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Three months in – the work of a Weaver

01 Jul 2021

This piece originally appeared on Ese Emerhi’s personal site

Ese Emerhi, GFCF Global Network Weaver

I’ve always found it somewhat perplexing to explain to people not in my world of development and philanthropy what exactly it is I do for a living, and now I have a title that begs to be answered almost immediately with some definite clarity. Some understand it vaguely as that I work to improve society and the lives of people, in some way or another. Let’s leave it at that for now, no need to bore into the complexities of advocacy, stakeholder engagement, community philanthropy, grantmaking, monitoring and evaluations, and all the other bits and pieces that come along with my work.

Three months ago, I took on the role of Global Network Weaver with the GFCF. It’s my most exciting role to date, as I wake up chasing the sun with partners and allies who live on the other end of the world (my morning is their afternoon), and I end the day saying good morning to other friends and allies on the opposite side of the world (my evenings are their late mornings). But it all somehow works out just fine — there’s a fine middle ground (mid-afternoon, everyone’s had their coffee or tea and are on their second or third wind of the day) where both sides of the world meet, and where energy levels are on a level playing field.

On my first day on the job, I attended a meeting by the Wasan Community. Ian Bird, the chairman of the Board of the GFCF, had recommended that I join; he thought I might find a community amongst the Wasan group, learning from them as they work with networks and communities around the world to address the challenges we are all facing. The Wasan Community is a group of practitioners interested in how social change organizations can work more effectively with their communities and networks; it’s a monthly gathering of like-minded individuals (weavers like myself) who gather together with open hearts and inquiring and appreciative minds.

“At that meeting, I came to appreciate how community weaving is an expression of love, and because it is love, it is also devastatingly heartbreaking work.”

That first meeting was an eye-opener. It was where I re-learned the beginning steps of unshackling myself of the traditional development practitioner mode of providing (external) solutions to problems, a sort of cold prescriptive way of looking at the world. At that meeting, I came to appreciate how community weaving is an expression of love, and because it is love, it is also devastatingly heartbreaking work. As a “weaver”, there is the understanding of the interconnectedness of everything/interdependence of everything, a recognition that indigenous leadership is as diverse as the land, languages, and culture, and that underneath it all is history — the stories we tell of ourselves and the world and how we want to remember it. One thorny issue the group discussed was how, as development practitioners and weavers on various points of the reclamation journey of international aid (however and wherever we find ourselves in the development ecosystem), we need to find new (or old) ways of working — de-constructing to re-membering to re-generative. There was an example of how Native Americans use indigenous ways of weaving knowledge for community organizing that included one of the members of the group singing and playing his guitar; we all joined in and sang along once we learned the words. Finally, I saw the importance of making original mistakes, and to see the decolonization movement of international aid as a shedding of the skin, making a different and intentional connection. I didn’t know it then, but this meeting was a fantastic welcome to the work I would be doing as a global network weaver.

My role with the GFCF is to work with and help to strengthen connections across GFCF’s global network of community philanthropy and civil society partners, specifically around the #ShiftThePower movement in advocacy, influencing, and engagement. There’s a lot of meetings, speaking engagements, relationships/community building, reading and strategizing, and discovering new ways of working. As a Weaver, it’s critical to be able to see patterns emerging, to be a connector, to share knowledge widely, and to be a consumer of all news. It isn’t a jack-of-all-trades type of role, because there is a specificity of the work that requires some sort of in-depth knowledge of a particular skill (it could be writing, community organizing, listening to understand, project management — they all apply and fit together). I’m also relishing the space to think, to let a new concept ruminate, to examine, to question. In previous jobs, it oftentimes felt like running from one fire to another, always on a deadline; no time to sit back and reflect. Our staff meetings are not the usual roundtable of everyone reporting their activities for the week/month; it is a time to learn together, to examine thorny issues, to champion one another.

“And the exercise of mindset shift — getting people to not only be open to alternative perspectives but to also believe in them firmly — is something I am also practicing myself. It’s slow and discomforting because a lot has to do with how we view the world and ourselves in it.”

In many ways, I am an observer of human behavior and what makes us do the things we do or don’t do. And the exercise of mindset shift — getting people to not only be open to alternative perspectives but to also believe in them firmly — is something I am also practicing myself. It’s slow and discomforting because a lot has to do with how we view the world and ourselves in it. I am fortunate that my work gives me plenty of examples of people living lives so drastically different from the one I know and understand, and I get to weave the pieces that connect us all, from Nepal to Brazil, from Mexico to South Africa.

A few years ago when I worked with human rights defenders from the Middle East with Freedom House, meeting and working with the famous Facebook Girl of the Arab Springs movement, the culture was initially a barrier that prevented connection. One day, she saw me eating a donut and asked what my favorite donut shop was in Washington, DC. I pointed across the street to Dunkin’ Donuts (there was one just opposite the office, located strategically at the exit of the Metro station — a temptation I fell for over and over again), and she made it her mission to bring me one weekly to the office. At the end of her stay in the US, she gave me a fake angry look and said she could no longer fit into her jeans and that it was all my fault. Sometimes, the connections we make as weavers are not always about the “work”; it’s our humanity underneath it all that makes the work possible. In this case, it was our joint love for sugary baked goods that connected us.

“Sometimes, the connections we make as weavers are not always about the ‘work’; it’s our humanity underneath it all that makes the work possible.”

A few things I’ve learned so far:

  1. The answers to problems are always evolving. New answers can sometimes be old answers re-discovered.
  2. Flexibility and the need to not be perfect always are good principles and values to adopt to work. Years ago, I used to say “let’s fail fast” as a way to embrace mistakes as we learn. We’ve been conditioned to always present finished polished work, but the real deal lies in the learning as doing.
  3. Meet people where they are, and that repetition of good ideas will always eventually catch on. I take myself as an example; in my other life, I am a business owner of a local community coffee shop in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. New ideas from my business partner (my brother) and customers come to me daily… “you should do this…”, “why haven’t you done that?…”, “can I introduce you to this person who can do x for you?”. I often smile and grit my teeth when these suggestions come my way because each suggestion first hits as an attack on me and how (wrongly) I’m failing at the business. You only have to open a business for everybody to suddenly give their unsolicited advice on how to run it better! But after a while, after numerous repetitions of the same new idea or concept, I come to embrace it (the good ones only; some suggestions are just… silly). It takes time to let the new idea marinate, for it to work its way through all the doubts in my head, for me to mentally course-correct before even starting. And only after all these mental gymnastics, do I finally say yes to a new idea. By then, my business partner has begun to sound like a broken record and throws me a side-eye and a “good morning!” regardless of the time of day (his way of saying I’ve finally woken up) when I finally come around.

And lastly, finally, patience is the weapon of a weaver. Because nothing happens fast, but when it does, it happens all of a sudden.

By: Ese Emerhi, GFCF Global Network Weaver

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