All posts by Steve Sheppard

Steve is CEO of the Winds of Peace Foundation

Wondering

For several weeks I have been absent here, for a variety of reasons.  I wonder if anyone noticed.  Does it make any difference?

I have wondered about a lot of things.

I wonder why the 1% of the wealthiest people in the world feel compelled to have more.  What will they do with it?

I wonder why some people go to bed hungry while the U.S. alone wastes about 31% of its food each year, or 133 billion pounds of food.  Do Nicaraguan children throw food away?

I wonder how an elected official can be called a leader when he/she only represents a few wealthy citizens.  Can one actually lead a “force” of, say, 12 people?

I wonder if President Donald Trump realizes that the man in the Texas floods who helped to save an infant who had stopped breathing is an immigrant from Guatemala.  Does humanity have borders?

I wonder what the Earth will be like for my grandchildren when they reach my age.  Will they still be able to breathe the air and drink the water?  What will they use instead?

I wonder if there will ever be an end to poverty.  Is there a statute of limitations on servitude?  Who will free the marginalized?

I wonder why we think that teachers and social workers and the like are content to work for the love of the job and do not care about financial security.  Is teaching and caring for others really that unimportant to our economy?

I wonder what would happen if doctors and other caregivers decided to treat only those people who were part of a “special club” and had paid their dues to join.   Would that even be legal?  What if you couldn’t pay the dues?

I wonder why I do so many things that I ought not to do, and leave untended so many things that I ought to do.  Isn’t my intellect capable of informing me of what is essential?

I wonder who first posited that the poor seem to lead very happy lives despite their poverty.  Was it a wealthy person seeking to assuage his/her discomfort?  Is acceptance the same as happiness?

I wonder what would happen if men and women suddenly recognized what would happen in the world, if women were simply treated equally.  Is there a genetic trait for equity blindness?

I wonder if there will ever be a female U.S. president.  Are there too many men with money to allow that?  Why would any woman want to join in that game?

I wonder whether any member of the U.S. Cabinet has ever missed a meal or been denied health care or been homeless.  Would it make any difference in their policies?

Despite my lack of entries here over the past three weeks, it really has been a busy time, indeed….

Do All Lives Matter?

Black lives matter.  Police lives matter.  Latino lives matter.  Gay lives matter.

We live in an age of proclaiming that _______ lives matter.  (Fill in the blank with whatever ethnic, racial, gender, vocational or religious designation is important to you.)  Over the past several years, the U.S. has witnessed countless marches, protests and demonstrations which demand and plead for human mercies in the face of injustice and bias.  These are events which are both troubling and hopeful. Troubling, because they invariably follow an incident of hatred and/or hurt.  Hopeful, because they affirm the expectation that we have for fairness and compassion.

I encountered the following article by writer Nick McDonell, writing for The Los Angeles Times.  It casts a somewhat broader view of whether all lives matter to us.  It invites the question, “Is any life of less value than another?”

Civilian war casualties: Truth is, we value others’ lives less than our own

Iraqi officials report that a U.S. airstrike killed nearly 200 civilians in West Mosul in mid-March. The U.S. military acknowledged that it had carried out a mission in the area and is now investigating this strike as well as another in March, said to have killed dozens of civilians near the Syrian city of Raqqah.

When a missile meets its target, chemicals inside the weapon combine, causing gases to expand and exert pressure on the warhead, which shatters outward, turning it into shrapnel behind a blast wave. This wave, faster than the speed of sound, compresses the surrounding air, pulverizes any nearby concrete, plaster, or bone, and creates a vacuum, sucking debris back to the zero point. The chemical interaction also produces heat, causing fire.

Although the ensuing civilian casualties may seem like unstoppable tragedies, they are not. Civilian casualties are not inevitable. They are a choice.

The U.S. military predicts how many people will die in its airstrikes by surveilling and estimating the population within a proposed blast radius. It also sets a limit on the number of innocent people each command is authorized to kill incidentally. This limit, called the Non-Combatant Cutoff Value, or NCV, is perhaps our starkest rule of engagement, and it varies region-by-region for political reasons.

In Afghanistan, civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes are considered a liability in our relationship with that country’s government. The NCV for Afghanistan is therefore zero.

In Iraq and Syria, the calculus is different. The Pentagon believes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a greater threat than the Taliban; the Iraqis have been requesting more aggressive support; the fighting is more urban.

Last year in Baghdad, I asked then-U.S. Army spokesman Col. Steve Warren what the NCV was for Iraq. That is: How many innocent Iraqis was his command authorized to kill incidentally in an airstrike?

“There are numbers — we don’t put those numbers out,” he told me, “and here’s why we don’t put ‘em out: Because if the enemy understand, ‘Oh if I have X number of civilians around a thing,’ its gonna be harder for [the U.S. to arrack] right? So that’s a piece of information that we protect.”

The number, however, came out. It was first reported by Buzzfeed, and then the Associated Press, in December, when the Army issued its latest Rules of War Manual.

“According to senior defense officials,” the AP story ran, “military leaders planning operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria may authorize strikes where up to 10 civilians may be killed, if it is deemed necessary in order to get a critical military target.” 

That number yields some grim math. Last year, the coalition acknowledged 4,589 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. If the NCV was 10 throughout, then U.S. policy in 2016 was to tolerate the incidental killing of a maximum of 45,890 innocent Iraqis and Syrians in order to destroy ISIS.

The common estimate for ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria is 40,000, and between Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and 2016, foreign terrorists killed a total of 411 American civilians, worldwide.

Our policy for last year, then, was to tolerate the death of 112 Iraqi or Syrian civilians per American civilian.

That’s on paper. In practice, the military does not typically expect civilian casualties, and it engineers strikes to avoid them. I doubt the military anticipated, specifically, those 200 civilians who died in Mosul. We have killed far fewer noncombatant Iraqis than the NCV permits — a minimum of 2,831, according to Airwars, the preeminent independent monitoring group. (The U.S. has confirmed only 220 as of March). And in dozens of interviews with men and women responsible for such strikes, no one expressed a desire to kill civilians or the opinion that it is ever strategically advisable to do so.

Recently embedded in a tactical operations center to observe airstrikes, I met targeteers and commanding officers who were mostly conscientious, within the parameters of their bloody business.

But what’s on paper matters. The math, then, is troubling — especially under a president who, unlike the men and women he leads, has endorsed the intentional, rather than incidental, killing of noncombatants.

“The other thing with terrorists,” then-candidate Donald Trump said on “Fox and Friends” in December 2015, “is that you have to take out their families.”

To do so would be a war crime. Whether or not the Trump administration has relaxed the rules of engagement, as some suspect, Airwars reported in March that we are, for the first time, causing more civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS than our Russian counterparts. 

This monstrous fact will disturb the troops I met in December, who believe that we are always the good guys when it comes to civilian casualties. Or at least the better guys. But there are no good guys in this process. That we have an NCV greater than zero implies something ugly, if unsurprising, about the way we see ourselves in the world, how we value a foreign life against an American one. We value it less.

It is reasonable to care more for countrymen than foreigners. Devotion to family, neighbors and friends defines a life, and one does not love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.

But neither should we be willing to kill that little girl to achieve our aims. Arguably legal, our utilitarian position is neither brave nor morally ambitious for a superpower dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Nick McDonell’s most recent book, “The Civilization of Perpetual Movement,” was published in 2016. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times (TNS).

It’s a sobering article.  To know that some human beings are simply counted in the calculation of something called NCV is horrifying, even if nothing really new.  The process begs for examination and reflection.  Maybe we start with the premise that one must “love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.”  For these are our daughters.  And our sons.  Our national global strategies have no place for the notion of “taking out their families,” as our president proclaims.  Life is precious in whatever the context.  To deny that is to deny our very humanity….

What’s the Matter With Kids These Days?

We had an update from the Indigenous youth of the north on my most recent trip to Nicaragua.  Meeting with this group is always an excitement.  They can be as shy as their parents’ generation can be, especially during first-time encounters, but there is an underlying energy and freshness about the youth.  Maybe it just goes with being somewhere between 16 and 30 years of age.  (I really hate to even write that suggestion down, because if it’s true, where does it leave someone like me?)

There are lots of things to like about the members of NUMAJI:  in addition to the aforementioned energies, they are organized, they take their organizational responsibilities seriously, they are constantly seeking ways in which to grow- both organizationally and personally- and they are undaunted by the societal forces which seem to conspire against their quest for independence and preservation of Indigenous tradition.  It’s easy to root for underdogs.

Like their young brethren in most other countries, the members of NUMAJI carry a bias toward “rebellion.”  Not physical confrontation, but a desire to go their own ways as compared to their elders.  The irony for this Indigenous group of youth is that their rebellion is aimed not at abandonment of past ways but at preservation of their heritage, “the Indigenous patrimony.”  It’s in danger of extinction due to passage of time, loss of youth to technology and migration, local and national governments which prefer not having to deal with the reality of Indigenous traditions and rights, and other Indigenous voices which speak about the artifacts of their heritage as being for sale.

This group of young people has been through a lot.  They first came together under the recognition that they needed and deserved a structure in which their voices might be heard by their elders; sometimes elders have a difficult time ascribing value to their eventual successors.  Next, they waded into the swamp of forming themselves into an association, a process which is as long as it is daunting, and especially for the uninitiated.  They face the scorn of many elders who view the association as too inexperienced and too young to be of importance.  They battle the entrenched and politics-driven agendas of some Indigenous and municipal community “leaders,” for whom an association of independent thinkers and actors constitutes a threat to established order.  In short, there are few resources on which to rely as they defend their heritage and birthright.

Except in the case of their work.  As we listened to the issues faced by the youth- many of whom are still in their teens- I was struck by the content of the proposal they made for association work in the coming year.  I wonder where else I might hear youth discussing issues like: internal and foreign migration; the need for development of greater emotional intelligence as a personal development strength;  the impacts of “adultism;” confronting child abuse; writing the statutes and administration of a legal association; or preserving and protecting archaeological sites when municipal and national authorities demonstrate little interest in doing so.  These are not matters of pop culture or social media, but rather, the very real issues of an entire Indigenous people being met head-on by their youth.

It’s an uphill battle, at best.  Maybe NUMAJI will be able to sustain itself through sheer force of wills; young people often have that capacity.  Alternatively, the obstacles may prove to be more than even an energized group of committed youth can withstand.  But either way, this group has educated and experienced itself in ways that will serve its individual members well in the future, whatever that may hold.  Good character and personal courage are qualities that are always in demand and short in supply.

When we left the meeting, I noticed that I actually stood a little straighter, taller than when I walked in….

 

 

Step Lightly

I recently took the opportunity to travel to some places I had never been before.  Specifically, my wife and I visited for the first time the jewels of the Southwest United States:  Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  Such an experience is many things: renewing, educational, inspiring, humbling, a privilege and even existential in nature.  Especially at this time of great upheaval within our country, the opportunity to “pull back,” even for a short time, provided a welcome relief.  And an important lesson.

Most of the sites we visited are well-known to those who have visited the Parks, and the trails leading to these vantage points are well-marked and well-trod by millions of visitors before us.  And at each of those trailheads, the Park Service feels obligated to post a message to its visitors, one which might seem unnecessary in the shadows of majestic peaks and rims of jaw-dropping chasms, but which is offered nonetheless.  It’s a small sign which reads, “Your Steps Matter.”                                                

The sign is simply a reminder of the transience of these landscapes and our impacts upon them.  They are fragile.  People too often have the desire to leave their own imprints on these monuments of creation, as if to satisfy a need to make a statement of existence, to leave their own modern-day petroglyphs about which future visitors might wonder.   Perhaps it was the reflective nature of our trip or my tendency to look for hidden meanings where none may be intended, but the words on the sign prompted other thoughts for me.

Our steps do matter, whether for the health of ground vegetation, rock formations or water quality in the parks.   Trees that have withstood the extremes of nature for more than 100 years are nonetheless dependent upon “breathing space” from the hordes of human visitors who come to these sites constantly to witness the immense majesty of the natural world.  It’s among the places where it’s not OK to take “the road less traveled,” as Frost suggested, and where we’re discouraged to blaze our own trails, in deference to the survival of other life.

In light of the signage, I felt a certain pride at keeping to the paths, as though I was contributing something good to the welfare and sustainability of the parks.  I know that the notion is ridiculous, but staying on the trails was perhaps the one act of preservation that I could make.  But that same sense of self-righteousness led me to consider other steps in my life.

Steps everywhere in our lives matter.  Every stride taken in our journey makes an imprint, leaves a trace, impacts our surroundings. Like the proverbial beating of butterfly wings that affects weather patterns on the other side of the world, we are part of a global tapestry wherein all of us are inextricably dependent upon and impacted by each other.  Choices we make in the U.S. have an impact in Nicaragua.  We might elect to trespass over someone else’s space, and might even be able to “get away with it,” and to do so without detection.  But the space will be changed forever, in ways that we may never know. How and where we walk are matters of choice: we can elect to tread lightly and with respect, or to trample according to our own narrow wills.  Either way, we leave a story for those who follow.  Like our children.  Or our grandchildren.  Or our children’s children’s children.

Our steps are our legacies, like those artifacts we covet from millennia past.  They are the messages we leave behind that attempt to declare our existence and portray the kinds of lives we led.  What a pity if, in our wakes, all that remains are traces of once-resplendent times and places….

 

The Problems with Privilege

One of my daughters, Molly,  has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege.  She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege.  It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege.  It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students.  Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context.  Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds.  (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)

But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy.  She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.

The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants.  We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life.  We want to be “first in line.”  It might be first in line for a new technology.  We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets.  We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others.  We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay.  We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work.  Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays.  It’s in us instinctively.   Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are.  We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.

The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives.  Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom.  For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us.  We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below.  All of us are more privileged than some.  Some are more privileged than most.  Most are more privileged than the least.  I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most.  So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”

Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it.  We seem to feel as though everyone else has it.  No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives,  we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged.  The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others.   There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention.  But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.

Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less.  The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been  cause for debate throughout our history.  It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government.  That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.

If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation.  It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion.  But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….

 

I Met Some Women

I spent the week in Nicaragua last week, visiting partners and participating in a cooperative workshop.  It’s a process that has become familiar to me over the past dozen years, but it is never the same.  Every cooperative, every member, has a story to tell, and each is very different from the other.  Some stories are sad.  Some are uplifting.  Some are absolutely energizing in the sheer power of their message.  Such is the case of COMUSAN, the women’s communal bank cooperative in the remote village of Santa Ana.

Welcome Winds Of Peace

The route to Santa Ana and our meeting is slow and difficult, even for a 4-wheel drive vehicle; the trail is little more than a wide path.  The surroundings are breathtaking, with the mountains and  valleys contrasting  each other.  At one plateau sits a tiny pre-school house, wherein the women of COMUSAN await our arrival.

Pre-School Building

They have come from all over the territory  to attend this meeting of exposition, pride and gratitude.  The cooperative has been guided into existence through the patience and determination of the women and ANIDES, the Nicaraguan Association for Sustainable Development.  Two  members of ANIDES are present, but the show belongs to the women.

What is remarkable about this gathering is not just that the women have come together for a common purpose (the communal bank), but that they have done so against such enormous odds and with such striking success.  Many of the members have migrated to this region from other parts of the country, whether uprooted from past conflicts, ravages of nature or lack of economic opportunity.  Their ages cover generations.  None possess previous experience with banking, even as borrowers.   Most have little education, many with none beyond primary grades.  The men in their lives must understand that the stake in the cooperative bank belongs to the members, a sometimes difficult lesson.    And yet the financials of this fledgling communal bank are positive

Positive Financials!

and growing, as the members take small and certain steps to ensure the strengthening of their bank- and the cooperative which now envelops it- for the future.

The women are understandably shy about speaking up; they don’t have many visitors here and perhaps they are overly-modest about what they have accomplished and how they feel about it.  Asking for support is a humbling experience all by itself.  But the presence of the 27 women, many of whom have walked a great distance to attend the meeting, is a testament to both their pride and determination to make this entity succeed, for themselves and their families.

There is a determination here, a sense that the women of COMUSAN will make this initiative work, regardless of the obstacles they may face.  They are deliberate.  They seek to understand the processes of their cooperative.  Members of both the coop and ANIDES plan to attend the cooperative workshop to be held later in the week.  A visitor can feel both the inexperience and the intensity of a collaborative effort to succeed.  Indeed, one “dream” expressed during the visit is that this cooperative not only succeed unto itself, but that it might become known internationally.

Ambitious visions for a rural women’s cooperative?  Perhaps.  But then, all great success stories start with an unlikely dream….

The Women of COMUSAN

 

 

 

 

“An Anger I Have Never Felt”

Winds of Peace Foundation has embraced many goals for itself since its beginnings: we have sought to help cultivate economic opportunity for the poor, social justice for women, restoration of rights for Indigenous peoples, strengthened education for children, fostered peace and reconciliation between the marginalized and the empowered, and encouraged an holistic health and well-being for the sick.  The list is ambitious and maybe unrealistic in some people’s views, but that doesn’t render the goals any less important or urgent.  (The rescuers at the buried hotel in the French Alps last month began their efforts with individual hand scoops of snow, which eventually led to saving lives.)

Along the way, the work spawns the entire range of human emotions.  Often we feel frustration at the slow pace of change, both within Nicaragua and in the U.S. and other nations.  There is also joy, such as in knowing that Foundation resources have made it possible for young children to access books for reading.  Irritation is never far away, often associated with someone’s lack of context or understanding, where a good intention paradoxically becomes a hindrance to progress.  There are even occasional moments of anger, as when someone of privilege abuses that posture, at the expense (usually) of the most defenseless in society.  Nicaragua is home to many causes for emotional reaction.

So it was with a sense of another emotion- incredulity- that I read about…  a basketball fan.  I’m not much of a fan myself, usually only paying attention in March as the collegiate teams vie for playoff glories.  But I couldn’t help but notice the results of a recent match-up between the Universities of Iowa and Minnesota.  The teams not only played close, but actually extended the game to two overtime periods, before Minnesota prevailed.  Apparently, the end result was helped significantly by an errant call by a referee late in the game, a fact that left the Iowa faithful unhappy, at best.  But, bad calls are part of the game of basketball.  Referees are human, they can only see so much at a time, there are lots of big bodies pivoting all over the court at high speed.  When the mistakes happen, we shake our heads and move on.   It’s part of what makes the game and sometimes creates basketball lore.  Right?

The day following the game, I read some of the displeasure of the Iowa fans in the news.  And there, among the laments and the grieving, emerged a comment which grabbed and confronted me.  One Iowa fan confided, “This fills me with an anger I have never felt before.”

I needed to first consider what the writer was saying, that never before had he/she ever felt such a rage.  Then I felt many emotions for the writer: pity, that something as comparatively insignificant as a game (one being watched, not played) could command such control over his/her life; joy, that he/she had apparently never had occasion to experience great anger in life; perplexity, for someone whose emotional passion is apparently confined to  entertainment; and, yes, anger, that of all the injustices in our country and the world today,  this was the one to garner his/her deep emotion.

There are many realities that might give rise to anger: the murder of an innocent 2-year old in Chicago comes to mind;  genocide in Syria and Africa; racial injustice in the U.S. and other countries; an average Nicaraguan income of $2 a day.  An accounting of human tragedies around the world provides a surplus of reasons for deep-seated anger.  But a missed call during a basketball game?

Maybe it was overstatement, something “tweeted” in the heat of a disappointing moment.  Maybe the writer was looking for a way to underscore just how unhappy he/she was feeling with poor officiating.  But as I thought about the  declaration, I thought I recognized a brutal truth about it.  For those of us living in the material bounty of a place like the U.S., priorities too often become defined by our craving for comforts.  We reach a point psychologically where we want what we want, and we believe we somehow deserve it, and that’s what is important, enough so to engender a depth of anger “never felt before.”

The entire episode made me, well, uncomfortable.  I pulled from my wall a framed quotation from Kahlil Gibran: “…the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house as a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master.”  Here’s hoping that the comforts of our lives never take over matters that have meaning….

 

 

 

Illness of Another Sort

In my most recent blog, I talked about some of the symptoms being experienced in the Fair Trade world and our experiences in dealing with them.  But it turns out that the link to the article written by Dr. Rene Mendoza was feeling a little sick, too, and didn’t work for those readers who are regular subscribers to the blog site.  So in remediation of that pain, here is the link to the full article, in PDF format.

My apologies for the cyber illness, which we all seem to come down with from time to time….