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Talking Truth
Letter from the President by Denise Gray-Felder

On April 30 three years ago, the Communication for Social Change Consortium was born.  We celebrated this milestone a few weeks ago with a gala performance by the Children of Uganda song and dance troupe, and a reception featuring the foods and cultures of East Africa.  I'm grateful to our organisational funders, partners, board of directors, staff, consultants, volunteers and individual supporters who came out and who have sustained our work since the beginning.  It is very humbling to know that other far smarter and more reasoned people share your dreams and are propelling you forward.  I keep climbing because of such broad shoulders to stand on.  Thank you, thank you.

Three successful years is a good thing to celebrate, especially as I know there were those who doubted that the field of development could sustain an innovative approach to communication with an aggressive and sometimes unrelenting advocacy (for the practice) agenda.  Not only have we survived, but also we've thrived.  When we naively said, during one of the early Bellagio Conference Centre explorations in the late 1990s, that we needed to "broaden the base of support," little did I know just how ready the development field was for expanded communication thinking with local ownership at its core. 

Migrating to development work from a successful corporate career 12 years ago, I assumed that the public relations, stakeholder relations, marketing, production and journalism techniques I'd perfected for nearly 20 years could easily be adapted to issues facing people living in poverty, especially those in developing countries.  My aura spoke "expert"; for, after all, I had prospered in the most competitive communication market in the world:  New York City, in the most demanding business climate on earth.  It wasn't long before reality wiped the smugness away (not to mention my nationalistic chauvinism).

What I thought were workable solutions and "answers" to crises exacerbated by poverty, most often were just theoretical ramblings by well-intentioned colleagues.  What worked in Bangor rarely worked in Bangalore; women's empowerment work in India most often could not be successfully transported"unlike my well-worn suitcase"to poor women merchants in Zimbabwe.

Generally, the only knowledge transfer I accomplished in those early months was the transfer of my own arrogance from one village to the next.  By virtue of where I lived and the money financing my work, it was hard to be humble.

What I discovered more than 11 years ago, sitting in the one-room home of a very wise man, was that what was "in my head" prevented me from using my ears to hear "what was in my heart."  Or in his.  As we talked, I saw for the first time that "truth and rational thinking" were not always obvious or useful.

We discussed that afternoon why this father kept his daughter out of school.  The reasons were complex and compelling: Her mother has no one else to watch the younger children; this oldest daughter will be "lost" to another family when she marries, thus taking a father's investment in education with her; she might be physically assaulted in school or on the way to school; girls are only able to learn certain things, and no more.

He reminded me of my own father who was also opinionated, rarely wrong and determined that his daughter would be the richest, smartest, most beautiful and most successful woman on earth.  (He was very wrong in this regard.)

I had learned from my own father the futility of arguing when his mind was made up.  What did work"and what I used that day with my young friend's father"was to listen and to empathize:  To "walk in his shoes" and to experience his truth.

I heard with my heart that day that most people"even those who have limited financial resources"are rich in love, in spirit and in commitment to their families and communities.  And that they must"day in and out"make the best decisions they know how given the realities they endure.  That they can and will make informed choices given equitable access to information and resources. 

My job as a communicator, it occurred to me that afternoon, must be either to help remove obstacles, to help tell their stories so that others can find resources, to facilitate learning and policy change, or to make channels available so that even faceless and voiceless people living in poverty can be heard and seen on a global stage.  When others felt that "communication doesn't change lives, healthcare and education does," I knew, at the base of my soul, that effective, indigenous communication grounded in resident values and cultural norms, made the healthcare more effective and the value of education more apparent.

My passion for communication for social change was sown that afternoon.  Now it takes me on bus rides through the countryside with young people living with HIV and AIDS, to communication learning sessions or to meetings with potential funders who are intrigued by ways to increase local voice, transparency and accountability of local governments. 

The truth I now speak tells me that economic progress of nations can never be the only measure of development, and that only with broad public will can social change occur.  That the development field needs a massive infusion of focused communication resources and financing in order to catalyse and sustain long-term societal change.  That what people believe and value can never be changed with just information or brochures.  That governments will never be accountable to poor people as long as those people living in poverty lack the capacity to make their demands known and their stories visible.   

The  "truth" that each of us "speaks" is, as Prof. Alfred Opubor writes elsewhere in this issue of Mazi, highly dependent upon the listeners' abilities to validate the information as well as upon the credibility of the source.

Concluding my chat with the young girl's father that afternoon so long ago, I mentally discarded my version of the truth.  It was of little value in that village with those families.  Since that day, "my truth" has remained at home, or been abandoned as necessary in garbage heaps across the globe.  Instead, I bring to each village we work in an openness to hear with my head and heart, an ability to facilitate public and private dialogue about critical issues as the people define them, and a means to capture local stories in local voices. 

I also take a relentless passion to help strengthen the ways in which people use communication within communities, compounds, districts and even countries.

As the Consortium faces its next three, or 30, years I pledge that we will continue to elevate the power of communication, the essentiality of participatory communication to better governance, the value of local ownership of communication processes, and the skills needed to use local stories in ways that can and do change lives.

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