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley
This month Avirupa provides us with an update on the outcomes from the Sewing Exhibition, as well as sharing her experiences of using strengths and strengthspotting in leadership development training with a group of rural Muslim women in Hasnabad, located 4 hours from Kolkata. This was on behalf of another NGO, partered by Action Aid.
On reading Avirupa’s blog I was struck once again by how the issue of gender preconceptions about leadership are prevalent. See below – and also see how Rabindranath Tagore, the poet of Kolkata and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, describes the importance of strengths in one of his songs…
“October is the month of festivities for India, especially for Bengal, and more specifically for Kolkata. Durga Puja the greatest hindu religious festival takes place around October. Although the days are calculated by Bengali calendar, most of the times it falls in October. Durga Puja is closely followed by Eid, Lakshmi Puja, Muharram, and finally Kali puja & Diwali. So the fiesta lasts till mid November.
This is the time when people try to buy new clothes for children, give gifts to friends & family and spend much of their income for related activities. The main puja is for 6 days, but preparations are a month long, even more.
So when we met in the first week of October, it was pretty much decided that we will get to meet again only after Kali puja. However we thought of giving ourselves a little bonus. The women suggested that the remuneration for volunteering in the exhibition will be Rs.50 per day, per person plus conveyance.
It seemed only fair enough, so Arpita was awarded with Rs. 150, for being present on all 3 days, and Mousumi and Sharmila Rs. 100 each. This money was deducted from our total sale worth around Rs. 1100. The women vowed to prepare for next year much in advance.
Meanwhile unexpectedly I found quite a new opportunity. A friend of mine recommended my name for a project of another NGO partnered by Action Aid. The objective of the programme is to make the marginalized community realise their basic human rights, by capacity building through competent trainers.
My session was on Leadership training, and the target audience was a group of muslim women from the suburb. Naturally I was quite excited with the idea. I boarded a local train and reached Hasnabad, a small township, 4 hrs from Kolkata, at noon.
I met with about 25 women, who had come from villages near Hasnabad. They were very different from the women of Shiriti group. The first visible difference was that all of them were veiled, as is common for rural muslim women. For some, coming to Hasnabad was the biggest step they have taken outside their village, without being accompanied by men.
I began with an ice breaker, by asking them to think of a leader, and then announced that by magic I knew that most of them have thought about someone who 1. Is a man 2. lives in a big city, far away and 3. that he is most likely to be a political leader.
Then I subverted their preconceived notion of leadership by giving the example of their community leader, Afsa, a girl in her mid-twenties, herself a co-worker of the NGO and who is from the same village as them, and one who has been instrumental in bringing them to the workshop.
The earlier session was a lecture on the relationship of power and marginalisation, so I referred to that and then started talking about strengths. Incidentally strength and power have similar words in Bengali, shakti, khomota. The idea was to make them realise their own strengths and use them to their benefit, to change power equation.
The task was harder than I imagined. I started with the strengths story of Ashok Shah (from The Strengths Book), with a slight twist. I made Shah a factory worker, who lost his job, to make them relate to him. They listened with rapt attention and reacted positively to the perceived happy ending.
Then I started a strengths spotting exercise. Here again the biggest hurdle was to make them speak about their own strengths. I think the phenomenon may be cultural, because people, (the more marginalized, the worse), often find the idea of talking about one’s own strengths contradicting with ideals of humility.
It takes a lot of coaxing to get it out from them, as a matter of fact I had to explain as many as 10 strengths from the CAPP inventory, and talk at length about all of my own strengths before I could build enough confidence in them to spot even one in themselves.
Also I emphasised the fact that strength is inherent in all of us, that we are all born with one or other strength/s. Then I tried to shift the focus from self to others. This worked much better, women giggled and started to talk about the strengths of their friends, who in turn giggled even more and complimented back by strengths spotting for the appreciators.
One woman said she has strength of competitiveness, and can make 100 bidis (small local cheap cigars) in 15 minutes, more than anyone in her neighbourhood. She has even given a demonstration in front of Govt. Officials in the local municipal township office, in order to obtain a Govt. Aid for health insurance.
A woman said that to be present in this training workshop away from home without men is a proof of her strength of adventure. A group of women pointed out to an elderly woman, and said she has wonderful strength of counselling, and is very compassionate.
Another smart widow stood up and said that she is full of drive, as a proof she cited the example that she always attends social welfare workshops and conference, and once have even travelled to Siliguri (a town in north Bengal, which is about 20 hours journey by train from Hasnabad).
We then talked about collective strength and how powerful tool it can be, and roughly introduced the idea of the Realise2 quadrant model, to describe how it can be used to the fullest advantage.
The session ended in song of Rabindranath Tagore mukto karo bhoy, apona majhe shakti dhoro, nijere koro joy” (break free from the shackles of fear, realise your own strength to be a winner) wherein some of the women joined me.
I ended the session by asking them to make a promise, to be alert about their own strengths, look out for strengths in others, and to make strengths part of their vocabulary.
The group looked visibly happy and hopeful and cheered me in chorus to assure me that they will keep their promise.”