Teachers of empowerment

Gail Straub (photo by Dion Ogust)

Gail Straub (photo by Dion Ogust)

In Lebanon, where over a million Syrian refugees comprise nearly a fifth of the population, Mona Hassouna has spent most of her life working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) to support the refugees. Part Syrian herself, Hassouna told Gail Straub of the Empowerment Institute that the interventions supplied by aid organizations are important, including food, water, and safe shelters. “But there’s been no paradigm for taking care of the interior life, the self-efficacy of a refugee,” reported Straub. “That’s why she felt our program could be so helpful.”

Hassouna was one of 40 people from the Mideast, Africa, and India who came to Rhinebeck in January for a training in the IMAGINE initiative created by Straub and her husband, David Gershon. The four-day IMAGINE workshop is designed to give individuals a sense of agency that helps them take control of their lives in any situation, from the Syrian refugee camps to the slums of Nairobi to the brothels of India.

The workshop was first devised for use in the U.S., where it continues to be offered in prisons, schools, hospitals, businesses, and other settings. “It seems absurd, but 35 years ago, we sat at that little table, and we designed this four-day intervention,” said Straub, pointing to the kitchen in her West Hurley home. “David and I met in 1980. He was living in New York, I was in Boston, and we fell in love and moved here. We were young, naïve hippies, classic kids of 60s, in the vanguard of the human potential movement. And we said, ‘Okay, what’s our life going to be about?’ I said, ‘Let’s empower people,’ back when that word was fresh.”


For years, they gave their workshop in the U.S., Europe, Russia, China, steadily refining and improving their techniques. In 2009, Gershon wrote Social Change 2.0, a handbook for using the methods he and Straub had developed. The book reached the hands of Anita Shankar, an international public health specialist at Johns Hopkins University, who has worked in developing countries around the world. She told them, said Straub, “You don’t know this, but this four-day intervention is the missing piece in the development space. We send billions of dollars for AIDS prevention, cookstoves, schools, all critical things, and meanwhile the vast majority of the people the money is going to don’t have an internal driver that allows them to be successful.”

She convinced Straub and Gershon in 2010 to try out a pilot program, training NGO workers in the administration of the workshop. The initial focus was on women, who tend to be more disenfranchised and yet are responsible for raising children and running households. Shankar, as a behavioral scientist, studied the effects of the program in Kenya and in Pune, India. She found that women who had taken the workshop were three times more likely to improve their livelihood, ten times more likely to take better care of their health, and 15 times more likely to improve their relationships. “A lot of women in violent marriages either left or were able to work things through and stand up to their husbands,” related Straub.

The six-day conference for the training of workshop leaders in Rhinebeck is now an annual event. Straub and Gershon invite people from NGOs in developing countries and communicate a methodology that attendees take home to deliver to their communities. For six months, they are supported by conference calls with the organizers, and then they return to Rhinebeck for another session to deepen their skills and receive certification.

At first, Straub had to raise the money to bring students to Rhinebeck, but in the past two years, the entire program has been paid for by Josie Maran Cosmetics, an all-natural make-up company whose motto is “Luxury with a Conscience.” Participants promise, in exchange for the grant, to train a minimum of 200 people, but most graduates of the program train several thousand.

The IMAGINE workshop begins with an assessment by each person of where they are at the present, followed by a consideration of where they would like to be — their dreams and visions. The next step is determining what changes need to made in order to reach that vision, including an examination of the participants’ own limiting beliefs. Finally, people are guided in crafting an intention that will support the next step on their way to growth. The four steps become tools for facing ongoing challenges. The workshop materials have been translated into 15 languages and multiple dialects. There’s even a version of the curriculum in visual images for illiterate people.

This year, two young women from India attended the training. Mandakini Desale is focused on helping women in the sex trade in Pune, while Namrata Kanuga has brought dance therapy into the brothels of Calcutta as a means of empowerment. “It gives women the feeling that instead of their body being a prison, it could actually be free in dance,” said Straub. “Some women have left the sex trade and gone back to the villages where they grew up. They went to their parents, who sold them into sex trafficking, and offered them forgiveness.”

In November, Straub went to Jordan to observe IMAGINE programs run by the Jordan River Foundation (JRF), the country’s largest NGO. Workshop leaders there have pioneered the application of the initiative in a devout Muslim country. The materials focus on seven different life areas, such as health, education, stopping violence against women. One of those categories is sexuality, which is difficult for both men and women to talk about in Jordan. JRF had the program materials translated into Arabic and brought in respected religious scholars to weave passages from the Koran into the workshop. “These universal teachings about agency, self-confidence, trust, having a positive attitude toward life — they’re inherent in any contemplative teaching, in any faith tradition,” said Straub.  “People began to say, ‘This gives me a sense of dignity, hope, a practical sense that within unspeakably difficult circumstances, I have options.’”

Although empowering women has remained a priority, NGO workers discovered they could only go so far without addressing the problems of men. “Women would start to get strong, then they’d go home, and the father or father-in-law or husband would — well, ‘undermine’ would be a gentle word,” said Straub. “We realized if empowerment wasn’t family-wide, we could never make the systematic, fundamental changes that are needed.”

This year’s conference in Rhinebeck included several men, including Aziz Royesh, founder of a high school for impoverished children in Kabul, Afghanistan. Many of his students have gone on to college. “He based his school on teaching people to think for themselves, that our birthright is to dream,” noted Straub. “At the conference, when someone would say, ‘This is too hard,’ he’d say, ‘If I could do this under the Taliban, while getting death threats for saying men and women should learn equally, then I think you can manage.’ He raised the bar for us.”

Another conference attendee, Nancy Wambui Wamwea, works for a Kenyan NGO that encourages women to run for political office at the village, regional, and national level. “But without agency,” said Straub, “those women are not going to be effective.”

Although Straub is gratified that she has something to offer her students, she relies on them to tell her what works best in their countries. “We never go into the communities where our work is offered,” she said. “They come here to the Hudson Valley, and we teach what we’ve learned in the last decades. They love to have us visit. But only they can figure out the subtle translations that will make this workshop effective in their communities. It now has genes from Africa and India and Muslim countries. That’s really why it works.”


For more information, see https://www.empowermentinstitute.net and https://www.imagineprogram.net.