by Mary Jane N. Real and Virisila Buadromo
In a real garden, we confess, we’re not much of gardeners. But we were part of the collective that seeded Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights Asia and the Pacific (UAF A&P). We toiled like the burgeoning urban plantitas or literally “plant aunties” that took to raising mini-gardens in pots and bottles, or minuscule backyards or balconies at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. But metaphorically, our garden was of a different kind: it’s the creation of a new organisation not from a tried and tested model or template, or a bureaucracy steeped in hierarchy and protocols, but something creative, more organic, alive and living, indigenous to the backyards of the Asia and the Pacific regions where we both grew up.
Our co-gardening journey as Co-Leads of UAF A&P of three years (2018–2020) is drawing to a close. We decided that as a way of finding closure, we reflect upon and share what we have learned together as we tried to grow UAF A&P. Hopefully, we pass on some seeds and tools to others who might want to follow our cobbled path as coordinated gardeners: many experiments, joyful successes, some failures too. Looking back, what sustained us was our shared vision, our sense of humour, and our openness to learn along the way.
Preparing the ground
Long before we became Co-Leads, we already knew each other. We were both active members of regional circles that included the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN). We kept meeting each other in many of the regional and international fora that we participated in. We got to know each other more through APWLD as we would chat and catch up in between meetings, exhausting ourselves poking and shopping at the weekend markets, indulging our love for Thai food, among many exploits that led to our friendship.
After many years, we met up again virtually during an interview for a scoping study on the feasibility of setting up the UAF sister fund in Asia and the Pacific. By then, we had both completed stints of leading organisations, and we struck a chord musing about the highs and lows of that challenge. It was back breaking work, we concurred, endless multi-tasking amid non-stop travels to represent our organisations and raise funds, putting out team fires, supervising and managing programmes, and many late nights to write reports and other publications. We swore, if we had to do it again, we would rather not do it alone, but share responsibilities in a co-leadership.
Planting a shared vision
When the UAF A&P Board decided on joint leadership from Asia and the Pacific and appointed us as Co-Leads, it felt like a job made in heaven.
We shared a vision on how we wanted to co-lead — which was a good start! We split the core responsibilities with one of us (Viri) taking on resource mobilisation, and the other (Jane) leading on programmes. To not propagate the exploitative cultures we faced as activists, we leaned towards shaping our own feminist ethics of care, relying on our own personal practices of inner work. Mindful that these posts would challenge us, we intended to foster a culture of reflexivity and learning within ourselves, and collectively within the organisation.
But we were also aware of what we needed to work on. With several authoritarian regimes in power, and women and non-binary activists in the regions facing great danger, we felt responsible for mobilising resources to secure their resistance and resilience. We had to be mindful of not aggravating their risk so we adopted security protocols for their safety, for instance. We also put in place policies to ensure our team felt safe and supported to work with ever-present risk. We relied on establishing practices that centred collective care and well-being not just in our programmes, but also in how we worked with each other.
Tending the garden
“Small is beautiful”, we affirmed. We were familiar with the small, home gardens and vegetable gardens that our mothers and grandmothers lovingly tended in our backyards, growing staples that helped tide over lean times. We used that idea as a blueprint, and drew up a small cohort to carry out four programmes: rapid response grant making, enabling defenders, activating philanthropy, and learning and communications. They became our fellow gardeners, bringing in their own wealth of experiences and perspectives from their different contexts. And our diversity made our garden richer.
It worked that we were clear about each others’ roles and responsibilities. We shared governance responsibilities and split two major programmes: rapid response grant-making and enabling defenders programmes were managed by one (Jane); and the other (Viri) supervised resource mobilisation, and communications and learning. We consulted and advised each other regularly, but deferred decision-making to the person leading the programme. This clarity ensured clear lines of decision-making and accountability, and avoided confusion.
We think differently, and we managed differently. Jane meets regularly with her younger team, Viri has a different arrangement with different members of her team based on their needs. Apart from complementary leadership and working styles, we also had a way with how we tackled problems: Jane chased the ‘big picture’, beyond the immediate and obvious; while Viri focused on the relationships and managing perceptions. Occasionally, we have to play the role of bad cop-good cop, we take that as part of our responsibility as leaders.
This was a first foray at shared leadership for both of us. We had read some literature on this, and talked with other Co-Leads that embarked on a similar experiment. But really, there was no template we could follow, most of the time, we had to wing it. What made it work was the safe environment we created, anchored on trust and acceptance of each other. We became a trusted sounding board to the other, remained respectful of each other’s capacities.
“Many times we don’t agree, but rather than be irritated with a disagreement, I sit on it and see if I can appreciate her perspective”, reflected Viri.
We had different strengths and weaknesses, but we did not dwell on making one inferior or superior to the other. It helped that when we assumed these leadership roles, we had advanced in our personal growth and maturity, and we were no longer driven to simply act out on our insecurities. We treated each other as equals. We didn’t feel the need to check on each other’s work, or supervise each other. When necessary, we sorted issues out over a call or during face-to-face encounters, mindful of how we offered feedback. We also gave each other the benefit of the doubt that we act in good faith, and to our best capacities.
Weeding and experimenting along the way
As home gardeners, we had to learn along the way.
While delineation of roles and responsibilities helped with working to our strengths, we realised the silos created in the course of our work. Figuring out how to foster better coordination across programmes, and facilitate cross-programme collaborations is no easy feat. So we are now experimenting with co-responsibility in the new strategic plan for 2021–2023. Team members started identifying points for collaboration, for example, we rallied together as a team to disburse grants under our newly created Covid 19 crisis fund. The lessons learnt during that collaboration are now being built on to ensure our intention to break down silos do not remain ad hoc.
We tried following a standard procedure for selecting and hiring team members, but we never figured out the formula that ensured a perfect fit of people we hired with the jobs that we envisaged they would do. We agonised over tough decisions, such as not extending the contract of a team member during the first year of our operations. Did we err in candidate selection or did we fail in not helping her grow into her job responsibilities? We continue to experiment by trying to hire team members as consultants before offering full-time contracts, but that comes with no guarantees of success either.
Just as different plants in a garden add to it beauty and utility, we valued diversity. However, ensuring all plants thrive with similar care and nourishment remains a big challenge. We realised that diversity also meant lack of a shared understanding and language on our political work to collectively respond to the increasing vulnerabilities of women and non-binary activists we engage with. Forging a collective consciousness and culture needs intentional work to be done. Apart from discussing work priorities, deliverables and deadlines, we recognise the need to respectfully confront the discomfort of our differences, interrogate how we exercise power within the organisation, and be open to learn from each other with generosity of spirit.
Recently, we faced together a turning point in UAF A&P’s organisational life. A former team member raised issues about the organisation, and how she was treated. Viri opened a collective space for team members to reflect about “the emotional aspect of our work, and talk about our issues in a way we have not done before”. Jane facilitated the conversation, as we realised creating a safe space to accommodate each other’s vulnerabilities is essential, and on-going organisational reflexive spaces and processes are critical to work through differences and difficult issues to foster a feminist organisational culture where accountability is rooted in a balance between individual care, and collective care and accountability of the organisation.
“Thank you for being my collaborator on our co-leadership journey. I am grateful that I got to share this journey with you. Having you by my side made leadership joyful because I had someone to test my assumptions, share successes and learning, wine and whine about the administrative details that we both loathed but knew was a necessary evil. It has been a brilliant ride my friend, but I know we have come to the fork in the road, where we must part ways. Safe travels in your next journey!”, Virisila Buadromo
“I have grown much in sharing this journey with you. Your humour works, no fail, shifting tense moments, and allowing me to appreciate your differing perspectives. I used to joke that “you raise the money, and I spend it”, but in essence it is true. It is the ease and expertise with which you raised funds that gave me the security to grow our programmes. While we now take separate paths, I cherish our friendship and will always be around to “wine, and whine”, and support you always!”, Mary Jane N Real
Post Script: The title was suggested by our coach Marcia Keiko Kodama who guided us in the last six months of our journey as Co-Leads, and helped us pick the lessons we gained in the three years we shared leadership.
Illustrations by Sonaksha Iyengar