The Bittersweet Saga of Turkish Delights

Global Leadership Academy
6 min readOct 25, 2023

If you had asked me in May 2023 about the Global Leadership Academy (GLA), I would have confidently said that “The GLA is a project designed to equip Global South Leaders with the necessary tools, knowledge and skills to challenge the power dynamics between the Global North and the Global South. Through GLA, we aim to provide a platform for voices from the ground and the Global South to be heard.”

However, just a few months later in October 2023, after being involved with GLA in the background and foreground, I may not have a clear answer for you. In fact, I might even ask you, “I’m not sure. What do you think the Global Leadership Academy should be?”

Over the past five months, I have gained valuable insights. It has been a journey of challenges, encompassing myself, the process and the global narrative. Our objectives were clear — we wanted to foster learning about the Global South and amplify the voices that are often unheard. We had to start from scratch, without any prior template. We had to carve our own painting tools and decide which picture we wanted to paint for the first pilot of the GLA. It was an unnerving experience, having been brought up to follow rules, structures, and plans on Excel sheets. Treading the path of the unknown felt like scaling Everest without any prior training. Nonetheless, after several team meetings, I began to realize the potential of this project. It was as if the tools for my canvas started taking shape. I started channelling my personal zeal for amplifying unheard voices, and suddenly, the unknown became a guide, as if the tools were guiding me to the colours beside me. We began laying the foundation of the initiative with trust, among team members and the process of not knowing.

And the unknown led us to the realisation that- The Global Leadership Academy didn’t have to come from AVPN, it had to emerge from the Global South. What that meant for us was fighting for their voices and empathising with where they come from- by tweaking finance protocols, challenging traditional ‘selection models’ that inherently put us in power, being cognizant of our words, and acknowledging the biases we bring as people who can speak English.

A blurry painting started to emerge- of 21 leaders unknown to each other coming together at the confluence of Asia meeting Europe, in Istanbul. It needed to have faces to these figures.

How would we identify them?

We relied on our personal and professional networks, as well as chance encounters with people during conferences or flights. Looking back, it seems as if the universe conspired to bring us all together. We engaged in heartfelt conversations with these impact leaders, without necessarily following any interview rubric. Despite being in different time zones, some even travelling to remote locations to connect to the internet, we were moved by each person’s story and journey. It made us wonder how we could possibly “select” among such diverse and powerful lived experiences. What moved us particularly was the leaders’ leap of faith in the process itself. The team kept thinking, would anyone leave their homes, work, and families for a week to spend time unravelling and immersing themselves in a program which involved co-creating the agenda? We started feeling more comfortable as we did our onboarding calls- in Bahasa Indonesia and in Portuguese. WhatsApp chats flooded with excitement, it felt as if a movement started to emerge.

A group of 19 impact leaders from Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia, one from Turkey, and a representative from AVPN in Singapore, along with funders from Japan, India, and Germany embarked on a journey to establish South-South learning and recalibrate the power dynamics between the Global North and South.

The group’s values

Throughout the five-day workshop, the group established core principles and norms that were crucial to creating an environment where participants could freely express themselves, collaborate, and develop ideas inspired by the group’s collective experiences. Each day, the agenda aimed to balance structure and spontaneity, ensuring that the event was both intentional and organic.

During the workshop, we were encouraged to distance ourselves from our commitments and instead focus on being wholly present, setting clear intentions for ourselves. The group emphasized the importance of deeply and generously listening, particularly in times of strife and conflict like the present. We engaged in a “generous listening” exercise in Demokrasi Park, which challenged us to listen with our hearts rather than seeking immediate solutions. As a participant, I found it difficult to resist the urge to jump to a “solutionist” mindset and instead truly listen. In those silences, in words that were otherwise not spoken, I felt a sense of connection with my listener. It made me think- what would this mean for us as a world- can we move beyond providing tokenistic platforms for the unheard voices and intently design our platforms and systems that generously listen and act on unheard voices?

The group marched on for the generous listening activity, serendipitously at the Demokrasi Park

It was clear that we need more generous listeners in our broken world. I felt a sense of uneasiness, immediately searching for ways to mend the system. I drew inspiration from my peers, who routed me to experience, embrace and nurture the journey of discovery, it would reveal moments that I otherwise would not have listened to.

As we valued generous listening, we embarked on a journey to identify the challenges faced by the Global South and find ways to address them. The leaders who shared their experiences and challenges were vulnerable, which made the journey beautiful. The group was determined to test out ideas and immersed themselves in the complexities of these challenges, even though they seemed unknown. They were resolute in their conquest to find solutions and were open for these solutions to dissolve if need be.

The leaders articulate the challenges they wish to address and ponder on for the Global South

The group welcomed these challenges and reimagined what learning from and with the Global South could look like. Ideas such as a podcast in the languages of the Global South, a professional networking application to connect Global South impact leaders, a TED talk style format for the Global South to amplify its voice and experiences and circles to deep dive into thematic topics began to emerge. It was a momentous time- pivotal, path-breaking ideas began to take shape. Right there, it was Global South in the driving seat bringing stories to life via these ideas. The confluence of the ideas formed a river ebbing with potential.

As we ended the workshop, parting with the intentions of our peers, and taking a bit more of each leader with us back home across the Bosphorus, the five days of the workshop enabled us to uncover the collective strength of the group. We realised that the GLA is not an individual nor does it belong to an organization. We make GLA what it is and the onus is on each of us to take the mantle forward, in our organizations, and in our communities. It is imperative that we understand that we’re all firekeepers of the group and each of us needs to ensure the fire continues and its light illuminates and empowers others.

Our intentions grounded us

With our partners, Colectivo De Diseño Disrupto, we poured our hearts and souls into crafting this pilot, putting great care and intentionality into every aspect. Yet, we recognize that we missed the mark in fully embracing the amazing complexity of inclusion. English was the language spoken and understood by the majority of impact leaders and the workshop was conducted in English. We understand that we need to do better in representing the Persons With Disabilities (PWD) community. We’re eager to keep learning and growing, and we’re excited to test a few more segments to help us achieve our goal of creating an inspiring and inclusive environment for a truly representative Global South.

The Global Leadership Academy Navigators in Istanbul

This reflection was written by Sejal Maheshwari. Sejal, with her colleagues, Kurt, Nadya and Yee Zhen works on the Global Leadership Academy at AVPN. To learn more about the GLA, please feel free to write to the team at gla@avpn.asia, they’re excited to hear from you and how you wish to contribute to the GLA narrative.

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Global Leadership Academy

The Global Leadership Academy aims to transform current learning and power dynamics within the impact space in the Global South