Empowerment through Effective Communication: The Case of AWIB’s Conversational English Course

I have arrived! It is June 2013 and I am officially now residing in the bustling and ever-growing city of Addis Ababa. I don’t know a soul, but I am anxiously unpacking my suitcase and kindly being introduced to my new team of Ethiopian colleagues. Eager to settle into a routine, I begin to look for opportunities to make friends and immerse myself into the Ethiopian culture and language.

A week after my arrival, my apartment neighbor invites me to accompany her to the monthly networking and dialogue event for the “Association of Women in Business,” which she called “AWIB.” I was not sure what to expect from the event but in the interest of exploration, I decided to attend. On my walk home I could not help but feel inspired – an organization dedicated solely to developing the leadership and networking abilities of Ethiopian women. I knew on that walk home that I wanted to find a way to be a part of this organization, even if just attending their monthly events.

Fast forward to a month later, when on a Tuesday evening after work I climbed stairs  up to the AWIB office to meet my co-facilitator, Nejat Abdella, and our first semester of students who signed up for the 14-week Conversational English Class. I was excited and nervous all at the same time. I knew that being “conversational” was one of my strengths but I had never lead discussions, especially not in such a private or cross-cultural setting. By the time I got to the door of the AWIB office, I reminded myself that I signed-up to be a co-facilitator for this class because I believed in what AWIB believes in – that reaching one’s fullest potential requires reflection and self-development, and that these processes are in fact a lifelong commitment to developing yourself so that you in turn, can be enabled to develop others and contribute in a meaningful way to the communities and world we are a part of. What better way to bring this commitment to life on a weekly basis alongside fellow women who actively sought to improve their communication skills in English?

The decision to be a co-facilitator in AWIB’s Conversational English course has been one of the most rewarding decisions I have made during my three years of living in Ethiopia. One semester easily followed the next and in the 14 weeks of each course it was easy to see the progress the students were making. Those who committed to the course and made it a point to prepare for and attend the weekly course were, with each week, contributing more and resisting less. Towards the last few weeks of every semester there would be a moment where my co-facilitator and I would make eye contact and realize that we had shifted from facilitators who guided the discussions to bystanders – and what a special moment that was! Beyond watching the students’ progress, I would always come to realize that it they were not the only one benefiting from this course, I was also benefiting from it as well. I had the privilege to meet and get to know the past histories and future ambitions of these incredible women. Weekly discussions topics were selected by the students at the end of each class so as to prepare our thoughts for the next week. Discussions covered thematic of triumph, struggle, and romance. They included women who ran their own businesses, who were managers at a bank, or who were studying to receive their Master’s. We advised one another on how to confront conflict in the workplace, how to prepare for a big interview, how to master the art of personal finance, and how to better manage our time. These weekly meetings covered all of the emotions – fears, laughs, tears, encouragement and gratitude. After each class I could see that the students continued to feel more confident about their abilities to communicate their thoughts and feelings. But I too was seeing a change in myself – with each class I was becoming more and more inspired and motivated by each woman’s contributions – and of course, their continued commitment to improving themselves.

Having now completed three years and multiple Conversational English courses, I cannot stress enough the value of an organization like AWIB and the development it promotes. As an example, the Conversational English course is one way which AWIB recognizes the leadership role women have in the academic sector, the workplace, the community and even the home.  Whether expressing thoughts or feelings, the class is based on the foundation of self-worth and the belief that “your opinion matters.” The expression of thought is an incredible skill, and one that even people who are fluent in English can improve. By offering a class that focuses in on effective communication, AWIB recognizes that women already have the ideas and the passions required to make positive changes, and that a communication development course like Conversational English can only enable them to enhance their ability to share these ideas, be heard and be change makers. During one point of every course my co-facilitator and I would make a point to reiterate how proud we were that they were setting aside this time each week to attend the class. We would remind them that by doing so they were embodying the most effective form of leadership – leadership by example – wherein their commitment to this class demonstrated to their husbands, to their children and to their colleagues that developing oneself and understanding one’s self worth should always be a priority as it is a precursor to positive change.

In just a few weeks from now it will be time for me to pack my bags and get on the plane that will take me off to my next great adventure. As I buckle into my seat I know I will think back to that long lost feeling of, “I have arrived.”  I will have three amazing years of memories to occupy my mind during the long flight – better than any film I could watch or book I could read.  Somewhere among the clouds, I know my mind will drift to AWIB and the impact the organization and its members have had on me. I will think of all the amazing women of AWIB who have challenged me, taught me and inspired me. I will think of all that I have learned about myself as a result of AWIB trainings and dialogue. And perhaps most moving of all, I will realize that because of my participation in AWIB’s Conversational English Class, I did so much more than merely “arrive.” Because of AWIB, I have learned about the beautiful country and people of Ethiopia, I have instilled confidence in fellow women, and I have built friendships that transcend nationality and culture.

This article is dedicated to all of the past, present and future participants in AWIB’s Conversational English Class, to my dear co-facilitators Nejat and Lidet, and to AWIB leadership. You women are the epitome of personal development and inspiration – it has been such a privilege to get to know you!

Katheryn Karl (Cookie)

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