Posted: 21 March 2019

By: Diva Shrestha

Change – I have realized – is monumentally puzzling. I used to think that implementing change was all about incorporating the chosen “new” while letting go of a notion or way of doing things. This focus on new relied on the assumption that novelty usually made matters better.

We tend to invest more of our passions in crafting the new while leaving the replacement of the old to unfold magically. During the past year, I have repeatedly sensed that perhaps this perspective towards change is fundamentally flawed-that it is equally important to acknowledge the behavioral hardship behind letting go of the old-to enable easier acceptance of the new.

When Nepal was toying with the change of leaving behind its centuries old monarchy, the civil unrest compelled me to leave the country. Spending the formative years of my life away from home left a void within me – a struggle in understanding my identity. Riveted with the longing for my family, armed with experiences, and desirous of creating lasting impact in my community – I returned home from a 12 year stay in the U.S. I began this journey of change at Daayitwa with the Yuwa Aaja team, excited about the prospect of campaigning for policy reform.

But we had misunderstood the ambitiousness of our campaign where true impact was designed to be realized from the volunteerism of our Innovation Leaders. Years of development work had inadvertently led to the pervasive culture of giving to the community rather than getting the community to take ownership of the grunt work needed for real impact. I hadn’t foreseen the need to tweak our collective leadership course experience to account for the overpowering gender and socio-economic dynamics between the innovation leaders.

Enabling the Innovation Leaders – representing the private sector, politics, bureaucracy, and the civil society – to function from a collaborative mindset – for the herculean task of influencing mindset change in society – required much more than an action plan. Change- in this context, would not ensue merely from well intentioned and designed strategies; it would happen only when willingness to accept losses exists in change agents and change beneficiaries. Therefore, change needed to begin with the recognition of the problematic expectations and habitual dependency created by current culture of development projects where change agents are only expected to be a name in the registration sheet, a statistic in interventions.

The progress of the campaign was not what I had expected. Palpa campaigners succeeded in mobilizing over 50 community members in the economically profitable off-season corn plantation. In Kathmandu, the momentum of campaign lagged owing to the availability of options and opportunities for people – implying that people had better, more valuable things to do. In Butwal, the lack of clarity regarding provincial government’s functionalities deterred the progress.

One thing became clear as the campaign continued on: when given the right tools, skills, and most importantly action items grounded in community realities – members themselves take ownership of their community’s development. This positive development is fundamentally underpinned by a mindset change where change agents learn to shift their locus of impact from a personal sphere to community level.

On a personal level, my experiences with the campaign has taught me the critical value of beginning with an open heart first and foremost, followed by an open mind to fully immerse oneself into hard realities. Many times, I caught myself under the illusion that I had solutions to the most difficult problems within the campaigning journey. Such illusions stemmed from my overreliance on the knowledge gained through fancy, foreign degrees; without giving adequate attention to the local context. As an orchestrator of change, the deeply personal loss that I underwent began with the acknowledgement of the ‘privileged-foreign educated-city dweller’s’ lens with which I had been perceiving the campaigning process realizing that my Yuwa Aaja journey wouldn’t just be about unlearning but accepting the very fact that I do not know. And then navigating the internal conflict inherent within the process of reshaping my perspectives on what change and impact entailed.

The most important learning for me has been this realization. To see an aspiration through, external motivation and abilities in identifying innovative methods and processes are key. But what becomes even more crucial in this journey of pursuing the societal good is to have the heart and mind to understand the conflicts that will arise within you and to internalize the personal losses that you will incur. The foundational question of every journey of change then becomes- what are you willing to let go within you so that you can let in something better and bigger for everyone else?

– Diva Shrestha is the Director of Nepal Leadership Academy (NLA)