Individual and collective courage in creativity; reflections on my time with CAI

By Veronica Thamaini

My first interaction with Creative Action Institute was at their 2nd East Africa Girls Leadership Summit and Mentors Program in Nairobi. I came in to support the planning and coordination of the Summit and was immediately drawn to their learning methodology that acknowledged that people and communities have existing wisdom, knowledge and experiences and that creative facilitation processes are instrumental for collective liberation on societal issues to occur. At that particular summit, things felt different from your typical conference; everyone was viewed as a contributor, participants shared the space equally, we felt safe and equally knowledgeable in the topic issue and that there was no expert; we were co-creating the space together and powerfully with art. We were invited to tap into who we are as individuals and above all human beings.

Truth be told, when Aryeh, the then facilitator {who I learned lots from}, shared that we were going to use art-based methods, I almost ran out to finish up on logistics calls but when we got started initially with the creative name tag activity that allowed you to describe your leadership qualities with visual art, and later incorporating theatre and music to discuss topical issues on gender, I uncomfortably became comfortable. The experience was fresh, engaging and fun. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a learning process that was experiential, had great music, colourful walls and NO powerpoint. I mean it, there was no powerpoint and I loved every bit of it and every other after including those that I led with the support of the team and partners in the program.

Veronica at 2016 EAGLS

The process was intentional, well thought out and always had a good vibe to it even when discussing difficult and controversial issues. As we continued with the summit, we became more aware of who we are, why we care about what we do and above all, how we can continue to daringly lead in courage and vulnerability.

Over the years, I have been honoured to create such spaces for girls and women in the region that invite them to look in daringly, dream, create and creatively share their leadership with others to bring change on issues they care about. It has been a fulfilling journey to see this community grow. We started with 3 organizations and are now at 20+ organizations that are a mix of brave leaders championing and leading projects, CBOs and NGOs. The girl leaders I’ve worked with are a true testament of what can happen if we believe and develop agency in girls , provide them with tools to lead and create spaces for them to connect with other leaders like them, such as the EAGLS program. These are leaders who believe in the power of access to knowledge, opportunities and spaces that allows us to speak up and raise our voices on the injustices we experience. They are leaders who are creating spaces for co-creation of better futures.

Veronica at 2019 EAGLS

Working with the team has been an absolute blast. The team works remotely with members being located in different parts of Central America, Africa and USA. We enjoyed each other's company and sometimes went over meetings catching up on the latest news in our different locations and globally, or our usual activities. We shared a great sense of humor and sometimes took a moment to share a laugh because of frozen screens { some would make great memes} or from actual jokes and sometimes we laughed because one of us had laughter as a creative opening for a meeting. I loved these meetings and they kept us connected to each other. The team is strong and vibrant with everyone bringing something to the table. We had dreamers and optimists like me, and we had those who would bring you back to reality with kindness. It was a great balance. I enjoyed how we chipped in to support each other where help was needed. I remember once when we were reviewing the GRP toolkit, how we supported each other making sure that no one was sinking deep with their workload. We took breaks where possible and checked in to see how each one of us was fairing. We were kind to each other and continuously reminded ourselves that there is a wonder woman in each and every one of us. We reminded ourselves of the impact the reviewed toolkit would have on education outcomes in the continent and what it may bring for the future of the organization. I am pleased to now see the impact of the work put in by the team in collaboration with partners being recognized in various spaces including by the Girls Opportunity Alliance who continuously support the organization and its work of building girls’ leadership and advocacy. I continuously reminisce about the powerful moment when I introduced Michelle Obama at the Obama Foundation Summit, taking in the joy and at the same time carrying on the responsibility of creating more spaces for girls to lead. It was also great to see the organization getting featured in the Op-Ed co-authored by Michelle Obama and Melinda Gates on why we can’t ignore adolescent girls in Covid-19 response.

Veronica at the Obama Summit, 2019

I remain inspired by the Sauti Ya Dada program that was developed earlier in the year to respond to the needs of girls in the EAGLS program during the Covid-19 pandemic and working closely with partners and now friends. These are fellows and leaders like Pamela Olwal, who is leading our radio program with local communities and supports several safety circles in Nyanza Kenya.Her commitment to the radio program has led to communities having conversations initially undiscussed. Now listeners eagerly look forward to tuning to the every show. Chonge and Clementina in Tanzania who have shown strength and adaptability in supporting girls in day and boarding schools. They have taught us the power of working with like minded individuals to support us in the work. Robinah continues to challenge us in making sure that our spaces are inclusive and that we are thinking of how best to support girls living with disabilities. Rose is always ready to go and especially when the girls need her support. She is always inspiring others to tap into their creativity; from working with visual art materials, to creating poetry and getting into dance. Nadia is always seeking to learn and grow as she supports her girls in South Sudan. I am inspired by your boldness to lead. Pauline from Kenya brings a sense of compassion to the work and is always ready to chat but more importantly to listen to those who need her. Ruth is always exuding joy in her work and thinking about how to include more girls in her advocacy. I believe that no one will be left behind in your leadership. Lastly we have Sharon, whose journey has been incredible and full of inspiration. She started as a teacher with a passion for change and is now an organization leader working with hundreds of girls in Turkana, Kenya on education and girls’ rights. You are a true role model to the girls you lead. This week marks almost 4 years in my role as the Africa Regional Coordinator with Creative Action Institute. In this time, I have seen the organization create and strengthen its presence and impact in the region. From EAGLS a robust network of organizations working with girls and women in East Africa, to Sauti Ya Dada, an innovative program that's working with women mentors in promoting safe spaces for girls in the region. The program shares SRHR knowledge with girls and their communities through SMS-based learning and radio individual-and-collective-courage-in-creativity-reflections-on-my-time-with-caiprogramming. More programs include transformative education that leverages the reviewed GRP toolkit to create inclusive learning spaces for boys and girls through teacher capacity building; online capacity building programs that provide leaders with opportunities to nurture their creative leadership, collaborative and system thinking skills, and lastly programs focusing on the intersectionality of climate change and gender equality working with girls and women who are most affected and with leaders who influence the change we all want to see. Key lessons I am taking with me include;

  • A great team is core to any change you want to see and that you can build remote teams that are robust.. Feel free to rich out to the team for the sauce.

  • Work can be tough at times and especially on issues of behavioural change, but with great company and that's again the team, it gets better.

  • Collaboration is at the heart of the better future we all want to see. So reach out to that partner who will enable you and your work.

  • Dream and you will get there. But you first need to dream and then take courage to get started, put in the effort, and with time you will see the impact of the work put in unfold.

  • There’s progress even when you can’t see it. In social change work, sometimes it may feel as if nothing much is moving but know that it is. Tomorrow will be better than today.

  • Take time to listen to those you work with and serve. The solution lies within all of us.

  • And lastly, for change to truly happen, the transformation is at three levels, the individual, the collective and the system and we all have a role to play. What is yours?

It's been an incredible and fulfilling journey and I can't wait to see what more the organization will be doing and strengthening in the region. I leave Creative Action Institute even more committed to creating spaces that promote equal access to possibilities, knowledge and equal opportunities for all.

Veronica and fellow Creative Action Institute staff members at EAGLS 2019