Foundation for the People of Burma Burmese Staff Training 16-22 January 2009 near Bago, Myanmar
Report by Alan Senauke
help from the San Francisco office and their people in Yangon, I led a
week-long residential training in the countryside, south of Bago.
Eighteen staff, including almost all members of the office team, wash
and sanitation, oral hygiene, nutrition, and child emotional health
teams took part in work that focused on team-building, diversity, and
communication. The overall aim was to build greater staff cohesiveness,
trust, and share effective tools for open communication.
emphasis of our work was personal storytelling and cultural sharing as
an approach to build cooperation, communication, and deeper
understanding of diversity. From the evaluations I have received, from
what I could observe, and from conversations both with staff leadership
and other participants, it is clear that the staff as a whole took a
large step in this direction.
Please note that I have edited out people’s names, precise places, etc. for the sake of safety and security.
From the start, our greatest challenge was how to handle translation.
Though some of the staff has very basic English, in order to work
effectively we had to go freely back and forth between English and
Burmese. Several staff members had good English skills. But our
original intention was to allow both of them to participate fully in
the retreat, free from translating responsibilities that would
conceivably separate them from other staff members. We had a
fully bi-lingual friend from my previous visit to Burma lined up to be
translator. My hope was that she could also be a kind of partner in
this training, based on her extensive NGO experience in Burma. Two
days before I arrived, she had to cancel in order to take part in a
church audit for her congregation. (In retrospect, I suspect this was a
foreshadowing of the recent crackdown that has closed 80% of Rangoon’s
churches.) A monk in the U.S. suggested that his cousin might be
able to help us. After meeting with her for several hours, I realized
that this was beyond her skills. Meanwhile, we had found a tour guide
with very good English, and so we traveled to Bago with her and began
the retreat. At the mid-morning tea break on our first day, the
translator’s husband showed up driving a police car. Understandably,
this triggered fear and quick thinking on the part of the staff, who
told me to go into one of the bedrooms and close the door. We will
never know exactly what was going on, but the story was that our
translator’s mother was ill and that she had to return to the city
right away. She found us another tour guide on day two, but she was
also in over her head. This woman was sincerely interested, curious
about our retreat, and supportive of the cyclone relief work, but we
sent her home on day three. I had underestimated a crucial
element. Thinking that we were not dealing with the complexity of
“technical” language and translating, I failed to see that our work in
the realm of feeling and thinking involved an “inner technology” that
was new to the staff and to translators who were used to the business
of explaining Burmese history and geography to foreign tourists.
In the end, we relied on the staff leaders to translate By the time
we settled on the project coordinator, it was also clear that there was
no way she could easily step aside from staff leadership. The mostly
younger members respect and depend on her, with good reason. She and I
worked well together, and I tried not to overburden her, particularly
as it became clearer how much of the organizing she had done and was
doing. Another team member gave her breaks, translating for particular
exercises and activities. Even though our original intention had been
different, translation was handled very effectively.
teams confront trauma from day to day in their work. The destructive
force of Nargis continues to play out in the delta, an agricultural
region that had been historically self-sufficient, unused to poverty,
homelessness, and the presence of numerous NGOs and aid organizations.
Some of the staff, which draws from Burmese, Kachin, Karen, Shan, and
Chin communities, themselves grew up with insurgency, and the
Tatmadaw’s violence. So the devastation of Nargis and the repression of
the Saffron Revolution, not many months earlier, reinforced the pain
and displacement deeply affected the staff. Trauma is not easily met
and is follows an internal path of its own.
3. Though my
training and approach is essentially Buddhist, and though we were
working in a predominantly Buddhist culture, this was intentionally not
a Buddhist retreat. The staff is evenly divided between Buddhists and
Christians of various ethnic backgrounds. In the divisive environment
of Burma’s many ethnicities, Buddhism has been used by the SPDC
government as a tool of cultural oppression. I made it clear that I
was a practicing Buddhist (of the Mahayana variety, the implications of
which are not obvious in a Theravada culture), but that my interfaith
experience was extensive and inclusive.
4. Our first choice
for a retreat site was co-opted by one of the junta generals for a
party, so we I went back and forth for a few days between a site in
Rangoon and a more rural location. I was initially skeptical about the
Bago site, and more so when we arrived. The retreat site, about a ¼
mile down a dirt road off the highway, consisted on one unfurnished
building with a main room, two bedrooms, and screened-in porch.
Cooking was done at an adjoining outdoor kitchen. The staff had to
organize and bring virtually everything: cooking pots, plates, bowls,
silverware, floor mats for sitting, office supplies and materials, and
so on. We also brought our own cooks from Rangoon, and had to do all
our daily shopping. It took me several days to realize just how much
had to be organized. But this venue was exactly right. It was
remote enough (I think) to escape scrutiny from the authorities. The
young staff members were comfortable there, very free and relaxed the
whole time. And we could work long days with few distractions.
Though I was not able to stay with them — I lodged at a hotel twenty
minutes away in Bago — each morning I was glad to return to our space.
It became comfortable and familiar, and together we made sure that we
took care of the environment, picking up trash, regularly cleaning and
organizing our space.
5. Lunch on the retreat’s first day did
not agree with me. I became ill almost immediately after eating, and
just managed to hang on until we completed our work around 4:30. Staff
helped me find a hotel in Bago, and I slept fourteen hours straight.
In the morning, my stomach was still delicate and unsettled, but I felt
a little better. I worried, though, about how to take care of myself
for the rest of the week, and what I would safely be able to eat. On
top of the pressure of effectively working alone to lead the training,
feeling ill so far from home was daunting. Another staff
person also felt ill after that lunch. She speculated that we were
reacting to chemicals that had not been properly washed away before
cooking. The speed of my reaction also suggested toxicity rather than
spoiled food. We gave clear instructions about thorough washing of
vegetables, and I carefully resumed the staff’s diet (which was tasty,
by the way). I had no further discomfort.
mentioned above, the broad intention of our retreat was to work on
staff team building, communication skills (both among the staff and
with villagers in the communities where the staff is working), and
basic diversity training. From the start I had several approaches in
mind, and one pitfall to avoid. On the positive side, I wanted to
incorporate culture (music, dance, food), personal story-telling,
didactic exercises and games, training in council process, and
meditation or prayer. And it was clear that I did not wish to lecture.
We kept, more or less, the following daily schedule: 7am — wakeup 7:30 – 8:00 — silence, prayer, meditation 8:15 — breakfast & cleanup 9:15 — training session 10:40 — tea break 11:00 — continue training 12:15 — lunch, cleanup & break 1:15 — nap, silence 1:30 — training session 2 2:45 — tea break 3:00 — continue training 4:15 — reflection on activities 4:30 — end of formal training; time for exercise, bath, rest 6:00 — dinner & cleanup
created a volunteer planning group — an equal number of women and men —
who consulted and discussed the day’s plan with me. Each day began with
thirty minutes of silent reflection, meditation, or prayer. This was
one of the building blocks of our retreat. Other regular elements in
the schedule included eating together, taking care of our
living/working space, and 15-minute “power nap” (Joanna Macy’s idea) at
the end of the lunch break. Each training session began and ended with
a song, dance, or musical activity. The staff seemed to have a
limitless supply of these.
The exercises and activities (all of
which are available from me, if you wish to see them) were culled from
a number of sources. I met with Joanna Macy in early January, and drew
a number of exercises from her book, Coming Back to Life. I made good
use of a training manual assembled by Ouyporn Khuankaew and Ginger
Norwood of the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and
Justice. Jill Jameson of BPF-Australia had good suggestions based on
her extensive work in South and Southeast Asia.
On the first
afternoon, I asked people to draw their own “River of Life.” The idea
is to think of ones life like a river. Where has it come from? Is
there a source? Along this river there are people, places, and events.
I suggested each person draw their river in his or her own way. Then
each person presented their life and responded to questions from the
group over the next two or three day. Though they had worked together
in the Delta, there was much the staff did not know about each other’s
life or background — ethnic experience, family, education.
activity went hand in hand with other exercises (like Crossing the Line
or Power Walk) that revealed the particularities of each person’s life
and the commonality of the group.
Training games and exercises —
The Human Knot, Crossing the Toxic River, Walking Together, Dragon,
etc. — were great fun to play. And each of them had a hidden agenda
which gradually people came to see. In order to complete any of these
activities — whether they were competitive or a whole-group game — the
players had to devise strategies and agree on them. Debriefing after
each game, I asked them to reflect on their problem-solving strategies
and how the strategies were formed. Who took leadership, how was
leadership agreed on and accepted? What authority accrued to a
“leader” by virtue of gender, verbal ability, etc.? Who was passive
and willing simply to go along? Was there a gender component
involved? And so on. This was fascinating to unpack, and to see as an
evolving awareness that can help teamwork in the field.
taught the staff an invaluable tool of “council circles,” a
non-hierarchical mode of group communication, rooted in Native American
traditions and developed at the Ojai Foundation. This is now widely
used in Buddhist centers and other communities as a tool for exploring
and surfacing deeply held concerns and views in an open, non-judgmental
fashion. We had two long councils in the course of our retreat, and I
encouraged the staff to try and use it regularly when they come in from
the field, simply to process the feelings and challenges they carry
with them from the Delta.
Early on I realized that these were
very long working days for me, so most days I went back to Bago for the
evening to rest and plan for the following day. (With the happy
exception of Day 6, when I prepared a kind of hybrid Burmese/American
spaghetti dinner, with help from others on staff.) As close as we
became over a week together, I also wished to give the staff
considerable free time together for bonding and re-creation. Everyone
seemed to enjoy the spaciousness of our retreat, a break from the hard
day to day I grew closer with the staff, appreciating each person’s
character and strengths, admiring their collective spirit. I have
attended and led countless retreats and workshops over the last
twenty-five years. There is always someone who will not get with the
program, someone who is habitually late or doggedly contrarian. In our
week together every time the bell rang to call our group together for
an activity, every single person showed up. Unprecedented! There is a
thirst for knowledge in Burma that cannot be quenched, nor can it be
repressed. Though I did not lecture and did not suggest note-taking,
almost all the participants kept notebooks through our whole training.
Foundation’s program director asked me on the phone last week about
ongoing challenges. I see several, none of which is insurmountable.
There is a need to build self-esteem. I was surprised during one of
our activities, when I asked who thought they were well-educated, not
one staff member responded in the affirmative despite the fact that
almost all of them are university graduates with professional
training. So how can we help them see the plentiful talents and
ability that is obvious to those of us coming in from outside?
This staff is a precious resource, and their collective work over the
last months has begun to turn them into an efficient group of teams.
They are uncertain about the future. The FPB’s funding, I believe, is
for a year. I would hope that we see this staff as a solid base for
the foundation’s work in the future. Among these young people are real
leaders and potential leaders. If we can commit to them for an
extended period of time, and develop a strategic plan for our work in
Burma, all beings will benefit.
3. Towards the end of our
retreat, one person asked me, “How is it that all of our discussions
come back to the subject of politics.” I said that for me “politics”
expresses how we view and organize our society. Therefore, everything
is political. Further, the repressive circumstances of Burma’s
military rule mean that even simple acts of humanitarian support and
empowerment risk intervention and punishment. It is difficult for us
in the west to grasp this pervasive and painful reality. But we do our
best. We have a responsibility to let our Burmese staff (and others)
know that we see the conditions of their life. And we need to continue
our support for them.
The Yangon office staff generously
translated the evaluation forms I gave out on the last morning. The
responses were largely positive, and in some cases this is confirmed by
emails I have received from staff members since the retreat. I think
the team sees itself as functioning more smoothly, knowing and trusting
each other more deeply. One issue that came up in evaluation is that
several people wished there had been more consultation with the staff
on its needs and the direction of our training. This seems right to
me. In the future, now that we know each other, I would certainly do
needs assessment right at the start. In this case, two factors made
this difficult. 1. The fact that we did not yet know each other. 2. The
unfortunate distraction of having to deal with the translator question
until the third day. That, in particular, was a distraction.
it has been a great opportunity to offer this training. Usually, in my
travels, my role is often limited to bearing witness and brainstorming
about possible resources back in the U.S. that I can bring to bear in
the country or situation I’ve come to. To journey to Burma and offer
training, offer some of what I have learned over years of practice, is
a privilege. I hope there will be a chance in the future to continue
working with this staff. The ground has been tilled and green shoots
shine brightly in the sun.