A visit to iLEAP: Seattle’s quiet, boring work in support of revolution

WTO Seattle riots

The “Battle in Seattle” street protests around the 1999 meeting here of the World Trade Organization left much of the rest of the world with the impression that Seattle is chock full of subversive people, would-be revolutionaries who want to change the world.

And it is, still, even though I bet half the people on the street these days don’t even know what WTO stands for.

Today’s Seattle subversives are much more low-key, superficially boring even — smiling at you in their wrinkled clothing, offering tea and cookies, mumbling quietly about equity and justice and gently nudging you toward whatever might be their most ambitious goal.

Take the iLEAP program, for example.

This non-profit group operates out of a small space in the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle’s Wallingford District. If you’ve been there, you’ll know it’s also Granola Head Central for our fair city. On their website, iLEAP describes itself as:

“An international nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire and renew social leaders and global citizens through integrated leadership programs that ignite hope and transformation in the world. We conduct programs in Seattle, Washington and collaborate with social leaders throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America to build regional networks of change leaders who are connected through a values-based approach to leadership and committed to building strong global partnerships for social change.”

Wow, that sounds really boring! Inspiring people, collaborating, renewing, doing values-based leadership and partnerships for social change. Do you know how often I hear that kind of mush? Sheesh ….

But something about iLEAP made me curious, so I’ve been hanging around their space at Good Shepherd trying to learn more. On Thursday, as pictured below, the 2012 iLEAP fellows (most of them women, actually, coming from disadvantaged parts of Central America, India and Africa) celebrated the end of the program and were heading back to work in their communities.

The 2012 iLeap Fellows

Looked like a good time and they had free beer, so I wandered around to find out what they had learned during their three-four month stay.

Put simply, what iLEAP does is arrange for a small group of folks working in poor or disenfranchised communities around the world to come to Seattle and re-charge their batteries as activists, learn new skills and meet folks here. It still doesn’t sound that revolutionary or subversive, but it is and here’s why:

Britt Yamamoto

“We believe real, lasting change is only possible through relationships,” said Britt Yamamoto, executive director at iLEAP. “And relationships are scalable.”

That last bit is sort of a jibe at some of the more traditional humanitarian or anti-poverty schemes which often focus more on meeting the technical or logistical needs of a poor community — digging a well, building a school, vaccinating kids — while neglecting what might be called the ‘human infrastructure.’

iLEAP places its priorities in reverse order and aims first at strengthening community leaders.

“Many programs aimed at fighting poverty, or the ills of poverty, seem to operate with the assumption that things just happen if you bring in all the right tools,” Yamamoto said. “They don’t, not unless you have people in the community who can rally everyone to make use of those tools … and sometimes make use of them in a way that threatens the power structure.”

Hey, this dapper guy is starting to sound like a revolutionary.

“It’s not about us bringing change to them but rather about us helping them become the keys to change,” said J.B. Hoover, a board member at iLEAP who helped Yamamoto found the program and is now Executive Director of the American Friends of the Asian Rural Institute. “We think it’s quite different from what many other organizations are doing in this arena.”

So what did the iLEAP fellows think?

  • “The only way we can create change is by first convincing the community it is in control of the change,” said Joany Garcia, who is returning to Honduras to work on women’s rights and health issues. “I had the desires and the dreams to do this, now I feel I have learned more skills and about how to remain strong.”
  • “I learned that I need to center myself first, to be focused on what I can do to help others,” said Alaine Uwambaye, who works at a Seattle-funded girls school (which I posted on last year, Gashora Academy) in southern Rwanda.
  • “I’ve always know that change starts at the community level, but wasn’t sure how to make that happen,” said Sarah Omega, who works with Kenyan women to support women with fistula, an injury that occurs in childbirth and which often ends up stigmatizing women. “It’s not so simple as telling women to take power in a culture that discourages it. I’ve learned better how to help women do this for themselves.”
  • “I work with an indigenous farming community displaced from their land,” said Robert Machado, the token male in the group. Machado works in a remote part of Gujarat state in western India with his primary goal getting children into the educational system. Poor farming families are disadvantaged by finances, discriminatory policies and the demands of their livelihood. “From talking to my other fellows, I’ve learned that there is no single solution. I have many new ideas now from seed collecting to simply making sure women have an equal voice.”

Finally, as evidence that iLEAP — however warm and fuzzy its website description may sound — is, in its own way, pushing up against some powerful, entrenched forces, consider fellow Danessa Luna of Guatemala. Luna works on the horrific issue of violence against women.

You’d think that even an oppressive dictatorship would be okay with trying to reduce violence against women. But Luna has experienced a lot of opposition at home and came to Seattle as much for emotional support as for learning new skills.

I didn’t get a chance to talk with her much, maybe because I’m a reporter and too much visibility can spell trouble. Go to Luna’s bio on the iLEAP site. The information was pulled down because they didn’t want to put her at risk.

“This isn’t just cultural exchanges we’re doing here,” smiled Yamamoto. “But when you’re trying to affect serious change from the ground up, to inspire people to go back to their communities and do the hard and sometimes dangerous work of social justice, there’s no reason to try to draw unwanted attention to yourself.”

Now I get it. For iLEAP, the disguise that this stuff is boring is just a more clever form of subversion.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Amy Hagopian

    That was inspirational. Nice story, Tom. And I hope it’s food for thought for all the technocrats out there who think what the world needs is another gadget!