I have done humanitarian and relief work in many parts of the world. It has inextricably changed me in a way that simply backpacking or vacations could never.
Many of the trips I have led myself—and when we arrive in a new location there is much adjusting to be had. On the long list of adjustments, we can’t skip nor can we escape the male-female roles that can vary dramatically in different parts of the world. Having worked in this for 20+ years I am no stranger. I could tell you stories, but we’ll save that for a beer one day.
When the village hears that a team of humanitarian workers from abroad are coming, they have an image of what the leader will look like in their mind. And I do not always fit the part.
While working in Central and South America, I have watched everyone from masons, family, clergy, to politicians scan the worksite for hours insisting there must be a “El Jefe” leading the job site-
But alas the boss is not El Jefe but La Jefa
I’m very accustomed to these moments and have learned how to handle them with a mix of awareness, sensitivity and grit.
These perceptions of gender are deeply embedded in societies, and wont be changed entirely by a visit from me. Even if I too can carry the cement bags which only come in the stagger amount of 100lb sacks… (I want to tag #crossfit right now, but I’ll take the high road…)
But one story, a story of limiting beliefs shaping reality sticks out for me. It was a trip to a small village on an island govern by Colombia. My friend Ann and I were there on someone else’s team that time.
While working on site, I met Sarah, a kind but quiet woman who grew up in this tiny village. Her mother and grandmother lived in the wooden lean-to next to hers, and they had rarely left the village. The village size? Less than a mile. My job was to dig a hole in the back so they could finally have a septic tank. Up until this point there was no… hole. It caused a lot of health problems. So – we just need to dig a 10 foot hole. Good in theory, but the execution got messy.
After digging and picking for hours and making mere inches of progress, I had to accept the reality. The ground was evidently volcanic rock, and to make meaningful progress we needed better tools.
Tony, one of my teammates, hops on the back of a small motorcycle and heads to town looking for a solution. Some time later we hear the putt putt of his bike. Though it’s working much harder this time. We finally see him. The little motorbike is struggling, Tony is on the back bearhugging a jackhammer. Naturally we offer no help and fall to our knees laughing. This is the way of teamwork.
The motorbike is straining. Tony is straining. The driver is praying.
But they finally make it up the hill.
And we get a jackhammer? That’s a first on site. We rarely use power tools. They are hard to source, not sustainable to locals after we leave, and rarely is there power in the village.
But for volcanic rock, a power tool is a relief.
Oh wait, “power” tool…. Where to get power?.
That was the day I learned, much to my surprise, that you could plug 3 long extension cords together, run it up a hill, and it could still power a jackhammer.
Finally to work! Manos a la obra!
As I started the jackhammer, ready for quick progress, Sarah jumped in front of me waving her hands.
She begged me to stop. She is frightened for me.
Sarah is convinced that it is impossible for me to do this job.
She has been told that it is physically impossible for woman to handle this kind of job. That we are not strong enough. Not capable enough – and, this part is a direct quote – she is afraid my uterus will fall out.
This is a very real fear for her.
She believes it in her core and she is terrified for me. After marinating in her palpable fear for long enough–
I too began to doubt myself
She believes it so strongly, she’s so convinced that at one point- I think maybe there is something she knows that I don’t? Maybe jackhammers are different here? Stronger, rattle more?
Sarah is convinced and passionate to convince me—as she’s been told this all her life. That things like running power tools, weren’t available to someone like her. That she isn’t capable enough. Isn’t strong enough.
But here is the other thing you need to know about Sarah. She has kids. And she carries several of them at a time. I watched her hold a 40 pound kid in one arm and carry massive jugs of water with the other arm.
Sarah was strong. Sarah was capable. There was evidence EVERYWHERE showing that Sarah could handle the weight of a jackhammer. But she couldn’t see that.
I start the jackhammer
She held her breath the first minute it ran. She worried for me.
I kept running the jackhammer.
She turned and began praying to a picture of Jesus she had. She held on to it with her eyes closed.
I kept running the jackhammer…
And then, something started to happen.
Her worry started to become something else. Curiosity?
She was witnessing the destruction of a long held belief.
That a woman couldn’t do a job like this.
And I was watching the change in her, the transformation happen right before my eyes.
I mean I was watching it, while I was also running a jackhammer plugged into 3 extension cords.
As the hours went on, I realized her expression had changed again. There was a yearning.
So I asked. “Sarah, would you like to run the jackhammer?”
She nearly clutched her pearls, “No I couldn’t!”
“Why not? You just watched me run it for hours. I was strong enough and —
My pelvic floor is still intact. Why couldn’t you?”
I could see her mind racing. Years of being told what she couldn’t do. What she was capable of. Then she bounced back to this moment, looking at me standing there with the jackhammer in hand.
She grabbed the handles of the jackhammer. She looked at me again. Maybe she wanted permission. Maybe she wanted confirmation that she could do it.
I nodded and hit the ON switch.
Sarah ran the jackhammer that day. All day. And she changed. She was a different woman by the end of the day.
If she could do this, than what else could she do?
For me, that’s one of the biggest gifts in humanitarian work. When you have the opportunity to highlight the strengths in others. Humanitarian and service work can be amazing for so many reasons. But what I love most, is when we can shift their opinion of themselves. Highlight their strength, their power, showcase how wildly capable they are.
It’s the same reason I love advising and coaching
And many of us can sit here today and think- yeah anyone can run a jackhammer! Yeah it might take a little training, they might be heavy.
But impossible? No.
But Sarah’s story is not unique. Often an old belief, feedback, criticism – when left unchecked, untested- will get in our way and have us believe we can’t do something. Hold us back.
As clear as I write this today, I know
You too have a jackhammer in your life.
A perceived limitation. Many were given to us. A story well rehearsed.
“Oh you can’t do that!”
“That’s not possible for someone like you.”
And you can’t even remember when it started, but it’s definitely there.
Maybe it something similar to Sarah, thinking that because you are a woman you aren’t strong enough for a physical task. Maybe its that you are too young. Too old. We all have them.
In fact, many of us were almost never exposed to one of the greatest motivational speakers of our time Les Brown because of this. Because he was afraid to be a speaker. Les Brown was born a poor orphan, he struggled in school. By his words- he wasn’t smart, he wasn’t educated. Who was he to get on stage and speak to others? Others that were more successful, more educated. So he didn’t. For years he didn’t speak. And the world missed out.
Finally he challenged his jackhammer
Thank God he did because he has since inspired millions.
And now you’ve got a jackhammer in your life right now.
It sounds something like this:
- “Well that sounds cool, but I could never do something LIKE THAT!”
- “I would love to, but that ship has sailed.”
- “Maybe when I was younger I could have done something like that…”
- “People like me/ where I come from / grew up the way I did—don’t do things like that.”
Maybe its that you were an addict for years, and even though you have been in recovery for 10 years you are afraid to speak on stage. You have a checkered history. A chapter in your book you don’t want read out loud.
No that isn’t available for someone like me.
Maybe you have dreamed of doing humanitarian work, but you can’t do that because you are parent and can’t leave your kids for a week. Nope that isn’t possible for – someone like me.
Too old to do a triathlon- that’s a young man’s sport. Not available for someone like me.
It can be losing weight. It can be running a race after a knee injury.
Though it may not be one I listed here, believe me- you have a jackhammer in your life.
And I ask you to do the work to undercover it
To find the thing you want to do, but haven’t done. Because you believe, you’ve been told by parents, teachers, partners, yourself- that you cannot do it.
The only person who gets to decide what is available to you- IS YOU.
Sarah believed, with everything in her bones, that a woman was not physically capable of running a jackhammer. By the end of one day- that lie was destroyed.
So I want you to find your jackhammer. And DESTROY IT.
I’ll see you out there.
Are you interested in learning more on how to stop self sabotage and reach the next level?
Connect with me at my next free live event. Let’s talk www.pivot-me.com/event
This article first appeared on April Garcia’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-your-jackhammer-trust-me-you-have-one-april-garcia-mckeegan-/