Book reviews, Buzz, Management and Leadership

4 lessons on sparking social movements from However Long the Night

This is the first post of Unabridged: A Monthly Review of Books that Inspire, Inform, and Challenge Our Views.

However Long the Night by Aimee Molloy—which tells the story of Molly Melching’s human rights work in Senegal—will make you uncomfortable.

bookThe detailed descriptions of female genital cutting, or FGC, are meant to jar the reader just as they did Melching, a midwestern exchange student-turned-human rights activist, when she first arrived in Senegal in the 1970s. You’ll want to condemn this tradition and the people who participate in it, but the book carefully lays out why your reaction, your judgment, and your desire to stop the practice on behalf of its victims would fly in the face of a workable solution to this or any deeply rooted social norm.

Indeed, as uncomfortable as she was with FGC, Molly’s work in the region, both initially and throughout her career, has never been about righting one or two specific social conventions. To many men and women Africa, FGC remains today an important religious and cultural tradition, even if other human rights issues have been more fully explored. Instead, the Community Empowerment Program Molly developed was designed to help villagers determine their own priorities for change. It is fitting, then, that the name of the organization Molly created, Tostan, is translated from Wolof as the hatching of one egg, a breakthrough that eventually leads to more breakthroughs.

Molly didn’t move to Senegal determined to start Tostan, she simply wanted to make a difference. And, like many of us on the social sector, her path was marked by resistance, constraints of small budgets, and little victories that inspired her to explore new possibilities (not to mention the inevitable assortment of partners, projects, and job descriptions constantly in flux). We may also empathize with Molly’s day-to-day experiences: she doesn’t make as much money as she deserves, she works an incredible amount of hours, and she bemoans not being able to spend enough time with her daughter. She doesn’t go to work. She is her work.

Through her triumphs and missteps, we learn a lot about what it takes to create social change.

  • Sometimes structures help, and sometimes they get in the way. Molly was able to leverage the human rights landscape that existed when she first went to Senegal into a lifelong career, but she also challenged that landscape to confront crucial weaknesses and unwise assumptions, working outside it or around it to meet her goals. For example, the simple act of speaking to a group of people in their own language (in every sense of the word) can more quickly establish trust, learning, and progress than years of by-the-book development programming.
  • The simplest models are also the easiest to scale. Tostan’s core theory is easy to understand and easy to duplicate: empower people to claim their own basic human rights and self-worth. This approach opened the doors to other impressive projects under the Tostan umbrella, now operating across eight African nations and in 22 languages, and addressing various issues of regional importance. It’s a model many could apply in their work, no matter where they are or what they do.
  • You can’t force change. What you can do is lay the groundwork for significant development by introducing people to ideas, identifying shared values, and allowing them to decide not only what change will come, but also how and when. It’s interesting that perhaps the most resistance Molly faced in her journey resulted from encouraging a group of women in one village to renounce FGC without first considering the repercussions that would be felt in nearby villages. Perhaps not as crucial a step in other parts of the world, but in Senegal, she learned that several villages in the region would need time to build their stake in the movement.
  • Solutions already exist in the communities we serve. Molly did not descend on Dakar, dictate the steps necessary to progress towards equal rights based on studies she had read, and blame society when her ideas failed. She respected the people of Senegal, opened herself to their experiences, and realized that they knew best.

These points are driven home time and again by author Aimee Molloy, whose work often centers on women’s rights in developing nations. Molloy’s writing is engaging and detailed, weaving an informative narrative that lacks the singular focus of traditional biographies. And that’s compliment. Perhaps her only fault is the tendency to draw out parallels and connections between Molly’s personal life and her ultimate career trajectory where they might not truly exist. To hint that the failure of her marriage, for example, spurred Molly to new heights in her career risks diminishing her hard work and brilliance.

Luckily, any tangents are over quickly and the focus returns to the actual work and the inspiring people that carried it out. At its heart, However Long the Night is a tribute to Molly Melching, and the reader is left ultimately with the feeling that Molly was destined to succeed in this realm, regardless of where she was from or the relationships she built.

This book has the potential to revive your job search or make your Monday morning commute a little easier, knowing that real systemic change is not a pipe dream. No doubt Molly’s enduring hope is what caught the attention of fellow innovators Bill and Melinda Gates. If they made room for However Long the Night on their reading lists, surely you should too.

Read more about Tostan at www.tostan.orgHowever Long the Night can be purchased here.

Have you read this book? What do you think? Add your comments below.

This article is part of a partnership between the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and Idealist. Read more about it here

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About Kari Mirkin

Kari's underlying philosophy of work in the nonprofit sector is that we need to ensure equal and easy access to the things that make us who we are: the arts, culture, and lifelong learning. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she received her Master’s of Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University and is one of the co-founders of YNPN Cleveland. You can find her on Facebook,Twitter and LinkedIn, and access a report she helped research and write here.

1 Comment

  1. Steph

    Great review and reflection! I’ll put this book on my reading list. It adds yet another argument to the larger argument of outside NGO’s intentions to help going awry because of imposing alien systems, making assumptions, carrying in biases, and not listening. I am hearing more and more in my social circles the discussion about what it really means to help and what that looks like. Sounds like Ms. Melchings’ story is going to be a great example of that.