How can love help us create sustainable change? Ghada Alaa Hamdy shares how she does it, both in the humanitarian sector and at home.
“We’re trying really to experience coexistence in a practical way.”
Talk about harassment and how they underestimate the jokes about women, and being an attractive man, or being cool if you do this to girls, or if you catcall someone, or you can just get wherever you want to, if you look nice. Like, all this kind of stuff, it affects how men perceive women, and how they perceive themselves as well.
Hey y’all. I’m Brian Pagán, and this is episode 12 of MindFolk: human creativity and mindful innovation, in a podcast. Today, we’re joined by my dear friend, Ghada Alaa Hamdy. We met at a conscious Tech Summit almost two years ago. And she’s been a source of wisdom and inspiration for me ever since.
This episode is about how love can be a powerful catalyst for cultural change. Ghada will share some examples from her work in the humanitarian sector. But we begin with the story of culture building on a smaller scale. Enjoy.
Food for soul is the gathering that I’ve been doing since August 2017. It’s a safe space where people could come together. And we choose one topic that we would love to learn more about and discuss in a space where everyone is welcome, no judgement, not any one of us has the right to say this is wrong or right. But everyone is welcome to express who they are their opinions, their thoughts.
And first of all, to raise questions that they are curious about, without being scared of looking silly, or too sophisticated or philosophical whatsoever. And I tend to prepare quotes from different religions and backgrounds, about the topic, so that we get to learn about what others have been saying about this question or about this topic.
For example, What is beauty? Or what’s love? Or how do religion and science correlate with each other, and just to get different sides of the story. And then we read these quotes out loud, whoever wants to read the code, he could, or she could. And if you just want to be an observer, you could if you want to listen, if you want to take part, everyone is welcome in whatever form they want to. And then we started discussion, and I have some questions prepared in order to have it more organized. And also, I facilitate with other people from the group. So the ownership is not just for me, but it’s also within everyone else that’s there. And we were able really to create a community out of whatever.
So we’ve had more than 27 topics discussed over the past three years. We’ve been celebrating feasts from different religions, the Bahá’í faith, Islam, Christianity, New Year’s Eve, social gatherings, movie nights and discussion afterwards. So we’re trying really to experience coexistence in a practical way. Not just talking about by the coexistence, and tolerance and diversity, but we try to live it in a practical way and try to learn more about each other, not only about religion, but also where everyone is coming from – everyone’s journey. So it was very uplifting and heartwarming to finally be able to hold that last week.
I believe it. Yeah, I love it. I love the way you describe it: “living coexistence in a practical way.”
That’s fantastic. What’s your favorite meeting, or your favorite gathering of food for soul?
Oh, my gosh, there’s so many. That probably we’ve had over like, maybe 30 topics. But one of them really stood out where we was in the very beginning, actually of Food for Soul. We discussed faith.
And it was a very sensitive topic for some people. But we decided that we want to discuss it together. And we prepared each other for an event. So we said that this topic, we’re going to be very honest and open. So if anyone feels uncomfortable listening to other people’s journey, or listening to different perspectives than the traditional ones that we’re used to, you don’t want to be there, that’s totally fine. Whoever is going to be there needs to be open to receive and also to share if they want to, of course. And it was one of those gatherings where we learn more about how we need to be mindful of the language that we’re using to express our thoughts and journey.
Because we had some incidents where people were sharing about where they are now in life when it comes to faith and religion. But they were using some terminology that was triggering other people in the gathering, but didn’t mean to. But it was a bit of some sharp terminologies or sharp ideas that needed to be maybe mentioned in the more sensitive language and more just a bit of a lower tone towards religion or God or whatsoever can give me an example. So for example, someone was talking about their journey with the with God and how they don’t feel now the connection with God and how they feel that does not exist. And those who believe in God, he was wondering, how do they believe in such things that they cannot see or relate to or whatsoever.
But the language that he was using was a bit harsh to others who felt kind of humiliated, to an extent where they said, because that guy was talking more about, that those who believe don’t really put their mind into practice, they don’t really think that it was kind of accusing those who are not doing that, or who believe in religion, that they might be a bit shallow or superficial, we’re just following the flow of the majority. And we’ll discuss that later on, we’ll discuss that some thoughts that were shared here today and ideas, have no intention to hurt anyone, or to insult or belittle anyone. But it’s a lesson for us, how do we express these thoughts without without being belittling any of us, or how to be more mindful of the language that we’re using.
And I think this gathering was huge step in Food for Soul, because it gave it more a sense of security and safety. People felt that I really shared who I am, where I am, in my journey, that people would appreciate the work that no one told one of them. For example, how dare you say this? or Why are you not believing in God? or Why are you running away from religion whatsoever? No, it was very much appreciated that we know where you’re coming from. Maybe we’re not there, but we understand your worries and your questions.
Yeah. What’s the biggest thing that you’ve learned personally from food for soul?
I think there are a couple of ones. Personally, although that I do believe in diversity and accepting different points of views, it’s so different than saying that you accept this and try to live by this concept. And being able to run such gathering, without holding into your own experience, or holding on to your own thoughts and beliefs, and giving the floors to other people to express who they are. And not trying unconsciously to correct someone or to direct the conversation somewhere. And also accepting real diversity.
Because I always say that I accept diversity. And I accept different points of views and thoughts and ideas. But I get surprised when I’m faced with ones that are totally out of my comfort zone. And sometimes I feel triggered or scared, or I don’t know, responsible also, for other people feeling. It’s not my place. To do this, I have to let go more of this feeling of being responsible for someone or responsible to make the gathering going in a certain direction whatsoever, I really have to let diversity take over.
And consultation also is one of the big lessons of Food for Soul. How do you get to consult with a group of people on the ground rules that we want to have as a group, and how to share the ownership. And know that this is not Ghada’s gathering: this is everyone’s gathering. Everyone has to have a say, because this is what we want to create together. And being able to do that isn’t always easy, actually.
Because you feel at some point, this is my baby. But then it’s really not it was but now it’s everyone’s and this is something that I appreciate that I felt everyone feels this is their space. So they’re keen, they’re curious, they upset sometimes because this happened or that happened because they feel that this is their space. We want to keep it we want to have it going on without any problems. So we need to consult and discuss things openly.
It’s beautiful. How do you walk that fine line between facilitating? And like, while not sort of making it your own thing or taking too much ownership? Like you said, it’s not Ghada’s gathering. It’s everyone’s gathering. So yeah, like how do you do that?
Well, I think one of the very first steps that I decided to take is to like in the beginning, I used to the first two gatherings or three gatherings, it was the one selecting the topic. Because everyone was coming from a different place different background, people didn’t really yet know each other. This feeling of comfort was building up bit by bit. And I felt that maybe for the first two or three gatherings, I can set the foundation, select a topic or two that I know people are very curious about the competition that I had separately with them.
And I think on the third or the fourth gathering, we started having the system of voting for topics. So I would ask everyone to share what is it that you have on your mind? What questions do you want to answer or you want to explore what’s been keeping you up at night? What are the some of the topics that you don’t feel comfortable discussing with anyone that you’re really keen on voicing out your own ideas and thoughts?
And something else is also the facilitating itself. I started asking people to co-facilitate with me. And bit by bit, I started maybe having some people taking over the entire process. And I would only come in if they asked me for help or support, but they are doing it their way. It might be different from what I was doing. But the good thing is that since we have ground rules, we have a good foundation. For example, everyone who gets to facilitate knows that we are not presenting the ideas; we’re facilitating the discussion.
It’s not our place to take the mic and tell people what’s right, what’s wrong. We need to make sure everyone gets a chance to express themselves. So we need to help others understand we need to be mindful of our time. If we’re sharing our thoughts and ideas, we also need to be mindful of if someone is starting a bit maybe to be become more aggressive or to get angry, how do we bring this tone down in a very kind way, and not to ruin it for everyone? So this was kind of a learning process for me and for everyone, I found that it helps people to feel that, okay, this is their space. It’s not just something that we attended at Ghada’s; we are part of this. We facilitate, we suggest the topics, we choose it together.
That’s such… I love how… I love how you’ve managed to create this space.
Because it’s I can imagine it takes a lot of effort to keep it safe, and to keep it nice. But at the same time, you’ve also been able to relinquish the control and allow other people to take ownership of certain things. It’s incredibly impressive. And I, I kind of wish, I hope one day I can join a gathering,
I would love to! Have you ever had to enforce these ground rules?
No! This is the good thing that we were building this together. For example, like the first gathering, some of the rules that yes, were there. For example, this is a safe space. So everyone’s welcome to share their opinions and thoughts. And if we say this out loud, it means that we cannot judge each other, which is so hard to do. Sometimes we feel that we want to, or sometimes when we comment on someone’s comment, it is judging. So how do we kind of try just to throw our ideas on the table, and not attach it to anyone?
Like I don’t have to say what Brian said or Ghada said. I can just speak about the topic itself, the idea itself, so that doesn’t belong to anyone. So no one feels attacked, or whatsoever. And I remember for example, one time we had an incident, I think we’re talking about science and religion, if I’m not mistaken. And a friend of mine came in, she was new to the group, it’s the first time attending something like this at all. And she’s very assertive, and very by directing what she wants to say, in a way that might feel to some people that she doesn’t listen to others. And the way she was voicing out her ideas was upsetting to a lot of the attendees. And when she left, a couple of the friends came to me and said, whether this is our space, we all have a stake in this. We do not want her again, to join us.
And I was like Okay, I get it, but sit and talk about it. And me and another friend of mine, we tried to raise some questions saying that, why is it that we feel this way? What wasn’t that really annoyed us from her attitude. And they were saying that she’s very opinionated. And she doesn’t listen to anyone. She doesn’t get the point of Food for Soul and this is a… safe space. And we should be more comfortable and more like, able to share without being scared of someone picking on something that I said and whatsoever.
And then my friend and I asked the question saying, “Okay, we get it. But don’t you think that doing that would be exactly doing what we criticize our society for?”
Because when we’re unable to take part in other circles and gatherings because we feel not welcome because we are not like them. And weren’t we as well, like this somehow in different on different spectrum? We’re just… we didn’t become all of a sudden able to consult in to talk and discuss in a very civilized manner. We learned this together.
We’ve been together for… I think that time, we’ve been together for a year or more. And we’re just trying to let them see that we were kind of like this as well. And if you really see this as a safe space, we need to allow every now and then new people to come in. And without guarantee, everyone’s going to be exactly like everyone else. Some people are going to be different, to deal with, to talk to. Some will be just on the same flow, the same level.
But we need to create what we are aiming for in our circles and society and not eliminate people. This was a very interesting learning. And I think, everyone when we mentioned these points and discuss them openly, they were like, aha, okay.
Maybe we can have some more rules, for example, because friends can invite friends to Food for Soul. It’s open to friends of friends. And we said, okay, so if someone brings the friend, they have to discuss with them. Before coming here, explain what with Food for Soul is and share with them the ground rules.
And we also have a private Facebook page. And they decided that, everyone decided that… Okay, so maybe the newcomers can join our Facebook group. But after the third time attending. [It’s so] that they know what is Food for Soul more, because we don’t want to be just adding people. Our aim is not to grow exponentially and have hundreds and 1000s of people on the Facebook group. It’s, again, how do we create a model that we feel we could be part of, and we can also replicate in our own circles.
So this was a very good example of how the ownership also started to take more shape, and how we were able to see ourselves in situations where we’re not really abiding by our own model, and doing what others are doing to us. But it was interesting.
So what was the outcome of that discussion? Was was your friend allowed back in?
She was, but she wasn’t interested to come. But I think here coming on that day… this was the purpose for us: to see ourselves how do we act when we find someone who’s so different and has a different way of discussion and sharing their opinions and very opinionated and very just going the other way without caring for what other people hear or see. I think that was very important to have.
It sounds like it… sparked a conversation that needed to happen, I think.
Yeah. And when you say “this is the purpose,” does that mean, “this is the reason why you invited her to go,” or “it’s the purpose” in more of a cosmic sense?
Somewhat of a cosmic sense. Because I didn’t think she would react this way. Honestly, I was a bit also surprised when she was acting this way, I was like, I thought you’d be more accepting and more able, at least to listen more in the first gathering that she attends, because she doesn’t know anyone. And usually, when people come in and use space, they would want to like, kind of sit back and just observe what’s happening, and learn how people are doing this. But she was very into the discussion, which is great. And again, I think that having someone like that is was very important, and she’s most welcome to join whenever she feels like it. And, again, we’re not trying to we should not be trying to cut people out of our lives, because they are different in this part.
What are the ground rules, if I may ask?
So first of all, is that everyone has the right to share. And the facilitator needs to be mindful of each one’s time. For example, if we’re a big group, everyone has a minute and a half to share what they want to share. And if someone already shared the idea that I wanted to bring that up, I don’t have to say the game. Also being this kind of mindful, and I don’t have to just talk for the sake of why I’m talking. It’s the point of bringing the point of the discussion. Also, that respect diversity, we don’t ask too many personal questions, unless the person is comfortable.
If someone is sharing their own story or experience, we cannot just all be asking ‘how, where, when, why.’ If the person is open for that, that’s okay. If not, we have to respect it.
And whatever is shared at Food for Soul, personal experiences should not be shared with other people as well. Because this is why it’s a safe space. I wouldn’t, I can just share everything with my own circles. I can share maybe the frame of work or like the general idea, but not personal experiences. And also the language that we always need to remind each other of the language that we’re using, and learn how to grow in this area.
And also, the idea of Food for Soul is not there to answer our questions. It’s a space where we talk about our questions and topics that we want to discover together. And we’re not here to get unified on one simple answer, or we all agree on one opinion. If that happens, great. If not, this is the purpose.
It’s beautiful. I love also the tie in… with privacy, how sort of the idea that you can… you’re safe to share anything you want as long as it’s not judgmental. Also because no one’s going to record it or put it out or tell anyone else that you shared this as like, you can feel free to say whatever you want. And it’s it is truly a safe space in that sense.
How did you start food for soul?
Ah, this is bringing back so many good memories. So let me take you back to when I was like I think maybe 14 or something. So being Bahá’í, I’ve always been taught since a young age that service is a big part of our identity.
Service isn something that we don’t just do on our free time, or don’t just participate in acts of service, whenever we feel like. It should be kind of a lifestyle. It should be something that our life actually evolves around. And this changes the meaning of service as not just doing a certain act. But even the spirit of service while working, dealing with others, dealing with family, with friends, anything you’re doing.
And since a very young age, I started helping out with some groups of junior youth that are from the age of 10, to 15, where I would meet with them once a week. And we have a curriculum, to study together about some other stories.
Or the junior youth in different parts of the world, where they go through different challenges in their lives: Since this is a very critical age, you don’t really want to have someone tell them ‘that’s right, that’s wrong, do this, don’t do that.’ They want to learn more about what others have been doing and see different examples of challenges. And they will get the point out of it.
So it was a program mainly of spiritual empowerment, and intellectual environment for junior youth. And when I was doing that every week, since I was, I think, 15 or 16, it changed my perspective of who do I want to become. Because I really wish that I had this example or I had this kind of animator in my life when I was their age as well. Like, I wish someone would just sit down with me and talk with me about these ideas and give me a space to express who I am. And let me know that the changes, I’m going through something very natural. And the questions I have are most welcomed. And it’s only natural for me in this age, to become this curious about life.
And I felt this is something I want to be I want to be able to help other people evolve and grow. Because it also gives me another opportunity for me to grow in a different way. And my journey with service started from there. So working with the youth, the children classes as well. And also with spaces a space where devotion and gathering, which is like food for soul. I used to hold my own gatherings when I was, I think 17 or 18. Where I would also invite people from different traditions, backgrounds to come together, pray, and discuss the quotes that we’ve been reading together and see how can we apply them in real life? And how can we support each other in becoming better people?
And it just gave me the sense of also, what do I want my house or home to look like or to feel like for other people. Do I want to create this house of love, since I was very young, people would just feel that they’re welcome to come. It’s a safe space. It’s a space where they can be themselves. It’s not just for Bahá’ís or for people who believe in religion. It’s for everyone. And everyone can just come here for comfort and for love and for a good conversation. And it continued with me. Like service has been part of who I am since a very young age.
And I’m very grateful for this because it honestly changed and shaped who I am a lot, being able to put time being a teenager for service while studying, trying to succeed in my studies, and also having a full time job. And seeing the coherence between all these three different areas of work of my life. It gave me a different understanding of purpose and who do I want to be when I when I grow and who do I want to look up to? And what do I want to spend my time doing?
And when I moved to Jordan, I also had this space of devotional gathering at my own house. It’s something I do wherever I go, because I just feel this is only the normal thing to do to open up your house for people to come together and do meaningful stuff together. And when I moved back to Egypt, and had my own place, and me and my flatmates,…
We named our house, the House of Love.
Because we all agreed on service, and that we want our house to be an oasis of love and comfort for our friends and family. I decided that I want to start my own gathering again. And I literally invited everyone my different circles like work, school or school friends, civil society, people you know from different places… from intellectual gatherings, whatsoever.
And the first time we had to first of all, maybe around 20-25 people showed up. It was so beautiful because not everyone knew everyone. Yet there was so much harmony. And I remember that on the first day, they were discussing, what should we call this gathering? It had no name, which was just the devotional gathering. And then they were like “let’s call it Ghada’s gathering.” And I was like, “No, let’s not! It’s not Ghada’s gathering.
And then bit by bit, I think on the second day, second time we met, we decided on Food for Soul. We felt that this is something nurturing for the soul. And it makes sense to call it Food for the Soul Food for soul.
It’s a long story.
No, it’s I mean, it’s it’s exactly the perfect, the perfect name for it… Like you say it’s… it’s nourishment for the soul. This is what helps us to… to expand and to thrive – and not just survive as human beings, but to thrive with a compassionate and loving group of people with whom we can connect.
I think that’s something that we’re missing.
Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
You’ve also been working with people in rural villages, right? On topics like sexual harassment… How did that start for you, if I may ask?
I’ve had my own share of sexual harassment. a lot.
When I was a young girl specifically, and some of them I didn’t really understand, when they were happening to me, because I didn’t know that such thing could happen, or a man could touch me this way. And I would just freeze, not knowing what to do or who to talk to, or who to tell. My parents were always very supportive. But I didn’t know that these things could happen to me. Like in a public transportation, someone would grab me for walking down the street, or be grabbed, or catcalled whatsoever. All this kind of stuff.
It happens to every single woman, almost, in Egypt, on different levels, at different points of their lives.
My mom gets harassed, I get harassed, it’s not only something that’s related to an age group, or a social class or standard. You all have experienced that. So for me to see that change is possible, and in these kinds of neighborhoods, where challenges are economically, socially, and also sexual harassment problems are there.
It kind of makes me more comfortable with the idea that this is possible to change. It needs a lot of time, a lot of effort. But change is possible. But it needs a lot of effort. On different levels: governmental efforts, civil society efforts, private sector, again, working with their own employees, on helping them, educating them trying to bring change to their lives, and not just be interested in the outcome of the working hours.
Schools have a great deal to do with this as well. Media, and how they present women and how they talk about harassment, and how they underestimate the jokes about women. And being an attractive man or being cool if you do this to girls. Or if you catcall someone. Or you can just get wherever you want to if you look nice.
Like all this kind of stuff. It affects how men perceive women, and how they perceive themselves as well. So maybe this is also one reason why this topic specifically is very personal to me.
Thank you for sharing that. Did you do any work around this topic at the UN?
We were trying to do something different when it comes to gender equality and opportunities. So for example, we would encourage our partners that they need to create more space and environment were female talents to join their sector, specifically technology, of course, or ICT To be more specific, how the working conditions need to be mindful of women, and how they need to be mindful of creating a path of growth for women.
And we partnered up with, for example, UN Women and UNESCO to work together on these kinds of topics. And currently, we’re working on a project with one of the private sector entities on how can we create opportunities for female students to have the right mentorship, in order to explore the sector of ICT before they graduate. And at the same time, how can the private sector create the needed regulations and policies that would allow women to be part of their corporates for a long term?
It’s fantastic talking with you like this.
Same here! I really miss these conversations. And I miss you asking questions and me thinking… and trying to just reflect on what had been happening. And you’re really good with asking different questions and connecting things together. So thank you for this.
Thank you, Ghada. I’m grateful that we get the chance to talk.
And to you listening: where’s your safe space? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch on Twitter and Instagram at @mindfolkpod.
Keep choosing love, dear one!