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July 1, 2021

Nia Tero's Leadership Fellows Program

By Joel Cerda

The Leadership Fellows Program was established in 2018 to strengthen emergent leaders from Indigenous territories where Nia Tero partners with Indigenous organizations.

The idea was to do things differently. Rather than impart an executive leadership training with a western outlook, the intention was to design a program modeled after Indigenous teaching methods and concepts of leadership. The initial pilot program had a global focus. This experience taught us that adapting the program per region would facilitate learning opportunities and context familiarity.

As a result, in 2020, together with LifeMosaic, we embarked on a journey to design a Leadership Fellows Program for the Amazon region. The challenges were many, from creating an adequate curriculum, including the necessary soft skills and other qualities to be learned - all framed under Indigenous concepts on leadership - to adapting the program to a multilingual online format given COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The Leadership Fellows Program kicked off in the spring with a welcome gathering followed by a first training just last month, which had the participation of 4 Wayana fellows from Suriname, 2 Patamona and 2 Akawaio fellows from Guyana, and 3 Achuar fellows from Ecuador. For a whole week, fellows and peers had the opportunity to share their experiences, further reflect on their territory and identity, hear from Indigenous leaders, and have an in-depth discussion on the concept of leadership. There was even space to have lunch together and share a traditional meal.

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During the week, fellows shared their fear of losing their cultures and territories due to the impacts of globalization and encroachment of their territories by extractive industries. They further emphasized a collective need to do more for a proper intergenerational transmission of knowledge within their territories. They worry that if ancestral knowledge is not passed on to the young ones, it will result in further loss of their traditions, languages and most importantly, their forests. Finally, fellows also shared that they hope to become stronger leaders with greater knowledge to protect their territories. When asked what a good Indigenous leader looks like, they responded that this person should be a kind but strong leader that knows the traditional customs to connect with the people but also has learned the necessary skills to navigate in the western world and interact with outsiders.

The first training provided a much-needed space for emergent and experienced Indigenous leaders to share their perspectives on what it means to be a leader in their territory. Fellows highlighted that it is good to be given leadership training opportunities, especially considering these are limited and often not offered in their native language.

To conclude, I want to share 5 key learnings from the program design and this first leadership training.

  1. There is an urgent need for Indigenous leadership training. The fellowship had the participation of experienced and emergent leaders who pointed out that they have few or no opportunities for leadership training/development.
  2. Mother tongue education is a must. The novelty of this year’s Leadership Fellows Program was the adaptation of all material to other languages and the use of interpretation. This expanded our reach and facilitated the participation of individuals that wouldn’t have participated otherwise because of language limitations.
  3. Improved communications infrastructure and technological equipment should be provided in an increasingly online world. Although most fellows were able to connect, those in very remote areas had a difficult time connecting through audio and video, which hindered their participation and full engagement.
  4. Going global is not the best way to approach local leadership training. A regional focus with local examples that fellows can relate to is the first step towards facilitating learning opportunities, initial connectedness, and context familiarity.
  5. An advanced leadership training should be designed in the near future. Although experienced and emergent leaders participated in the training and learned from one another, it seemed that the more experienced leaders would benefit from an advanced training that teaches them other sets of skills needed in their current roles and beyond.