Site visits, seeds, and these “important political times”
An interview with Trishala Deb, Asia Region Program Director, about the team’s recent time spent with partners in Nepal. This piece is the first of a series of staff reflections from the learning exchange between partners.
Jennifer Lentfer: This was your fifth trip to Nepal for Thousand Currents, Trishala. How was it different from your previous trips?
Trishala Deb: Well, in other previous trips, I was ultimately going to build relationships with our partners and collect information about how things work in Nepal and how things work with our partners. This trip was really focused on building bridges among our partners. We were engaged in a cross-learning process. We invited all the other the partners to join us [the Thousand Currents team] on other partners’ site visits. Then after this round of visits to each other’s communities, we ended with a two-day meeting all together.
Ultimately my focus on this trip was making sure that people left the process feeling connected to each other, and knowing what questions they could be asking each other. It was important that our partners in Nepal know that they didn’t have to be in competition for our [funding] support, that they already have it. And so my goal was really to help build a community of support for each other.
Jennifer: Why are Thousand Currents partners not in competition with each other?
Trishala: The whole reason that we can confidently say to them is they’re not in competition with each other is because of our partnership model. Because we’re doing multiyear grants, they know how much money they’re getting. They know when the grant money is coming, and they know that the next funding is not contingent on the previous year’s outcomes but on the overall quality of the partnership.
Jennifer: Why do you think this whole idea of competition between members of civil society has developed?
Trishala: There’s just not enough philanthropic support in Nepal. There are not adequate resources for regular people, and not enough support for organizations. There is limited capital that’s generated from within the country. And there’s also very little resources from multilaterals or private or public foundations relative to the problems at hand.
And so, I want our movement-minded partners to have peer organizations that they work with on advocacy initiatives, [not just] coalitions based on issues or outcomes. Ideally there would be community of peer organizations in the sectors that we support, which can turn to each other when they have questions or challenges in the course of their work.
When I asked about that community, [partners] said it was just not the culture of Nepal for organizations to work together outside of certain funding constructs. But when I talked about the other partners we were working with, everyone – without an exception – always said, “I’d love to talk to that other organization.” The question was, what useful thing could we do as Thousand Currents [to help foster] that sense of connection and help repair the damage that has been done?
We opened our two day strategy session at the end of the learning exchange with a conversation about that dynamic. And in a nuanced way an apology to our partners for the ways in which funders had limited their organic development, both internally and from a coalition building standpoint.
Jennifer: So what do you think characterizes Thousand Currents’ site visits in general?
Trishala: I think it’s that the partners get to choose everything about the site visit. They choose the timing, location, duration, program, who they highlight, what they highlight. They know that we’re not driven by [their specific proposal] outcomes. We don’t even have outcomes attached to annual grants at this point. So I’m hoping that helps the site visit feel less stressful.
This lets partners have an interest in just sharing their reality, and I think because we don’t use set metrics, they don’t have to talk to us about measurements and numbers. There was only one instance that a partner focused on the number of people and the allocation of resources.
This allows more focus on just learning people’s stories and building relationships and trying to make sure that people felt honored and dignified in the process.
Jennifer: And do you think because of what you’ve just described, there’s actually the ability for more strategic discussions between funder and grantee on our site visits?
Trishala: Yes, because [our partners] are not having to prove themselves. Instead what happens, more so for our older partners, is that we spend a lot more time talking about their challenges. In general, when I’ve gone to Nepal, we spend the majority of our meetings talking about what’s not going well, things they worry about, things they want help with, and we spend a lot of time strategizing ultimately about how to get more resources their way. I feel like we have really authentic conversations.
Since I have been going every year, I am able to see the same community members again and again. That was a really lovely aspect of this trip. There was a member who is a widow, who became a local leader and agroecology teacher in the women’s cooperatives because she’s so skilled at a lot of the technical aspects of the farming that she does. She’s really good at teaching other people how to do those things.
I saw her again after my first time going there. So I think it’s been about three years, and a lot has changed in her life. We ended up having a very moving and powerful conversation, just kind of acknowledging that things have been really hard and sharing space around the reality of struggle. You know, because life is like that.
But it was really important that we could have that conversation and that she knew I remembered a lot of details about the things that she’d said three years ago. I think it was really important that she knows we’re in relationship with her as a human being who’s complex. She doesn’t need to tell us a story that everything’s great. She really is struggling around a lot of things.
Jennifer: One of my favorite, favorite site visit methodologies ever shown to me was when you arrived at our partner’s office, a long register of families is retrieved. The leader would say, “Open it up. Pick one. That’s where we’ll go.” And that’s how the site visit was “planned.”
So this idea resonates, that you would also return to the imperfect situation, not the rosy situation where everyone is now successful and happy and shining, as you said. That’s not real life, and it also exhibits a lot of trust in our partnerships and us.
Trishala: So I’m curious about your answer to this question too, Jennifer, since you were there in Nepal. Did these site visits appear to you different than other ones you’ve been on [working in other places]?
Jennifer: Well I can tell you like most site visits I’ve been on; we try to do too much. In the case of Thousand Currents, it’s because there’s so much enthusiasm. People welcome us as friends and want to share the work with us.
What’s different is the quality and the patience that is part of the conversations. There’s not this rigid, dictated agenda, and I also felt that, as a Thousand Currents representative, even as the Director of Communications, I wasn’t expected to come home and tell the story of everything that’s going well. I was expected to come and tell the story of what was. That is just fundamentally different in the word, format, and in more subtle ways. When you go as learners in the Thousand Currents way, you don’t have expectations of what the outcome will be, and I haven’t see a lot of site visits in our sector ever be that neutral. But what an amazing thing when it happens!
In that vein, what are your professional goals when you go on a site visit, Trishala, and even what are some of your personal goals as well?
Trishala: My professional goals are ultimately to create the most transparency possible between Thousand Currents and that partner. I want them to understand who we are, what we do, what we can do for them, and I want them to feel like we are working for them and not that they’re working for us. So my main goal is to kind of represent the set of possibilities that we can offer them for all the different ways we can work in solidarity with them.
Then my personal goals are similar in that I just want to show up as a full human being and I want them to always feel like we’re having a conversation as human beings, not just as representatives of organizations, and I want those conversations to be authentic and honest and complicated.
I know that part of my personal goal is to show up with all the energy and attention I need, which can be hard. As we saw in this Nepal trip, every single day that I was there, I was “on.” There wasn’t a single day of rest really for us, and that’s not an ideal way to plan a trip. But it’s funny, I’d originally planned that itinerary with some rest breaks and the partners wanted me to come by their offices and come by their homes on the side and meet their friends and colleagues. And so there were just always these kinds of things getting added, and that’s how we ended up with the nonstop itinerary.
I think it’s really important, for us Americans to recognize some of the cultural differences. When I’m in America, I feel like we put a value around having time alone and having time to, how we would call it, regroup. But in Nepal, being alone means that you are not being hosted correctly. So people would get worried when they heard that there was a day that I wasn’t doing something. They’d then make sure that I had a home cooked meal or make sure that I was surrounded with other people. So it’s really about recognizing all of that within a culture of generosity.
Another aspect that I was thinking about was the times that we were on visits that had too many stops [visiting different community groups]. It was because there’s a huge, huge value that gets placed on being seen by the partners. Several times, the organizers of the site visit [our partners’ staff] would say to me, “I know that we are running late and we don’t have time to make another stop, but we have to because this cooperative will feel really hurt if we don’t stop and just say ‘Hi’ to them.” And basically making sure that they feel seen. All the organizations we partner with work with multiple communities and cooperatives, so they’re also balancing this kind of tight rope of relationships among their constituents. So when they show up and we only see one group and not another, that actually makes tension for our partners. So they’re also taking care of their own relationship-building priorities by having us meet as many people as possible.
That’s part of what we have to keep in mind is; everyone is kind of working really hard to make everyone else happy. And part of that is honoring the dignity that comes with visibility.
Jennifer: Beautifully, beautifully said. Tell us more about your goals in terms of having the partners visit each other, and then convening altogether.
Trishala: When I see our partners, I see experts, scientists, teachers, artists, healers, organizers and thought leaders. And I just wanted them to see that in each other, really. I just wanted to create a deeper well that they can draw on to support their own work and their own questions. Ultimately I want to create an environment among Thousand Current partners where they can know that every relationship they have that’s connected to us can be a deep relationship. They might not choose to go that way, which is totally their option.
They’re very busy people, but when it comes to [Thousand Currents] spaces, the thing I want them to associate with us is authenticity and depth. In some ways, that was really the goal. I didn’t need for them to talk to each other about specific things, because ultimately I know that if they feel connected to each other and know what each other’s strengths are, over time they’ll have conversations and talk about many things.
Jennifer: What feedback did you get from them about the experience?
Trishala: They loved it. They definitely all were talking about whom they wanted to talk to about different aspects. I think that there was some analysis and critique that was generated that was very useful for me as well as someone from outside of Nepal. Part of what they said was they wanted me to come back and hold more space for them together. Part of what I’m working on now is to help them think about how that space can exist without us.
In an ideal world, Thousand Currents never wants to be in charge of the pace and the content and the goals. One of the things we knew in creating this experimental process is that many activities that are funder driven are not necessarily useful for partners. And so part of my goal is to have Thousand Currents take up the least possible space and time. Ultimately we only want them to use their time and resources to do their work. Convenings are only impactful for their long-term work if they can take shape space and make it what they need it to be.
There’s a lot of times in philanthropy in the US that we are encouraged to do things just to look like we do things. As if it’s not enough to just give out resources and be in deep solidarity. We sometimes have outside incentives that make it seem like we need to be doing convenings, publications, products, etc. That culture does not exist at Thousand Currents and I never feel like I need to do something just to prove that I’m working. There is a lot of convening for convening’s sake that we have opted out of.
Jennifer: So amongst all the teaching/learning that the partners shared, what do you think are some seeds that might’ve been planted from this experience?
Trishala: Well, the partners are definitely good at different things, right? Each organization kind of has its own forte. So the main seed that was planted is that they understand what each other’s strengths are, for example climate change, women’s leadership, bottom up development. The seeds are really building that knowledge base, and knowing how to call on each other’s expertise.
Jennifer: And I should say, there were some literal seeds shared as well.
Trishala: Yes, right, right. Because one of the gifts that Thousand Currents received from the communities we visited with ASHA Nepal was two sets of heirloom seeds, that then we shared with everyone else.
Jennifer: We save the world through seed saving. Absolutely.
Any other reflections from this trip?
Trishala: The changing role of civil society in relationship to the new government in Nepal is very important right now. Part of what I saw on this trip is that everyone is trying to figure out how to be in relationship to that system and the regulatory environment of Nepal for all NGOs. There’s a level of civic engagement in Nepal that is really different than most countries I have ever been in, in that many more people really know who their representatives are and have relationships with them. The size of the country enables deep advocacy to happen. So I’m really excited to see how our partners navigate the next couple of years in terms of those political processes and the opportunities for really effective advocacy at all levels of government.
Underneath all of that is a layer of cynicism because there’s a reality of corruption and nepotism, in every country, including the U.S. Part of what’s really hard about this moment is everyone has a really high expectations for the change they want to see and everyone also has really low expectations based on their own kind of personal history with bureaucratic infrastructure.
For me, what I saw reflected in that process was the same tension I feel as someone in the United States, so dissatisfied with our government right now. But it calls on me to actually become more involved in our government, right? So as a lifetime activist, I’ve always seen the public power structure as something that I need to stand in opposition to.
Now I’m starting to understand that when we’re in such important political times, it’s too easy to just be an opposition. It’s actually more necessary to be in relationship to and to be participating in the change process. Our partners orientation to creating solutions, testing them, refining them and being in right relationship to each other is profoundly inspiring and important for all of us to learn from.