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  • Attia Qureshi

What happens when people's egos get involved in a conversation? It blows up. It especially blows up when said conversation is via email. I hope everyone takes this piece of advice to heart: never, never have serious conversations via email/text. It is absolutely the worst form of communication because you can't convey intonation. If you read "Thank you." there are a lot of ways you could interpret it. The person may have typed it with a smile on their face, but you read it and are like... wait, a period? Are they pissed? How is a form of communication where the only emotion comes from a couple punctuation points going to effectively convey our meaning. I'm convinced it can't, unless you are a great author, which most of us aren't.


The reason I bring this up is because the situation exploded with the man managing our project. From what I've heard, he is usually very calm and rational. He has had a lot of stressful things on his plate. When I informed him that we had purchased tickets to leave, he absolutely lost it. The conversation got messy and emotional... on both sides. I'm not innocent in this situation. I was just as triggered as he was: "How dare you get mad at me for doing what I consider safe when you weren't willing to help." But. But. Just like I've taught in every session I've done in Colombia, everyone almost always has a contribution in any problem they are involved in. I probably spent the day triggered, with explosive thoughts whirling around in my head. It's a natural, normal reaction... the hard part is calming down and addressing the situation.


And I didn't want to do it. I wanted to remain righteous in my opinion and decision, and consider him absolutely wrong. But I'm pretty sure this is how most conflicts start and escalate. No one is willing to back down, and it builds and builds. I could have let that happen... it's likely we won't have to work together again, and this is a volunteer assignment. But I've also learned that the world is small, and grudges aren't worth it. Too many times in my life, I've needed someone who I absolutely didn't expect to interact with again.


So, I apologize. I send an email last night with my contribution to the problem. I acknowledge that I should have consulted him further before buying the flight. I acknowledge a lot of miscommunication that happened, and the fear that pushed me to buy the flight. I share my vulnerability, and acknowledge that we have done great work together so far, so let's not end in a hard way. Someone has to break the cycle, and usually, it ends up being you if you see the problem. It still grates on me a little, but I overall feel a lot better than I did all day yesterday. I know I did the right thing. He hasn't responded, so I'll keep you updated on what happens. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.



Onto my last conflict resolution session... it was with what they call an "afro-population." I think that's their terminology for what we in the US term African American. This was one of my toughest sessions, primarily because people weren't engaged. I actually conducted the session in their church, so the setting wasn't great, because everyone couldn't sit in a circle. They all listened, but fairly apathetically. It was also a much older group, which I was told adds to the apathy. No one is willing to pitch in to do the work, and people are generally disrespectful.



Today was more about implementing internal rules/guidelines for association members to follow. What I've realized is that a lot of people don't want to enforce rules, like if you miss 25% of meetings or don't pay your dues, you get kicked out. This is understandable, they all live hard lives so why make it harder. But it's dragging these associations down. When you're surrounded by unmotivated, disrespectful people and you see them getting away with it, it takes away all motivation. It will eventually sink the ship. It's so much better to cut off the deadweight, even if it's painful.



That's what I helped them see, and I hope they take it to heart, because they have a lot of deadweight. Luckily, they have a great woman leading them, who has energy and force. I distributed additional roles to people. One of the shocking things to me was that no one was willing to raise their hand to help contribute. I had to go one by one to every person and publically ask them to help: and I got 12 no's before someone said yes. Again, deadweight.


I'm going to recommend that they continue checking in with this association in particular, because I think they will need help cutting that deadweight.


It hasn't quite sunk in that we will be on our way home soon, and I completed my last session. I don't feel happy or victorious, but more sad by the way things have devolved. I hope things improve before we leave, as I'd really like to end on a good note.

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As you can tell from the title, today was a somewhat crazy day, in many ways. The day started out early, as we headed toward my second to last session with two Indigenous associations. They had started out as one group, and split recently due to internal conflict. While we were on our way to the session, I get some information that throws me off my game: The ELN (a still hostile and active guerilla group in Colombia) had posted a nationwide terrorist threat. You can read about it and watch the video here. They say that no one is allowed to travel from Friday, Feb 14 until Monday, Feb 17, or you will "face consequences."

This is terrifying for several reasons, but primarily because Isaiah was supposed to come back to Cali on Friday (the last day of our project), and we were supposed to fly to Cartagena on Sunday (few days on the beach for some R&R). Additionally, we are in a more vulnerable position in this rural farming valley, where dissident groups are highly active in the mountains. This is my first close-encounter experience with a terrorist threat, and I'm learning a lot. The problem with terrorist threats (well, one of the problems outside of the obvious) is that they aren't specific, which helps fan the fear. You don't know what's going to happen if you "break their rules" and you don't know how seriously to take the threat.


So I do some research. I had mentioned in another post that Colombia had signed a peace agreement with the other guerilla group, the FARC, in 2016. Apparently, there hasn't a big, public threat since then... definitely concerning. Additionally, last January, the ELN planted an explosive in Bogota that killed 20 people and injured many more... even more concerning. All of these things are rattling around in my head as the head of our project tells us that we shouldn't take drastic measures, this is something that happens in Colombia and we will probably be fine. Probably.


Now, I'm willing to take certain risks. Sure, I'll go to a region in Colombia that has conflict in the area as long as it's relatively safe. Ok, I'll go up the mountains where there IS conflict, but only halfway up. Yes, I'll do sessions with the former terrorist guerilla group. But I think I'm being prudent when I say that I don't think I want to ride out this weekend's terrorist shutdown when our project will already be finished. Sure, the beach would be nice, but my interest in safety trumps that.


Here's the catch: the org that hosted us on this project won't get us a ticket back to the US unless the embassy declares an emergency. You would think that this would certainly qualify, but apparently not. And when I call the embassy yesterday evening, they are closed! Come on.


I get very agitated when I feel trapped in any circumstance: whether it's a family reunion, a job, or a country... so I always like to have alternatives. What's my way out. My amazing father always buys me travel insurance when I go for long trips out of the country. While we knew I would be insured through our program, I decided to buy extra insurance for both me and Isaiah. This back-up plan has helped the situation immensely, because now they are the ones getting us out. Never underestimate the power of having an alternative to fall back on, because it can really help you in a pinch, and usually doesn't cost much (other than some time and effort).


While I'm still getting flak from the head of the program, apparently he thinks I'm some hysterical little woman, I'm quite relieved that we are leaving Friday morning. Sure, it would probably be fine to stay in the hotel for three days straight, but why take that risk? It's always helpful to remember your options, and it's rare that you're ever truly trapped in a situation... sometimes all the options are crappy, but some are better than others.



Onto my session with the two Indigenous associations... it was definitely a heavy one. Prior to the session, the consultant said that one of the biggest problems they have is abuse toward women. Well, damn... that's not the type of conflict I'm trained to deal with. It was a very hard situation to be presented with five minutes prior to arriving, as I try to mull over if there is anything I can do to help.


I went through the same exercise as usual to understand the problems from their perspective. A huge issue was a lack of respect in general... toward the association, members and women. The session ended with more of a group coaching session as I told them that not much could change unless they were willing to enforce a requirement of respect in the association. This meant that if people consistently didn't show up, interrupted, were violent, or didn't pay dues, why keep them around. This was a very sobering moment for everyone... they knew it, but haven't had the confidence to do it yet. They have a culture of acceptance and protection, even for those who are taking advantage/being selfish. It's a hard shift to protect the group from a couple of bad seeds, but I think I got them on the right track.



Generally, I ask people to vote for who they want as the moderator of the meetings. This is to help distribute the power, because often people hate the person who is in charge. For this session, I participated heavily to influence it so it was women who were moderators. I certainly didn't force the issue, but I did interject in the process often to get them to consider all options. While I wasn't able to address the abuse directly, I hope that empowering the women will help.


It was a big day, with only a couple more to go.

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  • Attia Qureshi

I'll start off by saying I had a wonderfully relaxing, restful weekend. Isaiah came to see me in Cali, and we ate good food and slept a lot. His presence is incredibly calming and fills me up, especially the way he can make me laugh. Our weekend together was lovely, and was especially cherished time since we had been through a rough week apart.


Today's session was with an association of blackberry growers. I didn't get any information beforehand on the association, and the "conflict" was unknown as I walked in. Interestingly, one piece was major between the consultant (Lily) and the association head (Oscar): no wonder I didn't get prior information. He refused to even speak with her, but she was the one who could help the association the most. It was somewhat of a bombshell to get hit with as I'm sitting in front of everyone, but I think I got through it fairly well (though who knows, I do have a very expressive face).


I have to admit something... the first thing I noticed when I arrived was the cutest six month old baby trying to move in her little baby walker. She made my whole day better, and I spent at least 20% of the session holding her. It was amazing. It also really ingratiated me with the association... it breaks the ice. Rather than being this lady from the US coming in to tell them how to do things, I became a lady who wanted to eat some unknown boiled fruit and hold their baby.

I didn't realize it at the time, but this changed the tone of the entire meeting from the start. There was a lot of tension from the legal rep of the association, Oscar. He had almost refused to come to the meeting because he said he would no longer work or meet with the consultant, Lily. So we were starting from a tough place, but when I picked up the baby and started introducing myself, the dynamic changed. There's no more power play, and everyone feels comfortable and on a similar level.


Today was different because this association was not working together because they just didn't want to. They knew it was a good idea to do so, but they weren't taking action to do it. It wasn't like the other associations either, because they met very regularly and had fairly good communication. I was at a bit of a loss in the beginning: what do I do here? I found the right answer to be asking questions. So I probed. And I probed. And then I probed some more.


I continued to ask them why they didn't have cooperation in the association. When they pivoted to external factors, I brought them back and asked them why they didn't work together, or agree to set prices together. I stubbornly brought them back to the root of the problem over and over again, and then started asking them what could help.

This was a very interesting learning experience for me... sometimes, I can identify the problem and a possible solution, and it's easy to guide the conversation. In this case, the best thing for me was to force them to face an issue, and start coming up with solutions that THEY thought would work. This was really key... I had no idea how to solve their problem. Sure, I could say "hey, just work together, you'll be better off," but this wasn't realistically going to change anything.


The solution to this is also complicated, multi-faceted and longer term. While I wanted to help them get to a good place today, I knew that wouldn't be possible. They had to take some small steps to build trust, cooperation and better team work. So that's what we put in place. I had them talk through what would be helpful to do in the next six months: first, agree to work together for that time frame without undercutting each other on price. Second, get educated on what they need to do to sell effectively as a group. Third, get more introductions to people who can sell for them in bulk. The biggest thing here was that Lily was the one who could help with points 2 and 3. She was their best bet, and they agreed with it! The session had started out with Oscar not even willing to speak with her, and ended with the two of them scheduling sessions over the next few months together. Afterward, Lily said it was an amazing step, because a closed door had been opened, and she could actually help them. It's also great for the association, because she's a great resource for them.

It felt good to help solve a different problem, and certainly stretched different mental muscles. While people will look to me to give them an answer, I've found the response to be much better if I help them get to their own answer. It also helped bring everyone together, and make the association and consultant feel like they were on the same team. This will be hugely helpful for their future, because now they won't be spending their time and energy fighting, but rather problem solving together.


It's my last week here, I only have three more sessions to go. Two with associations, and one with the leadership of the consulting firm that helps the associations. Now that I'm feeling more refreshed, I'm excited to do as much as I can this week.

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