Culture, activism, and building trust

Earlier this month, I was privileged to facilitate a training weekend called the ‘GROW Tatzmiach Shabbaton’, a collaboration between Oxfam and the Board of Deputies of British Jews (I am told that ‘tatzmiach’ is Hebrew for ‘grow’). This 6-month programme aims to increase understanding and activism around global food justice issues, and explore the issues addressed by Oxfam’s GROW campaign from a Jewish cultural and religious perspective. So as well as ‘standard’ campaigning content, the event drew on religious texts and, being held over the Shabbat (sabbath), included elements of worship, led by the wonderful Rabbi Natan Levi. International development content was provided by staff from Oxfam, Tzedek (Jewish Action for a Just World) and World Jewish Relief.

As usual with groups of self-selecting, committed campaigners, the event was a joy to run, with, for me, the added privilege of being able to observe first-hand some Jewish food practices and traditions around the Shabbat, and to understand how important these were to the participants’ sense of identity. It was clear from the outset that attempting to address such moral issues without rooting these in culture and religion would be impossible. This is something that doesn’t come naturally to people from secular development agencies. Yet people really respect it when they try – such as a couple of years ago when Oxfam worked with MADE in Europe to develop a campaigning toolkit for young Muslims.

I was also very much aware, as one would expect at the beginning of a relationship between two very different organisations (and a relatively controversial one at that), a high degree of sensitivity was needed to the different perspectives and traditions in the room. In particular, there was an overriding need to make space for participants to come to trust Oxfam, an organisation with a huge reputation which can get in the way from time to time, as I have observed previously.

Helping people and organisations genuinely ‘meet’ each other, and not simply act as representatives of two tribes, was a crucial facilitation task, involving making time for conversations, and allowing perspectives to lead the debate in an authentic way, rather than pushing to a pre-arranged conclusion. I should say that this task was greatly helped by the Jewish tradition of communal meals over which important issues are discussed. An instance of this was provided by participants Michael and Rachel, who generously invited everyone back to their home during the training (and whose annual ‘Gefiltefest’ is a great example of Jewish activism on food).

A couple of days ago, I read Matthew Herbert’s blog post, ‘When is a question not a question?’. This really struck a chord with my experience at GROW Tatzmiach. You can all too easily just present, follow a script, and aim for the outcome discussed with the organisers. But it’s not enough: you have to be in a genuine interaction, authentically listening and participating, constantly questioning what is happening in front of you, and not seeking to impose answers.

Trust between people from different backgrounds inevitably takes time to build, and needs people to believe that those who are running the activity personally believe in the outcome, and want to learn as well as teach. The facilitator’s powerful role must be used in a way which, as in any other position of power, trust is earned. As Matthew says, no amount of experience allows the facilitator to be able to sit back and say, yes, I know how to do that now. With each new event, the facilitator’s authority is provisional: it is loaned, not given, for the group’s purposes, and in my experience, failure to listen and to engage personally is quickly spotted. And nowhere is this more important than in cross-cultural contexts and where relationships are new.