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Shifting power might mean dealing with some inconveniences

Updated: Apr 4

I stood inside a warehouse, passing food to refugees standing in line outside. The giver-receiver relationship that I read about in my politics of humanitarianism class was playing out in real time. They accepted what we gave them and had to be grateful for it.

Until they weren’t – and broke into the Ritsona refugee camp warehouse night after night, sick and tired of us deciding when and what they could get, calling us greedy westerners hoarding aid.

That year, I founded Conversations Unbound, a language learning platform, with the goal to reverse this dynamic. As conversation partners for college students, displaced communities hold positions of power, transforming the narrative of who has knowledge, skills, and values to share and who receives.

Conversation partners tell us that the impact has been meaningful. Rukundo, a French language partner, shares that in a refugee camp “you have to queue for more than three hours to receive a ‘monthly portion’ of food in-kind that will last for only one week. One officer may tell people to queue and wait for that food portion valued at $5 per person, and another one will come some minutes later only to tell people to sit down on the unhygienic ground, and implement other unnecessary harsh conditions before people are given the food. In these conditions, those forced migrants who are educated, are reminded that they are nothing and are deprived of their basic rights.” Rukundo explains that teaching students French “takes people out of this position.” It “lifts people’s sense of power and confidence. It makes them feel useful again.”

Annie, French language conversation partner

Further, the money conversation partners earn puts power in their hands. Partners earn $15 per hour, the minimum wage in New York City, but above the minimum wage set by the United States Federal government. Rukundo shares that giving someone “an opportunity that allows them to earn $15 an hour is a privilege. It is empowerment, and it boosts one’s morale and confidence.”

With these additional earnings, conversation partners can also be “society transformers.” Rukundo shares that “some Conversations Unbound partners are now able to take their relatives and siblings to get better education outside of the 'designated areas' (refugee camps). In these schools, one class teacher is responsible for teaching more than 100 children in a given classroom, and only half of them learn while seated on a wooden bench.” As a conversation partner, people “feel empowered enough to empower others in return. By helping to pay school fees in better schools, conversation partners are making a long-term investment in their community, society, and country. The dynamics of who holds power, skills, and who is well-educated will then change.”

Elodie, French language conversation partner

Yet facilitating this power shift has not been easy. I trained our team to market the organization as equivalent to other language learning platforms: students can seamlessly connect with conversation partners online to practice their foreign language skills. The innovative difference – and advantage – was that students speak with conversation partners from a displaced background, providing them with an opportunity to have unique cultural exchanges and think critically about forced displacement. However, frequent internet outages where conversation partners live interrupted sessions, leading to a slew of emails from students deriding partners for missing sessions.

Suddenly, it felt as though the weight on the scale shifted again. Students’ easy and consistent access to college wifi exposed their privilege and placed them in a position of power where they could complain about their conversation partner’s unreliability. I realized that I had done the conversation partners and the organization a disservice by branding it as an easy, simple to use platform. It is not – but that is the point. Giving students a glimpse of the challenges some conversation partners face should help them better understand the realities of forced displacement, as well as humanize this global issue. In response, the team worked together to shift our narrative about the organization to raise awareness about partners’ life circumstances and advocate for more understanding. Since then, we have seen a marked improvement in students’ tolerance, while still maintaining all of our partners, and supporting them to earn over $100,000 to date.

We also fundraised so that we could provide conversation partners who face regular power and internet outages with a stipend to address their connectivity challenges, encouraging them to spend it in the way that made the most sense for their circumstance. For many, this meant purchasing an external modem and data package that they could use when their internet went out. We will be monitoring the impact of this recent investment this spring 2023 semester.

Through this process, I have learned that empowering displaced communities requires those in privileged roles to relinquish control and adapt to new ways of working, thinking, and experiencing. I invite you to join us in meaningfully shifting power.

Written by Elise Shea, founder, and Rukundo Jean Marie Vianney, French language conversation partner

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