On October 25, my dear friend, Libby Hoffman, will release her new book, The Answers Are There, about the Sierra Leonean peacebuilding organization, Fambul Tok, and her nearly 15 years of partnering with them.

I was so inspired by The Answers Are There that I wanted to share key insights from the book with you.

I’ll be honest with you, writing this love letter felt more challenging than most. It was hard to do the amazing work of Fambul Tok justice.

So, before we dive in, I’ll suggest that you watch the 2011 documentary about their work (click here to watch it for free.)

Then, if you’re inspired and want to know what happened since, read Libby’s book. (To get an advanced copy and write a review, please send me an email!)

Finally, if you want to jump to some inspirational quotes from Libby that sum up the philosophy of Fambul Tok, feel free to scroll down to Ingredients that Contributed to Success (Aka the Cliff Notes). Libby expresses these teachings best.

Enjoy!


How the Story Begins

The Answers Are There begins after the Sierra Leonean Civil War. John Caulker, a Sierra Leonean human rights advocate from a rural community, is envisioning a reconciliation process that centers rural communities and their traditional bonfires.

John begins laying the groundwork for this peace process in which people face those they had wronged or those who had wronged them and acknowledge, apologize, and forgive—in front of their communities. He gets the work started in all 12 rural districts, but he lacks funds to sustain the work, and he goes unheard by the powers that be within the hierarchical, top-down, outside-in peace system.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Libby Hoffman, Political Science professor at Principia College, inherits several million dollars and, with it, creates a foundation called Catalyst for Peace.

In 2007, Libby and John meet. They discover synchronicity in their shared visions, and two months later, they sign an agreement to partner. John forms Fambul Tok—family talk in Krio, and Catalyst for Peace supports and funds the work.

Mending the Community Bowls

Over the next decade, through working from the inside-out—listening deeply to what community members call for and continuously working to strengthen local leadership, Fambul Tok works to do what they called “mending the community bowl.”

Typically, international peace and development occurs in a framework that divides people who supposedly have resources (money, ideas, capacity to solve problems) and others who have needs. But this framework makes it difficult to see the resources that impacted communities already have or to support them to lead, plan, and enact change for themselves.

In John’s words: “They think they can just come and pour resources at the problem, to fix it. They don’t even see the community that the problem is happening in.

That community is like a bowl—and it’s cracked. If you pour water into a cracked bowl, it just goes right through. And if you keep pouring, it only makes the cracks bigger.”

Rather than focusing on pouring resources in, Fambul Tok focuses their work on repairing the community bowl so communities can hold resources that pour in and effectively tap into the rich resources that already exist within their communities.

Creating a Support System of Nested Bowls

Then, the Ebola crisis hits in 2014.

Immediately, a flood of “aid” from outsiders pours in without any deep consultation with communities about what they need. Initially, this makes it even harder for leaders like John who are committed to listening to and supporting local communities.

But Fambul Tok knows “it doesn’t have to be this way.”

And so they foster what they call the People’s Planning Process, an inside-out framework of nested bowls with the communities at the center, and then bowls for the chiefdom, district, national, and international levels (and finally, a greater level which represents the very idea of wholeness). Each bowl has distinct locations, roles, resources, and needs, and each works together as part of a larger whole.

Here’s Libby on what happened next:

  • “An outside-in system would have been happy to build on a promising pilot, looking for the most rapid way to scale and assuming that it would guarantee results (or, conversely, that good results retroactively indicated good process).

But an inside-out system honored the how and put it at the center of the system—a process that created space for people and communities, at every level, to listen for and learn into what they most wanted so that they could mobilize and bring it into being.”“

  • The PPP didn’t try to demonstrate the possibility of working differently. It simply worked From the very beginning, we worked together—funder, international partner, national staff, local leaders, and communities—to live into the system as we believed it could and should be
  • “The iterative, cyclical nature of this new phase of Fabul Tok’s work was becoming clear: inviting local planning and action led to establishing local infrastructure to implement, support, and sustain that action, which then led to building and connecting to the next level of infrastructure to ensure that progress went forward… in order to invite the next level of planning and action.

As that cycle unfurled itself, a more whole and healthy system was emerging, in practice.”

  • “We knew from our experience that the how of the work was its real magic; even more than the what of it. It was the how that was creating the space for Musu Mohammed (a local woman leader) to own a room full of national and international dignitaries, for a government minister to say that this was the way he knew they were supposed to work, for a district council chair to feel his work was 60 percent easier.”
  • “Truly, this was democracy in action.”
  • “Over the years, a shared desire emerged to expand the People’s Planning Process and inclusive governance process across the entire nation, and in 2018, the government of Sierra Leone adopted the Wan Fambul National Framework for Inclusive Governance and Local Development (WFNF) as official policy.

Since then it has survived an election, a change in national government, and multiple leadership changes in all relevant ministries. The Peoples’ Planning Process is now ensconced in law and integrated into the country’s key development plans and national budget. Fambul Tok hosts the Secretariat that supports the Framework.”

  • “The work, the vision, the faith, and the commitment it took to get there are nothing short of extraordinary. But the idea, and the possibility itself, had always existed. It was simply waiting to be claimed and forged into expression.”

Ingredients that Contributed to Success (Aka the Cliff Notes)

I was particularly moved by how vulnerably Libby shares the story of her personal transformation and how clearly she demonstrates that how the participants in the Fambul Tok movement was even more important to their success than what they did.

Here are some snippets in her words:

Structured time for attention, reflection, sensing, and discerning: Perhaps the single most defining element of our inside-out approach (Page 143).

  • “Organic growth requires ongoing attention to what’s emerging and what’s needed next and how best to activate that ‘next’ in ways that are consistent with program goals and available resources.

An ‘outside eye’ supports this process, illuminating the big-picture perspective and helping to identify connections otherwise not easily visible, especially when you’re in the thick of things on the ground.

We structured time for attention, reflection, sensing, and discerning—together—by creating intentional learning spaces, which we call ‘learning circles.’ They represent perhaps the single most defining element of our inside-out approach.”

The Importance of Trust and the Willingness to be in the Unknown (Page 144)

  • “Learning happens in community, with trusted others, in trustworthy ongoing relationship which requires a foundational commitment to the work of building and tending those relationships.

Emergent design requires that we cultivate a willingness and capacity to be in the unknown and hold a radical trust in the process, which, of course, rests on having developed trustworthy processes in the first place.

It also requires cultivating radical self-trust so that you can clearly discern and freely express your needs, questions, and ideas.”

“Wombing:” Holding space for what’s emerging (Page 227)

  • “Though little acknowledged in the arena of social and political change, the work of holding space for something new to emerge is actually a basic—perhaps the most basic—biological activity. We all came into this world having grown from a tiny cell into an infant inside our mother’s womb.

Naming “wombing” as a verb helps us see how the work of holding space represents so much more than passively placing a boundary around something.

Wombing provides a temporary home—a space of direct nourishment and emergence—for a new idea or entity to grow and develop until it is ready to spring into fuller expression and independent integrity.”

Needing others increases our power (Page 229)

  • “I’ve come to see how needing others actually increases our power—that our willingness to be met and be held by others, to be wombed, is actually a critical power in social change.

The willingness to stand in the middle of the unknown, to see what we need, to invite and invoke it—and then to receive it and to trust. Listening and trusting, and then acting from that space of trust, draws into our life people, ideas, and processes that have great gifts for us.

Those acts of faith do as much, if not more, to catalyze outward social change as any direct, externally driven, accomplishment-oriented activity.”

Locating ourselves within a whole and healthy system (Pages 229 + 231).

  • “It is hard for me to put words to it, but in my clumsy language I would say that core to my spiritual journey and practice has been more and more consciously locating myself—grounding myself, centering and seeing myself—as already within a system that is whole and healthy.

When I am able to inhabit that space in consciousness, to imagine myself already in a healthy and whole system, and I bring that consciousness to whatever work I am doing, I have felt able to sense the next unfolding expression of that system I am being called to support, to help manifest.”

  • “That healthy, whole system is, at some level, already here. And it wants to be seen and inhabited, right here, right now. It is present, in all its already-not-yet glory, and we can help it grow.”

Libby closes the book with this invitation:

“I want to invite you, and everyone interested in leading positive social change, to imagine what you want to make space for.

To listen for your own markers of a whole and healthy system, and then choose to do everything you can to inhabit that system now.

That’s how to build peace from the inside out. To act as if the system were whole and ehealth, and to work—to design programs, allocate budgets, hire and promote, partner and create—from there.”

She asks readers the following questions, and I invite you to ask these of yourself:

  • How can you do your own work fully from within that system, the system you believe should be, right now, right where you are?
  • How can you ask for, build, and inhabit circles of support for that system, beginning at the most local, immediate, personal level—right where you are?
  • What would it mean to live in a system of wholeness right now?

May you discover the wholeness and the answers that are there within you.

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