On “The Art of Listening”

A group of women with disabilities and mothers of children with disabilities in northern Uganda exchange stories with AJWS staff and AJWS's grantee, GUWODU.

Henning Mankell’s December 10th New York Times Op-Ed “The Art of Listening” is a thoughtful examination of the role of storytelling in human nature. In many ways, storytelling, and the authentic listening that accompanies it, is a lost art in our sped-up, Twitterized culture.

At AJWS, authentic listening is at the heart of our approach to grantmaking. We hold the perspective that our grantees are best positioned to know their needs and the needs of the communities they serve. It is our job to listen to them so that we can support them most effectively.Just last month, in Kampala, members of the Africa grants team held a partner exchange with eight grantees on our evolving sexual health and human rights strategy in Uganda. We asked our grantees to tell us what the landscape of sexual health and rights looks like now in Uganda; what they would like this landscape to look like in five years; what outcomes would indicate that we are making change; and what our strategies should be for how to achieve this change. The stories our grantees’ told are now integral to how we will approach this issue over the next five years. We will continue to ask our grantees for their input as we further develop this strategy.

AJWS meets with men who participated in a training on gender roles and gender-based violence with AJWS grantee, WORUDET, in northern Uganda.

AJWS also amplifies the voices of our grantees by linking grantees to spaces of power and decision-making in D.C. We support grantees to contribute to policy debates for U.S. foreign affairs, or to testify on and advocate for human rights issues. In 2010, Monica Oguttu, Executive Director of Kisumu Medical & Education Trust (K-MET) in Kenya, traveled to D.C. and worked with AJWS’s advocacy staff to share her expertise with both policymakers and NGOs. During one particularly significant meeting, she told the story of K-MET to the House of Foreign Affairs staffer working on global health legislation. Over lunch, Monica explained how she empowers girls and women in Kenya to stay healthy and to stay in school and the workplace by teaching them how to make reusable sanitary napkins. By working on this project, the girls are fixing a major impediment to education, while at the same time earning an income. Later, that staffer made a speech to a crowd of about 150 people, and told the story that Monica had shared with her. Referring to K-MET’s model of empowering women and girls, the staffer said, “This is how you do development work.”

Additionally, AJWS funds projects that help marginalized communities share stories through radio and other forms of media and communication, so that these communities can strengthen their movements and harness the power of their many notes into one strong, clear chord. In Cambodia, we fund Building Community Voices, which supports media recorded and produced at the community level.

Finally, we use our stories to listen to ourselves, and to learn from our own work. We tell stories to highlight our successes, learn from our mistakes, and evaluate our impact. We are also beginning to write the narratives of our work on specific issues in specific countries, where we have made an impact over several years time. We are marking important steps along the way, so that we can document our own stories, continually learning from them, and crafting new ones. This practice is, as Mankell says, an essential part of our human nature.

He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the streams of the story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale… and because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories.Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie

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