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Nurturing the Next Generation of Indigenous Leaders

By Ambrosio Amper Jr.

Peacebuilding is a dynamic but slow process. Conflicts and issues evolve and may not be transformed or resolved in a lifetime. Hence, nurturing a new breed of leaders advocating for non-violent means is essential. Together with our partner organization PASAKK, we have now started engaging indigenous youth as second-line leaders for conflict transformation.
Indigenous youth assist their traditional leader in a ritual
© forumZFD

In the Caraga region, one important partner of forumZFD in its conflict transformation projects is Panaghiusa Alang sa Kaugalingnan ug Kalingkawasan Inc. (PASAKK), translated as Unity for Self-Determination and Liberation. As an NGO representing and composed of Manobo indigenous people in Agusan del Sur province in Mindanao, Philippines, PASAKK has tried over the years to become more inclusive. Having traditionally been led by male elders, PASAKK has recently achieved the milestone of transitioning from male domination to equal gender representation on its board. The other recent outlook is getting the youth more involved in shaping the future. This way participatory and inclusive leadership structures are strengthened within PASAKK, which then allow the organization to advocate for indigenous people’s needs more coherently and sustainably.

Evolution of the Roles of Women and Youth

In patriarchal communities like the Manobo tribe, youth and women were traditionally viewed as assets to perform specific tasks on a leader-patriarch’s territory. Upon reaching adolescence, men were expected to have mastered the craft of hunting and were trained to fight. Women, on the other hand, were assigned to perform domestic roles. While women were confined to become good wives and would sometimes be married off to an opposing clan as a way of resolving inter-tribal conflicts, young men were eyed to be leader-successors after earning the respect of the community.

Traditional leadership back then was characterized by age, experience, maturity, and capacity. While both men and women could do farming, leadership positions were reserved to the old and men. Only when the health of the existing leader deteriorated did the community through its council of elders choose a successor – with the greatest preference to the eldest male member of the family. For the potential successor, this would mean proving his capacity including skills in fighting fearlessly for protection of the tribe and winning arguments to resolve conflicts and persuade constituents. Young women, on the other hand, had the slimmest chance to hold important community positions - only as they practiced healing and mastered the rituals, they could become Baylan, the tribal priestess. Young men had a greater chance of leading only after showing off muscular traits such as fierceness and bravery.

However, PASAKK challenged that traditional notion by welcoming women in its leadership positions. Bae Becky Barrios, PASAKK’s first female and longest-serving General Secretary, along with the women leaders composing half of the council of elders, the governing board of the organization, shares how her leadership experience transformed the community in realizing that women, too, could lead. While this opportunity for women to be a voice for themselves resonates with women’s struggle for recognition and representation across the globe, PASAKK would like to further cultivate it by passing on the awareness and empowerment to the future culture bearers of the organization.

Bae Becky (in pink shirt) guides a young PASAKK volunteer.

Tracing the Seeds for Service

One young adult member of PASAKK shares her fascination as a child of her parent’s dedication to work for PASAKK - with all the time it demands and despite the lack of an attractive financial remuneration. For a time, she worked in a private agency which sold synthetic farm inputs – an area that contradicts what she learned growing up in the community. She further shares that later when she decided to volunteer as a young adult in PASAKK money could not equate the sense of purpose when seeing indigenous people being organized, when abused women and children are able to seek justice, and when the new batches of youth learn things that are not taught in state-regulated schools. Finally, affirming the decision to leave her job in synthetic farming materials, she is amazed how PASAKK-assisted farmers look beyond the capitalist view of just producing in volumes, earning and profiting while exploiting the soil but instead realize that synthetic farm products would have adverse and irreversible effects on the consumers and the environment.

Career paths of the children of PASAKK’s leaders and volunteers have been informed by community engagement. Another young adult shares how she, as an adolescent, viewed PASAKK as a grassroots institution where distressed people run to. After earning a license in Social Work, she is back volunteering in PASAKK doing community work and assisting the local government unit in providing interventions to abused women and children.

Others who have chosen corporate careers, upon seeing the immense work that is needed to sustain the organization, have left their jobs to serve as administrative and financial officers of the organization.

For them, it was neither about the paper nor the pride for being designated in the humble PASAKK structure. Not even the minimal honoraria that sometimes would be pooled in and divided so every volunteer would have a share. Rather it was about the respect and the relationships that emerged and have been maintained out of it. The young generation knew that PASAKK is where they would flourish as persons of service and as a community.

Empowering the Adult, Empowering the Young

forumZFD through its Leadership Empowerment project supports the existing leaders of its partner organizations in transforming conflicts within their organizations and in their immediate environment. It also supports the traditional ways of passing down indigenous knowledge by nurturing young leaders through participant observation and involving the young in all adult activities.

With forumZFD’s support, youth representation is sought as agreed by the partner organizations such that for each meeting or resolving conflict, one or two youth from the communities are invited to observe and share their views. During discussions, youth representatives are invited to facilitate, to document, and to participate in the planning.

Not only does PASAKK youth support the adult leaders, they also conduct their own planned activities through KPAKK, short for Kabataan Pagmata Alang sa Kahiusahan ug Kalambuan, translated as Youth Awake for Unity and Development. KPAKK organizes summer camps, information awareness, and youth development activities to teach the youth lessons that are otherwise not taught in schools such as child’s rights, rights of the IP, becoming role models, supporting the grassroots, and continuing the good ways of the old.

Youth leaders from PASAKK and other partner organizations plan among themselves possible youth-led activities in conjunction with the activities set by traditional adult leaders.

Through the activities of KPAKK, their fellow youths increase their understanding of power structures within their communities as well as other factors hindering the effective representation of indigenous interests and needs in the context of decades of marginalization and discrimination. Strengthening youth leaders’ agency and capacities as indigenous leaders not only contributes to more inclusive leadership structures within PASAKK and the broader community, it can also counter the challenges to legitimate indigenous self-governance.

Generation gaps and gender roles should not be reasons for exclusion. While the elders carry with them the wisdom, tradition, and customary laws, the younger generations have their energies, potentials, and advantageous exposure to technology. In fact, because of their relative exposure to digital communication, the youth has been particularly important in keeping contact with forumZFD and other organizations who are heavily relying on virtual exchanges during the pandemic. In such manner, the organization is still able to participate in exchanges and updates with its external partners. Putting this all together results in a dynamic picture of an organization that learns from the past, synergizes the present, and prepares for the future.

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