Practicing Rigorous Humility
The excerpts below are from my presentation to the congregation of the First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond in November.
Being open and willing to say “I don’t know” is one of the key characteristics of what my good friend Jennifer Lentfer calls rigorous humility. This is a concept that she finds central to being truly effective in the fight against poverty. This humility is about listening effectively and balancing power between grantmakers and grant recipients; between those giving, and those asking and receiving.
In my job as Executive Administrator I have many, many opportunities to practice and deploy rigorous humility.
Let me give an example. A few years back I had this great idea to be in contact more with the local SIA coordinators on the ground. I wanted to build a stronger relationship with them, and there were also some donors that were wanting more feedback and more reporting on how the things were going on the ground. So I figured that I would just start writing more emails, even weekly, to the coordinators in an attempt to spur more connection.
Considering from the other side
Of course, I hadn’t really thought about what this would mean for our partners. I hadn’t thought from their perspective. For me, sending an email is a simple as typing and then hitting “send” from the comfort of my own home. For Canaan in Malawi, it means traveling dusty (or muddy) roads to the nearest internet café, paying for access to a computer, paying to scan any documents, etc. You get the idea.
SIA partners walking on the muddy road in Kenya. It was too muddy and steep for the van to take us on this part of the journey.
And so even when I sent more, I didn’t get more back. Because I hadn’t taking that extra time and money into account. So, the questions became: How can I rebalance the power so that it’s not my demands that are disproportionately impacting others? Also, how can reports be designed to give feedback to the coordinators and entrepreneurs, as much as they report to the SIA office? How can reports be mutually beneficial?
It was a moment to acknowledge that I hadn’t fully understood and that I’m always learning. How can we do this better? Who else has ideas to try?
Listening for Solutions
Even after I realized that more emails were not going to be the solution, I kept searching and trying things. I created a group email for the coordinators. I created a phone list. Nothing panned out. And then the solution came Jeremiah Mzee, Nairobi coordinator.
He wrote: “Kindly can you create WhatsApp Small Business Fund group. I feel that most of us will be comfortable to learn from each other as far as reporting and management of SBF is concerned.”
Of course! Yes! Let’s do that!
What is WhatsApp? (Read my blog post about it!) It’s an application available for cell phones, which facilitates cheap international texting. So rather than paying high costs per text, we can text for free. The app can use wifi or data. But it takes very little data and it widespread (more widespread than email, for sure) throughout Africa.
Grace’s shop in the Manyamula Market is connected to the new electricity lines in town and so she provides phone charging services for a small fee.
Another amazing feature of WhatsApp is that it can send files too. So now, a coordinator, instead of having to pay for internet time and scanning fees, can simply take a picture on their phone of the report and then WhatsApp it to me, and I receive it immediately! Amazing!
For now, we have found a mode of communication that really does foster connection, without being burdensome for anyone to use.
The waiting; the listening; the faith I have in my partners’ expertise brought us to this new place of connection. This happens with rigorous humility.