What would you do if your task as an organisation were to assist people in vulnerable and marginalised positions to change their circumstances and communities for the better?

This question, staff in the Jordanian organisation Ahel has asked themselves several times. In a joint project with KVINFO, the organisation uses a range of handpicked methods and reaches out to Syrian refugees from Syria and Palestine and to Jordanian host communities to equip them with tools that helps them push for change in their everyday lives.

Need for tools to tackle injustice

When participants start their trainings with Ahel, they have tons of experience with societal problems and injustices, but they have little or no experience at all with speaking up about or taking action on them.

“These people tend to become afraid and worry when they are just about to take action for change – because of all the factors of oppression and all the years of oppression that they have experienced,” says Rahaf Abu Doha, Lead Public Narrative and Popular Education Trainer in Ahel.

Over the years, Ahel has found that thinking and talking about change comes somehow naturally for most people. It may take time and timid dialogue, but it is do-able. As is designing a clever strategy for bringing about the change.

Holding back experiences

However, to shift the talking into actual action is a challenge. Possibly even more so for participants who find themselves in difficult situations as for example refugees and Jordanians with limited education, employment and economic means.

“People hold back. Something stops them just before taking action. We have discovered that people need ample time to reflect on why change is necessary. This is needed in order to not deter from moving on with the change that they themselves have identified as important and necessary.”

Sometimes the trick is not to look at the society itself, but to look at your own position in society.

“The participants often need to find out what hinders their action for change. An obvious example of a hindrance is that people do not know how to deal with authorities. And they don’t know how to tackle that authorities are build-in in our ideas of masculinity and injustice,” says Rahaf Abu Doha.

Finding solutions to difficult issues

To Ahel the solution to taking action starts with the question: What would you do? Instead of: What should others do?

Of course, there is no simple way to implement this question in practice. However, Ahel works with two methodologies. One is Community Organizing, developed at Harvard Kennedy School in the US. The other is GenderLAB, developed by KVINFO and Copenhagen Business School (CBS) in Denmark.

“These methods have an important thing in common. They work with emancipation and this is what we aim at: Emancipating and empowering people in their own lives and communities,” says Rahaf Abu Doha.

Many methodologies start out by focusing on the problem or injustice that is up for change, Rahaf Abu Doha states. Ahel does also use the Community Organizing method to prepare the participants thoroughly for collaborating on identifying issues and situations that need change.

However, the Community Organizing method differs from other methods as its first step focuses on who the individuals and the group are. Step 1 is called ‘Public Narrative’. Here, each participant in the session share with the whole group their own story and the stories of the community, they belong to.

Critical Thinking and Social Justice

The Ahel-KVINFO project focuses on enhancing participants’ capabilities for thinking critically about their society and circumstances and for taking action collectively against injustices and for e.g. gender equality.

The issue of organising is pivotal to the project and to Ahel’s work. This secures the power and legitimacy of the action for change that follows in the project. Also, it enhances the sustainability of the work.

Currently, 60 participants between 18 and 25 years are being trained in the innovative methods so that they themselves can use them in their own communities.

“I just recently spoke with one participant who said, ‘I have never been in a meeting before where people would listen to my story. It is important for me because I feel heard’. This is not an uncommon reaction,” says Rahaf Abu Doha.

A story of self, of us, and of change

Step 2 called ‘Building Relationships’ follows the initial step. Here, participants create a shared identity for the future action and establish relations of shared values within the group. This is the important foundation for creating a necessary sense of shared commitment among the people involved in a specific campaign for change.

Only then does it move on to the three final steps of ‘Structure’, ‘Strategy’ and ‘Action’ where the group widens the group of actors, define what exactly they want to change and find out how to actually do it.

“The first steps allow people to create a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now, which is very much a question of values. This enhances trust and commitment, which is necessary for taking the next steps: Creating a structure that allows the initial group to grow through a snowball effect, designing a strategy and then taking action,” explains Rahaf Abu Doha from Ahel.

Adding to this, when participants discuss and share values, they become more loyal to their common goals and thereby their efforts become more long lasting.

Thinking critically about norms

The other central method in Ahel’s work is the GenderLAB. This new tool was launched by KVINFO and CBS less than one year ago. It uses norm critical exercises in combination with design thinking in order for participants to both identify problems and develop solutions.

“GenderLAB comes from a school of learning, which is emancipating, and also, it centres on participants developing their own solutions. That is important to us. Processes and changes have to be led and owned by the constituents. They will be coached until they can do it themselves, of course, but at the end, they will not depend on us. The issue and the action is theirs,” says Rahaf Abu Doha.

“Some participants fall very quiet, especially in the beginning of a project. Some tell that they are ashamed to be open about their thoughts and ideas.”

Ahel and KVINFO

From the beginning of 2020, the Jordanian organization Ahel is cooperating with KVINFO.

The project focuses on vulnerable community groups and on strengthening the participants’ thoughts and ideas about taking part in society and standing up for their rights.

KVINFO and Ahel focus on norms of masculinity among the participants, empowering young people, women and organisations. As part of this work, we are exploring if GenderLAB, a tool for challenging existing gender norms developed by Copenhagen Business School and KVINFO, can be adapted and used. You can read more about GenderLAB by following this link – the link leads to a Danish site.

The cooperation is financed by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme under the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

To overcome this, Rahaf Abu Doha and Ahel use the methodology called Popular Education that opens up for reflection. Popular Education was coined by Brazilian scholar Paulo Freire in the 1960s. It understands ‘popular’ as coming from or relating to ordinary people. It is critical of the status quo and focuses on the interests of ordinary people in its commitment to social and political change.

“Reflecting and following up makes it clear to participants that change actually does happen even if it is small in the beginning,” Rahaf Abu Doha says.

Such ‘small’ changes can for example be one participant or the group of participants themselves committing to change. For example by joining a change forum like the sessions Ahel offers or by committing to be inclusive of all genders in group-dialogues. In the experience of Ahel, it is fruitful to notice even such personal changes as they show that change is actually possible.

Action in real life

Examples of change from other Ahel projects include teachers rolling out a campaign demanding for receiving their payment on time and as per their contracts, which was not standard before the group took action.

Another campaign pushes for a stop to sexual harassment and violence against children. Obviously, a delicate issue also for the people involved in building the campaign. However, the ‘Public Narrative’ step in combination with reflection created a space with sufficient trust and confidence for participants to begin telling their own experiences.

Later in the process, succeeding in growing the group of people working for change can be another fuel for inspiration and pushing on.

“People slowly recognise that change really does happen. It is so important. Because this is what makes them trust that they are actually capable of making their everyday lives different,” says Rahaf Abu Doha.