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How eight refugees proved me wrong

By MOVE Congress host Caroline Jessop, Clear Meetings

A few months ago, eight incredible people made me realise I was wrong. It made me feel deeply uncomfortable, yet it’s changed my perspective and turned into a very valuable piece of learning.

I was running a conference workshop to highlight the experience of refugees, commissioned by ISCA (one of my favourite clients). One by one, eight refugees took to the stage and shared a heartfelt, compelling story with the audience. I remember glancing at my watch, with a growing sense of surprise that these speakers had not only nailed the brief, but kept to time. The breakout conversations that followed were magical. My client was stoked. I realised that I was wrong.

You see, this was not the session that I had designed. It was definitely not an approach that I recommended. Experience has taught me that eight people speaking in quick succession is high risk. Given the chance, most people will talk for too long and go off topic. It is a recipe for chaos. I had planned for the Moderator to present a summary of the stories: feeling it would be easier for the audience to keep track, and save a lot of traffic on and off the stage.

Despite my advice, my client was absolutely adamant that each refugee should speak. Their usual flexibility disappeared, replaced with steadfast clarity: Having each person speak was the only way to meet the objectives of the session. And they were right. The audience was gripped, speakers lit up the room and the conversations that followed were packed with hungry dialogue.

As the session unfurled I came to realise that I had made some pretty lazy assumptions:

  • I’d got distracted from the primary session objective – hearing the stories of the refugees. Instead my focus was on being slick and running to time.
  • I’d assumed that the refugees were the same as the (usually white) people that conferences often put on stage. People that are regularly invited to offer their expertise, and have become accustomed to doing so at length, even when time is short.
  • I’d made no adjustments to my expectations. I’d simply applied ‘business as usual’ thinking to a very extraordinary group.

These are people with incredible stories, who have faced immense challenges to simply stay alive. People hungry to be heard, on behalf of themselves, their families and their communities. Many are the survivors of unmentionable atrocities – of course it’s no problem to stick to the brief of a simple conference workshop!

Sometimes, being wrong is the very best thing to be, even if it comes with discomfort and embarrassment. I learned so much from the stories of the speakers, and also how easy it is to be lazy even under the guise of advocacy. I’d like to thank Monika Rešetar and Khalida Popal for standing firm in your assertion that we should do things differently. You were right. Thank you, you have changed my perspective.

In the words of one of the speakers:

“Whatever you do for me but without me, you do against me”. Mahatma Gandhi

Caroline Jessop has hosted the MOVE Congress twice, in 2019 and 2021 – you can meet her at the MOVE Congress 2023, too! In the meantime, find out more about her work at Clear Meetings, where this blog post was originally published.

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