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Surrounded by the tropical warmth and lush vegetation of Nicaragua, the breezes from Lake Managua and the gardens of Cantera refresh us. This historic popular education center created by women is our beautiful home during this week of reflection and learning. A gathering marked by laughter and tears and thoughtful discussion, 31 women from throughout the region come together to broaden and deepen their leadership, organizing efforts, and collective action. Indigenous and rural women along with colleagues from JASS collaborate to create an alquimia—a transformative process of learning and solidarity—a mixture of singing, dancing and sharing histories, struggles, ideas and the challenges of difficult and changing contexts. In the midst of joy and energy, the pain of personal and political violence surfaces and the group takes time to support each other and renew spirits.

As you enter the meeting room, you feel the magic of the alchemy and reciprocity that is being generated by the group. It is a safe trusting space, ample and alive with creativity and ever-increasing confidence. Its walls are filled with newsprint and multicolored papers and drawings, documenting the reflections of everyone.  Around the room is a circle of women of different backgrounds and generations, women attired in festive colors and fabrics of complex patterns, representing their communities and histories. In the center, beautiful tropical flowers and candles of various colors brighten the space. And in the very center is a large clay pot, a simple container crafted by unknown hands and baked in Nicaragua’s fierce sun to give it strength. It is where we place our ideas, written out on pieces of paper and then read to the group to generate discussion and analysis. With a huge wooden spoon, it is where we stir and mix our thoughts and begin to produce alchemy of collective wisdom. The clay container serves as a symbol of our methodology – the collective building and deepening of knowledge for transformation and action.

We begin each day with a ritual of celebration and meditation. A member of the group shares some special expression from her culture while others kneel down to light the candles so we may honor the light that exists in all of us. We continue with a rich variety of activities such as biodanza, a series of dance movements choreographed to lively music that reflects the energy and joy of life and brings people together in ever-changing patterns and rhythms. Perfect for self-care and renewal!   Another source of energy and inspiration is the sharing of stories of our mentors and ancestors.  We honor their lives of struggle and hope, placing their images and descriptions of their histories on a wall mural that surrounds us. We continue weaving together elements from our heart-mind-body approach so we can integrate our themes and activities in a holistic way—tapping our different sources of intelligence.

We reflect on women’s struggles for rights over the centuries and on how different forms of power operate in our lives from the intimate and private realms to the public. We analyze the forms of power that have oppressed and silenced us as well as those that have supported us and given us life, strength, and courage. We look for ways to overcome the paralyzing tendency to become victims in the face of seemingly never-ending pain and violence. Through an exercise called the Identity Flower we affirm our multiple and intersecting identities and qualities that can give us energy, hope and vitality.

Through debate and discussion, we broaden and deepen our understanding of what it means to be a leader, a concept that was first explored in the previous October 2013 workshop. Small groups then draw their new vision of shared leadership based on more collective, respectful, reciprocal and collaborative relations and compare them with the individual drawings of leadership done in October. The room breaks out in laughter as we begin to discover some of the differences in conceptions, recognizing the importance of the very personal nature of people’s initial drawings. Comments reflect a bit of wonder and new awareness.

Oh dear, look at me, I am standing on a podium—huge and tall—all the other women are tiny sitting at my feet.”

Hmmm, that’s me on the stage, talking down to everyone. Can you imagine?” She begins to chuckle, “I even drew some of the women with small heads, nothing else. I cut off their bodies. I chopped off their heads. What was I thinking?

Self-criticism and reflection in a circle of understanding and support! What could be better?

As we continue to challenge and nurture our developing ideas, we take time toward the end of the workshop to write some major insights down and place them in the magic clay pot, stirring them into a new alchemy.  In this way we strengthen our circles of trust and creativity that increasingly benefit our collective light and synergy.

As one member of the group said, “What’s most beautiful about all of this is that we are defining and enriching the concepts and ideas based on our own different visions and perspectives—ideas from all of us.”

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