If you want to effect change, you must be the change you want to see. To be the change you want to see, the first step is to accept your own narrative and be vocal about it in a way that empowers you. Allowing powerful stories of triumph in the face of adversity to resonate, is Ayla Schlosser, the founder of Resonate.
While still a little girl, Ayla was convinced that she could do simply anything that her brother could do: from climbing trees, playing new games, trying to join the football team when he did. It never occurred to her that she and her brother might experience differences in treatment or opportunities that were afforded to them - as she got older, she found that she had to fight to hold onto that notion.
Right after college when Ayla Schlosser entered the workforce, her eagerness to prove herself and do meaningful work gave her the determination to do everything right, and to advocate for herself and get what she deserved. Ayla was not one to fall into the statistical demarcation of women who get paid less and don’t get promoted because they don’t negotiate. At each appropriate turn, she made sure to ask for her due – a raise or a promotion – and within a year, she managed to get two promotions and increased her salary by 150%. Proud of herself no less, it was to her great disappointment that only at this point had she begun making as much as her male colleague who started working at around the same time as she did. It wasn’t that he was doing better work, but that society taught him to value himself differently than her.
Being a middle class white woman from the United States, she realized that her struggle though difficult in its own right, was comparatively easier to deal with. In many countries in the world the struggles that women face are not about body image or salary levels but are about human rights, health, economic independence and safety. Women are rarely given the option to just be, and to be who and what they want, they are forced to fight against the imposition of gender norms that dictate what women should think, feel, act and look like.
Ayla met one of the biggest turning points of her life when she realized that no one knew better than she did about who or what she wanted to be. If she didn’t speak up for herself, no one else could, or would. It felt powerful when she corrected someone’s assumptions about who she was for the first time. It made her realize that she had the ability to define herself, and that she was willing to fight so that others could do the same. That led her to found and launch Resonate.
While working as a community organizer, Ayla would work to recruit and train fellows, staff and volunteers. She would help prepare people to be leaders in their own communities.Getting it right means engendering local leadership to the point where the community is sufficiently equipped to take on and run community initiatives and campaigns on their own. Through this process, Ayla first got into training and leadership development, and quickly grew to learn that developing local leaders was something she most enjoyed. Of the many elements that it involved, Ayla was drawn to personal storytelling after she saw how transformational it was for people to be able to take ownership of their own narratives. They found a sense of power in being able to articulate who they were, what they cared about, and what their goals were in a way that was compelling, dynamic and on their own terms. Ayla saw potential in the incredibly powerful tool, and wanted to use it to elevate the voices that most needed to be heard: the voices of women in the developing world. She realised that she simply had to find a way to do it herself, and she moved to Rwanda to start Resonate.
Resonate is an organization dedicated to harnessing the power of the individual voice. Learning to tell one’s own personal stories, and define ourselves in a way of our choosing, makes people stronger, more authentic and more effective. For women, the ability to have confidence in who they are rather than conforming to who the world asks them to be is the first step toward their own success. It is also the first step toward creating communities that respect and celebrate each individual – regardless of background, race, religion, or gender. It empowers women and girls through storytelling, working with them to build confidence, agency, and leadership. Using a collaborative approach Ayla partners with organizations on ground to offer the workshop to complement and enhance existing programs.
Resonate differs from a typical public speaking course because it is rooted in storytelling. The women who participate in the course develop a narrative that draws on their past experiences, and tells a story about how the choices they have made in their lives lead them to where they are today. Through this process women are asked to open up – to themselves and to each other – about the challenges they have overcome. They identify their areas of strength, and present those strengths through the story they tell. The curriculum not only asks women to view themselves as strong and confident, but it helps others see them that way, too.
Founding and launching Resonate was the best decision Ayla counts on ever having made, but it has also been the most challenging of the lot. From funders to family members – there were many who openly doubted that she could find the resources, partners, and constituents to achieve her ambitious goal. When you hear others begin to doubt you, it is difficult not to let that seep in, especially when self-doubt is already lurking in the shadows. Fighting against just that through Resonate, Ayla is a stellar example of how one should not let other peoples’ opinions or perceptions of them fuel their own hesitation and keep them from what they really are capable of or passionate about achieving.
Ayla’s first workshop in Rwanda was with a group of 54 women who were in college. After being in school together for three years, the week at Resonate brought them closer and made them empathize with each other on a whole new level. They knew each other’s fears and they knew each other’s struggles, and their ability to share those things with one another changed the dynamic of that group. A young woman named Benigne was inspired to get involved in her community in a new way as a result of the course. As a journalist, she spent her days telling stories about other people, yet she was rarely called upon to tell her own story. By the end of her time at the workshop, she was speaking incredibly eloquently about how she had struggled to pay off her secondary school fees to achieve her dream of going to University. While in her final year at University, Benigne had plans to go back to her high school to tell her story, and use her own success as a way of motivating current students to do what it took to make it to University too. When Ayla met with her after the workshop, Benigne told her that she played the recording that Resonate made of her story over and over to herself, to help remind her of what she has accomplished, and what she still hopes to achieve. The practical benefits of the training help women become better advocates for themselves in all aspects of their lives. It helps them stand up for themselves at home, be influential in their communities, and communicate their unique values and skill sets in a professional context.
Ayla looks back at her life and reflects that it was a privileged one: growing up in a loving family, attending a prestigious college and finding meaningful work after graduation. Yet working internationally and as a community organizer taught her that her own liberty and happiness are tied up in the freedoms of others. Her work is driven by the notion that each person deserves to live safely, prosperously and with dignity. That is not yet the world we live in, and the path toward that goal is rarely clear and is never easy. To Ayla, being a changemaker means recognizing your own ability to influence and effect change, and using all of the tools within your power to do so. A changemaker is someone who leaves no stone unturned in their path toward creating a more empathetic, inclusive, and just world.
The challenges that women face are not strictly material. In order to be able to take advantage of new opportunities women also have to believe that they are capable and deserving of those opportunities. This will only come as women are able to increase their confidence in themselves, and in each other. That is the next step for Resonate.
Working from the premise that it is not enough just to ask women to speak out, but that we must give them the tools they need to make their voices resonate, Ayla is the voice of reason that brings out many, many voices from behind the veil of silence.
Written byKirthi Jayakumar
Kirthi Jayakumar is a lawyer, activist and writer based in Chennai. She has worked extensively with grassroots organizations and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, an initiative for women’s rights. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on International Law,called A38.