"The future asks us to make these children understand equality" A conversation with Katrine Friis.
"You have created a very loving place here," remarked Katrine after a couple of hours into her visit to the Children's Library in Don Juan. Having Katrine Friis, one of our most generous benefactors, in our little village has been fruitful and reassuring. Her keen trained eye has detected the nucleus of our efforts at empowering girls and women through education. We would like to share with you, bits of our long and illustrating dialogue.
Katrine came during the week that we invited all the community to join us for our annual rendering of accounts. On this occasion, we shared a detailed account of our finances. In a nutshell, they go like this: during 2018 we received approximately $30.000; 33% of which came from you, our GlobalGiving donors; 30% from Ayuda Directa a local NGO, and 30% from Elisabeth Foundation a Danish fund. 70% of our expenditure went towards the finishing details of the construction and equipment for the Library; 30% towards arts and community events.
During this rendering of accounts, we had a lot of fun: the children prepared a brief theatrical sketch, the women cooked a delicious seafood stew and one of our favorite guests was Katrine.
Katrine Aase Friis (77) was an actress and theater director in Europe during a very important period of her life. After shifting careers and long years of training; she is a renowned Jungian psychologist with an active practice in Copenhagen. She is the founder of the Elisabeth Foundation in Copenhagen that made an important contribution towards the building of the Intercultural Center and children's library in Don Juan.
R: How did you come to know about this project in a tiny fishing village in Manabí, Ecuador?
K: A few months after the earthquake that squandered this region in 2016, my daughter Elisabeth visited Don Juan. On her return home, she enthusiastically talked about a project that was using a young donkey to bring books to the children in this village. She was very touched by that. Elisabeth told us about the house you wanted to build for a Children's Library and that you already had a legitimate organization. We researched about you and your organization and were pleased with your focus on girls and women, because this was the kernel of our funding.
R: From what you have seen during your personal visit, how doe the core values of your foundation match our work in the children's Library?
K: When I started my fund, it began from a very personal concern: I come from a family of very successful men and depressed women. I was aware of this disparity at an early age. When my father died and I inherited some of his fortune I decided to make a better balance in the developing countries; it would double up to support women and repair the faults of colonialism, which I think is the worst that humanity has committed. I see your work in this Library as a response to what the future asks from us: to make girls and boys understand what equality is. That is why I feel this Library so close to my project,
R: Let's talk about Don Juan and your decision to visit this project. Did you have expectations; did you have qualms before arriving here?
K: As a person, and as a psychologist, I like to put myself in the middle of things in order to form my opinions and considerations from my own experience. And that is what I wanted, so I said: "I will go, and see". What I find here is a very lively and loving place where children are nourished. To go and make a thing like this without formal authority backing you up can only be done by creating trust. If you are going to do something that works you must have the authority that stems out, not from formality, but from authentic contact. Not from formal authority, but from a genuine authority, placed on trust. You are not exercising authority, you are the authority because of the mutuality the children and you have created between yourselves. You may call it something else, the thing is that the children know that you stand for something, it's not only that you want to be friends, but that you stand for something. That relationship is building on mutuality.
K: Yes, like the psychoanalytical rapport that must be built before analysis. But also what Paulo Freire suggests. He knew that in order to work with people you have to create a safe place where they can speak up and be authentic because they feel there is no risk.
This sort of mutuality empowers the child in a relationship of true gold and is a nourishing experience. Non-formal education starts with this gift, it gives the child much more than just the ability to read, it gives her... perhaps a lifestyle. The child will experience this as a fact that constitutes her in the future as a grown woman. This is where I speak of authority that builds a person upward, as a non-formal authority because trust is at the bottom of it.
R: What were your expectations of this project, from the pictures you had seen or maybe the reports you had read?
K: I had no images of this because at first, I could not imagine how you can build a house from bamboo. It was very difficult to imagine. And on the other hand, I had the attitude of "I'll see" with the thinking to support women and with our fund to support female children in a place where an earthquake had taken place if it were to be a successful project it would be a very meaningful thing to do.
R: And now, you have not only seen a bamboo house but are also living in one! So you really put yourself in the middle of things!
K: Yes, I supposed this is very imposed on me since I was very young, I am comfortable out of my comfort zone. What I really like about the loving place you have created in the Library is that the locals came to your meeting yesterday, that is something that gives this project several generations of life.
R: What was your impression of yesterday's event? We were holding a rendering of accounts or an annual presentation of our income and expenditures, as a non-profit. Had you been to such a meeting before? What do you think of it?
K: First I was astonished at the relaxed manner in which people allow themselves to be 2 and a quarter hours late! In my country, this is not thinkable and the next surprise is that when they came it just went on and started. Nobody was upset and you all had the air of "we'll start whenever we start". All this because it was raining. This is a very crucial cultural difference, a Dane would be climbing up the walls and being completely neurotic. Then, also that in the middle of this big meeting you had to render long and detailed accounts of budget activity, talk with your guests, and later on, feed the people. I thought the children fit very well. Had it been European children they would have been extremely bored and fidgeting and asking for attention and being impatient or impossible. And here, they sat reading and there was very little fussing about, they behaved in a way like their place was receiving people from outside, and that they were not guests; they were the owners. They were hosting the event, that was a beautiful thing to see. It was their place and they were hostess and also the informality of the theater piece. I found the theatrical piece done in a non-naturalistic manner very different from what we would do in Denmark, except for the very gifted child who went on and said her piece according to the situation.
R: You must consider that the theatrical training is somewhat recent and we work under difficult circumstances, such as the informality in which children show up for rehearsal. You see, children come on their own, their parents do not put any value on their child's education; so, we depend on the children that walk on their own to the Library, and sometimes they don't show up on time, like yesterday, because their parents took them someplace else. Margaret Atwood says something about childhood that stuck with me: "childhood is a place where everything is enormous and you have no power".
K: I find this extremely courageous and I find it extremely beautiful the way the Library is open for the children without the need for the representation of their adults; it's them who decide to come. Confidence and trust are within the same family phenomenon. By trusting the children, they begin to trust you, you are creating the center of power, not power as we generally see it but as strength. I think this is the heart of the mistake western civilization makes, they don't realize this is another kind of power, it is power in itself.
R: I must admit we have done this not so intuitively; we have made a point of avoiding an adult-centric dynamic in our relationship with the children. We have avoided replicating the dynamics of parent-teacher meetings where plans are made and decisions are taken without the participation of the children. The bright side of the parents' lack of interest in their children's education is that we get to work directly with the children that are able to walk themselves to the Library, on their own. In many cases, we haven't met their parents yet. Yesterday three parents came to the meeting and I was really happy to meet them, I can hear their children telling them about the Library at the kitchen table and out of curiosity, their parents showed up!
K: Yes! That's it! This is a completely different way of working. And it is working!
R: Tell me something about your conversations with the volunteers.
K: They are extremely committed to your project. I think they are very cultured and engaged. They do understand what you are doing and are really appreciative of the opportunity to be part of this.
R: Do you think that we have been able to convey to our volunteers to avoid colonial mindset, they are here not only to teach our children but to learn from this culture.
K: Yes, very much so.
R: Can you imagine 5 years from now; what this project will be looking like?
K: I think the nucleus of the project will be the same: to make a child's self-respect happen. You cannot teach that, but you can create an ambiance where that may thrive, and that is exactly what you are doing. I think, five years from now you may have a satellite, or more than one, were the young people thru the inspiration of this Mecca will develop in different places and have communication between them and yours, so that it will have the space to develop. After what we have spoken about here I think it is important to point out that this project contributes to the development of the feminine side in both sexes and the femininity in society because that is from where creative ideas and life comes and patriarchy has done quite the opposite and has civilization by its throat. And I think we are finally doing something about it, from different positions and now this project has joined the march.
Now, you tell me, how do you envision this project, five years from now?
R: Pretty much as you do, only that I do not think of satellites but more of a circuit of collaborating Libraries along the coast of Manabí, a constellation of safe, respectful, and Liberating Libraries where young girls and their friends go to reach out to their potentiality.