All posts by Steve Sheppard

Steve is Board Chair of the Winds of Peace Foundation

Well Said

From time to time I have reproduced the writings of others at this blog site, because they have stated ideas so powerfully.  I have elected to do it again, given the words written by Kathleen at the Center for Development in Central America  (CDCA).  Kathleen has been quoted here before because what is in her heart is so well said in her words.  The following is excerpted from the CDCA May 2019 newsletter.

My mother has said over and over that one of the two things Jesus wished he had never said was, “The poor you will have with you always.”  Why?

Because so many Christians use that phrase to justify pouring money into church buildings and doing nothing for the poor.  But what if we re-examined that phrase, and instead of looking at it as meaning an impossible goal of eradicating poverty, look at that phrase as an indictment of the rich?

It is true that, “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed,” a quote from Frank Buchman.

Staying with my daughter in the Northeast, it is easy to let the poor slip my mind.  As she recuperate from surgery, my daughter is watching mindless television so she can crochet and heal.  One of her shows is “Top Chef.”  I have found it addictive but also, when I remember the poor in Nicaragua, nauseating.

In Nicaragua with climate change and with the socio-political crisis there, people are looking more and more at hunger.  It is easy to forget that as the Top Chef judges say to a contestant that the prime rib was not plated to please the eye.

It is easy for the wealthy or the intellectual class in Nicaragua to create and foment a crisis when their children will be fed and given medical care or even schooling if a new government comes in and discontinues social programs.

It is easy to forget that people are sweating and bearing unbelievable heat when there is cool air at a touch.  When you have food to eat and can jump in an air-conditioned car, it is easy not to feel the urgency that climate change should be our top priority (when diesel prices had dropped, one opposition leader said that the Nicaraguan government was doing the people a disservice by investing in renewable energy!).

A Brazilian priest, Frei Betto, helps those of us who would say we choose to stand with the poor by telling us that, “The head thinks where the feet stand.”

He says that, “It is impossible to be a leftist without dirtying one’s shoes in the soil where the people live, struggle, suffer, enjoy and celebrate their beliefs and victories.  To engage in theory without practice is to play the game of the right.”

Many tell us that our opinion of what is happening in Nicaragua is just wrong, and maybe it is; but Fr. Betto also says, “Choose the risk of making mistakes with the poor over the pretension of being right without them.”

And so, we risk the mistakes….

Thank you, Kathleen….

 

 

The Pain That Will Not Go Away

Coincidental or not, ever since my official departure from Winds of Peace as its leader, I’ve been afflicted by a worsening hip pain.  The discomfort did not stop me from my daily workout routines, however, until two weeks ago.  The ache in my hip and back became both chronic and intense, resulting in an inability to sleep for more than about 60 minutes at a time.  Then I need to get up and walk around for a while before going back to bed for another hour.  Multiple medical consults have failed to achieve any relief; I’ll have another intervention later this week.  Will this be the initiative to end what, for me, has been a painful nightmare?  Time will tell.

I’ve been fortunate throughout my life to have suffered few physical difficulties.  I knew that the ravages of age were undoubtedly compounding within me, but I have worked hard to keep them at bay.  That likely makes me less patient in light of my current malaise.  I don’t have a sense of its rhythm or its source.  Medical folks have massaged, medicated, probed and examined  X-rays, without reaching conclusion.  My pain seemingly worsens every day and I grow a bit panicky.

But it’s not the intensity or even the constancy of the pain that bothers me the most.  Rather, it’s the uncertainty about whether it will eventually come to an end.  And more importantly, whether that end will be a positive one.  It’s the uncertainty that is disabling.

Living with this reality for the past two weeks and analyzing my temperament about it has engulfed me with self-pity from time to time, as I have wondered whether this is the way my life will be from now on, whether the days of freedom of movement and happy expressions of physical capacities are suddenly things of the past.   I continue to push myself to the limits of pain tolerance, but that has not been much help.

Then, at 2:14 A.M. last night, as I crawled back into bed after a 10-minute stretch, filled with a self-centered sadness for my plight, I was struck with a sudden clarity of understanding about an event totally unrelated to my own pains.  My epiphany concerned the impasse unfolding in Nicaragua over the past twelve months and a new perspective on what I have regarded as  my own personal calamity.

For Nicaraguans the pains of death and detention have been intense and continuing; the grief of loss has been compounded by the surprise eruption following long-simmering pains within the civil body.  Even as Nicaraguans recognized the country’s issues, they felt, or hoped,  that eventual remedies would be peaceful and democratic.  But quite suddenly there was this great pain, this great stain, that fell upon Nicaraguan society.  It hurt.  Relief has been unattainable, no matter what position the ailing have taken.  And they wonder whether this is the new normal, the way that future society will function.

As painful as the losses are, it’s the uncertainty of the future that festers in the hearts of Nicaraguans today.  They know how they want to feel.  They know how they wish to live and move within society.  But the current uncertainty robs them of an essential component of well-being: hope.  Without faith in some actions or initiatives on which to focus, the future becomes an unknown, dark place.  This has been the day-to-day suffering of not just a retired yankee but of an entire Central American population.

That’s perspective.  The chances are pretty good that the discomfort that I have experienced for the past several weeks will go away; one way or the other, I’ll likely get over it.  For most North Americans, most of our daily aches are inconveniences at worst.  But 2:14 A.M. is a good time of the day to reflect upon the source of real pain….

 

 

But What About Yareli?

It has been a year now since I last traveled to Nicaragua.  I miss it.  Some might wonder what there is to miss in a land of extreme poverty and, now, civil turmoil.  A couple people have even suggested to me that I must be glad not to be going to Nicaragua anymore, given all of the unrest, and observed that I picked a good time to retire from such travels.  In all due respect, they are wrong.

I miss the interactions with Mark and Ligia and Rene and his team.  I miss Bismarck and Edmundo and Corina, and all of the cooperative members with whom we have worked; they likely never knew it, but they are among my heroes.  I’ve stayed in many hotel rooms over the past year, but none of them entice me back for a return the way that Hotel Chepita in El Cua does.  Sometimes I even miss beans and rice for breakfast.

It’s easy for me to feel melancholy about what has transpired in Nicaragua over the past year; there are plenty of reasons to feel so.  But I’m certainly not the one paying the price.  Nor is it the well-connected in Nicaragua, who have plenty of safety nets in place.  As always, it’s the most marginalized part of the population that is taking the biggest hit from the current conflict.  The standoff began as students and older citizens confronted the government, but the  biggest losers are the rural peasants,  Some have been killed. Others have been  “disappeared.”  Most have lived in fear of rogue gangs roaming the countryside, who operate based upon whim.  At the lowest end of the economic and social totem pole, they are experiencing a deeper and accelerated decline as the rest of the world pulls back from the uncertainty that is Nicaragua today.  Jorge has not been able to resume his studies at the University of Central America (UCA).  But what about Yareli?

Yareli is the little girl whom I encountered outside of the Roberto Clemente School in Ciudad Sandino some years ago.  (I wrote about her here on May 5, 2012.)  Her face virtually lit up the space around her, and her gesture of greeting and blessing is as priceless to me today as it was seven years ago.  I can’t help but wonder where she is today, whether she is safe and well, how the turmoil of the past year has affected her beautiful smile.  I try to imagine her family and what their experience has been throughout this period.

As is true in most things political, the little guy loses the most.  It’s an ironic truth that when the rich and powerful maneuver for more wealth or more power, the people who have none are the ones who ultimately pay.   The actions of the elites may be clouded in words of patronage and concern, but too often they are hollow.

And it’s true no matter what the civil milieu: big, wealthy countries like the U.S., and small, impoverished ones like Nicaragua.  (The recent U.S. “tax cuts,” touted consistently by the person in the White House, were not tax cuts for most.  Despite words of praise about looking out for middle America {praise mostly from himself}, the extra pay in weekly pay envelopes was more than neutralized by the losses in tax refunds for many. The winners?  The ultra wealthy.)

It is estimated by economists that more than 215,000 jobs have been lost in Nicaragua over the past 12 months.  These were not CEOs or senior government officials or bank presidents.  Job losses almost always accrue to the lowest level of employment and impact the people least likely to withstand loss of income, like peasant farmers who cannot secure markets during a downturn.

And what about Char-les?  Mark and I met him last year, during my last visit to Nicaragua.  I wrote about him here on  April  21, 2018.)  This was one inquisitive young man, whose curiosity about geography and the world were infectious.   He talked imaginatively about visiting Mexico and the U.S. and seeing whales.  A little boy with enormous visions is a beautiful thing to behold.  I hope Char-les is OK.  I wonder if he is safe and still dreaming about fulfilling dreams and finding answers.  I hope that his single mother is not one of the 215,000 people who lost her job.

In some ways the tragedy in Nicaragua is just one more example of injustice in the lap of the poor. It happens everywhere.   But it’s made more real to me because of Yareli and Char-les.

The events of the past year in Nicaragua are tragic.  They are made still worse by the imprint made upon the lives of small angels….

 

The Bitter Cold

The power of brutal winter has been felt everywhere, it seems.  Here in the heartland of the U.S., actual temperatures reached -37 degrees Fahrenheit, with windchill factors as low as -55.  Unfortunately, the barrage was not a one-day phenomenon but an extended period of bitterness.

It all began as a rather typical shift in the climate, not at all unusual for this  latitude.  Many even showed an exuberance for the change, moving outdoors with their pent-up energies in an open display of their unwillingness to cower before the inclemency of such frigid temperaments.  Often there is resolve to be found in collective survival against a common  foe like the icy dispassion of hard winter.  We grow in the belief that we can withstand it, together, and we draw energy from it.

But we were reminded daily of the threat to life and health if we did not heed the warnings to remain inside and avoid confronting the cold.  Travel was not only not advised, but barricades were put up on some main thoroughfares so that rescue of those who attempted flight to more hospitable areas would not become necessary.  Some  citizens were actually arrested for venturing out to places where they had been forbidden to be.  Sadly, deaths occurred, in addition to many injuries.

We have experienced dangerously cold moments in the past, but this one seemed more threatening, somehow.

Some people suggest that the advent of cell phone and social media technology contributed to the deeper feeling of danger.  Instant reporting of cold, and deaths resulting from it, accompanied by photos of people with frostbite injuries, amplified the seriousness of the cold.    We were able to learn of each new impact from the cold front as it happened, making the onslaught feel more continuously brutal than we might otherwise have felt.   We watched video footage of brave demonstrations where the astonishing effects of the cold front were shown: have you ever seen a pot of boiling water immediately vaporized by the severe cold?  Those activities made for indelible images about just how cold it had become.

Most schools closed, and remained closed, with parents too nervous to send their children outside and schools recognizing the danger to their pupils and teachers alike.  Even the colleges and universities were forced to shut down, in fear for the safety of the students and professors.  When our most venerable institutions were forced to take such action, we knew that the severity of the front was real, and that resolutions of standing up to frigid conditions must  yield to the realities of real danger.

There have been serious economic costs to the deep freeze.  Of course, tourism always takes a hit when the climate isn’t friendly.  It’s uncertain how many people chose to stay away from the harsh conditions.  And this is normally a destination which people frequently visit for its beauty and warmth!  But shops and commerce came to a standstill in the face of the blasts, suffering losses that are not likely to be made up soon.

It’s unclear what the remainder of the winter might be like.  Some forecasts suggest that an early thaw could occur and that we all might return to some degree of normalcy.  Others are convinced that this polar vortex is likely to be a more frequent presence in our lives; prior to last year, I had never even heard of it, but during 2018 and to the present it has certainly become a familiar condition.

The entire experience underscores everyone’s necessity for having protective layers against the winds….

Making Sense of the Senseless

Nicaragua.  I’m astonished at the turn of events that has wracked the country I have come to know over the past 13 years.  I read about places where I have traveled, remember fondly the warmth of the people I have met, recall the beauty and awe of the land, and then must imagine those same images against a backdrop of grief and gangs, barricades and bullets, hatred and horrors.   I am saddened, but only feel a fraction of the despair that my Nica friends must be experiencing.  Indeed, I cannot begin to comprehend what Nicas are going through in this time of upheaval.

The context raises the inevitable questions that accompany every instance of political unrest: how could this have happened?  Can there be, in fact, any reasonable understanding of what has led to the unraveling of an entire society and system?

They are questions that I have found myself asking about circumstances in the U.S., though understandably in a different context.  There are significant differences, but many similarities: a society that is fractured; an overriding unwillingness on both sides of the divide to talk of compromise; massive protests against the government; claims of government abuse of power; calls for the removal of a sitting president; alienation of other nations by virtue of nationalistic postures.  The list goes on, and so does my wondering.

In the shadow of the current impasse being experienced in Nicaragua, the Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) at Augsburg University is offering a “virtual course” on the crisis there, designed to delve into the competing historical narratives each side uses.  The analysis will allow participants to assess the validity of their application today, and  deepen an understanding of the perspective of each side.  For anyone who loves Nicaragua, who has been enriched by the place and its people, it can be a course of immense clarification and understanding.

But in addition to gaining a better understanding of the crisis in Nicaragua, my own hope is that it might provide me with some insights into the dysfunction which currently grips the U.S.  I do not require reminders about how enormously different our respective histories and developments have been; I know them well (as well as some of the intersections between us which figure into the Nica problems significantly).  But I have moved within the two cultures significantly enough over recent years to have acquired a perspective which asks whether many of the same factors might have been at work in each.

I’m interested in  the CGEE course about current Nicaragua in and of itself, to help me understand what has happened in that beautiful place, and why.    But I also have a secondary motive, which is to find some further insights about what has happened in this beautiful place, and why.

I guess I feel like I owe it to someone….

My Time Is Running Short

My time in direct service to the peasants in Nicaragua, that is.  On March 1 of this new year, I will step away from my role as Chief Executive for Winds of Peace after thirteen years.

In 2005, WPF Founder Harold Nielsen had been stricken with pneumonia (at age 90) and was hospitalized.  I had just retired from leading the company he founded in 1948 and he asked whether I might help out by overseeing the Foundation for a few days, until he had sufficiently recovered.  I did so.  And within the first days of substituting for him, I knew that this was the work that I wanted to do.  I drove to Rochester, Minnesota, where Harold was hospitalized, wondering to myself how I might gracefully interject my services into his small foundation.  But when I entered his room, he was sitting up in bed and spoke almost before I could say hello.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said (true to form).  “This illness has really hit me hard.  It’s getting harder for Louise (his wife and Foundation co-founder) and me to travel to Nicaragua all the time.  Maybe it’s time to pull back.  Would you have any interest in taking over the work?”  And that quickly, I received one of the great blessings of my life.

I entered the role knowing almost nothing about Nicaragua, beyond a visit I had made there at the close of the Contra War. in 1990. I knew of its poverty and something of its victimization by the U.S. over its history.  But I did not know the people, I did not comprehend the rural sector where we would work, I did not appreciate the obstacles that an entire element of a nation’s populace must face for survival.  I had moved from for-profit to non-profit over the course of a few days.  The only thing I knew about development was how to spell it.  I neither spoke nor understood Spanish and its nuances.  Yet the work was compelling.  And so was the learning.

I learned that a meal of rice and beans is fulfilling.  Not just for my hunger, but for its plainness and, in a small way, how it makes me feel tied to the life of the peasant producers with whom we work.  It is simple food that nourishes in ways that fancier food never will.

I learned that, given my many inadequacies, I am utterly lost without the skill to talk directly with those I so deeply admire.  Translation is wonderful, gestures are limited but fun, but the sidebar conversations and off-the-cuff comments are elements in relationships that I crave.  The limits of who I am both required it  and  prevented it.

I learned that regardless of how much one reads and studies, if one’s objective is to understand others, there is no substitute for personal immersion in the lives of those to be understood.  Being in Nicaragua is not enough;  an understanding of the realities of peasant farmers simply is not possible without being among them.  I have been blessed to have had work which allowed me that opportunity.  (I have wondered whether this might not be a valuable lesson for most of mankind.)

I have learned what it feels like to be utterly dependent on someone else.  Having work histories which promoted ideas of self-control and leadership of others, I struggled to learn personal lessons of followership.  I relied upon others for my language, transportation, processing of experiences, meals, accommodations, and virtually any other needs that occurred during my visits.  It provided me some insights about the feelings of peasant producers who have had to rely so heavily upon outside funders, an unresponsive government and the vagaries of natural disasters.  It is discomforting.

I learned that, notwithstanding  my long-held view of my own personal privilege, that insight has been significantly understated.   There is no rationale, no reason and certainly no deservedness to explain the contrast between what I have and what others so desperately need.  To be in the presence of true poverty is to be humbled to one’s knees.  I am likely to spend the balance of my life trying to understand this and to discern what I am called to do about it.

I learned the lesson that Harold Nielsen so fervently hoped that I would learn all those years ago when he provided me the opportunity to represent Winds of Peace.  Harold would offer the wish that I “would become infected” with the outrage and despair of fellow human beings living in sub-human conditions.  Harold got his wish, and I became sick over the truth of the poor.

So, thirteen years later I still cannot speak the language.  But I learned a lot….

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Seeing Solutions

If you have read many of the offerings at this site, you will know that my background includes a long and in-depth relationship with employee ownership.  I served both The ESOP Association and The National Center for Employee Ownership, the national associations which promote employee ownership, was President of the Minnesota Chapter of the ESOP Association for two terms and in 1998, our employee owned company, Foldcraft, was recognized as the Outstanding Employee Owned Company in the Country.  Yes, I was immersed in ESOP.

As a result, I continue to receive newsletters and employee ownership-related materials, usually nodding in affirmation of the great performances that are featured therein.  Shared ownership worked then as it does now.  So I was not at all surprised to read the latest results of the annual Economic Performance Survey (EPS), summarized in the November 2018 issue of The ESOP Report.  Once again, employee owned companies performed exceedingly well and, in many cases, significantly outperformed their non-employee-owned peer companies.  Since the EPS was launched in 2000, the majority of responding companies have recorded increases in profits for every year but two (2002 and 2010) and increases in revenues for every year but one (2010).  The exceptions noted above reflect the nationwide economic downturns of the prior years (2001 and 2009).  Even in those challenging economic times, 29% or more of ESOP companies responding to the survey reported that profits and/or revenue increased.  And there’s the lesson for our cooperative partners in Nicaragua.

We have chosen to work within the cooperative sector by design.  For the essence of cooperativism- shared ownership- is the same motivator as in employee owned endeavors.  We have always believed in the power of collective wisdom and work; the employee ownership model simply brought some new tools and direction to the coops with whom we work.  Notions of shared benefits, transparency, broad participation, financial literacy and the importance of a cohesive cooperative culture are not natural outcomes with ownership: they each need understanding and practice.  And maybe especially that last item, culture.

As is true in the most successful employee-owned companies, the participants of a coop have an essential need to fully understand the collaborative nature of their organization.  It’s not enough to join a coop in hopes of benefitting from market presence or volume buyers.  Every coop member must understand the machinery of the coop, and the cog that each represents to keep that machinery running.  Without that individualized participation, it’s like trying to win a baseball game with a first baseman who won’t field the position, when every position is vital.  It’s what makes up a team.

But an individual’s impact on organizational culture is more than just fielding a position.  It’s the absolute knowledge that one is part of something bigger than self, that there is strength and security and a sense of “we can do anything together” that inspires and drives the group to thrive.  The strength of collaborative work fashions a safety net that is nearly impossible to replicate individually.  For organizational success, cooperative members must embrace the idea that “we are in this together.”

For Winds of Peace Foundation, that message has remained unchanged over the past dozen years of our focus on coops.  It has been the mantra of the most successful employee-owned companies in the U.S. since ESOPs came into being in the 1970’s.   If the collective efforts of a cooperative are truly in synch, and the rewards of the collective work are truly shared, stability ensues.  Members begin to recognize the rhythm of success.  Momentum builds.  The mindset of the organization transforms to one of expected progress, rather than hoped-for survival.

Cooperatives are not the mirror image of employee-owned companies.  Nicaragua is not the U.S.  But the reality of ownership is universal.  It engenders a characteristic that transcends most of the lines which separate us.  That’s why the truth of shared ownership is as real in Nica as in Nebraska.

And that, in turn, is what makes cooperatives so exceedingly important in Nicaragua today.  Challenging economic times?  With threads in the fabric of the country literally unwinding every day, the nation is in desperate need of institutions that are grounded.  Cooperatives have the ability to be just that.  They can create economic hope.  They can provide a shield of security against dangerous moments.  They can maintain a strong sense of structure when other  forms become distressed.  The coops can represent deep roots against tides that threaten to wash away the groundwork of community.  (For a deeper look into this truth, take a look at Rene Mendoza’s posting in his Articles and Research portion of our website.)

I loved the concept of employee-ownership from the first moment I heard of it.  I was amazed at the power of its best tools, broad participation, open books and financial teaching.  Thirteen years ago I became astonished to learn that the coops of Nicaragua were so similar to U.S. ESOPs in both their difficulties and their needs.

The universal nature of the power in ownership continues to this day.  I never imagined, however, that its importance and potential might figure into stabilizing an entire nation.  But a dream and a reality sometimes are one in the same….

 

 

 

Losing the Language

I haven’t been back to Nicaragua since last February.  Circumstances there just haven’t warranted a trip.  Ten months seems like a long time when I look at the calendar, but it’s more like a lifetime when I consider how much Spanish language ability I’ve lost during that time.  (It’s loss that I could ill afford; I have referenced my Spanish language frustrations here in past entries.)  It’s true what they say: if you don’t use it, you lose it.   Over the years, I struggled  to understand everything that was being said in conversations taking place around me; now I seem to be pretty well lost.  The loss of ability to converse, to understand, to explain, to empathize, is a disappointing loss of hope on my part to ever be able to speak with Nicaraguans in their own language.

It strikes me that I may not be the only one.

The U.S. government finds itself in shutdown mode once more.  This particular episode seems destined to be of longer duration than the 3- day closing earlier this year or the 16 days experienced in 2013, with the President alternatively claiming “the mantle of responsibility” for himself and blaming Democrats for obstructionism.  The Democrats in return have folded their arms and claimed “no money for a wall.”  On this, the ninth day of the current closure, the sides are not speaking.  They seem to have lost their ability to speak with one another in a common language of compromise.  (Something that members of government are charged with doing, by the way.)

Meanwhile, as I bemoan the shrinking opportunity for me to hear and understand  Nicaraguans, it’s clear that Nicaraguans are suffering from a similar sort of loss.   Theirs is not the loss of words- there have been plenty from both sides of the current impasse- but rather the loss of peace, security, and, in some cases, livelihoods.  In a country which already faces immense difficulties of poverty, natural disasters, economic limitations and a history of international intrusions, the loss of meaningful national dialogue is nothing short of tragedy.  It’s as though the two sides are speaking different languages.

To complicate matters, we live in an age of technology-centered communication, one which seductively encourages the impersonal use of digits in lieu of voices.  Tweets attempt to tell us what to believe as true.  E-mails provide shelter to type things we might never consider saying in person.   Social media permits the replication and amplification of sometimes false or misleading information.  We are told that the digital age should be an assist to language and communications everywhere, yet the modern-day record tells a different story of alienation, mistrust and a growing distance between ourselves and “others,” in locales all over the world.

As a result, perhaps truth and understanding have become qualities that we can only know for personally.  Maybe I can come to know Nicaraguan partners only on the basis of shared conversation, face-to-face, Spanish-to-Spanish (if I ever get good enough).  Perhaps in this country, the tweets of a compulsive prevaricator have to be disregarded and we must  access ideas of substance  from more reliable sources.  And the claims of either an autocrat or a protestor  require affirmation by sources we know and trust and with whom we have spoken.  In short, what we know to be true has to come from  discourse and discernment through common language  If our words have no meaning, then they are no more than empty sounds.

The quality of my Spanish non-fluency diminishes even further with lack of use.  Likewise, the quality of our language- our ability to communicate effectively with fellow human beings- diminishes when not exercised regularly.  Contrary to some modernists, language does matter, whether it’s the diction, the context or the grammar that make up our best efforts to let another human being know our truth.

It’s a new year.  In what is surely a great irony, I pray for the opportunity to return to Nicaragua and to display my utter lack of Spanish language skills. It may be painful but it places me face-to-face with others who also deeply wish to share what they have to teach, what they know as their reality.  Here in the U.S., I hope that the men and women entrusted with bipartisan and compromise governance of our country belatedly recognize the damage that their lack of common language is doing to this nation.  In Nicaragua, I long for a peaceful resolution to the tensions which have ripped apart that country in ways too terrible to imagine even a year ago.

In every case, hope for healing begins in the expression and meaning of our words, and whether they are shared with  any measure of both honesty and compassion….