One measure of the importance of conversation is how willing people are to fight through obstacles to make their conversations possible. Our first meeting with Kofaviv was a case in point.
Kofaviv is the Creole acronym for the Commission of Women Victims for Victims. Its members are women who suffered violence of the worst kinds against themselves and their families under the regime that ruled Haiti after an U.S.-supported coup d’état overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. The women organized themselves to form a support network for other women who’ve suffered as they have. They provide rape counseling, a health clinic, educational programs, and other services. They have an office not too far from downtown Pòtoprens, but do much of their work through field agents who are scattered through the city’s poorer neighborhoods, bringing many of the services right to the women who need them in places like La Saline, Martissant, Cité de Dieu, and the famous Cité Soleil.
Frémy and I had been trying to arrange to meet with the group for quite some time. They had been sending representatives to annual meetings of Open Space practitioners in Haiti for several years, and consistently impressed us when they spoke of their accomplishments. Funding from BIA, an international lawyers’ group, had enabled colleagues of ours to provide them with an introduction to Wonn Refleksyon a couple of years ago, but we were curious as to what they were doing with the experience.
When we finally were able to sit down with their leadership team in February, they talked about how much they had enjoyed participating in their Wonn Refleksyon group and how it had benefited those who participated with them. The experience had, they said, made them better at talking and at working together. What their field agents lacked, however, was the sense of how to lead groups of their own. They asked us whether we could organize a weekly group for Kofaviv field agents that would have as its goal to prepare them to be discussion leaders. Each agent works with a group of roughly twenty women, and the leadership team thought that these groups might accomplish more if they could learn to talk together more effectively.
For our part, Frémy and I were excited about the opportunity to work with a group that was already accomplishing so much. We also looked to it as a way to begin to establish more of a presence in Pòtoprens, especially in its so-called “popular neighborhoods”, or slums, and to bring more women into the network of our collaborators.
When we got to the Kofaviv office, we knew it would be a hard morning. The least of the problems was that there weren’t enough chairs. That was easy enough to solve: We’d simply sit on the floor.
The room they chose for us was dark which made reading a little bit of a challenge, but it wasn’t too bad. Its shape was more of an issue. It was long and narrow. We had to sit in an oval, rather than a circle, and this can be a real difficulty. Members of a group learning to talk with one another need to be able to see each other well. Any shape they sit in, other than a reasonably good circle, creates blind spots, places for participants to sit in where they are, at least partially, unseen. This is a bigger deal than might at first appear, because part of the challenge is to nurture the participation of those who are more comfortable with silence, and having spaces where they can sit more or less unseen only facilitates their silence. It cuts them off from the group. Nevertheless, the space we were in was the one the group had. Wishing for a room shaped differently would accomplish nothing.
With a large gasoline generator running in the building next door, listening would also be a real challenge. And when the office’s own generator joined in, I began to wonder whether I’d be able to hear at all. My Creole is constantly improving, but listening can still be hard, especially the first few times I work with a group, when inexperienced participants are still a little shy about speaking up and participants are unaccustomed to my limitations and I to their voices.
This can force me to make a hard choice. If I ask participants over and over to speak up or repeat themselves, I put myself at the very center of the conversation, which is what I most of all want to avoid. If, on the other hand, I settle for partial understandings of what’s said, I cannot support the conversation they way I’d like to.
In my first years in Haiti, I always chose the second course, settling for partial understandings, and adapted by minimizing my participation. But that had a consequence: Many of the discussion leaders who worked with me during that period came to think that they should be saying hardly anything at all. Their near-silence was helpful as a remedy for the way group leaders here traditionally dominate in meetings, but it’s a poor solution indeed because it robs a group of contributions of the one who is often the most experienced member.
But asking the office to turn off the generator was not an option. It was powering a water pump, working because of the third, most serious problem. The smell. They were emptying the rainwater cistern under the house. Some poor soul had fallen in. They weren’t found right away. The smell was thick and horrible, not least because one knew its source. The water itself was a real hazard and had to be eliminated, as quickly as possible. The pump, and therefore the generator, had to run.
Frémy and I had a simple plan for the two-hour session. During the first hour, I would run a discussion using the first Wonn Refleksyon text in the first of the participants’ books. That text is an introduction to Wonn Refleksyon, its rules and its objectives. I would lead it roughly according to the instructions in the guidebook for discussion leaders that our team created to accompany that first book of texts. Frémy would then use the second hour to introduce the guidebook and invite the participants to talk about the way I had led the class.
This is our favorite approach to developing discussion leaders. Ideally, we’ll be able to go through the entire guidebook with them by meeting weekly during the next couple of months. Sometime before we finish, we’ll them to start meeting weekly with their own groups, and at that point we’ll set aside time each week for them to talk with one another about their experience leading those groups.
From the moment we started, it was clear that these women were not the sort of participants we are accustomed to. They responded immediately to instructions, asking for additional explanations if they were unclear about anything. We I asked them to separate into small groups, they divided themselves quickly, working with energy and focus on the question that I had asked them to address. When I brought the small groups together to report, they had a lot to say, and they gave their reports clearly and concisely. Later Frémy divided them into small groups again to ask them to identify and think about ways that I had strayed from the lesson plan in leading the class, and they picked up the changes I made and had interesting comments and questions for me. As far as Frémy and I could tell, every one of them participated actively in the small group work.
But in another sense, they were very much like the groups we work with all the time. At this first meeting, when they tried to work in the large group that included all sixteen of them, only seven of them managed to speak up. Four participants whispered to the women next to them, but only two of these shared what they were thinking with the group as a whole, and one of them did so only at my prompting. Speakers interrupted other speakers several times, and almost everything said was directed to me. None made any effort to encourage quieter participants to join in. This is all typical of a meeting early in the history of a group’s development.
So, notwithstanding the talents and skills that the women already show, they will have a lot of work to do as they learn to speak together and to take responsibility for helping groups of other women learn to speak and work together as well. Frémy and I are thrilled to be able to be part of their work because the work they already know how to do and the strength of character they show as they do it promises a lot.