A Journey to Witness How Change Happens


Last fall I had the pleasure of meeting Molly Melching at the Women Moving Millions Summit in New York City, and it did not take long before I fell head over heels in love with this amazing woman. Melinda Gates once famously declared in reference to her first meeting with Molly: “I have not thought the same way about the work I do at the Gates Foundation since that day”, and I feel the same way way. I was so blown away that I immediately emailed Molly to ask if I could come visit her in Senegal, Africa, and I was honoured when she agreed. My daughter Allie and I are leaving for Senegal tomorrow, and I couldn’t be more excited to see Molly’s work up close and personal.

Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of Tostan, an NGO operating out of Senegal, Africa that is named after the Wolof word for “breakthrough”. What is so incredible about Molly and her work is how clearly she can articulate her theory of change, and how it drives everything they do. The key concept behind this theory of change is the idea that the solutions for any given problem facing a community should come from within the community itself. Now this may sound really, really, obvious, but an alarming amount of charitable resources are not allocated this way. Well intended funders and program officers create what they think is the ‘solution’ rather then engaging the people they are trying to help. In contrast, Tostan looks to the traditions and culture of the communities they are trying to serve when looking for the solutions to social issues, and Tostan specializes in devising programs that can work within these cultural spaces to enact more long lasting and sustainable social change.

At the WMM Summit, Molly told us a story about one of her early mistakes in her work in Senegal to illustrate this point. She told of one of their initiatives to start a community garden, because the community has indicated that they needed one. Molly explained that she simply assumed that if they built a communal garden, then everyone in the community would come out to work on it, but instead, just two weeks after the garden’s opening, the only people coming to work each day were Molly and her group. In asking the people what was wrong, Molly came to realize that the customs of the area dictated that each family should have their own row to tend in the garden, instead of it being one big communal project. This incident helped Molly and her colleagues to realize that if the starting points of their initiatives didn’t come from the organizational foundations already present in the communities, then they would always be working towards failure and not success.

Using the knowledge gleaned from these early mistakes, Molly and Tostan went on to create the centerpiece of Tostan’s educational programs: a three year nonformal educational program called the Tostan Model. This Community Empowerment Program (CEP) works with communities over a three year period to help them create policies that will positively impact education, health, governance, economic growth, and the environment, but does so in a way that is rooted in the values of human rights, respect, inclusion, and sustainability. I love it! This approach has been called revolutionary, and it has impacted the way other NGOs and philanthropic foundations approach social activism, meaning the Tostan Model has helped to effect change all over the world.

An example of this change is their campaign to end Female Genital Cutting. Since Tostan began working to eradicate this practice, over 6,400 communities within the countries in which Tostan operates have announced their intentions to ban this custom, and much of Tostan’s success has come from their model of finding solutions from within these communities themselves. The incredible story of how this came to be is beautifully described in the book However Long the Night. Think about it. A process was created that has moved people to choose to end a practice that was a tradition, a TRADITION, for hundreds of years. Was it easy? Of course not. But it happened. This is why I am going to Senegal. I want to understand how change can happen, and I believe the work of this organization, and of Molly, is one of the best examples we have in the world today. (and so does Melinda Gates!)

As if I needed a reason to love this woman any more, Molly is a steadfast believer in the power of story to change the world. Sound familiar? Last year, Tostan, in partnership with the Sundance Institute, the Skoll Foundation, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, sent filmmakers into Senegal to document the stories deemed most relevant by the members of the communities visited. The aim was to expand the power of storytelling beyond the borders of their villages, and instead bring their stories to a global audience. Three short films were produced, and all three were released last December in tangent with the International Human Rights Day. Using film as a tool for social change? This woman is simply amazing.

I have only been to Africa once, and I was thrilled to share my lessons learned in this post for LinkedIn. This will be a much different experience and unlike anything I have ever done. To be with a true visionary, who has developed an innovative, groundbreaking, and revelatory way of creating social change that has undoubtedly changed the world is truly a dream come true. Even more exciting is the opportunity to share this with my daughter, who will be turning 14 during our trip. We will be celebrating her birthday on the shores of Senegal on Thursday.

I’ll leave you with one last story from Molly about her encounter with a fish cleaner earlier this year. I hope you enjoy it. In the meantime, I’m off to pack!

In Molly’s words:

“I had one of those wonderful experiences this weekend that makes me realize that no matter how great the challenges, I will remain dedicated to seeing our Tostan education program reaching millions more in Africa. I thought I would share this unexpected weekend moment with you.

As most of you know, Tostan has been piloting a new education module in Senegal to help parents, grandparents and other primary child caregivers to reinforce positive parental practices that will better prepare their young children for learning in school and life in general. Participants in 232 communities have now gone through the first phase of the program and have learned about how the brain develops and how important it is to positively interact with their babies and young children.
On this beautiful sunny Saturday morning – January 4, 2014, I went down to the beach to buy fresh fish for dinner. The area is located near a village called The Somone and after I bought some fresh fish, I handed them over to the fish cleaner to scale and clean, then sat down next to some children to wait until she had finished. As I had some time before me, I pulled out one of our children’s books from the new module and started reading in Wolof to the young children sitting next to me. They were surprised and delighted and one boy who obviously was attending school tried to read along with me. Soon more children and three adults had also gathered to see something so rare – a colorfully illustrated book being read in their own language – and by a white woman! As the young boy was excited and seemed intent on reading, I let him continue alone by showing him first the picture, asking him to identify the animals, describe what was happening, and then try to read the text under the picture. Soon everyone was clapping after each caption as he was able to read more and more fluently.
Then the fish cleaner came over to hand me the bag of red snappers. When she saw the boy was struggling with one part of the text, she immediately jumped in to help him finish the sentence he was reading. Everyone looked up in surprise as no one imagined that the fish cleaner could read.
“Have you been to school?” I asked in Wolof.
“Not to French school,” she answered, “but I have been to Wolof school and I know that book. You know, I have that book at home and read it to my grandchildren.”
I then realized she was attending the Tostan Reinforcement of Parental Practices (RPP) module in the nearby Somone village. My sister Diane and friend Anne Charlotte who were with me came over to see what was happening.
Without prompting, the fish cleaner looked at us intently and said “Did you know that the best time to teach children is from zero to three? Yes, zero to three when they are babies! I didn’t know that myself, but that is why it is very good to read to them, to sing all kinds of songs and just talk to them all the time. I talk to my grandchildren while I am doing chores around the house and just explain what I am doing.”
I translated what she said into English and answered that all three of us “toubabs” thought what she said was really interesting and important.
“Well,” she answered, “it’s all about the brain. The brain is developing and neurons are connecting especially from zero to three. You need to stimulate the brain – talk to babies all the time—even before they can walk, before they can talk. By you talking to the baby you help to develop the child’s brain and prepare the baby for learning later on. Your child will be more successful if you do that you know. We are all talking to babies now in my house because of what I learned.” She checked to make sure I had understood the word “neuron” in Wolof and actually started explaining what a neuron is to me, but luckily I had participated in the development of the module so knew it already! It was so exciting to realize what an accurate understanding she had of the class information.
I asked if her daughter had also participated in the program. “No, she went to French school but she never learned about things like this. I was the one who taught her and now she realizes how important it is,” she said proudly. Then she turned to the woman sitting with us and said, “You could know about these things too if you would come to the Tostan classes!”
I never told her that I was with Tostan and I asked her if I could interview her some time and she said – “Yes, sure. My name is Marième Diakhate and I am here cleaning fish every day. I would be happy to teach you what I know.”
Anne Charlotte, Diane and I talked all the way home about how this interaction embodied the best of Tostan—a fish cleaner (in her 50s) who had never been to formal school but spoke articulately and with confidence about her new knowledge and practice for early childhood learning. We were witnesses to her new capabilities, as was her French-educated daughter and other men and women sitting in the group at the beach. “I didn’t know this for my own children,” she had said with pride. “But I have two grandchildren, and I now know how to help them.””

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