PARSA is Learning How to Bring about Social Change

As we reach out to connect with our supporters around the world, I find that it is hard to explain the day-to-day effort that anchors us and allows us to thrive given the difficult circumstances we face. Afghanistan has been downgraded from a “post-conflict” country to a “conflict” country this year. Our beneficiaries have more dire situations than we have experienced at PARSA since 2004.

But also this year we turned a corner in our campaign to establish a National Afghan Scout program, and the eight-year struggle is a story unto itself. In my role as Executive Director, I have been committed to mentoring and supporting Afghan leadership for the duration of my tenure here and this year we are seeing the emergence of Afghan leaders at PARSA. The behind-the-scenes story is full of heartache, tears, anger, disappointment, and “soldiering on” when we are short of resources, and facing insurmountable obstacles. The backbone of our work is the vision and commitment of our staff. As Yasin Farid, our country director says” PARSA is today what Afghanistan will be tomorrow.”

I was in an interview with a bright young woman who will be joining us in the Scout program with Tamim and Yasin. “Can I have a three-day orientation to my job?” she asked. Tamim laughed and said, “Everyday at PARSA is an orientation to your job!”

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What he meant, after working at PARSA for 8 years is that a visionary leader working for a future that is counter to the prevailing status quo does not have a clear and set forward direction. We have to learn how to move forward from making mistakes, and from a daily honest evaluation of the impact of our work on our beneficiaries and figuring out where we have fallen short. It takes more humility than most of us naturally possess but we are all more dedicated to our Afghan people than our egos.

Our days are made up of a struggle to stay on top of the chaos of working with people in need while doing administration tasks. The traditional organization in Afghanistan tends to rigid authoritarianism, and we have had to learn how to communicate, ask for help, trust, spontaneously problem solve and take care of each other on this journey we call “PARSA”.

This year, we dedicated ourselves to empowering Afghan women, but the decision came after we took a hard look at our organization and discovered that women in our organization had dropped away for many reasons and the leadership was primarily male. Although resources for programs is always needed in our case, we also decided we were simply not paying attention enough to how to have PARSA be an incubator for women leaders, and we decided to make our year about learning how to have PARSA foster women leaders…but really. This is not an easy task in Afghanistan- not only because the social environment is hostile to women leaders but because of how Afghan girls are raised to perceive themselves. And the result of empowering girls and women is not easy to manage in an organization because it usually means that they have given themselves permission to start giving voice to their opinions.

Yasin recently had to mediate a staff altercation with Simin, our cleaner and a couple of male staff members. As a part of our work with our female staff we helped them plan their career advancement at PARSA, and Simin, who is an orphan and responsible for her brother financially, decided she wants to become a professional chef, and as she is illiterate began literacy lessons with Sahela our social worker. She had a disagreement with two of our professional staff over a task she felt was unpleasant and unnecessary, and when they insisted that it was her job she lost her temper and indicated that she thought they were big donkeys. This is probably the highest insult one can make in Afghan society and created quite a stir, in a hectic day for Yasin. But he left his meeting smiling. “We are on track with our commitment to PARSA women this year, ” he said. “I know that the insult was not professional, but a year ago Simin would not have spoken up for herself!”

In my own lessons learned in my job at PARSA, I have had to work to embrace the difficulties I have faced, persist, and grow in ways I did not even know I could. I have also learned that strife, upset, and conflict often precedes fundamental social change. I am gifted with staff that has learned this with me. Together, we have built PARSA into an organization that is now a potent force for change in Afghanistan. The legacy of rebuilding the national Afghan Scout program in Afghanistan is PARSA’s, recognized by President Ghani, and certified by the Ministry of Education. Our new programs, Sisters 4 Sisters, the Healthy Afghan Professional Woman’s Support groups are on the same path. We thank you for your support on this journey. You are the “small group of committed citizens” that Margaret Mead refers to in her quote, and I want you to know that your commitment is paying off. Many of you have been with us over the years. I appreciate your long-term support for us. This is what has given us our future.