With our organisation as an example, we work for democracy and human rights in an area where strong hierarchies are the norm.
When we started Gyaw Gyaw together in 2009, it was based on friendship and mutual respect. This is something we have deliberately valued, nurtured, developed and protected together through the years.
Still, if someone then would have told me, Line Ramstad, that we in 2021 would look back at soon to be 70 successful projects implemented and shown me the development we have gone through within each project and how equal and well organized we are as an organization, I would never have believed them.
What really amazes me, looking back, is how personal challenges among the team members, myself included, has not negatively affected the team in the long run. Key persons like Koe Taw and Peter left, but even if it felt like losing a leg at the time, the team slowly and mutually covered the loss, responsibilities were differently divided, and the organization grew stronger. Of today’s 10 members, 6 has been part of the team since the start. Adding the border culture to it, I will say it is unique.
As internally displaced people, refugees and illegal immigrants through generations, long-term planning has not grown to be a habit among Karen people. Living in, and off the jungle in an area where monetary economics is not solely implemented, is also most labor intensive and to survive is more about using time to help each other, find the food and materials needed, then to earn money to buy goods and services.
For us, one of the main factors of success has been to develop the organization so that each team member can contribute to develop our organization through daily work with Gyaw Gyaw and still be part of the village and fulfill their requirements at home. First family, then Gyaw Gyaw, then your neighbor is our overall rule within the team. The challenge has been communication and planning.
As former soldiers, the team members are used to taking orders and not question it and within civil jobs in our area, this hierarchy is continued. One boss gives orders that the rest follow. Unlike in the army, you just leave if you do not agree in a day labor job. To create a foundation where it is expected, safe and valued for everyone to raise their opinions, are of course not done in a day.
With no egalitarian work experience, the language and understanding of what it meant to have equal rights and to be heard as part of a team, was not present among my colleagues. Our first contracts were therefor to statue that disagreeing was ok, that there was no need to leave because of different opinions, that it actually could lead to better solutions if more people were heard.
It has also been a challenge to divide between responsibilities and actual implementation. We tried for a while to divide salaries, so the ones with responsibilities got higher salaries. The result was that the person in charge made all the decisions as expected as a leader here, and then gave orders to the ones implementing it. The quality of the work went down since decisions were made by one person’s understanding alone, and the people implementing it had no ownership to the task.
Since 2012 we have therefor had equal pay for everyone, me, Line included, and it has been a major success. Maybe not for my personal pension opportunities in Norway, but for us as a team, I will assert that our equal pay has been the key factor for us developing from a clear hierarchical structure, as expected culturally in this area, to an egalitarian organization where everyone has different responsibilities, but still an equal role in the team.
It was not done in a day, and it has been two steps forward and one back, but it has progressed in the right direction. I will never forget the first time I got a phone call from the team where they called to have my opinion on something, only they were so into a discussion they forgot I was there and just hung up. To say I was proud does not halfway cover it!
We still have a long way to go, but with architect Jae-Young Lee now included in the team, an open-minded understanding of educated foreigners as equals, are getting better implemented. With Daniel Evensen as a connected architect, also designing together with the team, our work has been further lifted.