All posts by Steve Sheppard

Steve is CEO of the Winds of Peace Foundation

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….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never An Easy Road

Truth-telling has never been “the easy way.”

In all of history, mankind has too often concluded that truth tends to hurt us.  Whether in refusing to face a reality which we don’t wish to acknowledge or bending a reality to serve some other purpose, we are masters of deceit.  The continuing deaths of 130 Yemeni  children per day is a truth better left unknown.  Thousands of immigrants approaching the southern U.S. border are more easily dismissed when seen as criminals.  We even bend the truth to our own detriment, as when misrepresenting to our physicians how much we exercise, how much we drink, what we eat.  (Really?)

One of the great ironies is that speaking the truth- which is said to set us free- is one of the most difficult tasks of our lives.  Which is why we stand in such awed respect of those who summon the will to say the truth, regardless of the cost.  One such individual is profiled in the “Nica Update” section of this website.  Our most recent entry there presents the testimony of Ligia Gomez, former Manager for Economic Research for the Central Bank in Nicaragua, and Political Secretary of the Sandinista Leadership Council in that State institution.  Read her story, an increasingly rare profile in courage and truth-telling.  She has given up much in speaking her truth.

In our complex and results-driven existence, we tend to value what we can possibly get done, and think less about how the thing has been done.  The current U.S. president likes to heap praise upon himself for the current strength of the U.S. economy.  What he will never talk about is the cost of this economy- in terms of debt, environmental degradation and  the threat to our very planet- to be born by future generations.  In other words, the truth we are unwilling to tell our children is that we are creating future burden for them for our own comforts today.  That truth is a painful one; it’s much nicer to contemplate living in excess and comfort today:  have you seen the numbers?  Simply fantastic!

Of course, truth is rarely an absolute.  It is shaped by our life experiences, our feelings of compassion, and ultimately just how willing we may be to live with the discomfort that truth creates.  No one owns the market on truth.  Maybe the best we can do is to be truthful with ourselves before demanding the truth from others. Self-truth gives us the opportunity to be truthful with others and better qualified in calling out deceit when we hear it….

 

Words of Eloquence and Meaning

For the past several weeks I have struggled to come up with the right means of expression to describe how I feel about circumstances in Nicaragua.  In the shadow of killings and abductions and fear, Nicaragua would seem to be quite unlike the country in which Winds of Peace has worked over the past 35 years.  Pictures of massive protests in the places I know, photos of masked shooters in the neighborhoods where I’ve been, blood in the streets where I’ve walked: these are surreal images that choke the words I should say.  I have not traveled to Nicaragua since February, and I feel as though I’ve been away even longer.

The development continues, nonetheless.  Loans are being made:  last week, two women’s cooperatives received small, initial funding for local agriculture.  Grants are being given: despite the vastly reduced attendance in schools over recent months, elementary-age reading initiatives are being redirected through community sites and churches  Repayments are being made: even where full repayment might be delayed, partners are reworking payment plans to honor their obligations as best they can.  There may be few causes of great joy within the current turmoil of Nicaragua, but there are hopeful moments.

Of course, what matters in this crisis time is not the impact upon a small U.S. foundation; Winds of Peace is just fine.  Of importance is the real-life upheaval being lived out daily by Nicaraguans who struggled for daily survival long before the first protests were launched, and who now find themselves threatened with even greater hardships than before.  Most North Americans would have a difficult time fully comprehending Nicaraguan poverty prior to April 18 of this year.  We have even less likelihood of  understanding their realities given the way things are today.  And my words are simply insufficient to the cause.

So I invite readers to shift their attentions to the “Nica Update” entries at this site.  They are frequent updates on the status of the confrontation and the contain the observations and experiences of men and women caught up in current struggle.  They are words of passion.  They are expressions of the most deeply-held beliefs of Nicaraguan people yearning once again for peace and equity.  They are the fluent articulations of a people’s soul, in a time of deep distress.

Over the din of bullets and bulldozers, emerge words of eloquence and meaning….

 

Paying the Price

Now in the fourth month of discord in Nicaragua, there is no end in sight.  Statements and actions of the president indicate no capitulation to the demands of the protesters.  The demonstrators show no weakening of will or purpose in their stand against the government.  Other voices from outside the country weigh in on both sides.  But there are other voices, unheard, who are paying a steep price indeed for the impasse that is Nicaragua today.

There’s an entire population, urban and rural alike, which survives hand-to-mouth in the Nica economy, and the upheavals that have occurred over the past several months have all but quieted those hands.  Tourism, an important component of the economy everywhere in the country, has ceased.  Rural producers, who have labored hard and diligently sought to learn improvements for their yields and their markets, have watched their momentum slip away once again, not due to rainfall or drought or crop infestation, but from politics.  The improved road infrastructure throughout Nicaragua was rendered inaccessible for long periods of time during the protests, as barricades achieved what they sought to achieve: the halt of commerce.  Markets demand goods, and goods must make their way from the farms.  As a result, credit obligations have sometimes not been met.  Materials for a new harvest cycle cannot be bought.  Collateral has been called.  Sources of credit have evaporated.

In the words of Sergio Ramírez, former Vice President for Daniel Ortega:

“The universities have been closed for three months and the high schools as well. 10% of the public schools are functioning, no parent thinks about sending their child to school. Life ends at 5pm, everyone looks to get home. There is no night life in Managua, being out on the street after 6pm is putting your life at risk. Social life has changed a lot, so it is a situation of seclusion.”

This is not a life of vibrant progress, but of loss.

To be sure, some of these voices have joined the chorus either in support or defiance of the government.  But the “silent majority” of Nicaragua, as usual, has little opportunity to speak its reality.  As always, those in the countryside are paying an enormous price for that reality.  The disappointment must be immense; hard work perhaps does not always pay off.   Still, they persevere.  What else is there?

The litany of matters which have oppressed and stalled Nicaraguans for portions of two centuries are long and diverse.  Some were natural disasters. Others were the result of outside forces seeking to own the beauty and the richness of the country.  And often the sources of the inequities and the impoverishment were the legacies of leaders who could not envision leadership without autocracy.  As the saying goes, “There’s always something.”

There is likely a limit to human resilience for most of us.  These is a saturation point beyond which even our tenacity and determination will not permit us to go.  I worry about Nicaragua a lot these days.  I anxious for the lives of those who are on the front lines for a cause in which they believe, for whatever reason.  My heart aches for the places I have come to love in Nicaragua, some now relegated to battlegrounds once again.  But my greatest fear is for the steadfast endurance of those in the countryside, for whom every day is both a blessing to be celebrated and a threat to be confronted.

The number of physical victims in the Nicaraguan turmoil of the past three months continues to grow.  Some estimates have the number of dead at more than 300, the number of “disappeared” at more than 750  and many thousands of others injured from the attacks from paramilitary forces.  No matter what the actual count, the costs have been extensive thus far, with no end in sight.  These are the dramatic affronts that deserve our tears and our prayers.  But the price being extracted is strangling all Nicaraguans….

Letter from the U.S.

Periodically, I have written letters between the U.S. and Nicaragua through two made-up pen pals.  The correspondence is intended to reflect the views that a U.S. citizen might have about his/her own country, as well as Nicaragua.  What follows is the latest of these, a response to a letter from Nicaragua on July 1.

Hola Roberto!

Thank you very much for your last letter.  My whole family enjoyed hearing from you and hearing that you are safe.  Like you, we have had some very heavy storms here in our part of the country.  The rains have not really affected the crops very much, but there has been some flooding in towns close to rivers.  You know all about that!  I remember the stream that flows down the hillside near your home and how it swelled during the heavy rains that fell during my visit a few years ago!

I read with interest every day about the confrontations in Nica.  Mostly we are getting our information from La Prensa, since the U.S. news outlets provide very little coverage of events in Nica.  I am really sad to learn of police shooting citizens who are protesting.  Here, there is usually no worry about the police unless maybe you are African American or Hispanic.  Don’t worry- if you ever come for a visit we’ll make sure you are safe with us!

I am disappointed to hear of the allegations made against the president of your country.  I don’t know whether he has told the truth about the latest violence against the protesters.  We do know here what it is like to have an elected leader who lies.  Our current president tells lies or misrepresentations most of the time.  At one of his campaign rallies, he made 98 statements and 76% of them were either false or misleadingThe Washington Post newspaper has counted up more than 3,000 lies told in 500 days.  So we know what it feels like to have a leader who says whatever suits him.  The good news is that the press reports on it and the people get to decide what they believe.

I am particularly sad about the deaths of so many young people there.  I have met so many wonderful people, just like you, with beautiful families and loving homes.  To think that even one of these has been torn apart by violence is hard to imagine.  Maybe you have heard about some Nicaraguan families being separated by the U.S. Border patrol at the Mexican border.  The difference here is that the children are mostly young- under age 15- which makes the separation almost as hard as what you have experienced.  But each one of us is somebody’s son or daughter, so the pain is universal.  I hope that the killing stops.

You asked me about human rights in this country and whether the U.S. is somehow less interested in them than before.  I cannot say for sure, because of course I am not involved in making policy.  I know that I still care about it.  But the politicians end up doing whatever suits their own interests, which is why I haven’t even voted in recent years.  It’s not like I have any voice.  I think we still care about rights, but I don’t know.  What organization was it that the U.S. dropped out of?  I did not hear about that.  But I have read that our president continuously asked his top advisers about overthrowing Venezuela’s president to stop the growing problems that his leadership of that country has created.  I think maybe that has to do with human rights there, but I’m not sure.

I can’t imagine another war in Nicaragua!  It’s too hard to think about the people I’ve met and the beautiful places I’ve seen being in the middle of bombs and guns.  And all the great shopping markets, like at Masaya.  I don’t think a civil war will happen, do you?  What would you do?  I think I agree with your brother, that the conflict is mostly in Managua and some of the other big cities.  Getting involved could be dangerous!  And would you really want to fight?  In the end, I always feel like things will work out the way they’re meant to be.

I would love to come back to Nicaragua for a visit!  I hope that things settle down there and that you can get back to selling your harvest without any trouble.  Do you know anything about NAFTA?  I was going to ask you if were affected by it.  Our president thinks it’s really hurting the U.S. and he wants to re-do the agreement.  I suppose that would not be good for you, but maybe Nicaragua has been benefitting from it for a long time and it should be evened out.  Oh well, I just wondered.

Our family thinks of you often and wishes you peace and prosperity.  I hope you will write to us again.

Your friend,

James

 

 

 

Boys Will Be Boys

We didn’t know their names.  We hadn’t seen their faces.  We really didn’t know much of anything about them, except that there were twelve soccer players altogether, accompanied by their coach.  They had crawled up into the inner reaches of a cave, exploring with the excitement and energy that 12-year old boys seem to have, when outside rains created rising waters inside the cave, submerging the very passages that the boys had used hours before.  They became trapped.

We all know the story by now, as it became a topic of international attention.  News sources from around the world featured daily updates about the fate of the boys; indeed, nine days elapsed before rescuers even discovered the boys still alive, but each and every day we received updates about rescuers’ progress.  It was no less than a miracle that the team survived so long underground.  And then we waited and watched as rescue teams- made up of Thai, U.S. and other international support- completed the meticulous planning and execution of the rescue itself.  In the end, there was a universal sigh of relief from all corners of the globe that these young lives had been saved.  Maybe the world needed a unified success in something, anything, at this time of extreme nationalism and name-calling.

The international interest and support puzzles me.  I readily understand the empathy and emotional attachment that we feel: imagining one’s own children in such dire circumstances is a nightmare that most parents have, and to which even non-parents can relate.  The anguish and outrage expressed in the U.S. on behalf of children separated from their parents at the border with Mexico demonstrated our ability to activate on behalf of kids.  But the capture of the entire international conscience over the fate of 12 boys astounds me.  There have been and continue to be almost daily events which threaten the lives of children, in many cases far more than a dozen young lives, and for which we show almost casual interest at best.  Sometimes the young lives are lost, and the world takes little note.  Middle East violence has destroyed young lives as a matter of policy.  Syrian war has made no distinctions between use of nerve gas on adults or children.  In Nicaragua, young people are being killed or “disappeared” each day during the current political turmoil, and the world barely knows of it.  What made the Thai soccer team so different for us?

Was it the uniforms?  Was there something about the context of a boys’ athletic team?  Perhaps the difference was due to the nature of the threat: not imposed by politics or other man-made conventions, but rather from Nature herself.  Maybe it’s easier to root for people confronting the forces of natural calamity than to be forced to choose sides in a conflict.  Someone suggested to me that we have a limited capacity for empathy in crises, and that we are more capable of emotion for smaller numbers of victims: we can handle our fears and grief for 12, but it’s much more difficult for, say, 1,000.  For whatever the reason, we seem to pick and choose the victims who we will care about.  It baffles me.  And I feel badly for those other victims who wait for the caress of human accompaniment, prayers and support, even when it never comes.

My reflections over this brought to mind a scene from the movie, “Schindler’s List,” where Schindler is in despair over Jews he could not ultimately help away from Nazi danger, despite his urgent desire to save them:

“I could have got more out.  I could have got more.  I don’t know.  If I’d just…  I could have got more….  If I’d made more money.  I threw away so much money.  You have no idea.  If I’d just….

I didn’t do enough!  This car.  Someone would have bought this car.  Why did I keep the car?  Ten people right there.  Ten people.  Ten more people.  This pin.  Two people.  This is gold.  Two more people.  He would have given me two for it, at least one.  One more person.  I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t.  And I… didn’t.” 

Sometimes conscience is too slow, or too selective, and becomes numbed by the happy drama of boys being boys….