Friday, June 1, 2012

The Power of Words

Looking back at the time when I was at SRIJAN, there is one lesson that keeps coming back to me. It is that words have power. When you explain something or are talking in a meeting, what you are saying is having an impact on someone in the group. And as professionals working in development, we have a responsibility for what we say.
I remember a clear example of this lesson when I was forming clusters of SHGs in Bundi, Rajasthan. I had organized a meeting of women from three different villages. They had some difficulty coming together and I had promised a very important message in the meeting. By that time, I had formed a couple of other clusters and had a set agenda for introducing the concept. I had a story that I would tell in the beginning of the meeting, about an event I had witnessed while visiting the federation in Duni, Rajasthan:
A large group of around 50 women had come together to go talk to a local dairy, who had bought milk from them but had not paid them in the full amount. Rather than going individually or even in their SHG groups, all of them from different villages had come together to go talk to him and settle their accounts. Seeing such a large group of women had frightened him and he had listened to them. However, these women would not have been able to organize this event if they had not met with each other regularly and discussed their problems.
I had told this story many times, stressing the importance of collective action and how there is power in numbers. The story had been important in convincing women to form clusters. Until that day, I knew that the story was powerful, but I did not realize just how powerful it was.
The next day, I got a phone call from Rakesh-ji, whose villages I had visited. The women from all the different villages had come together and realized they had a similar problem. While they had completed their work for NREGA, they had not received full payment for their work. They had talked after my meeting and concluded that they would get women from their villages to come together. All of them would go to the local government office in Nenwa to sort the problem.
It was then that I realized that my story had caused them to take action to solve a problem in their own lives. I also realized that I had a responsibility to work with them to solve the problem. If they were able to talk to the government officers and receive full payment for their work, they would be completely convinced of working together. They had the potential of forming a very strong cluster.
I told them to wait a few days, while we found out who they should talk to. I also told them that we would alert the local newspapers and come with them to make sure everything was successful. We eventually went with about 50 of the women and they talked to the government. Some of them were interviewed by the local newspapers. Perhaps most importantly, they realized that if something is wrong in their lives, they can come together as a group and take action to make it better. I realized that my words made them come to this realization. Ever since then, even if I repeat stories and go through a set agenda at meetings, I never underestimate the power of the words and stories I have to share.  

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