(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)
The position of women in Iraq was disempowering and inferior. If the NYOI was to be not only successful as an orchestra but also influential in improving the position of women, it needed - each and everyday of its existence - to take specific and positive action to challenge and change unhelpful attitudes and behaviours: it needed to form the habit of empowering the disempowered.
It did this by consistently doing some straightforward but extremely effective things. Here are four of them:
Challenging the status quo by creating everyday firsts and taking everyday risks
'Adam, our percussion tutor, had decided with me to choose Boran as Iraq's first female timpanist.'
'Tuqa, the only member of the NYOI to where a hijab, won over our cello tutor, Dave Edmonds, to the extent that he put her on the lead cello seat, much to her male counterpart, Hassam's disapproval.'
The first quotation shows that the first-time events you create to challenge the status quo do not have to be earth shatteringly significant to be effective: even though an everyday routine decision, the significance of the choice of timpanist would have been clear to the rest of the NYOI's players and the audiences for which the orchestra performed.
The second quotation is an example of being willing to risk disapproval by making routine decisions which challenge cultural expectations. Tuqa's male cello-playing colleague may have had his metaphorical nose put out of joint but, given the immediacy of the personal impact of the decision, the experience would have forced him to come to terms with the situation and (hopefully) begin to question his assumptions about the place and abilities of women.
Getting in early
'The auditorium filled to the brim with young girls in white headscarves, looking utterly adorable.
Uninhibited, they joined in Jonny's clapping and Dougie's singing games, their teachers watching on apprehensively from the back row. But when Dobbs came on and started his fairy story in Kurdish while plucking away at his base, even the teachers became enraptured. Music making in Iraq is basically a man's pursuit, girls are discouraged, and we so loved reaching out to these young souls.'
The above describes a concert given by the NYOI's tutors and players to an audience of young school girls. Gifting these young girls early memories of participating in musical activities (and demonstrating the positive effects of this activity to their teachers) planted the seed of an idea: that music making in Iraqi was not only for men but also women. With luck and nurturing, as the girls grow this seed will hopefully blossom into an enthusiasm for music making among women which will become easier for the male dominated musical establishment to embrace rather than ignore.
Noting missed opportunities and planning to create them in the future
'Meanwhile, Zuhal worked alongside Phia to run the course and receive mentoring, but I sensed her disappointment at not being able to play piano with the orchestra this year, as none of the compositions required it. I determined to fix this for 2011.'
Missing one opportunity does not mean that another cannot be created. Achieving this, however, needs an everyday awareness of what is happening and, more to the point, what is not happening. It also requires a willingness to plan.
Showing what is possible elsewhere
'In contrast, our rehearsals led by excellent tutors such as Angelia Cho or Ilona Bondar, as well as our visits abroad, empowered our female players to understand the prominent role of women in other cultures, and encouraged them to take a more leading role, where possible, in Iraq.'
This quotation describes how the NYOI showed its most significantly disempowered members, its women, what it was possible for them to achieve. Providing skilled and successful female tutors as role models and arranging visits to countries where women were encouraged and indeed expected to play prominent roles not only within music but also society generally, opened the NYOI's women's eyes to what it was possible for them to achieve with self belief and determination (and a culture which valued and supported them). As with the concert for the young girls, the seeds of possibility were being sown in young minds.
When seeking to empower your most disadvantaged partners and participants look for everyday opportunities to 'create a first'. Become accustomed to making decisions, big or seemingly small, which challenge the status quo and force people to adapt to and learn from new situations. Make a daily note of missed opportunities to involve and empower people and make specific plans to create similar opportunities in the future. Make sure that each and every day, at least in some small way, those that need to be reminded of what is possible are shown what is possible.
And sow the seeds of attitude changing ideas as early as possible.
You will then acquire the habit of empowering the disempowered.