Written by Sarah Grucza, Ash Center Communication Specialist
Nisreen Haj Ahmad MC/MPA ’08, a former visiting research fellow at the Ash Center, spent the first seven years of her professional career enmeshed in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team. By the end of her tenure as a Palestinian negotiator, “I was depressed,” she recalls. “I studied law to defend the rights of oppressed people.” However, the minutiae and grinding pace of negotiations led Haj Ahmad to question whether the power of law was sufficient to impact the lives of ordinary Palestinians.
In 2007, wanting to gain new perspective, she seized an opportunity to attend Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) as a mid-career student.
Finding Community Organizing
At HKS, Haj Ahmad met Ash Center resident faculty affiliate Marshall Ganz, the Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing, and Civil Society. Through his courses on public narrative and community organizing, she began to see that community advancement is not solely propelled by legal negotiations or incremental progress hammered out on the sidelines of major international donor meetings.
While she was a student at Harvard, Haj Ahmad led a campaign with her colleague Sa’ed Atshan in support of the rights of Palestinians, and it sparked a passion for community organizing. “We need the law,” Haj Ahmad says, “but we also need more power on the ground.”
“I decided to return to Jordan and focus on organizing, helping people organize campaigns based on their stories, and rooted in their values,” she says. This venture was not without its own unique challenges. In Jordan, she remarks, “there is not a strong culture of organized activism for demanding your rights.”
To help build capacity for community organizing, Haj Ahmad cofounded Ahel (أهل), a center offering training and coaching to develop leadership and support grassroots campaigns in Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. Using organizing methodology taught in Ganz’s courses, Ahel has trained more than 3,000 activists over the past 10 years. “More importantly,” Haj Ahmad notes, “we've coached and trained 17 campaigns in the region.”
Standing with Teachers
An important tenet of Ahel’s mission is to foster collaborative leadership. In 2015, the organization’s success with this grassroots model attracted the attention of the International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency focused on labor standards and social protections. The ILO had recently concluded studies on pay equity in Jordan and knew that women, especially teachers in private-sector education, were receiving significantly less than men—often less than the minimum wage.
Ahel took up the charge to help the teachers organize and advocate for better pay and benefits. Ahel met with as many teachers as possible, beginning with a one-on-one listening campaign to build relationships—an organizing practice that Haj Ahmad learned from Ganz’s teaching—and recruited, trained, and developed a core leadership team of 10 teachers.
From there, Ahel was with the teachers for every step of the campaign. First, the organization provided training on crafting a public narrative, showing teachers how to tell their own story, engage others in a shared story, and offer sources of hope for urgent action. Ahel then partnered with teachers to develop a campaign strategy as well as the campaign’s organizational structure. Ahel did not try to guide or otherwise influence the teachers’ thinking on the issues, but simply developed their capacity for deliberation, sustained motivation, and action.
Along the way, Ahel adapted to the challenges that inevitably cropped up, adding legal education for the teachers and hosting popular education circles, designed to enable the teachers to discuss their preconceived notions about agency, authority, accountability, and collective decision-making. The campaign saw incremental but significant successes with the teachers playing a crucial role in increasing pay, making it stable year-round, and introducing important enforcement mechanisms.
From Campaign to Movement
As important as individual campaign work is, Haj Ahmad has taken Ganz's teachings about building a network of community organizing cultures to heart. “We, so far, have trained 24 community organizing coaches in Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon,” she says. Haj Ahmad is herself part of international community organizing culture as a member of the Leading Change Network, a collaborative of organizers around the world.
"Nisreen has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in engaging others developing their own capacity to translate values—dignity, respect, equality, compassion, solidarity—into effective collective action, the craft of organizing," says Ganz. "At the core of her own leadership practice is development of the leadership of others as coaches, trainers, and organizers."
Haj Ahmad hopes that the existing community organizing culture they helped cultivate in the region will allow Ahel to expand its efforts, thereby helping more people organize for the issues they care about. Ahel and Haj Ahmad are now driven by the slogan, “from campaigns to movements,” she says. “We don't want to become a large team as an organization, but we do want to grow in number so that we have more impact. Now is the time to take it to scale.”