Who’s Making the Table?

\"\"I realized recently that for the longest time I have been perhaps asking a seemingly outdated and passive question: “who’s at the table?” As of late, this question has popped up in my mind persistently on several occasions. Watching local and international news and witnessing who is invited to provide expert analysis on a given issue; panels and political gatherings; convening elders for dialogue on key national issues; political party negotiations; peace agreements; design of economic policies and interventions; decisions on national and international security, etc. The list of what are considered ‘hard’ subjects goes on and what continues to be glaringly apparent is that these spaces persist as male dominated arenas bearing the same results. But inclusion is not the only issue that dwells in this dilemma. Diversity of strategies is also an issue.

I define my tiresome question of “who’s at the table” as ‘outdated’ because the finding is a foregone conclusion. At least every time I have asked this question, I have seen only men claim these spaces as second nature and recycle the pattern of patriarchy that they have also been socialized to accept is the only way. The alternate male voices that imagine a system beyond this are far flung and unable to penetrate the patriarchal system for too long. See, the treacherous thing about leading with patriarchy is that it designs everything as a zero-sum game – there’s a winning side or there’s a losing side, but never a common ground. It leads from a place of assuming power for individualistic pursuits and not for influencing for the common good. It views the environment as a resource to be plundered and exploited and not balanced and harmonized for the collective. It thrives on divisiveness as a method of control. And it builds the narrative of scarcity so strongly that those under its influence are controlled by fear and hence plunder away.

In the roles we have been expected to assume as women in society, we have all played the part of caretakers, homemakers, mediators, compassionate listeners in the private sphere. There may be women who have not played the role of decision-maker in the public space, but without a doubt there is not a woman who has not played the ascribed gender roles in the private space. We clean up after the mess; we care for the ailing and the sick; we are required to mediate between two or three warring factions in our households with impartiality; we whip up an “injera lasagne” by layering shiro and injera when that’s all we have; and we have intel on the happenings in our households and perhaps others; we listen to our partners, our community elders, our religious leaders, our political leaders. We are continuously subjugated to listening!

I remember a female friend I admire greatly stating that “If there’s something we consistently do as women everywhere, it’s that we listen.” Yet, in our socialization that has required us to listen more than speak; to care for others more than ourselves, we may have picked up on many insights and wisdom that have not been much more urgent to vocalize and utilize in the public arena as a unifying force, now more than ever. 

“It starts with the art of listening — the ability to put yourself into another’s shoes and build solutions from their perspective. Listening itself can be an act of generosity. You learn to communicate across lines of difference, and in the process, you develop a sense of your own identity as well as that of those around you. This entails work, to reflect on how you see yourself and also how others perceive you. You start to recognize the biases you hold that stop you from knowing others for their full humanity. Along the way, you develop the vision to imagine the world as it could be.”  


The above is an extract from a piece entitled “What It Takes to Move the World: 5 Traits for Moral Leaders.” As Ethiopian women who have listened quietly for long periods of time, now is the time that we’re being called upon to collectively shift our private sphere values and capacities into the public sphere towards the healing of our communities and nations. Not by replicating patriarchal patterns, but capitalizing on the compassion and care we have been socialized into, towards imagining and realizing a different political, economic and social system that thrives on unity and principles of social justice and equity.

This means that I and others like myself stop asking “who’s at the table” and begin making our own tables together. But not the kinds with plates, cups and pots at Iddirs. Rather, the kinds of tables where political, economic and social policies and actions are designed imbued with the values we have been led to believe are a sign of weakness – compassion & listening– yet are the saving grace we need to heal a broken world!


Billene is the Managing Director of Earuyan Solutions (www.earuyan.com) and also writes at www.africanfeminism.com