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RLabs can transform the way people think in just one training session. Here’s an insider insight into how we do it.

After 3 years with RLabs, “The Danger of a Single Story” session still amazes me every time! Inspired by Chimamanda Adichie this is how it works: 

You describe one person with two different short stories with different names, one story emphasising the person’s problems and what they lack, the other showing their assets. The participants have to advise the person what to do next.  

The group with the ‘glass half empty’ version has a very negative view of the person, and uses adjectives such as victim, dependent, hopeless. They struggle to think of possible opportunities. Amazingly, they sometimes even recommend actions that by their own admission, they think might not be good for the person in the long term.

The group with the ‘glass half full’ version picks up the clues about the person’s social and physical assets, describes them as entrepreneurial, hard-working, trusted and comes up with many creative and empowering possibilities for the person’s future. 

Then the groups discuss what was similar, what was different? In the case of managers, which of the two would they like to employ? Sometimes the penny drops that it’s the same person. Otherwise, after the groups have wrestled with it for a while, the facilitator announces that it’s just one person, to shock and amazement from the participants! 

Our core programme is with school leavers who need to start businesses, but we’ve customised ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ for forestry extension workers, factory managers, NGOs and donors and it always creates a huge impact. There are many lessons from the exercise but the key one is: mindset change starts first with us

When we only see the glass half empty, what the person lacks, we can’t see how they can move forward. 

When we see the assets, we see the creative possibilities and we respect the person’s dignity and autonomy. We genuinely believe the person can succeed and has a reason for hope, and we create the space for them to do it themselves. Even in the toughest circumstances, a person never has absolutely nothing  – a 15 year old rural girl, pregnant and rejected by her parents, has a grandma who loves her and some land to start with. Her determination to create a better future for herself and her child gives her the motivation to overcome the many hurdles in her way. The technical term for it is Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). For us it’s just about being human.

The way the story is written polarises the advice. In our work, we’ll so often be presented with ‘glass half empty’ scenarios. We have to take the time to look for the assets, for the complete story. Many development programmes buy into the ‘glass half empty’ story from the people they are trying to serve. So then they hand out money and assets, and perpetuate the single story that community members are asset-less and need to wait for outside help. Programme managers themselves complain that it doesn’t work, and we see it all the time. People receive 5 million but complain that they can’t succeed because they didn’t receive 10. Someone receives a wood-cutting machine, but the moment it needs a small repair, it’s left unused. It’s obvious that if someone builds their business themselves and learns how to unlock their own assets and talents, they’ll go so much further.

The whole of RLabs’ Grow Leadership programme is an exercise in changing the ‘single story’ that young people can’t start businesses because they don’t have any assets. We know it works. 73% of young people joining Grow in 2021/2022 had no income and virtually no access to credit. After training they have now saved over 185 million shillings (£61,600) in their savings groups, using income from their new businesses. Because they have identified their own resources and done it for themselves.  Words (without capital!) really do change lives.

It’s an art creating the story for the Single Story session. The story has to be ambiguous enough so that after the “Big Reveal” it’s totally plausible that it’s the same person, but polarised enough so that while the groups are debating, they feel sure it’s different people, and they come out with very different advice. 

RLabs’ team of top facilitators is here in Iringa for two weeks of training to advance their understanding of the core philosophy underpinning the programme. When we see a ‘single story’ playing out in training, we often spontaneously create this exercise customised for the group. Our youth trainers deliver a ‘Single Story’ session as part of Grow Leadership, but we thought it was time they learnt how to create their own stories for different contexts. Just one of the very cool philosophical, accessible and life-changing ideas in RLabs’ toolbox. 

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