In 2015 AWDF launched its Leadership and Governance programme, a capacity building initiative that sought to nurture growth in African women’s organisations by feeding the hearts of the organisations themselves- in dedicated one-on-one and collective coaching with senior and mid-level leaders, and with governance boards. The investments were aimed at growing feminist leadership and governance, and strengthening the leadership capacities of African women already in leadership positions in organisations but also a second tier- to help strengthen the leadership pipeline. Jessica Horn, AWDF’s Director of Programmes sat down with Nancy Akanbombire, Capacity Building Specialist and Ayesha Abukari, Capacity Building Officer to discuss the publication that was developed out of this initiative.
This is what they had to say…
Jessica: Most donors invest in projects- in the activities of organisations. Why do you think it is important to invest in areas like leadership and governance- in women’s organisations?
Nancy: The thing is, most donors in my opinion are often more interested in project outcomes to feedback to their stakeholders rather than in the leadership and governance or capacities of the people that implement these activities on the ground, which is fair to some extent, considering that is how donors can continue to fund. On the other hand, what does this mean to the long term goal of the organisation?
But to answer why invest in areas like leadership and governance- in women’s organisations, my answer is simple, for transformation, for sustainability and for social justice and change. When you watch the news, listen to the radio or read the newspapers, there are a lot more women’s organisations than ever before and women around the world today seems to have more decision-making power and influence, over more aspects of social, political and economic life. Yet, the voices of women are lagging behind and there is still no real authority or autonomy when it comes to women leadership.
I feel this is patriarchy reflecting itself in diverse ways and in all the structures, systems and institutions of our society. Resources for women’s organisations for example are very limited which undermines the work of women and women’s organisations. As a result, the governance systems of most women’s organisations are not very formal because women jump in to find solutions to problems first without thinking of formal structures of their organisations.
So I think for donor funds to contribute to positive changes in any form, it is important to invest in a process of organisational and personal transformation, consciousness raising and internalisation of the strengths and abilities of women and women’s organisations. It is important is invest in a process and a space that encourages and allows women and women’s organisations to celebrate their strength and to stand up to the normative values of the male world.
Jessica: Birthing Leaders has a mix of stories- some funny, some empowering, some surprising (and… it’s beautifully designed)! Tell me about your experiences of developing it and some of the common themes that emerged across the individual and organizational stories.
Ayesha: Wow!! This was a really unique experience, it felt as if I was part of the whole coaching process and I started to overcome my own fear of writing.
When we were first asked to develop this amazing piece, I was quite unsure that I could capture the experiences, emotions and changes that the women and organisations we worked with underwent all through the project lifespan. While I still feel that their stories have been fully represented, I do hope that I managed to bring to life the organisations and leaders, such that readers are able to really connect with these women and organisations in ways that their experiences as narrated become real and not just stories from another fiction novel. I also hope that what we have been able to pull together will offer the needed hope to other African women leaders who have undertaken or are undertaking similar journeys.
I think at the organisational level, the main themes emerging were issues around governance systems, practices and structures and issues relating to power or leadership transition. With the individual leaders, I would say issues around self-confidence and power.
It is also worth mentioning that, we had an amazing and talented African Feminist Illustrator and Graphic Designer, Dorcas Magbadelo who designed and illustrated the work beautifully.
Jessica: And what story in Birthing Leaders touched you the most?
Nancy: Well, I think all the stories are very transformational and inspiring but if am to choose just one story, I would say the story of Zawade. It’s incredible how she overcame stigma and is leading with such confidence, grace and strength. Just re-emphasising that, the struggle for a just world for ALL women is possible!!
In such a patriarchal world such as the one we find ourselves living in, women are already discriminated against at all levels: at home, in school, at work, at the hospitals, transports, hotels…… I mean everywhere. In the case of Zawade, not only was she born a woman, but a differently abled woman, “a woman with disability”. This in itself attracts a whole new level of discrimination, abuse, stigma…. name it!! So, for her to defy all these obstacles and stand up today to fight for the rights of other women and girls in similar plight is amazing. This is the spirit of a true feminist, her transformation from participating in the leadership and governance programme is very remarkable. I am constantly reminded by her story that, women are and have always been capable. Her story is very empowering in a beautiful way… One more reason to invest in coaching!!!!
Ayesha: I would say that of Khanyisile – Finding power beyond the surface. The thing that struck me the most with that story is how we tend to look at situations on such a surface level, especially when it comes to issues of development and creating of opportunities. The usual narrative is that of women in poor, marginalised communities. Here was a young woman who would have been passed up on many opportunities just because of her geographical location and physical space of work. It turns out that there were so many aspects of her that needed discovery. For instance, she had never been presented with the opportunity to see or interact with strong, successful women leaders who looked like her. Her ambition was stunted.
Her surprise at being in a room full of black women leaders, and some not much older than herself, was truly touching. It awakened something within her, and as a result she is aiming for the skies.
The experience of writing this has really been amazing…
Jessica: Internal growth is beautiful but it can also be painful. What are some of the common growing pains that you saw in the course of this initiative?
Ayesha: Hmmm!! I think growth in general or let me say change in any form is often hard and very uncomfortable to navigate…. So you hear people say things like, we’ve always done it this way or that way or ohhh that’s how it’s always been done. Really? The moment we stop changing, we start dying and this is true for everything, organisations and individuals alike.
But as you rightly put it, it was beautiful to see growth especially with the individual leaders. At the same time, it meant that some of them discovered that they had outgrown their organisations and therefore resigned either after the programme or midway. This was difficult to navigate because while the aim of strengthening the leadership skills of these individuals was achieve, the affected organisations ultimately lost some valuable resources.
On the organisational front, structural strengthening and the changes that came with it was not always welcome, especially where founders of the organisation were still acting as Executive Directors. There were a few organisations that experienced initial discomfort with the prospect of redistribution of power or even considered a discussion around leadership transition. There was also this intergenerational gap in some instances, where certain topics were difficult discussing.
It was beautiful in the end though.
Jessica: AWDF is one of the few funders investing in coaching as a method for strengthening women’s rights organisations. Does it work? What’s the added value of individual and organisational coaching?
Nancy: I would start by saying that AWDF is one of the few funders that recognises the pervasive nature of patriarchy and how it runs through every system and structure of our society, how that fuels injustices and constantly marginalising the voices of women. AWDF is one of the few funders that again recognises the need to create a safe space, void of the influence of patriarchy of any forms, for women to evolve and embrace their strengths and for women’s rights organisations to grow.
So if you are a funder and recognise this as a problem too, then one of the best areas I would you invest in is coaching, and I must add that it should have a feminist lens- there is a difference. Investing in feminist coaching means investing in women’s organisations to better deliver on their mission for change, it means investing in areas to unlock hidden potential of individuals and organisations to perform. It gives room for individuals and organisations to evolve and it creates this safe space especially for women that have gone through certain bad experiences such as abuse and violence, to just be themselves, own their voices and let out the pain and fear that has been hidden within for so long.
These kind of investments are very limited – or not found at all in the mainstream – but contributes to amazing results.
The Birthing Leaders stories is clear example of that. Coaching works! We see how within a short period of time, transformation at both the individual and organisational levels were achieved and I would say coaching definitely works in strengthening women’s rights organisations. It’s is such a powerful tool for transformation and should be embraced. \