What Conversations are About

A guiding principle that Wonn Refleksyon inherited from its US-based parent, the Touchstones Discussion Project (www.touchstones.org), concerns the role that texts play in the activity. For Touchstones, and generally for Wonn Refleksyon as well, texts have been mere tools, useful in the development of a discussion groups’ skills and, so, in the development of individual members, but they have not had further importance.

This may not sound very dramatic, but it distinguishes Touchstones and Wonn Refleksyon from most of the ways we generally use texts. In most circumstances, we choose the texts to read in a group because we want to learn something that we think the text can teach us. We study textbooks in school to learn science or social studies or math. We read newspaper articles or biblical verses because we want to reflect on the issues they raise.

Although Wonn Refleksyon texts raise issues that are familiar and important to members of a discussion group – in fact, they wouldn’t work as texts if they did not – we are not usually that interested in figuring out what the texts have to say. Skill at textual interpretation is rarely a central goal for a group, as much as it tends to improve as a group moves forward, and if a group more or less ignores a text in order to take a conversation in its own direction, we don’t generally worry about that too much.

The usefulness of the approach became clear once again over this past winter and spring as we were working with a group of staff members at the Petyonvil office of Concern Worldwide, an international NGO quite active in Haiti. After several weeks of working with Wonn Refleksyon texts, the group’s members decided during an evaluation that conversations would be more meaningful if they were centered on texts more directly related to their work. So for three weeks, members of the group brought short texts that directly treated the realities they face. There was one about the phenomenon of kidnapping that was too common in Haiti at the time, the second was about reforestation, and the third was about the UN’s role in Haiti.

The texts led to spirited discussions, but after three weeks, the group was very anxious to return to the Wonn Refleksyon collection of folktales and short philosophical reflections. They had come to see that the little bit of distance that Wonn Refleksyon texts allow them from the subjects they were treating made it easier for more of them to participate in the conversations more meaningfully. They realized that they were too inclined to come to discussions about more seemingly relevant topics with their minds made up and, therefore, inclined to argue or shut up.

So Wonn Refleksyon has continued to use texts that are not directly related to lessons that participants need to learn or to issues that groups must face, even as we have added new kinds of texts – images and proverbs – that Touchstones has used either to a lesser extent or not at all.

Until now. In the last months, various opportunities have emerged that have called us to develop programs that invite group participants to face issues of particular importance to them. Concern itself has asked us to develop a Wonn Refleksyon program especially focused on public health issues We are writing very short stories – less than a page long – using information that Concern provides that raise issues around healthy childbirth, family planning, and sanitation.

And for Fonkoze, we are producing stories that raise issues around the way that credit centers are supposed to function. The purpose of the texts is to help its loan officers do their work. These officers are supposed to meet with the credit centers – groups of 30-50 borrowers who take their loans and make their repayments together – twice each month, once for disbursement or repayment and once for discussion. The problem has been that the loan officers don’t know how to lead discussion and they don’t have lots of varied ideas as to what to talk about. So we decided to try to create a series of short stories that raise issues that might be important for the businesswomen who are members of the centers to face. I went to Pòmago to spend a week with loan officers there, helping them learn to use the texts and hoping myself to learn something about how they might work for Fonkoze.

Fonkoze’s branch in Pòmago is in the middle of one of the prettiest parts of Haiti. The mountains that stretch southwest of Okap, in the far north of Haiti, still have a good number of trees. So in the midst of this wet rainy season, they are lushly green. The town, Pòmago, is a little bit out of the way. It’s off the main road, National Highway #1, that runs from Pòtoprens, through Gonayiv, to Okap. The road through Pòmago branches off that highway at Lenbe, just before Okap, and winds along a riverbed that reaches the northern coast near Oboy. It then crosses the river and continues to Pòdpe.

I spent three days working with seven loan officers, leading discussions that they could watch and then watching them lead discussions on their own. We visited six credit centers. After each day’s work, we spent time sitting in the back of the pick-up truck as it made its way back to Pòmago, talking about the way the conversations had gone.

The meetings are designed to have a simple structure: The loan officer first reads the short story aloud – each less than ¾ of a page long, then he invites the women to divide themselves into groups of four-five, and he asks each group to address a question. Finally, he invites each group to report its reflections to the whole credit center, and poses a question for further reflection. He also asks the women whether they have additional questions or comments that they would like the group to address.

The subjects of the stories we’ve created are somewhat varied, but they all center on one of three things: a business issue, like selling for credit, a center organization issue, like how to work with members who are having trouble making repayments, or an issue of general concern, like maternal or infant health.

The initial experience with the texts was quite positive. The loan officers were happy, because the simplicity of the instructions they had to follow left them with the sense that they knew what they were supposed to do. Center members took to the activity right away. Once they were in small groups, their discussions were lively. At each center, a short discussion followed the group reports. Women commented on the reports and on other related questions.

When they were invited to pose their own question, however, something interesting happened. Rather than continuing the conversation along the lines on which it had been traveling, the women presented a wide range of questions and requests that concerned their relation to Fonkoze. The presence of not one, but two representatives of Fonkoze’s central office was an opportunity too good to miss. The women pressed us with a range of requests from lower interest rates, to accelerated access to new credit, to possible new locations for branch offices. These questions, though off the topic in a certain narrow sense, served well to show that the women we were talking with were willing and able to take control of the conversation to steer it where they needed it to go.

We will need more experience, with more loan officers at more branches, before we’ll be able to say how effective the texts are. If they give the officers and the women they work with the sense that they have a useful way to spend time together, then attendance at the monthly discussions may improve. The consequence would be both a building of the solidarity that the centers depend upon and a better sense on the part of the loan officers of the clients that they serve.