“We are more interested in having people open their minds”: A conversation with SAIH´s Anja, Runar and Ranghild Therese


23 April 2012

So there you are, scribbling in your notebook and maybe even half-listening to the lesson when all of a sudden a handful of “guardias” marches in, grabs your teacher and drags her out of the classroom before anyone even gets a chance to say “What on earth?”

You might have witnessed such a scene as a student at the UNAN or at the UCA in Managua during the late 1970s. And you would have known your teacher had managed to get on the wrong side of the government´s favor and would very likely be facing a quite dreadful fate at the hands of the state security.

More recently, you might also have witnessed something similar as a student say for instance, at the University of Tromsø in Norway. In this case somebody would really have to tell to you what was going on.

And that person would be a SAIH activist explaining that while theirs was just a stunt, political persecution and brutality against teachers and students is still a very a common reality in many parts of the world and to put an end to it, your awareness and solidarity is very much needed. (Cover Photo: Stunt arranged by SAIH Ås, at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, for the 2011 Student Heroes Campaign)

In a country like Norway where “we don´t have a tradition of militarism and therefore no youth has a memory of any military intervention in the country,” said Anja Bakken Riise, “this was a really interesting way to get the attention of students and motivate them to sign our petitions.”

Anja, 25, is the vice president of SAIH, the Norwegian Students´ and Academic´s International Assistance Fund, and so she was telling us about the strong and creative ways the different chapters that make up the base of her organization, have been going about their information and political advocacy in Norway on behalf of students and academics around the world.

In this case, the Scholars At Risk campaign SAIH launched in 2008 raised so many student signatures, it helped to move the administrations of 15 universities across Norway into joining the international network that helps to relocate and provide refuge to scientists and professors that have had to flee their countries due to political violence or threats of political violence.

In March this year, SAIH also realeased a special report on this topic: “The Language of the Police Batons: Attacks on teachers and students in Zimbabwe.” The report sheds light on what is going on in that particular country but it also brings home the understanding that the fact that education is being targeted by repressive regimes is a problem of global character and should concern all of us.

As SAIH Director Ragnhild Therese Nordvik writes in the report “Knowledge is not confined within borders, and neither should academic freedom, responsibility and solidarity.”

Anja and Teresa (as Ranghild graciously allows us to call her) were here on the Nicaraguan Coast this late February and early March, along with Rune Hauger who is sitting in as SAIH´s Nicaragua Program Coordinator while Kjersti Koffeld is away on maternity leave.

 

They were here on a joint planning mission with FADCANIC, CEDEHCA, URACCAN and CEEIM, the four organizations with which SAIH partners in our region, to promote the rights of indigenous and afrodescendant youth and women to quality education in Nicaragua.

It is something they´ve been doing for the past 20 years and which, in our case, is a staunch collaboration that has made it possible for instance, that through the Teacher Professionalization Program underway since 1997, a total of 724 pre school, secondary and primary teachers, as well as Ministry of Education methodologists and administratives to obtain a teacher certification.

SAIH´s support has also brought about the 2004 establishment of FADCANIC´s Center for Agroforestry and Environmental Education in Wawashang which provides basic technical secondary education to youth from both the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions, and which remains to date, only rural-based high school anywhere in Caribbean Nicaragua where every single teacher is a university graduate.

The Norwegian solidarity organization is also leaving its mark at another of our schools, in this case the bilingual Pearl Lagoon Academy of Excellence where SAIH supports the local development of secondary language textbooks ―woefully needed in a context where currently Ministry of Education book supplies cover only 55% of high schools and none tailored for the needs of the System of Education of the Autonomous Region.

Furthermore, SAIH´s support to this primary and secondary Pearl Lagoon school has made possible the Cultural Revitalization Program by which PLACE becomes, every year, a community learning center open say, to a person from Haulover, 65 years of age, who doesn´t believe its too late to get a handle, say, on a computer program. Or, to 12 year old from Raitipura, in desperate need of Math or Spanish reinforcement so he or she is not among the 6 out of 10 primary students who never make into the secondary.

SAIH however is not just about education assistance and so for us, having Anja, Runar and Teresa among us was an opportunity to learn more about the workings of this largely youth based organization, as well as to continue the discussion we started earlier this year with our own Hazel Wilson on the relevance of education for liberation for more effective community and peace building in our region.

It is the kind of education that engages people in real life experiences of solidarity, creativity, civic responsibility, and gender sensitivity, which, by the way, are the very qualities that come across, loud and clear, in this interview with the three Norwegian activits. Here they talk about the way SAIH is organized as well as what university life is like Norway. They also share a bit about their own personal lives and views on the possibilities of transformative education, both in and out of classrooms, and in this regard, we can all learn more than just one thing here:

Can you tell us about SAIH´s system of governance? How are you structured organizationally and how do you go about decision-making?

Teresa: We are called Students´ and Academics´ Fund and as such, our most important body is the assembly which meets once a year. We don´t have personal memberships. The members of SAIH are student organizations, student democracies (which are specifically concerned with students´ power to influence education), academic organizations like the national unions respectively of teachers, social scientists, university workers, researchers and so on, as well as the directive boards of universities which are like the university councils you have here in Nicaragua, and local chapters of SAIH volunteers who are active in the various universities.

They all come together once a year to elect the directive board of SAIH, of which Anja for example, is now the vice president. The assembly also decides our most important strategies and on all our main documents.

Myself and Runar as members of SAIH´s Secretariat, we have no say on this. We work, rather, on the mandate of the Directive Board that hires us. There are eight of us working as fixed staff. On the Directive Board we have the president and two vice presidents. They are elected in October and work full time over the following year starting in January and ending in December.

This one year mandate for the directive board, is it not too short for continuity?

Teresa: We have discussed this issue a lot. But the fact is that all the members of the executive committee are students and what they have told us is that anything longer than a year would make it more difficult for them to take on this commitment. You see, to serve on the board they have to take time off their own studies and the universities only allow for one year breaks. On the other hand, we also have many board members who stand up for reelection. SAIH´s current president, Erik Schreiner, for example, was a vice president last year, so that allows for continuity. Then again, LOL, for a student two years can seem like an eternity!

So in your case, Anja, what do you think got you elected?

Anja: I think I showed people I had a pretty clear mind about what I wanted SAIH to achieve. SAIH is a really good organization in Norway for the students and they know that. It is kind of safe and steady and everything is going along well. And that is really good. But I also wanted us to be a little tougher. Like with the campaign that we had last year (on Students Heroes, and which included a poster featuring a student standing tall with books in hand, above a fleeing host of dictators) you know, it shows spirit, it shows pluck. And I wanted us to have maybe a little bit more of this attitude and perhaps think more strategically about how to reach out to people using media and as well lobbying and doing other kinds of informational work.

That is one of the things that I was trying to show people. But it is hard to persuade change, especially since we have a long history of people who have been working so hard and it is been going so well. So I don´t know, it is hard to say what actually got me chosen.

Over here we think it is a very good organization too. But for you, what is best about SAIH?

Anja: How many hours do you have? LOL. But, seriously for me, as a student, the thing that got me into SAIH was the quality of its work in regards to our partners. I was doing development studies at university and all I was learning was: “development projects do not work.” LOL. Then I learnt about the projects of SAIH and surprise, surprise, it actually seems to be working! Then when I went to the first general assembly I was just met by this bunch of people and it struck me how open and friendly and warm the atmosphere was. In a world were so many seem to just want to get up and ahead of everyone else, one come across many who, you know, they use development talk as a way to get into politics for personal advancement and such. But in SAIH I didn´t get that feeling at all. I was struck by their genuine concern for people so that is kind of what made it for me.

Runar: For me, the best thing is that they work for education for liberation. Because I really believe in that. And of course the people at SAIH, as Anja mentioned, are pretty special too.

 

Speaking of which, is there a difference between development and liberation?

Runar: Yes, I would say so. There can be development without liberation.

For example?

Runar: If the development is imposed by others then it is not liberating. It has to come from you. You have to be the main character in the development of your own life.

Do you think this is one of the keys that perhaps makes SAIH´s collaborative form of cooperation perhaps more effective than other types of development aid?

Runar: I wouldn´t generalize about aid, but I know that many organizations are imposing their things on their partners. And without having been working with SAIH very long, three weeks in fact, I have the impression it is an organization that truly wants to be more than a donor. SAIH wants to be a partner, a ´contraparte´ if you like, that extends its relationship in a process of sharing that goes beyond monetary considerations.

How about you, Teresa, what do you think is best about SAIH?

Teresa: I think at its best: the participation. We put very much emphasis on participation. As I mentioned earlier, it is the students who make the important decisions in SAIH. Of course sometimes, I as the executive director take decisions too, but that can be a bit scary, LOL, because sometimes no one will do as I say.

So, yes, we we are working very hard in Norway to involve people so that they can take ownership. And it is also important for us that our partners do that here, that when they have projects they too involve all their stakeholders so that people really see that this is what they want.

‘Development with identity’ is what they call it here, I believe, and I think that is a very very nice of thinking about liberation, that it gives people a sense not only of their own worth but also a sense of belonging. And I have to say that to me these aspects of ownership and identity are important because development is a word that I really don´t like to use a lot.

Many people often use it to imply that if you get medicine and if you get electricity, for example then you are “developed”. And these things are important of couse, but it is said as if it were something of a straight line that is going to take someone into ´civilization´ or something like that. So in that sense it can be very westernized and also misleading bias because no country has really developed like that. People must see their own way of living good and everyone must be able to see to what they want and what they consider to be important.

So, at the personal level, what drove you to the organization? Did you have previous experience of participation in student organizations, for example in primary or secondary school?

Teresa: I started at the local chapter when I was studying at university so I´ve been involved with SAIH since forever. But I have always been involved in different organizations. Not so much in student organizations although I was little involved in secondary school. I was more involved in Amnesty International and in anti racism organizations and political youth parties. So you could say that I am sort of like, LOL, an organization social animal.

What drives you to this type of activism?

Teresa: I think we need to participate in making the changes we want in our societies. We have many rights and we also have some duties. And I think one of our duties is to be active citizens. And that can be at different levels. It can be in your neighborhood, in your family, at regional level or at national level. But wherever you choose to act, I do believe very strongly in the power of people to change things when we get together and I would never want to be one of those people that just reads the newspapers and go “Oh, the world is so bad now. Oh, this society is really going to hell now,” …then just lean back and get my coffee. There are so many things I want to change in this world, LOL, I have to do it.

Anja, you mentioned your university studies and about being motivated by the work and atmosphere at SAIH. Did you also have previous experience in social activism?
More or less. I´ve always been very active in different things. As a young child I would be dancing and acting and things like that. When I started in high school I got more involved and tended to be the responsible person in class who was taking care of this and that and organizing things related to school. Then I began volunteering a bit for Operations Day’s Work (a solidarity program by which once a year Norwegian secondary students can get the day off in order to work for a day. The money they earn that day goes to fund education projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America). But nothing too big. so I really felt like it was about time for me to get involved and have been doing so with SAIH since my first year in university college.

 

How about you, Runar?
I guess it is the same story all the way. I was active in different kinds of organizations. I was volunteering with refugees. I was active for many years in a group for young gay, lesbian, bisexual transexuals, GLBT as it is called here in Nicaragua.

This is one of the things that I also found attractive about SAIH, that we have an LGBTI (for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and intersexuals) program. And this, by the way, is one of the things we are doing in Managua during this trip. We are meeting with organizations that are active in the movement for sexual diversity because these issues are really relevant for us.

I also worked for two years at the Rainforest Foundation Norway, in Peru and in Brazil. And of course, it really is something appealing for me to be working with SAIH in Nicaragua in what we call the Program for Indigenous and Afrodescendants Students, and see similitaries and differences in the situation for instance in intercultural bilingual education, in Peru and in Nicaragua. In this regard, SAIH is one of those few places in Norway that carries out the type of work that is so relevant to my education and my background.

And your educational background is?
My bachelor degree is in geography from the University of Oslo. And then I studied my masters in ethnicity at the London School of Economics. I wrote my thesis on Cultural Relativism in the Work with Indigenous Peoples, so I can say that this is an extremely narrow area (LOL) with not very many job opportunities for this type of studies.

I guess an indigenous person might have to disagree with you on that one, LOL. But seriously, on the issue of sexual diversity, why is this important?

Runar: Because you cannot accept discrimination of anyone. SAIH is not saying that everyone must accept gay marriage, for instance. But what we are saying is that no one must accept that you can beat up someone or discriminate against someone for such an issue. I mean, who people fall in love with is a very personal matter and it is not a choice and neither is it a threat to anyone. So there is no reason to discriminate against this. On the other hand, supporting LBGTI rights is the right thing to do because people are being killed for this issue. They are being raped, violated and mistreated and this is happening in most countries of the world. In Africa, for example, several countries are discussing possible death penalty for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Like it were some felonious crime!?
Yes! And I think it was perhaps in Uganda where a newspaper, for example, published a hundred photos of people they called ‘the top homos of Uganda.’ So you know, of course, that these people are suffering a lot! They are being discriminated against in so many different forms that in most contexts they basically can never express who they are.

And for something that is as much part of one´s God-given nature as the very color of our skin. But in societies like ours where intolerance shapes so much of our perceptions of people with diverse sexual identities, what other key messages do you think might help us to shift our views?
Runar: The main message is always that all people are entitled to the same freedoms. Know that you are not worth less than anybody else just because you have a different gender identity or sexual orientation and know that you have no right to discriminate against no one on any base.

Going back to the organizational structure of SAIH, in terms of its base population how many people are we talking about and what is the extent of its coverage in Norway?

Teresa: Our members cover almost all university colleges and universities in the country. The base of SAIH are the student organizations and students democracies and so on. Annually there are about 150 thousand students in Norway who contribute economically to SAIH voluntarily. When they pay their semestral fees, they pay voluntarily to SAIH as well. So in that aspect we cover a lot of students.

When it comes to the active work in our local groups, we have about 10 active local groups. and their members vary sort of between five very very active up to maybe 50 or 60. So the people that do the actual information work are like 200 to 300 annually.

So when you say “active,” like in what kind of activities? Define that for me, please.
Teresa: At the local chapters they have possibility to do information work. So they run campaigns, they have debates about global development issues. They can show a film, for example, and have a discussion about anything from reproductive and sexual rights to indigenous peoples rights, women´s rights, what causes development, what is development and so on.

And also we have campaigns, like the Scholars at Risk campaign in 2008 where all the students got together and pressured the different universities of Norway to get together and become members of the network. That was a huge success and now we have 15 Norwegian members and that was due to the pressure from the students in SAIH. So we have different campaigns. Also towards the Norwegian government saying that they need to send up a strong message about education and the development work or on the issues of LBGTI. So all in all, it is sort of a campaign/information work that our local chapters do.

Where are the academics?
The academics are in our board and they form part of some local chapters, and they are very much involved in initiatives such the Scholars At Risk work. Also we have different PhD students that are almost academics involved in their different chapters but I would have to say that we are more students than academics, yes, definitely.

So what type of fundraising capabilities do you guys have? We know for example, that university students contribute to SAIH through fees but do you also have other sources of funding?
Teresa: We also try to raise funds from campaigns by which we ask for money from other organizations. But we don´t do fundraising from individuals. And I think that also makes the information work easier because if you work with fundraising from individuals you always have to think what is going to make people open their wallets instead of opening their minds. And we are more interested in having people open their minds.

So to us it is a blessing that we can actually raise the funds that we need through the semester fees, because it is more than a million dollars annually. And this is something that is decided upon by the students democracies that vote at each university on whether or not the students will have this possibility.

If the students democracies decide that yes, this is something that we can do as students, then our obligation is to give them information as to how we spend the money. We are obliged to total transparency in our finances and in making sure that everyone knows what is being done in the projects as well as how much is being spent in Norway on administration, information work and so on.

So I think the fact that we have liberated ourselves from the fundraising makes our information work much easier and much better. We don´t have to do the begging and the “oh-show-the-poverty-to-get-the-money” and that sort of information work that we don´t like because we think it is actually counterproductive. People are active. People make their own changes. And that is what we need to show in Norway and not just that if it weren´t for the money then people would not have anything. It is just not the truth. So we don´t do fundraising in the normal way. But we are very lucky because we have the semester fees.

What would be like an average fee for a student? Is it like a fixed amount?
It is a fixed fee and the student government decides on the amount. It is either 20 kroner which is like 80 córdobas or it´s 30 kroners which is like 110 cordobas.

And right now SAIH is contributing to how many students around the world? I mean, you are supporting work in Nicaragua, Bolivia and several countries in Southern Africa…

Teresa: I can´t give you a figure. Not off the top of my head, no, I´d have to do the Maths.

Runar: And then you´d also have to consider whether or not we are talking about primary beneficiaries and secondary beneficiaries. You know that when you have, for instance, gender mainstreaming of the curricula that affects all the students. So does that count, or doesn´t it count?

It does too, besides,  LOL, ndeed,  the thousands of students who are served for example by by the 700 plus teachers who have obtained a diploma through the Teacher Professionalization Program here in the RAAS.

Runar: And whether or not you are thinking about students who are enrolled in formal or informal education processes.

Teresa: But then we are talking hundreds of thousands because we do a lot of formal education work in Nicaragua, but for instance in Zambia and Zimbabwe we support mostly informal education. And then we have a lot of training of trainers for leadership and sexual rights. In these cases you are talking about church based or student based youth groups in different villages that get information and then turn around and spread the word to other groups of young girls and boys. So then if they are 30 people involved in the training for 6 months and each one of them reaches another 50 people, then we are talking about a pretty big repercussion.

Now about the type of education SAIH is championing alongside its partner organization, because we believe this is super pertinent to our reality. Hazel Wilson was telling us the other day about the conference you organized last year in South Africa. And she was saying that participants from the various countries as a whole, came to the conclusion that education for liberation is still a far way off. Do you share this conclusion?

Teresa: That it is a far way off? Yes. I think that is also because there are different levels. For instance, where there is no access you always have to see that access as a priority. But then I think that true education for liberation is really a deep change of the way in which education is done.

And I think that in formal education, for instance, from primary to secondary to universities there is still a lot, a lot of very authoritarian education going on in the classroom. Whether it is a teacher who holds the truth and he or she hands it out in small portions to the student and they take notes and they go home. To me that is not a liberating education. So yes, I think in all countries we have a long, long way to go.

 How about Norway, what is the situation there in terms of a pedagogy for liberation?
There is also a long way to go. There is actually a few exciting things when it comes, for example, to participative education. But at the same time maybe it´s not more liberating. So they are constant reforms to the education system in Norway when it comes to what is being taught and how things are being taught and I think the true idea of a liberating education is not what is most visible in the Norwegian schools.

Tell us a bit about university culture in Norway, compared, say, to what you might have seen in other countries, maybe even in Nicaragua or Bolivia.
Anja: I would agree with some of what Teresa said. Many of my lecturers in university, they would try to get the students involved and try to get them to participate and think critically and be analytical about things. So a university student in Norway would very easily tell a teacher to shut up if they thought what the teacher was saying was wrong.

So in that way, people are actively thinking about what they are being told and oftentimes they are criticizing and not just accepting what the teacher is saying, and neither is the teacher just allowing himself to say his word is law. And that type of openness I suppose would vary more from country to country, but at least in the places where I have been it does seem that you have more authoritarian lecturers and you are not allowed to argue against what the lecturer is saying. But that would vary, I think, also depending on the person.

And in terms of what should somebody who is like looking to go to school over there know about university life other there?
Teresa: Well, I think first of all what Anya is saying about the critical level of the Norwegian student is something to know. We do put a lot of emphasis on being critical and I think students coming say from Bolivia to Norway, might be a bit surprised to find that the lecturers are sort of like very friendly, and the students very easily say “I really don´t agree with you on that one, because of this or that.” So I think that would be a bit of a different experience for some students from a different country.

Also in Norway we have mostly full-time students. And that is very different from here on the Coast, for instance, where more students they have jobs, they have responsibilities at home and etc, etc. So there are places where very many students are only part-time students and they only study in the morning or only in the afternoon, at night or sabatino. Whereas in Norway the big majority of students are full time students. And there is a good system of getting scholarship and loans from the state. So although most students have to have a little job on the weekends, being a waitress or working at the newspaper or whatever, but for most students there is a state funding for ten months a year. So that gives more time to be active in student activies because you don´t have the economic pressure to have to work all the time while you are also trying to study.

How does the accreditation system work? Do you have like an exam to have access to the university?
No, if you have a diploma of bachillerato from Norway or from another Nordic country it goes by your grades. So it depends on what carrera you are applying for, but effectively, you don´t have to have an exam. There is a pre course in philosophy for all students. Everyone has to take it but it is not a pre exam to go to the university. If you are from outside of Europe, then you will need to have the bachillerato and one year of higher education to be able to get admitted to a Norwegian university.

What are the degrees that you can opt for and at what lengths?
Bachelors of three years and masters of mainly two years. Then we have the PhD and in Norway this is usually a four year contract if you get a doctoral scholarship and then you also have to lecture at the university. But it is very hard to get scholarship in some fields. For instance, I am a social anthropologist and it is very hard to get the PhD scholarship because very many people want to have them. Ordinarily you might have 30 or 40 really very good applicants for one spot.

(At this point, Teresa and Runar had to leave the interview, so here we continue only with Anja)

To some personal questions, Anya, if we may? You are 25 aren´t you, how many kids do you have?
No kids. LOL.

Talk to me a little about this because you know, we are still having kids as early as 14, 15 years of age. So in this regard, what is the situation in Norway?
It varies a lot from youth to youth. I think it is more normal for girls to have children from the age of 21, 22 perhaps. But of course it happens that people have children before that. As for myself, I´d have to say that the fact that I chose not to be a teenage mother had a lot to do with the influence I got from my parents. We would always talk together about these things at home and it is not like my mom was imposing or pointing fingers at me like “Anja, you are not allowed to do this!” Nothing like that, but rather she would explain the dangers and risks and you know, asking me to consider how I wanted my life to be. And that wasn´t what I wanted. I wanted to be able to be with someone I love and you won´t find that right someone so easily when you are that young. You have to live a little you know, and then you will find someone that you can live with.

Also there were all these other things that I wanted to do. I wanted to travel and I wanted to study and I just saw the connection in the sense that if I were to do this, then I wouldn´t be able to do that. But I come from a rather educated family and they would be very pedagogical when they were talking to me. They allowed me to find the right answers for myself and not everyone has that opportunity with their family. They don´t get that same influence from their homes and so then it is very important that you get it at school. But at the same time, it can´t be threatening or imposed on you, you know. These absolute things, I don´t think that is the way to go about it. But I think dialogue and communication is.

Speaking of which, how hard is it in Norway, to convince a guy to use a condom?
I wouldn´t say its very hard. Though I think that, of course, they are situations where some men don´t want to use them. Like we were talking about a poster we saw at CEEIM, where there is a woman doing like this (gesturing of something ridiculously large) and she is saying “No penis is too big to go inside a condom.” I think that is a very good image because you know, guys can come up with a lot of bull when it comes to this topic. You can hear all of these stories, for example, about how “Oh, it is less sensitive for a guy,” and stuff like that. But I mean, come on! At the end of the day, all the main damage that comes from not using a condom is put most often on the girl!

Still, and to be perfectly honest, I don´t know that guys are any worse than girls when it comes to safe sex. People in general are pretty reckless and, we were discussing this the other day, just how little, especially youth, are concerned with using a condom. And I don´t know, it might be because they have a short term thinking. They don´t think about the consequences. I think a lot of girls in Norway they are on the pill and they think that the main thing is you know, I don´t want to get pregnant. And that is all right, but they are a lot of other safety issues as well so I would definitely suggest to use a condom.

Where do you see SAIH in the next five years?
Well, we are going to be a big international organization and we will be a big this or that…No. LOL.  I mean, for me one of the key things about SAIH is that we have a very good local knowledge about the places where we are. And so in that way I don´t want us to go crazy and go into all these different countries. But I do think that it would be very exciting to go, for example, into the Middle East and other very complex areas places like that where there is a ton of need for the kind of work that SAIH is about. So, that would be very interesting. We will see if that happens. I think I´d also like for us to have become more strategic in our informational work.

We are fairly well known out and about at universities, but it would be good if people in general knew that SAIH is a very knowledgeable organization about education, about LBGTI and so on. We have so much information and reports and knowledge on all these topics that we work with and I wish that more people would use us. That could be newspapers who need things for a story or academics when they are writing their theses and whatnot. Some people do, but I wish there would be more. And that means that we have to get better at getting our knowledge out there letting people know that “Hey guys, we are sitting on top of all this information so, please, use us.” So they are definitely things to get better in and I think that better strategic informational work is the way to go and then campaigns is a very big part of that.

A tricky question again, can leadership be taught?
I think so, I think you definitely have a few people who are very very strong leaders from the get go. But most of us need at least some training. I think a lot of people wouldn´t necessarily think of themselves as leaders, can definitely become leaders with some help, with some training. And just some heart and some guts, because that is what it takes.

And so how do you create an environment that fosters this?
I would like to take what CEDEHCA is doing in going out in these groups where they first sit down with youth and they talk about things and create a safe atmosphere. And then they start to work on people´s confidence. Often that is lacking. Then when you get confidence about yourself and you think about your identity, who are and you get proud of yourself, then you start dealing with all those other things. And you can learn about all these different topics, for example, HIV and AIDS. Then you can be the one going on around and telling other people how you can protect yourself.

And in a formal classroom, what is something that a teacher can do or say to instill this kind of self-confidence in young students?
First of all, I think teachers can really change lives. Everyone of us can remember a special teacher. I mean the one that made a special impact on you when you were growing up and that went beyond teaching you things like mathematics but really taught you something about life and really gave you the courage to believe in yourself.

I remember we had an arts teacher. She was also our music teacher and she made such an impact on me. On my last day of elementary school, we had this big class performance and when it was over, this teacher came up to me and my two best friends and said: “You three are so creative, you can do whatever you want. And you are so good at this, don´t think you have to put it aside now that you are growing up. I really think you should go on with this and keep it going and going.” That made such an impact on me that for years and years, every time I began to doubt myself for one reason or another, I´d start thinking “I have to remember what she said.”

The same thing in high school. I had a very conservative teacher, who was so strict that on our very first lesson he let us know in no uncertain way that we were on the clock. You know, students in Norway are not always disciplined and oftentimes the bell would ring and the students would drag their feet into the classroom. So that day it was no different and when eventually everyone had come in, this teacher who had not said a word until then, looked at his watch and then at the last person to take their seat and said: “Ok, we are three minutes and 25 seconds late.” Then on the third lesson already, he gave us a surprise test. He really was old school and so much stricter than all our other teachers. But then, sometimes he would also surprise us saying things like: “Hey guys, I know you you are going through a tough time now because there is a lot of pressure from everywhere and maybe you don´t really know who you are and what you want and that is hard. But I want you to remember this. Don´t ever let anyone think that you are not special. Don´t let anyone think that you are not worthwhile or that you have to do something you don´t want to do, just because everyone else is doing it. If you don´t want to do, don´t get pressured out and just say no.”

Another time, he said to us something else which I will never forget: “People can get so stuck-up in their ways when it comes to professions, that they think that because they are a professor or a doctor that they are more honorable or respectable than anyone else. But I hope you don´t start thinking that way because it is not true. A society wouldn´t go around if we didn´t have all those different professions. If we didn´t have a janitor or a cleaning person what do you think our school would look like? We wouldn´t even be able to attend, so you have to respect everyone who is doing all of those professions because they are not less honorable or less necessary than any you would choose for your own self.”

To me, those are valuable lessons that you don´t necessarily think about yourself and maybe sometimes they don´t come up when you you talk with your parents either. This is where teachers can step in with messages that can help to build your confidence and the strength of your character.

Here are some more inspiring messages from our friends in Norway:

 

 

 

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