Leadership and Empowerment Training with High School Students in Africa

September 2015

Today I went to the Kagimoso Secondary School in Gaborone, Botswana and met with 40 teens who are leaders in various school clubs. This school is where children from the poorest sectors in the city go. Many of them are orphans and were born infected with HIV, although it is kept a secret who the individuals are.

I had a sense that this was going to be a special school from my meeting with the headmaster. I asked her what  the issues are that the students face in school.  “Violence, she said. Drugs. And stealing.” ( I am puzzled, now,  that she did not mention HIV). “Students steal purses from people passing by the school. They bring knives and other weapons into the school.”

I asked her if she felt frustrated because of the violence and stealing and drug use. “No, she said, I don’t, because I understand them. They come from families that steal and use drugs, so this what they learn. We negotiate with them. We say, well, if you won’t stop using drugs, will you at least wait until after you complete this exam or paper, so you will have a future?”

I loved hearing her willingness to actually negotiate with the students in a way that honored their choices, even choices to do things that she obviously wasn’t happy with, , and also met her needs to support their education.

She then called a female student in, and asked the student to assemble the students from the various clubs in the library right away.  I was happy to see that the library is a bright room with space for books, comfortable seating, large tables and large windows looking out on the school courtyard.

In the library, I asked everyone to sit in a big circle, and I defined circle as a formation where everyone could see everyone else. My passion is to offer NVC skills and consciousness in service of empowerment of women, teens, children, everyone! So as I watched the students make choices about whether to sit in a circle, as I had invited, I guessed that the students who chose to not sit in the circle wanted to claim their full authenticity and autonomy. I was so curious, I wanted to check in with them. And I was concerned that they would hear anything I said about it as judging or disapproval.

So instead, I asked the whole group, are you all satisfied with the seating arrangement?

One young woman student said, no,  I want to see everyone and I want everyone to be in the circle. Numbers of other students agreed by nodding heads and saying, yeah.

So I asked, well, what would you like done about it?

The same woman student began by replying to me and saying, if we sit in a circle…. I said, well, this is a training for leaders here. So how about you empower yourself to ask us to do what would meet your need to include everyone.

She stood up, strode to the center of the room, and said, in a voice that was louder and clearer than she had been speaking, ok everybody, lets get into a circle so everyone can see each other.

Some students began standing and moving, others just sat there.

I coached her a bit more to make a specific doable request to people that would lead to the result she wanted.

She  looked directly at the young men who were in the back, and calling them by name, said, I want you to be with us, so we are all together.

The young men in the back smiled, and nudged each other to get up and join the group.

I coached others to make specific requests as we went along, and to check in if everyone’s needs for inclusion and choice were being met.

Then I asked them, what would they like to do in our time together? What is important to them?

Whenever suggestions or requests were directed to me, I asked that student to come and lead a discussion about the issue they were raising. I limited my participation to coaching and supporting whichever student stepped forward as the leader, suggesting questions they could make for getting the feedback they needed from the whole group, such as, asking a student to reflect back what they had just heard from another student, or  suggesting someone who had just spoken to check in how they were heard by asking someone to let them know .

The energy in the room was so high, with students speaking and asking for reflection back, other students coaching each other to ask more specifically for what they needed.

The students became each others’ allies in communicating what they wanted to communicate and in finding strategies to meet the needs that they were expressing and hearing.

I began to see that my facilitation was most effective in supporting my values of empowerment, peer leadership,  and self advocacy, when I practiced “unfacilitation!”

They began a group- led process of hearing what was on their minds and how they wanted to address those issues.

Many of the students present were identified in the school as leaders, but they didn’t have any organized structure to get together, compare notes, get empathy, bounce ideas off of each other. They weren’t clear how much actual authority they had to make decisions or the weight that would be given to any proposals they made.

I encouraged them to collect the big picture goals and dreams they were sharing, and to then look for specific strategies to implement them

The proposals that came forth from the group’s discussion, and their checking in that they had doable strategies to meet their goals,  included agreeing on which students would take the lead in convening regular meetings  for the class representatives to connect;  which students would request a meeting with the headmaster to clarify their questions,   what kinds of ongoing learning and discovery they wanted to grow as leaders, and timetables for each action.




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