An organization is nothing without the passion and dedication of the team of individuals behind it. Tostan is comprised of talented, committed people ranging from village elders to directors, Community Empowerment Program facilitators and participants to volunteers and interns. Each individual contributes his or her unique personality and skills to further the work of Tostan, thus creating a dynamic environment in which positive change can take place.

We would like to highlight the diversity of interests, talents, and backgrounds within the Tostan team here on the blog in a series entitled Voices of Tostan. Specifically, we will explore what brought each unique voice to Tostan and why Tostan’s efforts to bring about positive social change are significant and meaningful to each individual.

The summer before starting as an intern at Tostan’s D.C. office, I graduated high school in Pembroke, New Hampshire. The previous year, while participating in an advanced studies summer program called “Changing the World,” I learned how non-violence and humanization are tools that can be implemented to create positive social change. After the course ended, I felt the need to become more engaged with the world. I sought a way to assume a more active role in my education, to explore possibilities outside the confines of textbook lessons and rote memorization. To pursue these aspirations, I chose to take a gap year before entering college at The George Washington University where I am planning to study journalism and international affairs.

Through a connection to the Bhutanese refugee community in my hometown, I decided to spend the first half of the year traveling through India and Nepal for a mixed experience of tourism, volunteer work, and non-traditional education.

For the second half of the year, I researched internship programs in Washington, D.C. that would bring me full-circle from my hands-on experiences traveling and seeing problems firsthand to a position working with the issues in a more organized, effective manner. Coming from a town with just over 7,000 residents and a fairly homogeneous population, I knew the year ahead would be mentally and emotionally challenging in my quest to gain a deeper understanding both of myself and the nature of the world beyond the limits of my community.

Fortunately, Tostan’s website surfaced during my search. As I read through the project descriptions and articles, I realized that interning for Tostan would not mean choosing between an experience with women’s empowerment, rural education, sustainability, or community development, but would mean gaining an experience that approaches the interplay between all these topics as a method for development. An internship at Tostan would expose me to methods of creating social change on several fronts to holistically prepare me for a career in social justice and community development.

Before leaving for India, I submitted an application to Tostan’s Internship Program and bought a copy of Half the Sky. I hoped I would be able to use the lessons and experiences I gained abroad to contribute a new perspective to an organization that does such meaningful work on the community level. As I backpacked through northern India and volunteered with imprisoned children in Nepal, I saw a scale of poverty and need that overwhelmed me with a heavy sense of helplessness. I remember thinking, ‘If I am accepted to Tostan’s internship program, I will be able to contribute to positive social change in a way that I can’t now.’ My worldview and desire to make a positive impact were growing every day; Tostan seemed like the ideal place to explore those new perceptions.

In Kathmandu, I stayed up all night reading about forced marriages and human trafficking in Half the Sky by the light of my flashlight. When I reached the chapter about Tostan’s work and the villages that declared to abandon female genital cutting, I felt proud of my distant connection to an organization that takes so much time to work with communities, empowering them to make their own choices about their lives. I have enormous respect for the way Tostan gives communities ownership of their decisions for change instead of dictating culturally irrelevant ideas down a detached Western chain of command.

On Thanksgiving Day, I returned to the familiar, safe, and snow-coated world I had always known. But I faced new and unexpected difficulties relating to my friends, many of whom have never left New England. I had no idea how to begin digesting and coming to terms with my experience. Isolated and left out from all the stories of dorm room drama, I sought out my parents’ Peace Corps friends for comforting conversations, finding companionship with others who had more experience with this kind of transition. One of my mom’s friends summarized my feelings by explaining, “On the outside you look and act the same, so everyone assumes you are. But inside, everything is different.”

When I received my acceptance as the Operations and Internship Program Assistant in Tostan’s D.C. office, I was overcome with relief and couldn’t wait to begin. Though I was intimidated by being the youngest intern, it was an enormous comfort to find a community of people who had traveled to similar places and dealt with the same emotional mosaic of inspiration, guilt, discomfort, and sadness that comes from seeing so much hurt without possessing an immediate way to help.

The aspect of Tostan I find most personally rewarding is the atmosphere of our office. The interns and staff members come from extremely diverse backgrounds and speak from a breadth of experiences based on their nationalities, courses of study and career paths. The fact that our team discusses development and world issues from individual experiences makes our jobs that much more personally rewarding. This sense of connection to the work we do ensures that we develop strong ties to Tostan’s mission, incorporating Tostan’s respectful and culturally sensitive approach into our own personal values and daily conduct.

For the past two months, Tostan has not only exposed me to the inner workings of an international non-profit organization, but it has broadened my knowledge of African cultures, traditional practices, and ways of life I never considered having grown up in New England. I realize now that there are two sides to many arguments about cultural practices and approaches to community development, and it’s important to listen to a wide range of perspectives in order to see past our own cultural contexts to gain an insightful understanding of these multi-faceted issues and possible solutions.

The diversity of the interns and staff at the DC office speaks to Tostan’s commitment to gathering a diverse array of perspectives and approaches to gain a deeper insight into different regions, issues, and ways of life. Tostan’s focus on building bridges of understanding causes me to rethink my preconceived notions and subconscious prejudices every day, and it challenges me to respect, listen to, and empower others in my daily interactions while learning methods of increasing education and social justice throughout the international community as a whole.

Voices of Tostan Story by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert, Operations Assistant in the Tostan DC Office