All posts by Steve Sheppard

Steve is CEO of the Winds of Peace Foundation

Chicken Feed

This Easter has been a sweet deal for candy manufacturers: more than $2 billion was spent on candy alone this season, and the overall spending on all Easter-related purchases figures to be the second-highest in U.S. history.  (I know that I didn’t receive any chocolate bunnies on Easter Sunday, so somebody else has been taking more than their share. ) But it started me thinking about wants and needs and central Easter messages.

That candy cost isn’t exactly chicken feed.  By comparison, the total amount of all U.S. aid to Nicaragua in 2017 was $31.3 million, 15% of all that candy.  I only offer the comparison here for contrast; neither I nor most Nicaraguans would argue for greater aid dependency on the U.S.  But it’s quite a difference in sums when one considers the two categories: resources for basic human living standards in Nica versus Easter candy consumption in the U.S.   Setting aside such notions as national boundaries, something seems inequitable in all of that, no matter to what political or economic perspective one may subscribe.  Let me elaborate.

I spent a week with my colleague Mark in Nicaragua last month, visiting with rural partners, hearing about their struggles with various harvests, understanding the need for late repayments in several cases, and attending a two-day workshop designed to teach information analysis, so that these producers might go about their work on a more data-driven basis.

Our week did not represent some kind of hight-level financial development.  We lunched with them on rice and beans.  We spoke with some, in impromptu huddles, about small loans and the most basic tenets of our partnerships: accompaniment, transparency, functioning bodies of governance, broad-based participation, and collaboration within the coops.  We described the nature of goals and goal-setting.  They asked us about work processes.  We laughed some.  The interactions may have been at their most basic level, but they were important and appreciated.  Basic stuff usually is.

What does any of that have to do with Easter candy sales?  Simply this: the sweet taste in the mouth from a dissolving Peep or jelly bean is both artificial and temporary.  And it can never take away the bad taste in the mouth from the recognition that we spend more on candy than on the very lives of others who are in significant need for their basic survival.  That bad taste comes from recognition that our own lives are made up of moments, moments of priority and precedence, wherein we have the free will to decide how we will spend our time and our money and our spirit.  Those decisions impact the impoverished in profound ways, and as importantly, paint the portrait of who we truly are.   And they do leave a taste in the mouth, one kind or another.

Last month in Nicaragua I heard the observation of a producer who was considering the raising of a few chickens as a supplement to his coffee-growing efforts.  His words of hesitation were like a fist to the gut.  “The corn that my hens eat,” he observed, “could be food for my family.”  He was not speaking about candy corn.

Easter is a season of resurrection and salvation, of new beginnings and new chances.  It is a time of reflection for many about the life and example of Jesus and the basis of those who claim followership of his teaching.  It also gives me pause to think about the price of candy and the value of corn….

 

 

 

A Gift for Marisela

 

Almost from my first visit as a member of WPF, Marisela has been part of my Nicaragua experience.  Her Cuallitlan Hotel in Esteli is one of the most charming and unique places of rest I have ever encountered, a direct reflection of its owner and the artistic genius that she has brought to its development.  We choose to stay there whenever our agenda allows it.  It’s like stepping into an enchanted forest, with small cottages and lush greenery accenting the trees and exotic animals found there.  Over the past 13 years I have teased Marisela by proclaiming that her lodging is my favorite hotel in all the world.  The claim invariably brings a blush to her face and an exclamation of “oh my God!” to her lips.  She is humble about her achievement with Cuallitlan but appreciative of her guests’ enjoyment.  As she says, “I have made this place my home and I love to invite people in to visit.”  But sadly, no more.

Last week, during our first visit to Cuallitlan in more than a year, Marisela uncharacteristically met us with great weeping.  With her trademark welcoming hug, and through her tears, she exclaimed, “I thought that I would never see you again!”  We protested: even if there had been many months since our last visit, there would always be more to come.  But she punctured that hope by explaining that health reasons were forcing her to sell the hotel.  This oasis which she birthed, nurtured and held close to her heart for so many years, had to be sold for her own well-being.  As it broke her heart to say it, the news was also a heartbreak to hear.  For Marisela is Cuallitlan.  And much more.

In an age long before women had much of a platform on which to claim equality- and especially in Nicaragua, which is to this day still full of machismo attitudes- Marisela blazed her own trails.  While raising her three children, she inherited and managed a sawmill as the only woman in the entire organization.  And once the men began to test her strength and resolve by sabotage and deceit, she met their challenge by dismissing all but one of them.  The resulting legal claims filed by the men were addressed and defeated one at a time.  So much for strength and resolve.

There are remnants of those sawmill days within the hotel grounds;  an enormous cross-section of a tree serves as a table top in the central reception area.  Hand saws and blocks of exotic wood adorn the grounds.  But it’s the hotel that has absorbed the creative talents of this high-energy hostess.  Every vestige of the inn carries a reflection of its owner, from the bath towels folded into animal shapes to the signs of wise and witty sayings that dot the premises.  Marisela has brought unique meaning to the term “destination hotel,” for there is more to see and appreciate than a single night’s visit could ever afford.  

But for me, it was always about reception.  When I first visited the hotel in 2006, I was an anxious newcomer to Nicaragua.  I did not speak Spanish, I carried with me into the country the appropriate guilt of a North American  and I had little idea about the role I might play in coming to this destination.  Everything was new, and all of it held  potential for an awkward loss of confidence.  Perhaps it is difficult for some to imagine such uneasiness, but as one who carried serious intentions of representing the Foundation with familiarity, openness and equality, I saw each encounter as a moment for either connection or distancing.  Marisela ensured that at her home, there would be no chance of the latter.

Always the smile, her absolute joy at receiving her guests.  Always a hug, her recognition of past visits and moments shared.  Always an enthusiasm, her means of ensuring me that I was welcome there.  And even before she had ever met Katie or one of my daughters in later visits, always her inquiry about them, as though she had held a personal concern for their well-being since my last visit.  Marisela possesses the gifts of hospitality and warmth, the values of which eventually relaxed the trepidations of an aspiring Foundation worker  and affirmed for me the expectation of embrace wherever I traveled in the country.  Marisela opened the emotional and psychological doors for me one visit at a time.  And at each visit, I became further affirmed.

I doubt that Marisela acted in these ways with any grand psychological objective in mind.  I believe that she was simply being herself, someone whose personal joys are derived from giving of herself.  Indeed, when pressed about what she might seek to do after her days at Cuallitlan and attending to her own health, she says without definition or hesitation, “I want to help people.”  The notion is deeply embedded in her DNA.

We have promised to remain in touch, to continue sharing photographs and family stories and such stuff of which friendships are sustained.  She has already asked where my next visit to Nicaragua will take me, calculating out loud how long a drive might be required of her.

Future visits will not be quite the same, of course, without the oasis that is Cuallitlan.  But that’s OK.  For the essence of Cuallitlan lies in the heart of its creator, and not solely in its buildings and greenery.  Marisela bestowed a tremendous gift upon those who visited her, and none more than me.  In return, I can only render to her my profound appreciation, for the greens, the cottages and the warmth of her being.  And I hold great anticipation for whatever the next reception may be….                              

 

 

 

 

Grant-Making in Nicaragua

The following reflection was written during my recent week in Nicaragua.  I had the unusual experience of writing it on paper, with a pencil, no less.  It was composed in nearly “real time,” as if for a journal, and only minutes after the experience occurred.  Maybe that’s partly how it came to be such a personal, emotional record.  (And for the record, writing with paper and pencil still works.)

The time is 8:35.  We are overnighting in the municipality of El Cua, in the department of Jinotega.   The mountains of Peñas Blancas are just behind us; indeed, the road from the mountains to El Cua features some of the most beautiful kms anywhere on earth.  The vistas around each corner are filled with valleys and peaks that truly steal the breath away.  Hotel El Chepita is arguably one of the more modern accommodation in the town,  though in order to flush the toilet in my bathroom, I am required to lift up on the back of the toilet until the stopper, which is somehow attached to the tank lid, is pulled up and the flush can commence.

We are a little late getting in.  We arrive to an empty registration desk and even the desk bell fails to summon anyone to receive us.  Mark calls the phone number for the hotel and we can hear the distant ringing of a phone, but it has no more effect than the bell.  A guest from the lobby, impatiently waiting to retrieve her room key,  comes to the desk and bangs on that desk bell with a fury.  But the assault proves to be no more effective than the other summons, so we simply wait and discuss other lodging options.

After maybe 15 minutes, a young woman comes running to the desk with profuse apologies and a promise to get us registered immediately.  She defends herself by explaining that she is the only person working at the hotel in that moment and she is having understandable difficulty covering all bases.  As she records our identities, she does inquire whether it would be acceptable if one of the rooms has no TV.  Since I still do not speak Spanish with any skill even approaching “just getting by,” a TV is of no import to me so the registration continues.

The room, not unexpectedly, is sparse in its appointments.  There is no chair.  No table.  No clothing hooks adorn the walls, the bathroom has no counters, my room looks directly across the narrow street to a discotheque (yes, even in this era) and the music there is only drowned out by the persistent roar of motorcycle and truck engines racing down our street.  I can shut my slat-style windows, but I need the air in my air-conditioner-free room.  Besides, two of the glass louvers are missing from my windows, so the effectiveness in shutting out noise is highly suspect.  But the barking dogs in the property next to ours do take a break every half-hour or so to rest their voices.

My room is dark and hot.  (Oh-oh, there go the dogs again.)  I keep the single overhead light turned off, to reduce the heat and the depressing feeling that overhead lights always convey to me.  The overhead fan tries hard to keep up with the heat in this upstairs room, but the blades cannot turn fast enough to generate any meaningful cooling.  All I can do is to lie on my bed in the dark and read by the light of my Kindle.  I keep the bathroom light on, though, because the 8 o’clock hour is too early to fall asleep for the night, even in weary Nicaragua.

Staring across the room into that dimly-lit WC gives me pause to wonder to myself how I possibly came to be in a place like this on a Tuesday in March.  It is certainly unlike any place I ever experience in the course of my “normal” life.

And that is precisely the point.  The sounds, the smells, the conditions reveal the life of rural Nicaragua in ways that words or even photographs cannot.  At this moment, I would not choose to be in any other place but this.  In a single, isolated moment I am confronted with gratitude for the good fortune of my life, the shame of my self-centeredness, a humility at my recognition of being the most fortunate of men, an anger that I have not shown the strength and wisdom to have accomplished more, a thankfulness for the men and women here who have taught me even as I posed as the teacher, and gratefulness at being permitted to be among people who are at war with the injustice of their poverty.  Ironically, this place and time represents privilege: my privilege at the opportunity to become a part of their lives, if only for a short time.

To be sure, this evening I miss my wife and the comforts of our Iowa home, as I always do when I travel.  But I am filled up tonight in ways that I could not at home.  In this moment, it turns out that the most important grant during this trip is the one made to me….

 

The Virtue of Virtues

A long-time friend of mine recently bestowed a gift on me, one that has intrigued, perplexed and annoyed all at the same time.  It may seem strange that one small gift could accomplish all of this, but given the nature of the giver, I would expect no less.

George is an octogenarian, and one who has stuffed a great many experiences into his years, whether in vocation, family, service to others or contemplation of self.  For these reasons, as well as the fact that he is simply a very nice man, I enjoy meeting with him every so often for excellent conversation.  Neither one of us will ever be able to recount the winners and losers at The Academy Awards, but both of us like to expound upon what is right and what is wrong with the world today.  We both pretend to have the answers, if not the questions.

The gift he brought to me is no less than a presentation of life’s virtues.  One hundred thoughtful descriptions of moral excellence and goodness of character are printed on 4X5 cards, along with certain actions which embody the particular virtue.  They are a product of The Virtues Project, an international initiative to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life.  Each day at breakfast, I’m confronted with a new aspect of right action and thinking which may or may not be attributable to myself.  But they’re good triggers for thought and conversation with my wife, as I either claim ownership of a virtue or confess my weakness of it.  (I am too afraid to keep track of whether I have more “hits” than “misses.”)  The object is not keeping score, but reflecting on one’s personal posture.

The experience is stimulating.  I mean, how often do most of us have the questions posed about our daily existence and how we have chosen to live it?  Consider matters of integrity.  Honesty.  Humanity.  Commitment. Honor.  Gratitude.  Faith.  Empathy.  Grace.  Generosity.  Love.  Peacefulness.  Responsibility. Sacrifice.  Tolerance.  Truth.   The list is as long as it is deep.  Serious reflection of virtue is sobering, affirming and complex, all at the same time.

Yet there is a sort of elitist quality about contemplation of such things.  My past week in Nicaragua reminds me that consideration of manners and philosophies often becomes subjugated in light of the daily grind of feeding one’s family or securing the particulars of suitable shelter.   In some cases, circumstances tend to bend absolute virtues, or at least place them in conflict with other virtuous aims.

I do not imply that Nicaraguan peasants are without virtuous living; in fact, the reality is quite the opposite.  My experiences with rural Nica farmers often have been object lessons about living with dignity and hope despite enormously difficult circumstances.  Virtuous behaviors come from within, cultivated from generations of living in concert with their faith, the earth and one another, rather than from a conscious deliberation of what “ought to be.”

What occurs to me in the understanding of living against great odds is that the opportunity for meditation on matters of virtue and how to cultivate such behaviors is almost non-existent.  The conscious deliberation of what “ought to be” is too often a luxury afforded to those who are well off enough to indulge in contemplation of 4X5 cards.

Perhaps the observations are of no note.  Certainly, those who have been blessed with opportunity for musing on such matters have brought about only a modest degree of change and equity in the world: children still starve against the virtues of  Generosity, Humanity, Justice, Mercy and Sacrifice.  In my own reading of the virtues, I long for the recognition of them inherent within myself, regardless of the words on the cards.  But it is not always so, and the gentle reminders of what I could be are blessings to embrace.

There’s still time.  The questions are not complete, the answers not finished, our lives are not done, our legacies are not written and our virtues are not known until the end of our days….

 

 

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

I’m preparing for another visit to Nicaragua next week, the first since last August.  I’m excited to be going again, but the length of time between visits has caused me to forget my usual routines for getting ready and the result is that I’m already feeling like I’m behind.  To further compress things, I was supposed to be headed to Minnesota earlier this week,  but a winter storm and prudence dictated that, after I shoveled out the driveway, I stay “hunkered down” for the next 24 hours.  I’ll need to re-schedule that meeting for the second time!  On top of that, we’re working on some WPF transitions, preparing for the retirement of our office manager, hiring a Nica consultant following another retirement, and interviewing several new Board candidates.  Where’s the time going to come from?

In addition to the immediate travel logistics, there are family matters, as well.  Our twin daughters’ birthday is rapidly approaching and we need to pick a date for celebrating.  Another daughter is participating in a body-building competition and we’ll absolutely be in attendance for it.  We have income taxes to complete and file, a dentist appointment is just ahead, there’s a fix to some flooring that needs to be made, we’ve got to schedule the furnace guy for a mechanical issue, and Katie’s sister is about to move from our house into her own place.  Time’s up!

One of the maxims about growing older is the reality that time seems to speed up.  For many, some of the same old routines take longer, there seem to be more things to accomplish than ever before, and the need for rest each night tends to move up ever so slightly.  The result is a feeling that things are moving faster.  There’s nothing new in any of this: it’s simply the cycle of life as it moves inexorably from start to finish, except for those to whom it is happening, of course.  There just never seems to be enough time and the window of availability just keeps getting smaller every day.

In preparing for my travels, I naturally re-orient myself to Nicaragua as I prepare to adjust from a U.S. lifestyle to a Central American one.  I think about how things will be different next week, from the language to the food to the evening accommodations, from an environment of material excess to one of a perpetual search for basic needs.  And I couldn’t help but reflect on another notable difference: the passage of time.

Our anxieties about time are a product of a society that needs to run with precision.  It doesn’t provide much allowance for delays and its tolerance for being late is thin.  A case in point is my inability to drive 160 miles to the Twin Cities for a long-planned meeting, due to ice and snow.  My luncheon partner was fully understanding and my decision was absolutely the right one to make, but all day long I suffered with guilt and a sense of letting people down.  You may attribute those feelings to an overly-sensitive psyche, but it’s the product of a culture which expects timely completion of plans, no matter what the circumstances.  Snow?  Drive through it.  12-hour days to finish a project?  Just do it, as Nike ads admonish us.

In contrast, my meetings within the rural sectors of Nicaragua next week will not have such expectations.  Sessions to be held with governing bodies of the cooperatives may or may not begin at 2:00 P.M.  as scheduled.  It may take some participants longer to arrive at a central meeting location, as they travel long distances- often by foot-  from their farms in order to attend.  Where available, transportation is unreliable.  The demand of the farm is sometimes a priority that just can’t be denied, even against the obligation to attend a meeting on behalf of the coop.  A weather event might wash away a bridge.  There are not many clocks.  And sometimes it is the North Americans who arrive late, having encountered other delays in the day or on the roads.  2:00 in Nica means, “as close to 2:00 as you can make it.”

Does casualness with regard to time irritate people in Nica the way it most certainly does in the U.S.?  Not in an apparent way.  Rural peasants evince an acceptance of the informality of time that is part of their lives; people subject to systemic indigence learn to cultivate a tolerance to all sorts of inconvenience and oppression. Of course, there are some sectors of society for whom time is a tyrant, but in the rural sectors where our work is accomplished, there is neither luxury nor tyranny of the clock.

In the countryside, matters are attended to as people are able.  The demands of small farm production and subsistence living conspire to direct peasants in their work, not according to the clock, but according to what circumstances allow.  It’s not that time is disrespected, but that it, too, must fall victim to the injustice of poverty.  Poverty is not selective of its prey.

Time.  I’m not sure whether there is greater health in the Nicaraguan’s acceptance of its limitations or in the tight expectations of it in U.S. life.  Maybe the truth is somewhere in between.  What I do know is that having the choice of one circumstance over the other is a far greater advantage than having to tolerate one which is imposed.  Nicaraguans seek a reality that provides the choice.  And it’s about time they have it….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choices

My wife and I were looking at some photos of ourselves the other day, marveling at how young we once looked and subsequently commiserating at how old we appear today.  I stared for some time at one photo in particular, one that seemed to capture the relative innocence and naivete of the young man in question.  I tried to recall his state of mind at the time of the photo, what issues weighed heavily upon him, and the decisions with which he would be confronted in the days and years ahead.  Hindsight is a wonderful perspective to play with; when you already know the result, the journey becomes an interesting study of choices.

Each of us is, after all, the sum total of choices we have been permitted to make throughout our journey of life.  Our choices reflect not only preferences but, more importantly, our values, our principles, our character.  They serve as articulations of who we wish to be and of who we actually are.  And they are the milestones of our journey, marking the signal events of our lives.

Choices are the acts of bringing to life our beliefs.  They are the expressions of our innermost feelings about lifestyles, about the type of vocation to which we aspire.  Choices reflect our most intimate feelings about having a family and what is important in our personal and spiritual lives.  Choices are dynamic portraits of who we are.  I reflected long and lovingly about the choices that the young man in the photograph made over his coming years, with a sense of satisfaction that his decisions had been, for the most part, the right ones for his own unique psyche.

But what if I had not had the luxury of choice?  What might my portrait look like if my life, instead, had been channeled at every turn. if the circumstances of my being were such that I had no choice?

I might never have been introduced to and courted by music.  Maybe I would not have encountered the opportunity to know sports and fitness, the elements of my physical well-being.  Perhaps I would never have known the centering peace of my spirituality.  What if there had been no option for education?  Possibly I’d have served in the military during the Viet Nam war.  What if Katie and I had never met?  Our adopted children would have been raised in different homes; our mutual, familial love for one another would never have come to be.  Maybe our beautiful grandchildren would never have been born.  What if circumstance had dictated that I spend my days in search of food instead of organizational strengthening?  The list of choice-based outcomes is nearly endless.  How might you own life have evolved differently if you had not had the blessing of choice?

The luxury of choice stems, in part, from political philosophies which recognize and value human independence.  It also arises from circumstances that allow the human spirit to envision new aspirations and realities for itself.  In the absence of these elements, choice is minimized.  And outcomes are dramatically different.  It’s true everywhere.  In the U.S.  In Nicaragua.

Winds of Peace Foundation works with many organizations and individuals in Nicaragua who have few choices.  They are moved in directions dictated by their realities and their histories, in the former cases often motivated by need for survival, in the latter cases motivated only by what they know from previous generations.  And when motivation stems from either absolute need or limited knowledge, then choice is often a forgotten, impractical dream.  The nature of the Foundation’s work is to create the environments for more choice, with the certain knowledge that, over time,  greater choice invariably leads to better outcomes.  I wonder what Nicaragua might look like today if their history was populated with greater choice and fewer outside impositions that eliminated it.

In the years ahead, I expect to make lots of choices about things.  Perhaps the Foundation will adopt some new methodologies. Maybe I’ll move into a new vocation altogether.  I might do some more writing.  My wife and I will make some determinations about eventual retirement.  We’ll think about travel that might be important to us.  I’ll even continue to choose the kinds of food I want to eat, whether for my health or for my enjoyment.  But whatever the issue, I’ll have in mind my gratitude for having the opportunity to choose, and a hope to be a resource to those who do not….

 

 

 

 

We Are Like the Frogs

“Frogs were the first in the evolving animal world to develop a true voice.  Pushing air into their pouches, across vocal cords, frogs produce a variety of sounds, from trills and whistles to grunts and chuckles, depending on the species.  Each species actually sings its own unique tune, which has now become an important mechanism for identification.  All of us have our own songs to sing, in the celebration of life.”                   -Linda Jade Fong

I get to hear the frogs for most of the year.  They live on the river banks of the Upper Iowa River, or in the rain garden on the north end of a campus.  I happen to live in a college town.  It’s a small town and a small private college, but the presence of the school nonetheless enriches the lives of the citizens in the community.  At various times of the year, we have opportunities to hear national speakers on current topics, watch athletic events, attend classes, observe whatever is current in the lives of students, attend plays, or enjoy concerts.  Of course, we don’t have to partake in any of these activities, but it’s certainly a nice benefit to have the choice to do so.  And, of course, we have the frogs.

The college is Luther College.  It also happens to be one of the most beautiful campus settings in the entire country, further adding to its value to the community.  And Luther College boasts (appropriately, I think) one of the most accomplished music programs in the country, as well.  Its 600+ member combination of orchestra and vocal choirs annually stages a musical performance that is, by any measure, exquisitely professional.  The crystalline sounds of the voices from each of the six ensemble choirs is an emotional experience worthy of the distances that audiences often travel in order to be swept away to yet another place altogether.

Of course, development of exquisite sounds requires great determination, practice, exceptional teaching and exhaustive coaching.  Members of the choirs work one-on-one with voice coaches to cultivate and extract the very best from themselves, to discover the ranges and tones and expressions that will wring tears of sheer joy from those who have the good fortune to hear them.  A voice coach can “reach inside” of the student to bring forth the unique character of sound residing within.  The result is nothing short of astonishing.

I have thought about the remarkable role that voice coaches play.  When students first arrive on campus, they are, for the most part, only full of potential.  But raw talent requires forming and nurturing, confidence and a calling, a shaping capable of creating not just beautiful expression, but reflecting an essence of life.  Through voice, we have the privilege to glimpse the soul, and to know its most basic self.  In many ways, that peek into the spirit is a great gift.

By truly hearing the voice of another, we are gifted with the opportunity to respond to it, with our own precision and perfection, to that individual’s deepest need.  We are given the chance to fully hear and know that which could confer a greater well-being, a connection between us, a promise of mutual strength.  There may be few gifts so important or precious as those which meet the deepmost needs of another.

It’s a rare skill, this voice-coaching.  To enable others in the full scope of their expression requires more patience and selflessness than most of us possess.  Encouraging others to venture out beyond the boundaries of comfort and reticence calls for the full valuation of one’s own voice.  Only then can there exist a belief in the intrinsic value of others’ voices and an elevation of their self-esteem, sufficient to enable confidence of articulation.  Voice coaches bring vision to sounds.  We need the tonic of their inspiration.

Among our own varied, daily aspirations, being a voice coach should rank somewhere near the top of our lists.  Coaxing others in the practice of their own voice makes us more equal.  It’s enabling.  Voices together, like those which have been coached in ensemble choirs, are more powerful than solos, and capable of achieving more than any one alone.  Not incidentally, releasing the power of voice is one of the coaching jobs most important to WPF in Nicaragua.

We each deserve the release of our own voice.  It’s a little like those frogs I mentioned above.  It’s the music of life and fulfillment, the integral piece of the sound that is full humanity.    And I am especially energized at the realization that we can be, each of us,  voice coaches to others.  Just listen, sometime, to the frogs….

 

 

 

We Never Even Know We Hold the Key

“So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we hold the key.”                            -The Eagles

As the new year has begun its reign, WPF has been thinking about and planning for some of the activities that will consume our time and attention over the coming months.  Our team in Nica has already designed the next major workshop, a two-day session to analyze the land and its use, through the gathering and understanding of data about that land and its use.  The workshops are digging deeper and challenging conventional thought more than ever before.  For the participants, it’s scary and thrilling.

The team works hard to discern what the rural producers need.  They have become intimate partners with many of the coops, cultivating a deep understanding of the challenges faced there.  In turn, the team does its own analysis to identify the tools that they might bring to workshops and on-site sessions so that the farmers might become better equipped to succeed.  The farmers, in turn, are eager to hear new ideas, maybe even to discover a “magic pill” that can make their production and commercialization efforts substantially improved over the past.  In short, the team is determined to deliver and the “students” are avid learners of methodologies.

But as I consider the ideas and tactics that WPF might provide, or that I personally might be able to share, I’m struck by another factor, one that likely receives too little emphasis in development efforts.  (Maybe I’m wrong.  I’ve only been involved in this field for 12 years, a mere blink of the eye over the history of poverty.)  The notion occurred to me as I read a short meditation the other day, one that rekindled thinking that I have cherished myself for many years.  The quote reads as follows:

“The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind.  But the goodness of a person speaks in all directions.”      -Chanakya

It’s a beautiful thought.  But its meaning runs deeper than just a sweet sentiment.  For herein is the truth of the power of the individual, the potential that each human being has for impact on the world around him/her.  Even in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances, whether climate, political, social or economic in nature, we each have the faculty- an enormous capacity- for impacting everything that surrounds us.  For many, it’s a gift that we are reluctant to acknowledge and trust; it seems so much smaller than a new methodology or technology.  It’s too inherent within us to feel credible.  But like our very core understanding of right and wrong, it’s a reality.

What our partner producers may need is something more than a technique.  It’s a message of personal deliverance, the need to remember each and every day the absolute truth that we impact every person around us, either for good or for ill, intended or not, and those impacts shape the success of our endeavors.  How our influences work is not preordained or fated.  It is by choice.  The cooperative’s success, the relationships between members and even success of a single producer are all outcomes over which the individual has tremendous influence, and in ways that most of us do not comprehend well enough.

Like any organization, the cooperative prospers or fades based upon the character of individual leadership, and every member of a cooperative is a co-leader.  Successful cooperatives need transparency, which in turn requires the stewardship of individuals to share information- good or bad- with fellow members.  Collaborative work thrives on honesty, putting the good of all before the individual good of one’s own circumstances.   That’s a tall order when faced with the daily struggle of trying to simply provide for the basic necessities of family life.  But therein lies the irony of success: sometimes the surest way to one’s own well-being is to look out for the well-being of others first.  Even in our so-called developed nations, we are limited in our own well-being by the level of well-being in others.  If you doubt that, see the condition of the world today.  Neither the have’s nor the have-not’s are as well-off as they could be.

The impoverished people of Nicaragua and elsewhere in the world assuredly deserve support, be it financial or the wealth of true accompaniment.  But that accompaniment is most effective when coupled with the truth of self-direction.  When any of us come to understand our impact, our influence and what we are capable to give, we stand at the threshold of making the greatest single contribution to our work that we could ever make.

I know that it’s one thing for someone to speak of these things and another thing to put them into action.  When it comes to advice , Nicaraguans know that it’s cheap, whatever the source, and usually carries with it some kind of “catch” for which they will pay a price.  As a result, they continue searching with healthy skepticism.

And we never even know we hold the key….