Jul 2, 2018 · 4 min read

The Power of Community: Lessons from West Africa

By Karen Mercaldo

Karen Mercaldo — Founding Director of the Gem Foundation, Skoll World Forum contributor, and member of Tostan’s Leadership Circle — shares in a post for humankind how her experience at the Tostan Training Center inspired her work at home. Humankind is a network of initiatives encouraging conversations that support democracy in the San Diego/Tijuana region of the US/Mexico border.

Author Karen Mercaldo, center (in a peach-colored shirt), and participants of the Tostan Training Center’s Promoting Community Wellbeing course in April 2018

Why go to Senegal to explore what humankind might do here? Because Tostan, a nonprofit based in Dakar and expanding across West Africa, understands the critical role of community in sparking and creating change. And because we believe that, especially now, we can learn from others about ways to explore the aspirations, values, human rights and responsibilities that form the foundation of a functioning democracy. Tostan believes in unleashing individual agency as well as the transformative power of the community’s collective action.

I returned for a third visit to Senegal to learn more about Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program and found myself drawn in, literally and figuratively, circle after circle, to a community. My experience at the Tostan Training Center (TTC) in Thiès, where Tostan shares its community empowerment methodology with influential civil society leaders, was an extraordinary reminder of how powerful it is to bring all voices into the room, to listen deeply, and to be open to discovery — not just about others, but about yourself. It was also a reminder of the time and effort it takes to really “walk the talk” of community empowerment.

The TTC mirrors the Community Empowerment Program. In communities, Tostan begins with oral lessons, encouraging dialogue. Facilitators draw people in, exploring individual and shared values and grounding conversation in personal experience. I was impressed with how Tostan develops each individual’s capacity to aspire. Participants are asked “What does community wellbeing look like to you?” And they collectively make an action plan to realize that vision, their vision, for themselves.

Tostan then uses a human rights-based approach to frame values deliberations. For each of 19 fundamental rights (drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and others), groups of civic leaders, men and women, explore what, for example, the right to be free from violence means to them, as individuals and as a community. Importantly, in addition to sharing their experiences with each of the rights, they explore the responsibilities that accompany it, leading to the examination of practices in the community that uphold or contravene those rights and to consideration of community actions that reinforce them.

I came back convinced that we can apply Tostan’s model here in the United States. I “joked” that I was going to Senegal to learn how to build functioning democracies from the ground up.

I was not disappointed. And it is no joke.

A clearer understanding of the aspirations, values, rights and responsibilities that we hold is critical for positive, inclusive change. In Blueprint 2018, “an annual industry forecast about the ways we use private resources for public benefit in the digital age”, Lucy Bernholz refers to civil society as the “immune system” for democracy and adds, “It is no coincidence that experts see signs that the space for civil society is closing, that those monitoring Internet freedom see rising threats, and that those monitoring the health of democracies fear for the future.”

With the goal of forging deeper human connections across boundaries in an increasingly fragmented and divided San Diego/Tijuana region, humankind is keen to experiment with ways to apply the Tostan model here. A deep respect for our shared humanity characterizes all of Tostan’s work and connects it to humankind San Diego.

Karen Mercaldo, center, dances with Tostan staff and training participants at the Tostan Training Center.

Our plan, like Tostan community members, is to “put on our shoes”, share our learnings within and across our spheres of influence and find ways to work together that tap into everyone’s highest and best selves to realize a rich landscape of dreams for a better world.

Tostan’s intentional, inclusive community- and skills- building make it an exemplar of opening and empowering civil society. It is my great pleasure to learn from and with them.

We hope you’ll join us in building the movement of dignity for all!


Tostan Stories

Tostan is an international non-profit working since 1991 to empower communities to fulfill their own visions of sustainable development, based in human rights. These are the stories of communities moving forward with agency, not aid.


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Tostan empowers communities to realize their own sustainable development and wellbeing, and drive social transformation based on respect for human rights

Tostan Stories

Tostan is an international non-profit working since 1991 to empower communities to fulfill their own visions of sustainable development, based in human rights. These are the stories of communities moving forward with agency, not aid.

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