June 2017
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TESOL AND THE ALLIANCE FOR INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S RIGHTS: MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN TROUBLING TIMES
Cathy Raymond, Alliance for International Women's Rights, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

A recent increase in anti-immigrant, nationalist, and populist sentiments around the world has led many of us to experience moments of confusion, distress, and anxiety. In the midst of so much uncertainty, it is easy to feel paralyzed, and it can be difficult to know how to move forward. These troubling times have become a call to each of us to use the power we have to make a difference in the world. Our individual efforts might take the form of street marches or phone calls and letters to our representatives, or they might involve reaching out to one individual person who seems isolated on the bus, at the bank, or in a class. Advocacy and support can take many forms, and it is up to each of us to do what we can to make a difference.

The annual TESOL conference is yet another place where engaged TESOLers can make a difference. This year’s TESOL conference theme "The World Comes Together at TESOL" sent a clear message of solidarity with colleagues from around the world who had come together to share professional expertise, training, and personal stories from multicultural classrooms. After spending a full week at this year’s conference with like-minded individuals who embrace diversity, respect cultural difference, and cultivate international understanding, I found myself feeling almost normal again. My world—which had just recently been tilted far off its axis by the recent election and a flood of anti-immigrant and populist messages—had been at least momentarily realigned.

My week at TESOL was spent soaking up inspirational educational sessions, meeting incredible world-class educators, and sharing my own personal and professional insights during a 4-hour Preconvention Institute on Monday and a poster session on Friday. When I wrote the proposal for my poster session, "The Alliance for International Women’s Rights—Distance English and Mentor Programs for Women in Afghanistan and Nepal," nearly a year ago, I never could have imagined how relevant it would feel at this particular convention. At the Alliance for International Women’s Rights (AIWR), our programming has always felt relevant for the volunteers in our program and for the women we serve in Afghanistan and Nepal. More recently, however, our work has taken on an even deeper and greater significance for many of us who volunteer in the organization. As the world has become increasingly difficult to understand, our responsibility for counteracting isolationist messages with empathy, encouragement, and kindness has seemed to grow exponentially.

The work we do at AIWR is in direct alignment with TESOL values of advocacy, integrity, and respect for multiculturalism, and the TESOL conference theme for 2017 was in direct alignment with our mission. Through our Distance English and Mentor Programs, our overarching mission is to create meaningful connections between women around the world with the goal of supporting women leaders and future women leaders in developing countries.

An extensive body of research shows that educating girls and women can have personal, professional, and economic benefits on an individual, family, and societal level (The World Bank Group, 2009; Koppell, 2013). Numerous articles on the "girl effect" demonstrate the ripple effect on families and societies when girls and women are educated. Women who are educated find easier access to professional advancement, raise children who also value education, and are less likely to marry early (Granett, 2014).

Although English language skills can offer girls and women the possibility for economic and professional advancement, English can also be inherently political in certain areas of the world, and language programming can be challenging, sometimes even dangerous. Threats to women’s safety and security, challenges with technology and Internet access, and electrical outages are just a few of the many factors that can make high-quality distance mentoring and English language programming difficult, particularly in countries such as Afghanistan and Nepal.

Despite the fact that it is often difficult, if not impossible, for Afghan women in Kandahar to access international educational opportunities, distance mentoring and English courses offer meaningful opportunities for cross-cultural exchange. As one of our student participants has said, “[AIWR] is the first organization in Kandahar Province in which we can study abroad from our own city—and we can learn about different cultures as well as improve our English skills.” For some Afghan women, the opportunity to learn English online means so much more than just learning a language: “Learning English is like water, food and breath—vital for me.”

Our programs are small, and they are managed and delivered exclusively by female volunteers, but even small programs such as ours have the potential to make a lasting difference in the lives of the girls and women we mentor. Over the past 10 years, we have been able to provide individualized long-distance English classes and professional mentoring to more than 250 Central and South Asian women.

These individual exchanges impact the lives of the Afghan and Nepali girls and women we serve, but they also open up the world to our volunteers while building international trust and understanding on an individual level. As one teacher has said,

This volunteering experience is much more than teaching the English language to a student. It is about understanding a different culture and seeing the world through the eyes of another person. It is about bringing people together and building mutual understanding, respect, and support. While I am teaching I am also learning. I am learning about struggles and aspirations, hardships and joys, values and visions of Nepali women.

Over the years, all of us at AIWR have come to recognize and respect the tremendous courage and determination that it takes for the young women in Afghanistan to continue taking classes even though they might face threats to their security and safety because they are women and have chosen to go to school. One teacher speaks for all of us at AIWR when she says,

The girls [in Kandahar] risk their lives every day to come to school and learn; they are eager, sincere, and courageous. It is a tremendous honor to connect with Afghan students and work with them to improve their English language reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.

In Nepal, where the earthquake of 2015 destroyed many schools and subsequently affected the ability of many children to get an education, we are hoping, in the very near future, to collaborate with our local Nepali contacts who are developing programs in the hardest hit areas where girls and women might have fewer educational opportunities and where our programs have the potential to make a lasting difference.

Despite the challenges and inherent difficulty of offering consistently high-quality programming in hard-to-reach areas of the world, we continue to see countless rewards and benefits for all of our volunteers and participants. For example, the young women in Afghanistan and Nepal have been able to increase the capacity to share their stories and to more easily access educational and job opportunities. The international women who have volunteered their time and expertise to teach English and to help mentor these young women have also profited immensely through an increased understanding of the reality of daily life for women in Afghanistan and Nepal. New and lasting international friendships have often been forged, and these meaningful relationships have sometimes long outlived the online classes.

None of this means that our tiny organization has the power to completely counteract troubling political developments, which are cropping up all over the world. We do, however, firmly believe in the power of an individual to make a profound difference in the life of another individual, and we will continue to pursue our mission of creating connections and supporting future women leaders wherever and whenever we can.

In closing, I am reminded of Sherman Alexie’s impressive plenary speech at the TESOL convention. While Alexie entertained us with his wit and engaging storytelling ability, I personally felt that his message was also a challenge to each of us to do our part to make a difference in our international community of educators, language teachers and learners, and global citizens. During the speech, I scanned the crowd and considered how many nationalities and languages had come together to share knowledge and insights about international education. As I reflect on my time at the convention, I consider myself extremely lucky to be a part of this amazing international community. I encourage all of you to join me with TESOL and AIWR as we stand up for empathy, encouragement, and kindness. Each of us can make a difference in the world.

AIWR is always looking for highly qualified English teachers and professional mentors. Interested TESOLers can find more information about AIWR at Sherry Blok’s TESOL blog post “Empowering Women Living in Difficult Circumstances.” Application forms are available at the AIWR website. To apply for either the English Program or the Mentor Program, please email a completed application form to Cathy Raymond.

References

Granett, B. M. (2014, November 14). Giving back, supporting girls and women: An interview with author, Ann Garvin [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brandi-megan-mantha/giving-back-supporting-gi_b_6153430.html

Koppell, C. (2013). Educate girls, develop nations [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.usaid.gov/2013/04/educate-girls-develop-nations/

The World Bank. (2017). Girls’ education. Retrieved from http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/girlseducation


Cathy Raymond is executive director of the Alliance for International Women’s Rights (www.aiwr.org) and assistant director of English Language Programs at Washington University in St Louis. She will travel to Tajikistan in the spring of 2018 as a Fulbright Scholar.

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