This article was recently published in the Gonzaga Magazine, Spring 2015 by Dr. Josh Armstrong – http://blogs.gonzaga.edu/tobecontinued/2015/04/13/30/
I saw it first in the eyes of a handful of Zambian leaders when working alongside Gonzaga engineering students to build a more effective and sustainable cooking stove. After three lessons on heat generation from our students, our Zambian partners were ready to get their hands dirty. Using bricks and other locally sourced materials, we developed a stove together. Then something really interesting occurred. One day while we were out gathering new materials, the Zambian leaders made another, improved stove. When we stepped aside, they used their new knowledge and took ownership of the project.
With each additional iteration, the stove — and our global relationship — improved.
The practice of accompaniment
Many of us want to make a difference in our communities, and in our personal and professional lives. We want to be leaders, bringing change to a world that seems increasingly hungry for transformation. However, one doesn’t need to look far to see examples of those with good intentions, at home and abroad, who get in the way of true change. Often as not, the source of failure is overemphasizing tangible results while underemphasizing process.
Since 2007, I have led a specialized study abroad course in which Gonzaga students practice development work in Zambezi, a rural village in southern Africa. My experience last year watching students partner with Zambians to improve their stoves was another lesson in accompaniment, and I believe it has implications for the ways that we lead and serve around the world and in our local communities.
Jesuits believe that accompaniment is the act of being with and doing with, rather than doing for: walking together along the same path with a community that identifies objectives, creates a plan, and manages these activities in its own leadership or development process. In this way, accompaniment is not about giving service to the people, as a traditional charity would, but about serving alongside them in a relationship of mutual reciprocity. Great leaders remember that the process of communicating with their people is as important as the end result, and they make space for the process by taking time to invest in the people and discover their assumptions and expectations. This core commitment allows the best leaders to practice more effectively two key elements of accompaniment — exploring values and giving back the work — that can unlock its power and facilitate real change in the world.
It begins with understanding values
Near the end of our stove project, Sandu, who is one of our trusted friends, told me, “We believe knowledge is the weapon to success in life.” This core value has allowed the Zambezi community to shape the dialogue on change toward a focus on education. After careful listening, the Gonzaga program has come alongside a primary rural school in the Zambezi district to build a community library. Opening this year, it is the first library of its kind in this region of Zambia. While we are financial partners in this endeavor, we have not spent our time physically working on the construction of the library, believing the Zambian people to be experts in this regard. Rather we have dedicated our time listening and posing questions that seek to understand the values and goals that will integrate this library into the fabric of the community. Sustainable change that allows a community to “stand on its own two feet” must be rooted in the core values of the community.
Giving the work back
We often gain credibility and leadership by demonstrating our capacity to take other people’s problems off their shoulders and give them back solutions. While this can be an important skill, the leader practicing accompaniment mobilizes the work of others rather than simply pointing the way. The leader reflects on ways to take the work off her shoulders and place it into the various factions within the organization to work on the problem together. This way of proceeding models accompaniment by “operating at eye-level with the community.” Gonzaga-in-Zambezi students who embody the notion of eye-to-eye better serve our Zambian partners because they alleviate some of the inherent power dynamics between the more “privileged” students and the local people “in need.” In the same way, leaders must forge partnerships built on mutual respect and trust and seek opportunities to give back the work.
My colleague Aaron Ausland encourages those practicing accompaniment “to generate opportunities to receive in the places where you serve, to become mutually indebted and to develop real relationships with the community.”
In June, Gonzaga student Paxton Richardson reflected on an experience in Zambezi: “James, a respected community member, understood the stove well enough that he took over the second half of our lesson. Here I was, learning from the people I thought I would be serving and teaching. There was no division between them and us. That line was shattered the minute we received their warm, joyous welcoming.” In Zambezi, to Paxton’s surprise and satisfaction, she stumbled upon friendship, new understanding of community development, and the opportunity to practice accompaniment.
I hope that Zags everywhere will find opportunities to practice accompaniment in their own local and global communities.
I look forward to practicing and teaching Gonzaga students accompaniment during our time in Zambezi this month. Please follow along (and comment) in this blog as our lessons unfold. Dr. Josh Armstrong, May 3, 2015