How can the leadership structure of a group transform to help the people in charge better serve and represent the members?
The women of Cerro Negro making tamales to sell
Picking the ground for a garden
When I moved into my community while serving in Peace Corps Panama, it became evident that I would be spending most of my time working with a group of about 30 farmers from around the community. Every Thursday, they would come from all around to participate in activities like planting gardens, making bread, raising chickens, and making artisan work to sell. The group was mostly made up of women, but the president was a man: Benildo Gonzalez.
Benildo was a good leader, but he was also the only leader. While they had technically elected a vice president, secretary, and treasurer (all women), Benildo did all of the leadership roles himself. Each meeting, he'd stand quietly in front of the group until everyone was seated. He'd start the meeting off with a prayer, then community announcements, and then he'd pass out work assignments. The women would dutifully go off to their respective corners to start making food or planting crops. The small cohort of men who came to the meetings would do construction projects and drink corn liquor.
It didn't seem very equitable to me. Benildo gave the orders, and everyone else just followed them. The women never spoke out, asked to do anything else, or went against what he said. They just followed orders. But we did get a lot done, and made a decent amount of money selling the products that the group made and grew to other community members.
Working together on recycled artisan projects
Selling the fruits (and vegetables) of our labors
And so it went for about six months. Benildo gave the orders, and the rest of us did as he said. We made things and grew things and sold things, and everything seemed fine. Until one day, everything changed.
One Thursday morning, the group arrived for their usual meeting-- but Benildo didn't show up. Murmurs spread throughout the crowd. With my poor Spanish, it took a while for me to understand the situation: Benildo had moved to the city to work on a construction job so he could send back money to support his wife and seven children. He hadn't told anyone this was going to happen, much less me, the Peace Corps volunteer. Basically, he had left the group high and dry.
Without his leadership, everyone was confused on what to do. There was no prayer, no announcements, no doling out of work assignments for the day. Left to their own devices, a few women started bickering about what they should do. The men just left.
A sign the group made to show at fairs. Would all that hard work amount to nothing?
For about the next year, the group completely floundered. A few loyal women showed up to the meetings each week, but it was hard to get anything done with so few of us. I tried to step up and take more of a leadership role, but I could tell no one wanted to be told what to do by a foreigner. I turned my project focus to more one-on-one jobs, helping people around the community plant coffee trees instead.
But the whole time, I didn't give up on the group. I saw its potential and didn't want the idea to die. I kept bothering the women who had held lower leadership roles, even though they hadn't done much in the past. "Why don't you be the president?" I would ask, to inevitable laughter. In such a patriarchal society, a woman being in charge of the group sounded ludicrous. But I kept at it.
My first batch of baby coffee trees, which I planted as seeds! (It's harder than it sounds.)
It took a lot of convincing, but eventually, one woman did step forth and announced to everyone that she had decided we needed an election to keep going as a group, and that she would volunteer to be president. As soon as she did that, other women decided to step in as vice president, secretary, and treasurer. On a Thursday a year and a half into my service, we had an official election and the new all-female leadership crew was officially elected into office. It was a very proud day.
The last six months of my service, I witnessed something really special. In their first meeting as a leadership crew, the group of women stood in front of the group and, in turns, led the prayer, announcements, and discussed together the work assignments they wanted to focus on. All the members participated in the discussion-- even ones who had never said a word when Benildo was in charge. Ideas bounced back and forth: We should plant tomatoes, not green beans. Maybe this time we could put raisins in the bread. And so on.
The distribution of the group was different, with a group of four women standing at the podium instead of one man. And when the group finally got back to work, the motivation was different, too. Everyone was more involved this time around. Members who had long abandoned the meetings started coming back, new ones joined, and the group was more productive than ever.
Our first day back in full force!
The lesson I learned from watching this group transformation was that the leadership of a group should truly represent its members. An autocracy might be efficient up to a point, but when only one person's voice and ideas are being heard, orders might be followed obediently, but not necessarily enthusiastically. And what happens when that one leader fails to lead, or leaves the group?
Another lesson I learned was that women, in general, tend to lead in a more democratic and social manner, taking the needs and wants of everyone into account and allowing others to speak up more than men do. That's not a scientific fact, just something I've observed, and something that definitely proved itself true in this rural community in Panama. The women made better leaders because they worked together and took everyone's ideas, while the man wanted to stand alone and simply be obeyed as a leader. Added to the fact that the majority of the group was made of women, it simply made sense that having female leadership would be the best way for everyone in the group to be heard and able to work together.
It was inspiring to see such a change in that patriarchal society. When a man steps down and women are given the chance to lead, they will rise to the occasion, and they will prove themselves to be great and worthy leaders.
A lesson America has yet to learn.
In conclusion, watching a group's leadership transform from a single male in charge to a matriarchal democracy was a great experience in a lot of ways. It showed me what can happen when fair representative leadership helps a group reach its full potential, and it showed me how it important it is to pick leaders who represent their constituents. The group of farmers is still doing well and I'm told is expanding their operations and planning to form a legitimate cooperative to sell their products-- a very exciting step to help the people of Cerro Negro rise out of the cycle of poverty. That change in leadership was a small step in the grand scheme of things, but it benefited the lives of those women immensely and will only keep changing them for the better in the future.
My community: Always changing, always beautiful.