Every three months Alongsider group leaders from several provinces around Cambodia gather at the office in Phnom Penh for training. These are moments to reconnect - and to equip, listen and provide them with fresh encouragement and direction.
It's at these meetings that staff distribute the curriculum: always three new issues of our comic books for Alongsiders. The leaders look at each story and discuss how mentors can read them most effectively with their little brothers and sisters. Then they take them back to their groups to use for the next three months (1 comic book per month).
Each book comes with discussion questions and one practical way to act on the lesson in the story.
In a society that still struggles to provide most citizens with a meaningful education, it's no small step for an Alongsider to read and learn together with her little sister. We can't take it for granted that she'll know what to do or feel confident if we just put materials in her hands, so the training is vitally important.
Typically part of the training consists of the coordinators role playing how to read through the comic - eliciting questions and observations from the "little brother". These sessions are becoming increasingly interactive. There is always lots of discussion about the topic (whether drugs, gender, grace or some other Biblical theme). The recent meeting included lots of discussion in pairs.
Each comic has an insert with questions to discuss and one suggestion to act on the embedded lesson.
One of the comic books introduced last week focuses on how boys and girls are often valued differently and treated with different standards. The two main characters are twins, a boy and a girl. The conflict arises when the girl is treated badly by some boys who are (it is implied) looking at illicit images on a mobile phone.
The story resolves as the boy comes to realize that his sister and mother do most of the household work and deserve, at the very least, his respect and help. Then he begins to change his own actions accordingly.
The application activity encourages readers to compose letters of appreciation to their mother or female guardian. The supporting Bible passage is Psalm 139:14: "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well." We are all, male and female alike, wonderfully made by God and deserving of value and respect.
As movements go, there is no explicit call for revolution here. Yet, as in the gospels, seeds are being planted with the potential to transform not just lives but families and society as well.
We often say that Alongsiders is a movement. Some movements are headed by high profile leaders. Others have flashy programs and structures. But Alongsiders is low key; our leaders come from the margins themselves; and our methods are so simple it's hard to spot them. This gathering of "unremarkable" leaders from "out of the way" places is about as "big" as it normally gets.
The most tangible material assets we work with, comic books, are disposable (albeit strategic and lovingly developed) tools - but they feed and nurture our real strength: transforming relationships.
We're proud of our comic books. We're especially proud of the people who read them together.