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2 weeks of transformation by SALT

The airport lobby of Abu Dhabi is surprisingly lively at 3.00 AM in the morning. Reflections on the past two weeks spin through my mind. My brain eagerly tries to extract a list of concrete principles that I learnt. It doesn’t work. These are not technical principles. My mind can’t do the synthesis alone; I need to listen to my heart as well to do justice to my learning.

Then Ian Campbell’s contribution pops up on why we are not ‘the Constellation for Community Competence’. Apart from the fact that community competence is a means to an eventual end, it also implies that ‘we’ still remain subjects of development and ‘the communities’ objects. This is not the case. Organizational and personal transformation from ‘our side’ is equally, if not more important.

I know this non-distinction is quintessential, but my academic background, the media I am exposed to and the articles I read, constantly try to challenge this. It makes us a bit vulnerable as well as ‘people from developed countries’. We so eagerly want to help others who suffer in poor countries. But, how Suwat in Phayao explained: “We all have our illnesses, HIV is just one of them. If we want to understand other people’s suffering, we first need to understand ourselves.”

As outsiders, we sometimes think that PLHIV have AIDS as their biggest concern. Suwat asked a group of PLHIV about their main concern, 80% answered: “It’s not HIV, but the young generation who goes out at night and we don’t know what they are doing”. One of my inspirations, Mary-Jo lives with HIV for more than 15 years and tells me: “This period is the happiest of my life. HIV opened up doors for me and gave me insights I would otherwise never have seen”. Pimjay became a genuine community leader in Northern Thailand and lives already 20 years with HIV without taking ARVs. Every time I see her, she looks healthier. The spark in her eyes seems to never fade. Sumali from Banpanglao community states: “HIV was an opportunity for our community. We are now better equipped to face other community challenges, such as drugs and migration”. So what’s the key of all this? If we really want to understand and contribute to community development, we first have to look at our own life, our own community, and our own experiences and see it from a holistic view.

The week of SALT visits in Northern Thailand were illuminating. It went beyond understanding the core of our work. It shifted my personal values as well. One thing I noticed is that when I enter communities with a sole technocratic and professional attitude, I limit my learning and insights. Visit them as a human being, not as a development worker. Then learning comes naturally.

I was struck by the amazement of ‘outside participants’ about how we deal with each other within the Constellation. The journalist that joined us said after the fourth day:” I might write my first article about you and how you deal with each other in your organization. I haven’t heard any judgments or criticism from any of you towards anybody else”. We apparently walk the talk and look for strengths. We don’t ignore weaknesses or vulnerabilities, but do not take them as a starting point.

Think for yourself: Do you take action in your life from strength or from your weaknesses. What puts you to action in life? Appreciation by others or confirmation of your suffering and dependence? Participants had never experienced an organization where so much space was given for emotions, moods, personal sharing and our human side next to our work. At the end of the week they were still unclear what the hierarchy in our organization was. We are not subjects of development or simply facilitating community processes. Our way of thinking and way of working is crucial for our interactions with communities.

Trying to fight jetlag, I am listening to a Podcast of a Buddhist teacher who explains that a particular Canadian NGO focuses solely on providing support to development workers in Africa that work on HIV/ AIDS. These people struggle a lot and face daily suffering in a challenging environment. Another example that there is not ‘us’ and ‘them’. We all belong to a community, we all share a common humanity and we can all take action from strength. I ask myself a question: Can the development sector become more appreciative and supportive instead of trying to build problem trees all the way?

At the same time, I notice my level of SALT has increased. My ability to not judge any other person and look for strengths open up wide doors. Looking for strengths is easy when dealing with inspiring people around you. But I try to do the same for everybody I encounter on my journey back to my home country. For example, the women passing by in black burka’s on my left side, the person sweeping the floors, and even the old American with the young Thai lady. I observe my non-judgement and smile gently. This ability makes me feel stronger.

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Comment by MariJo on October 19, 2008 at 1:53pm
Thank you Gaston for sharing this with us.
For me, this trip to Northern Thailand was like a short parentheses in the long period of heavy work I have been inmerse for the last months. It is a very deep and enriching work, but having the opportunity to be part of a SALT visit and sharing with all of you was like puting the last piece to the puzzle. A sense of relieve as when you can see the whole picture.
Back home, I had to continue dedicating almost all my time to the project, only that... in the back of my mind there is still that light telling me that this local and specific work I am doing is part, must be part, of a broader current of seeing, of feeling, of living.
My SALT visit did not open a new path in front of me, it was already in my life long before that. It did not made me discover wonderful people, most of them were already in my life and others I could guess they were someplace in the world. Then why was it so important for me?
Because it allowed me to touch at different levels things that I have only guessed (wished) in the past. It was not about specific events but the whole experience what let me have the inner convinction that I was about to start something new.
I could see clearly the profound connection among the people working in the communities once they decide to walk together, you can see there a sense of power that do not depend on what they are, what the say... is about them being self-confident. I could see that in my local community we need to find something we have lost which is absolutely necessary in order to live happily: we need to recover our identity as a community.
I could clearly see what being a leader was. I have tried to define what "a leader must not be", but there I could see what a leader is.
I could see how you can share the meaning of important things, how you could talk the same language even when you did not speak the language.
I could experience diversity, not talk about it.
So, the experience of sharing with you all there inspired me to come back here, get in touch with some of my friends and start thinking together as a team how to start spreading the dream in Barcelona. I am a very lucky person, I have a few wonderful people around me with whom I have long talked about new ways of living, about the need for a personal and collective search for something different, and at last we have decided to come together and so within the Constellation frame.
I deeply believe in the magic of life. Not that kind of magic that is done through a magic wand with no personal intervention, but the one that brings to your life everything you need to be happy. The only thing you have to do is to decide to incorporate it and go for it!
Thinking of you makes me feel connected to something real.
Thank you.

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