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  • Attia Qureshi

Updated: Feb 9, 2020

Things came to a head for me on Thursday evening, and I had to really remember everything I teach to keep my shit together. The weight of the work I'm doing became crushing, especially because I haven't had any time to recharge. We drive 6-8 hours every day to get to these remote associations, and then I'm running highly emotional sessions for several hours in a 95 degree hut. I don't complain about working in these conditions, but it becomes very hard to do it every day without a rest day to recover. On Thursday night I was really feeling crushed by the grind, but rather than taking an extra day to rest, I felt urged into stacking meetings to do several in one day. So I ended up in this very difficult emotional bind: I push and completely exhaust myself, or I feel like a bad person for not helping more people.

I'm currently co-writing a book with my rad mentor. Before this project, I was editing our chapter on how to say no, and I realized I really needed to take my own advice. I also needed to calm down before I had any conversations and look at it from their perspective. I talk a lot about triggers, and how it becomes very hard to not blow up a situation when we are upset... and dang, it IS really hard. All I wanted to do was rail at them and vent my frustration. I also knew that if I did that, there would be very little chance of me being able to work with this organization again.

Sometimes when I get upset enough like this, I don't listen to that side. I say "screw it, I don't need them," blow up the situation and move on. This is obviously the opposite of what I teach. I teach that everyone needs to identify their contribution to the problem, try to understand the other perspective and don't lay blame. It was incredibly hard to do that.

I convinced myself to practice what I preach, and sent a very nice email to explain the situation from my perspective. I shared that I was grateful for the opportunity, it is incredibly rewarding, but I am having some concerns. I also shared possible solutions to my concerns, which is a very helpful thing to do - because then it's not complaining, but problem solving to figure out a way to meet everyone's needs.

I convinced them to only do one session per day, so this worked marginally well, until Friday. On Friday, I got heat stroke while I was in the field working with an association of citrus farmers. I knew I was pushing too hard to do the session on Friday, but didn't feel like I had much of a choice... I didn't want to leave a group of rural farmers hanging at the last minute, and they told me it was too late to cancel. It was definitely the worst of all my sessions... they found it valuable and asked me to come back, but I knew I was only able to give a small percentage of what I could if I were well rested/healthy.

I got through the session, and told them I needed to rest on Saturday morning. I would try to do the afternoon session on Saturday (only because they told me it was an indigenous population who would come by foot, and didn't have access to cellphones - who is going to bail on that). I left for my hotel, the only thing keeping me upright was knowing I would see Isaiah that evening. But as we approached Cali, information changed. Apparently, they had combined both associations to the morning session without approval from leadership - uh oh.

I was exhausted, sick and then furious. I had worked hard to try to be reasonable, and pushed myself beyond what was healthy already. And when they told me that the plans had changed and they were trying to make me do what I told them I wouldn't do, I snapped. Now, I know I need to practice what I preach, but it's important to note that if people keep encroaching on your boundaries, you shouldn't keep taking it. Of course, there was some miscommunication that happened, and the changes weren't approved by the people managing the program.

So I called up the coordinator of my project and explained my position once more, fairly firmly this time. While I wanted to be a team player, I also knew that I was at my edge. Luckily, we were able to work out a solution so I could have another rest day.

This process highlighted the same fundamentals I've been teaching these farming associations. Recognize joint contribution to the problem, realize that no one has bad intentions, and share the impact it's having on you. I'll have an opportunity next Thursday to do a training for the leadership of the organization who has staffed me, and I'll definitely be emphasizing these points.

This trend has cropped up again and again, through all of my work: it's not good leadership to push your people to the brink of collapse. It builds frustration, resentment and sucks out any motivation or goodwill... even if you're doing amazing work. There was such strong cognitive dissonance when standing in front of a group of people who find my work very valuable and sharing their appreciation, while feeling drained/not motivated because my personal needs weren't being met.

I'm going to consider how to further incorporate this lesson into my work, having so viscerally experienced it this week. The saving grace for me has been the woman in the field with me, who acts as my translator and coordinator. She keeps me sane, and is incredibly empathetic. She has consistently been on my team, and done everything in her power to help me/take as much of the weight off, and I'm so grateful. In the meantime, I'm taking the weekend to drink gatorade, watch movies and recharge. I'll be back with more to share on Monday :).

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  • Attia Qureshi

I did end up changing my clothes today... hooray, Attia. To be honest, it was a much tougher day to gear up for, both mentally and physically. We started out at 6am, with not enough sleep, and more importantly, not enough emotional recovery. What I didn't realize at the start of this journey was the huge emotional lift I would be undertaking with each association as I helped them manage serious internal conflict. While it is some of the most rewarding work I've had the honor of participating in, it is immensely draining. I try to mentally steel myself, but the weight of the issues is palpable in the air, and I can't help but absorb some of it. There are subconscious things that weigh on me too... when I see Venezuelan people walking down the highway with a suitcase because they have no other options other than to flee by foot in hopes of a better life. Or when I see these farmers working so hard, all day, every day, to make $10 per day (on the most successful days). Or when mothers are sitting in the sidewalk holding their sick kids, begging for money. Then it's the problems themselves with these associations, which blow my mind, and make me hope that I never whine severely about my own life.

The association I went to today has a horrific, violent past. It was even more remote than the location from our first day... it was a dirt road in the middle of two mountains that most people passed only by horse, which we were on for an hour (after two hours of driving on somewhat regular roads). During the peak of violence in Colombia, this community was one of the most affected, because the guerilla group (known as the FARC) took the stronghold of the community. They were extremely violent toward the farmers. One of the women who was working with us as a consultant told me she actually grew up in that community, and there were many times as a child that they would have to run under their beds and hide there for over 24 hours as they heard gunshots and screaming all around them. Apparently, that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was seeing what was left when they crept out from under the beds: blood, death and destruction.

This wasn't the most shocking part of the story. The most shocking part was that this association, which was intimately affected by the violence, accepted members of the FARC with open arms when they requested to participate a few years ago. What. The. Farc. These people, who had family members killed by the guerillas, agreed to let members of that same organization into their association? Of course, this is after they signed a peace treaty in 2016 to lay down their arms and participate in society... but still. My mind reeled at the ability to forgive such heinous crimes and actually LET THEM IN to their group. To share in their small profits and work side by side.

This was a very humbling moment for me. I don't know if I would have the grace or forgiveness to do anything near that. This association was also special, you could feel it in the air... they had a connection because of this violence. They cared about each other a lot, but over time, they had let that connection slip a little. Small, petty grievances were creating rifts in the group. So today's work was to start bridging those rifts.

I was warned that people likely wouldn't open up easily, but I barreled through and demanded participation. At one point, probably somewhat because of my exhaustion, I snapped at two women who continued whispering while people (myself included) were talking. It was impactful because it made everyone take the session seriously and remain respectful the rest of the time, but I probably could have been a bit more tactful.

We went through a similar exercise, and created an operating agreement for meetings... but I focused more on another agreement. A communication agreement. How were they going to communicate about and with each other. This is shockingly simple, yet so hard for most of us: be appreciate and grateful, be direct with someone if you have a problem, don't talk behind people's backs. It sounds like the fundamental aspects of being a good human, and yet, we all forget it from time to time. And it erodes trust, motivation and goodwill in any organization, as was apparent with this association.

Everyone loved this agreement, along with the other for the meetings. We elected people to take leadership roles, and the air cleared. People were lighter, laughing and smiling with each other. Later, I was told that they found my session to be incredibly valuable, and asked if I could come back next week to see them. While I am incredibly touched by that, I have trepidation about my ability to continue on without a break. I'm supposed to see three more organizations in the next two days, and the thought makes me want to curl up. I'm not sure how to take care of myself while also having this deep need to help as many people as I can.

One more touching moment for me was a couple of older men who embarrassingly told me that they couldn't write when I asked them to answer some questions for me. We had the consultants work with them to get their answers, but at the end of the session when I had everyone sign the agreements, I saw one of the men working so intently to sign his name. I watched him slowly sound out his own name as he painstakingly wrote the letters: Jose.

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  • Attia Qureshi

Yes, that's right. Today my goal was to initiate a coup within a guava association, which is currently being run by a useless, drone-addicted, non-farmer who is politically well connected. And yes, I wore the same outfit... give me a break, there's not much I can wear in the heat of the jungle while still being functional. Maybe I'll try harder tomorrow... maybe.

Today's session was tough because we started at 3pm, and only had a couple of hours. This meant: no time for theory, we were working in the heat of the day, and people were already tired from a full day's work.

Luckily, I received from context from the people helping the associations, who I'm contracting with. They essentially told me the governor had put this guy Andres as head of the association. Andres is well connected politically, but that's about all he has going for him. He literally looks like the drug trafficking villian from Bad Boys II (yes, I love that movie). He has no knowledge of farming, of guavas, or how to be a leader. His most recent idea is he used the association's status to get money from the government to buy drones... to... make the farms better. How? No one knows.

You know what these farmers need? Someone they trust to lead them in negotiations as a group. Do you know what is one of the last things these farmers need? Drones. I mean, who actually DOES need drones?

So I go in armed with this information, and off the bat start off aggressively to show everyone I'm in charge. This was important for a couple of reasons... to get these old, Colombian farming men to listen to me, and to make sure I could control Andres. I had a feeling he would try to interject to regain control of the situation (I was right about this, and shut him down every time). I set rules of how we would operate: everyone gets to speak, no one interrupts, everyone is respectful. If you break the rules, you're outta there.

So we again go through the exercise: what's the biggest problem, what's your objective for the day, and what is the objective of the association. Surprise, surprise, the results were fairly similar to day 1. We don't communicate well, we aren't meeting so we can't work together, and we lack trust. We want to fix this so we can work more effectively together, thus setting a higher price for our crop and earning more money.

I changed my technique here, because despite this association being much better positioned with higher potential, it was clearly more dysfunctional that the Day 1 association. They hadn't all met in the entire three years that the association had been running! So I sat down, and looked everyone in the eye, and told them that if they aren't willing to change, they should dissolve the association right then and there. Because what was the point, nothing was going to get achieved if they continued to operate without trust or communication.

I let this sink in with a long pause as they all stared at me in horror. I then took a deep breath and said "But... here's what it would look like if you DID work together." I then showed them a very simple financial model: how much can you sell in a week, at what price, for how many weeks... thus, how much can you earn as a group in a year. They were stunned, and then very excited. They started sharing they could earn even more by getting rid of the middle man and selling directly to the market. Ding ding... work together, get more money.

I asked them how they would actually achieve this without communication. They stated that the biggest problem is they never met regularly, so they couldn't set their price or come up with a strategy. I pounced on this, and asked them how they could change that. We quickly came up with a new operating agreement: a monthly meeting. But when, where? These things matter, you need an agreement to be specific and implementable. They would meet the first Thursday of every month, in the same place, from 3-5pm.

Next came the start of the coup. I told them they needed to have a moderator, someone to act the way I was in the current meeting, to run the meeting. You all may have guessed this, but Andres immediately piped up and said he could do it. I shut this down, hard. I said no one who was in the "leadership group" (he's the only one) could do this job, it had to be someone neutral. Everyone elected another man, Ivan Jose, with full consensus. We then went through how they would structure these meetings, the rules of the meetings, and how they would deliver action items with people in charge.

I could have stopped here... everyone was feeling great, and excited about having a path forward. But there was still the issue of trust, and I decided to bring it up. I told them that this was a great first step, but they still wouldn't be able to operate effectively unless they had a leader they trusted to represent them in negotiations as a group. I asked them if they wanted to talk about additional roles to add to the leadership team... finance, secretary, operations... There was pushback here. First, they weren't assembled formally, so we couldn't vote on anything (damn). Second, they wanted more participants in the meeting to have this discussion. Fair enough, but... would it actually happen? I wasn't sure, so I pushed further, and asked them to write down three names of people they would trust in a negotiation. It took about 10 minutes to convince them to write down three names, not as a vote, but as a starting point in their next conversation.

Ivan Jose got the most yays, with a few other people getting two yays each (including Andre, but I'm pretty sure those were his own yays). I shared this, and asked them to keep it in mind for the next meeting. I also asked them how they are going to keep their leaders accountable. How long do you wait before kicking someone out for not taking action on their responsibility? We decided on three months.

We wrapped up with writing the entire agreement down, and I again had everyone sign it. I told everyone they were the only ones who could enforce it, I was leaving and really, it was up to them. I really hope they do, there is so much potential in that group of people. I also feel that I was able to empower them to feel more in control of their situation... and with the starts of a coup, they feel confident enough to kick Andres out and get someone in there who is vying for their interests instead of drones.

A pretty good day's work. I felt especially happy when I overheard association members talking about how this was the first time they actually had any semblance of a real, productive meeting in three years. I just hope Andres, with his many political connections, doesn't seek retribution against the mouthy American woman who has started stripping away his power.

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