All posts by Steve Sheppard

Steve is CEO of the Winds of Peace Foundation

When the World Quietly Weeps

The news currents have been particularly active of late, what with the presidential election in the U.S., hurricanes roaring across the eastern and southern coasts, the economy beginning to crash in ways never before experienced and the U.S. government intervening in unprecedented ways, as well.  The stories are the stuff of international notice and importance, and the news media is consumed with jockeying for position on such reporting.  Usually, big stories command big attention.  But not always.

Don Mercedes died on August 30.  He was the President of the Council of Elders for the Indigenous People of Telpaneca in Nicaragua.  By most estimates his age was 92, though the vigor of his life, the energy in his voice and the twinkle in his eye all belied the calendar of his years.  Each time I have had the privilege to visit Telpaneca, Don Mercedes has been present, despite the three-hour walk from his home in the mountains.  (The house has a dirt floor and is made of cane sticks. Very simple.)  It was a journey which he made on foot, both ways, in order to fulfill his role as elder, as mentor, as connection to the history and traditions of his people.  Perhaps Don Mercedes viewed his entire life as one long walk on his way home; such was the constancy and deliberateness of his role in the community.  Nica (11)Appropriately, I found him squarely in the center of a photo that I took during one of my recent visits to Telpaneca.  There he is, exactly in the center of things, white shirt and cowboy hat, surrounded by new generations who will assume the leadership roles that Don Mercedes took on during his life. 

I suppose that some in the community might have looked upon Don Mercedes as part of "the old ways," perhaps a bit of a relic who wouldn’t understand the changing ways of Nicaragua.  But not many.  For those who have assumed responsibility for the preservation of historical truth and cultural rights for the Indigenous, Don Mercedes was an important fixture between the past and the future.  His long life allowed a bridging of two ages, and even offered some lessons about what to expect in the coming age.  His importance was marked by the many Indigenous who turned out for his funeral and burial:  the young men of the community were especially affected by his death, such was the feeling and regard which they felt for him.  

As a global leader, Don Mercedes possessed no standing; perhaps few outside of the Indigenous communities ever heard of him.  But he influenced the niches of his life with commitment, intent and a sense of serving something more than himself.  No world leader, no corporate executive, no philanthropist can ever do more than that.

I last had the privilege of his company on August 13, following a meeting with the leaders at Telpaneca.  Don Mercedes asked for a ride to a spot outside of Telpaneca where the footpath to his dwelling meets the road.  On the way, he noted my straw hat on the back seat of the truck and commented on how fine a sombrero it was.  We invited him to try it on and he did so with enjoyment.   Without question, the hat belonged to him and he accepted the gift with gratitude.  And I received in turn a feeling of connection with the elder, the memory of which I now treasure even more than before.

We are all connected, whether we acknowledge it or not.  It has been speculated that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Central America will influence the rage of a hurricane in Asia. In that sense, the entire world is a poorer place without Don Mercedes. 

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Within days of the news of Don Mercedes, another butterfly’s wings were stilled.  But Ron Rivera impacted far corners of the globe first-hand. 

Ron Rivera called his ceramic water filters "weapons of biological mass destruction." For 25 years he traveled to remote outposts throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, teaching local potters to make what appears to be a big terra-cotta flower pot but is in fact a wondrously simple-but-effective device for purifying water.

"You put dirty water in — gray water that many communities still drink — and it comes out crystal clear," he would tell his audiences.   A recent study in Cambodia found that the filters cut in half the incidence of diarrhea, a leading cause of death in the third world, especially among children. After Hurricane Mitch wreaked its destruction upon Central America in 1998, Ron, who had been doing development work in Nicaragua for the previous decade, joined with a tiny American organization called Potters for Peace and went into high gear.  

Ron often said that his goal was to set up 100 enterprises, but he died on Sept. 3 in Managua, Nicaragua. He had contracted  falciparum malaria, the most dangerous form of the disease, while setting up a water-filter factory in Nigeria.  The factory in Nigeria was his 30th. 

For the last decade of his life, Ron traveled all over the world setting up microenterprises in Ghana, Cambodia, Yemen, Colombia and other countries. Many thrived, especially after he began organizing the workshops as profit-making microenterprises.   Beverly Pillers, the chairwoman of the board of Potters for Peace, said Ron’s factories had produced about 300,000 filters, selling for $5 to $25, and used by about 1.5 million people. At present, 13 more filter factories are scheduled to begin operating by the end of next year.

I never had the opportunity to meet Ron face-to-face; I knew of him and his work through his family and colleagues.  But I learned enough to recognize that Ron lived the notion that we are all here for a finite time, and as stewards we create a legacy within that frame.  His legacy became tangible and its influence indelible.

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Stewardship.  Servant-leadership.  Changing the world.  There are those who profess intentions with regard to such ideas, many of whom run for public office and/or maneuver their ways to positions of status, celebrity and renown.  They appear in the news frequently.  Don Mercedes and Ron Rivera, of little places in Nicaragua, were unknown to most of the world.  And yet their departure from it leaves us all diminished, and the very world itself quietly weeps for its loss….

Hearing Horton's Who!

My town of Decorah, Iowa is not far from the site of the largest U.S Immigration Service raid in U.S. history, at the Agriprocessor plant in Postville, Iowa.  Naturally, there has been a great deal of news coverage of events there and the aftermath, and one recent story caught my attention and my imagination. The article in the August 5, 2008 edition of The Decorah Public Opinion featured native Guatemalan David Vasquez, Pastor at Luther College,  and the important support that he has been giving to the immigrant population in Postville.  The article began with a quote from the Dr. Suess story, Horton Hears A Who!: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  (You may recall the story of Horton, the sensitive elephant who hears voices on a speck of dust attached to a flower.  It turns out the voices belong to residents of Whoville, and they need Horton’s help in relocating their spot in the world to a safe place.  As if that’s not difficult enough, Horton is seemingly the only creature  able to hear the Who’s and he suffers the taunts and threats from other jungle creatures as a result.)  David Vasquez recounts how emotional he became when reading the story to his son before bed one night, and how the words seemed to capture the plight and the hope of the immigrants with whom he was working now in Postville.

I admire the work that David Vasquez is performing on behalf of “small” people who really need all the help they can get, and I enjoyed reliving my own memories of the great Dr.Suess classic.  The courage and selflessness of such a giant creature made an instant and lasting impression on me as a young boy, and remained with me as I grew into my very own rather elephantine-but-gentle dimensions.  The newspaper article brought the lesson to light beautifully as related to the immigrants’ plight; David Vasquez is working tirelessly to help others remember the story and its lesson, as well.

Curiously, the stories of David Vasquez and Horton remained with me as I made my way down to Nicaragua on behalf of Winds of Peace Foundation last week.  And as coincidence would have it, the in-flight movie being shown was none other than “Horton Hears A Who!”  I decided that, my book reading requirement notwithstanding, I’d at least half-watch the animated film out of respect for my childhood.  I’m glad that I did; new truths often arise from old sources.

The story- especially as told on film, with all of the requisite “enhancements” that today’s filmmakers believe important to mesmerizing their young audiences- is ostensibly about that faithfulness and heroism which Horton exhibits toward his microscopic charges.  He will not abandon them and there is no limit to what he is prepared to do to provide the protection and voice for the Who’s, regardless of the cost to himself.  After all, “an elephant is faithful, 100%.”  That personal cost even seems to be leading to an eventual physical assault on Horton, as the jungle creatures, following the lead of an intolerant, controlling kangaroo, are whipped up to an antagonistic frenzy against him.  Yet, still he holds onto the flower and his heroic intentions with the undying hope that somehow the Who’s can be saved.

I confess to have having returned to my reading at this juncture in the movie, only occasionally glancing up to the screen to check on old Horton.  But this was the moment of denoument, and for me, a new epiphany on an old story.  For at the very moment that Horton’s plight seems beyond hope, the Who’s themselves rescue both Horton and themselves.  Collectively, collaboratively, with the participation of virtually every Who in Whoville, they generate a noise of protest and self-presence that cannot help but be heard by the broader world beyond.  The jungle creatures, at the very moment of Horton’s destruction, hear the sounds and are forced to acknowledge the truth of what Horton has maintained all along, but which they did not want to hear.  Horton is saved and celebrated as a hero for his faithfulness, 100%.

I love Horton, the way he looks and the way that Dr. Suess gave him such moral character.  But I also awakened on that flight to the realization that ultimately it was the Who’s themselves who saved the day.  To be sure, they could never have achieved it without the presence and accompaniment of their strong partner.  The happy ending at the conclusion of the story is a result of the friendship and support given by both Horton AND the Who’s.  They needed each other, relied upon each other, and were eventually saved by one another.  And for me, THAT’S now the theme behind Horton Hears A Who!  After all these years, I finally get it!

By most worldly measures, the people of Nicaragua are small.  Geographically, economically, politically, or in the media, they are at times nearly invisible.  But they are there, with families and hopes and aspirations and knowledge and contributions to be made that would inspire Horton or anyone else who might make the effort to hear them.  And perhaps of greatest importance of all is the realization that we need those voices- every last one of them- for our own salvation.  It’s not a matter of saving them, or even their saving us, but of our absolute need for one another on this cosmic speck of dust called the Earth.

Dr. Suess got it all correct, and I’ve now added all of the Suess books to my NEW reading list to see what else I’ve missed along the way….

There Ought to Be A Law

I wrote earlier this month about the "uncomfortable ride" that I took with two Nicaraguans, on the way to visit their coffee farms, located way off the beaten track.   (See the May 13 blog entitled, "It’s No Joke" at http://peacewinds.org/stevesheppard/).  All along the route, they pointed out the various scenes of land abuse and disenfranchisements, with each story seeming to have a North American villain somewhere in the plot.  Even though our travel partners did not intend any discomfort, I nonetheless squirmed throughout the journey, feeling somehow complicit in the nefarious deeds being described.

I’ve replayed that journey over and over again in my mind, especially the tale about the U.S. businessman who was intent on burning and clear-cutting a parcel of land he had purchased, despite the law which forbids such activities.  Authorities approached the man to explain the statutes, but to no effect.  When neighboring campesinos complained again, the man was fined for the violation, but again without change in his practices.  This "businessman" (if I can call him that) challenged the authorities to visit his property and fine him as often as they liked, but he would continue to do whatever he wanted on his land because the profits to be earned were greater than repeated fines would be.  In essence, this U.S. gringo thumbed his nose at his neighbors, Nicaraguan law and the environment all in one ugly act.

I suppose the story raises valid questions about the effectiveness of some Nicaraguan laws, or at least their enforcement, but for me it raised another question: shouldn’t U.S. citizens be held accountable under U.S. laws to conduct themselves in a manner befitting their "guest status " within a foreign country?  The damage to credibility and respect caused by one individual motivated by personal self-interest can destroy an entire generation of relationship-building.  "The ugly American" is still at work all too often.

Boorishness in your own house is one thing; boorish behavior when a guest in someone else’s home is unacceptable.  When the host seeks compliance with the "rules of the house" and fails to receive it, a source for intervention ought to be available.  In this case, doesn’t it just seem right that our country would demand and enforce a cooperative comportment on foreign soil? 

Maybe such a standard exists and I’m just not versed in it.  But it sure turns my stomach to see U.S. citizens deliberately behaving in ways that would never be allowed in their own country.  What is the message we’re wanting to send….?

It's No Joke

Alfredo During a rare and quiet moment in Nicaragua last week, I had occasion to meet casually with a longstanding partner of ours who stopped by Mark’s office to drop off a report. Alfredo is part of our partner PRODESSA, a group which has done an exceptional job in bringing social science to the issues of community development and empowerment. Alfredo is always interesting to hear from, and on this occasion he even favored us with some Nicaraguan humor. Here’s what he shared:

“There is a joke that Nicaraguans sometimes tell on themselves. It seems that when St. Peter reached the gates of Heaven, he found himself in conversation with God about Creation. St. Peter marveled about all of the beauty and blessings bestowed on the various lands of the earth. When St. Peter commented on the subject of Nicaragua, he paused for a moment and asked God whether perhaps He had made a mistake. ‘Lord, You created a land of mountains and lakes, volcanoes and forests, a growing land bounded by two oceans. Surely these were too many blessings for one land.’ God simply nodded at St. Peter’s observation but replied, ‘Yes, perhaps, but wait until you see the people that I put there.’”

The story was funny because it was told by a Nicaraguan who is passionate about his people and their circumstances; I suppose (and hope) that people like Alfredo, who are able to see humor in themselves, authorize those of us outside the reality to laugh at it. But I am always uncomfortable laughing at the plight of others, in whatever light it may be cast, and this story made me reflect on its punch line in a different way.

“Wait until you see the people I put there,” indeed. The people of Nicaragua are special. While they have enjoyed the natural beauty and resources of their lands, they have also withstood its natural upheavals. Eruptions, earthquakes and hurricanes serve as historic markers for most Nicaraguans, points in time and place from which they measure personal and current events. Perhaps more importantly, they have survived unnatural upheavals, as well, adapting to the incursions, invasions, and interferences of outsiders throughout their history and to the present. Contrary to what the punch line implies, Nicaraguans did not somehow single-handedly mess up Eden-on-Earth. For that they have received ample assistance from outsiders (notably, regretably, all too oftLifting the Beamen, from residents of that other Eden to their north.) Contrary to what the punch line intimates, God did not place people in this land who were hapless, but rather people remarkably connected with their surroundings, of almost unbelievable resiliency, and possessed of forgiveness that is humbling to anyone who might take the time to receive it.

Genesis For instance, on Monday of this week I met with the members of the new spinning cooperative, Genesis, at the Nueva Vida site outside of Managua. It’s the fourth visit I’ve made this year, and I’ve been intrigued by the incredible progress these folks have made in actually making the building they are erecting. With a restriction of resources and materials like few of us have ever experienced, the women and men of the Genesis Cooperative have mixed and made concrete blocks, hand-tied structural rebar, hand-tilled and packed the plot of earth for the base, carved a septic cave some 25 feet in depth, and manually mixed and poured concrete for the building beams, which they then set by hand. I have rarely been witness to such courage in the face of daunting odds. And they have been routinely among the most jovial, laughing people I’ve encountered. I love visiting them, and I deeply want to see them succeed. They are remarkable, memorable individuals.

In Session Mid-week I had the opportunity, once again, to be with an Indigenous people who have experienced separation from their land and neighbors, suffered indignation and slander from bullies who see corruption as a management style, and who have tried to make sense of an economic reality that seems only to serve the elite of this world. And yet, in the face of such oppressions, here they Bulcumay Cooperativewere, gathered together in a unity and hopefulness of improvement, creating entrepreneurial initiatives, outlining inputs and outcomes, youth and elders, generating hope and enthusiasm that resides only in people of deep commitment, optimism and faith. I listened to the presentation of four grassroots proposals. As I listened, I had no idea whether any of them would ever receive financial backing from Winds of Peace or any other source. But I will not ever forget the spirit, energy, pride and dignity of the work that was shared. Any company, anywhere, would be proud to claim these people and their determined outlooks.

Later in the week, I took a really uncomfortable ride. Now, the roads or paths that we travel in the rural sectors of Nicaragua are often rugged and cavernous affairs. But that’s not the discomfort that I’m talking about here. In the space of 90 minutes, we passed by no fewer than four sites where North Americans were illegally buying and occupying land, illegally burning and clear-cutting land for personal profit. We passed historical sites from the war years where U.S.-backed Contras perpetrated their share of war atrocities against their enemies, real or imagined. Coming face-to-face with such incidents is awkward under Apanas Estates any circumstance; when we chanced upon them seemingly after every turn in the road I couldn’t help but feel somehow complicit. But the Nicaraguans with whom I have met over these many months have not practiced any guilt-by-association. They have repeatedly modeled respect, admiration and regard. They have demonstrated an ability to separate the actions of individuals from indictments of entire ethnicities or nationalities. It’s a characteristic from which we can all learn.

So, I have seen and interacted with the people He put there. And He was absolutely right in his implication to St. Peter, these people are as special as the other natural wonders found in Nicaragua. In lots of ways, they remind me of my friends and neighbors….

The Eyes of Laura Mars

“Suddenly Laura Mars can see through the eyes of another…..”

It’s been some time since I added new thoughts to this site; you can either thank me or curse me as you deem appropriate. But it hasn’t been for lack of activity or experiences, as I’ve made three trips into Nicaragua since the first of the year, with number four to commence just a week from now.  But these trips have been quite different from my usual Foundation visits: the first one I made with my wife Katie and daughter Molly. Trip number two was with our entire Winds of Peace Foundation Advisory Committee.  An excursion in March was undertaken in the company of the executive team from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, home to The Center for Global Education.  I have discovered that there is nothing quite like traveling with others to sharpen the experiences encountered en route.

For starters, maybe you’d agree with me that the best way to learn something new about the world is to experience it personally, to travel there, somewhere, to see first-hand what can be seen.  That’s what each of my previous trips to Nicaragua has provided to me, a personal and up-close look at the country, its people, its problems and its glories.  Each time I’m there I learn something new about the place, and myself, too.  It has been an education par excellence, and a privilege to absorb it all on behalf of Winds of Peace.  I really can look inside of myself and see the changes, the different perspectives and the growth that is taking place.  (Who would have guessed it at my advanced age?)  Yet the recent trips taken with others has seemingly magnified the experiences; I have returned home each time feeling more full, more absorbed, more tired, more enlightened.  In short, I’ve been allowed to see Nicaragua through many sets of eyes,  multiplying my own experiences.

For instance, when my daughter Molly returned from our week in January, I naturally wanted timageo know    image what she took away from the adventure.  I could not have anticipated her answer: “I was really struck by the sheer number of children.  They seemed to be everywhere and I couldn’t tell what they might be doing or where they were going.”  I suppose that I had become somewhat accustomed to the omnipresent kids, but for Molly their numbers and the perception that too few were headed for or returning from school stood out.  When I asked the same question of my wife Katie, one of her observations  hit home in its simplicity and truth: “It (Nicaragua’s reality) is too real.” 

The Winds of Peace Advisory Committee is seven in number, and six were able to make the February trip.  I value these every-other-year  gatherings in Nicaragua, because it gives all of us an opportunity to see where we have been, where we might be headed next, and how we feel collectively about the wide range of projects that we see.  I can anticipate some of the positions and feelings of my colleagues by now, having traveled and image met with them on numerous occasions.  But on our final evening in-country during the February trip, we drove through the streets of Managua amidst the usual crowds of street people, seeking to wash windshields, sell baked goods or simply receive a handout.  At one stoplight, a young woman approached our van with a baby in her arms, a child which might not have been more than several weeks old.  Window-by-window she beseeched each of us to take pity, yet this is a temptation that we have learned how to avoid.  But as each of us forced our eyes straight ahead, I noticed a single tear running down the cheek of one AC member.  I watched from the seat behind her as she dried her eyes and whispered, “I hope that I never forget that woman and her child.”  Even for those who see themselves as sensitive to such plight, it is far too easy to look past it.  Familiarity breeds contentment, and through another’s eyes I, too, wanted to weep.

In March, I had the good fortune to accompany the Augsburg College President and his executive cabinet.  Their mission was to experience something of what The Center for Global Education has to offer its participants in cross-cultural experiences, and to do so in a very personal, face-to-face way.  The eight members met an array of personalities and circumstances while there, ranging from a session with the President of The University of Central America to visiting the Managua dump-site, the actual home to scores of Nicaraguans who derive their entire lives from its contents.  For the better part of a week, I was privvy to the reactions and emotions of this dedicated group as they experienced the realities of Nicaragua.  Moments of subdued silence punctuated the hyper-activity of the short week, and I felt anew the discomforts, the questions, the awe, the awakenings of being on-site.  Participating in their reflections and observations, I was able to feel the power of an initial experience all over again, though my fellow travelers.

About the time I begin to feel as though I have come to know or understand something, it’s time for me to connect up with some other folks, to hear what they are hearing, to feel what others are feeling, to try to see what they might see.  When I can do that, everything old is new again…..

Where Is the Good News to the Poor?

I have been musing for days about an appropriate message that might coinicide with this bustling, busy, beautiful time of year. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I love this time of year, not for the materiality of it all, but for a reawakening in my consciousness about what is truly special. I feel wonderful about the advent season, about what it means for us, but I’m always a little shy about being too effusive with my feelings because I know many people do not share such warmth.

And then, the very message that I wanted to write showed up in my mail, from a partner organization of ours in Nicaragua, the Jubilee House Community. Winds of Peace and JHC have collaborated on a number of projects, including the new spinning plant initiative at Ciudad Sandino, and I regularly receive their newsletter. On the back page was a reflection written by Kathleen of the JHC group, and I reproduce a portion of it here. I can pen no more moving or inspiring words than these:

Advent is a time of waiting and hoping…. We think of the babe in the manger, who was to come to come and bring good news to the poor, and we wait and hope.

The poor wait and hope….sometmes they wait too long and hope becomes despair. Sometimes we despair…when we learn that the gap between the richest countries and the poorest is greater today (50 to 1) than in 1800 (4 to 1)…we despair and the poor do, too. Where is the good news to the poor?

When we hear of the billions and billions of dollars spent to “stop terror” when it could feed the world many times over and end terror…we wonder, where is the good news to the poor?

When we see mega-churches spending millions to broadcast their tirades instead of clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned, and instead actually calling for more prisons…we pray, where is the good news to the poor?

When we see corporations grabbing more and more power through treaties and therefore ssweatshops to feed their endless appetite for greed…we ask, where is the good news to the poor?

When we look at stores pushing and pushing for people to buy and buy and buy for Christmas, we cry where is the good news to the poor?

Where? Where? Where is the good news to the poor?

Many times it is found in the poor themselves…people like Diana, Vilma and Sulma give hope to others. They believe so strongly that there can be good news they help it happen when given the slightest chance.

Sometimes it is found in the very wealthy…people who give to empower the poor and end the diseases of poverty.

The news is that the founders of religions/philosophies and caring people we as societies admire have told us through the ages to work for justice and to eliminate poverty. The question is…will we be the good news for the poor?

Or rather, WHO will be the good news to the poor? Indeed, we each have a role to play, because in this world of ours we are inextricably connected, and in ways we do not always know. I’m reminded of perhaps the most impactful “religious” movie for me of all time, “Oh, God!” At the end of the film, God (in the interesting guise of George Burns) gives his final advice to the only human who can see or hear him, played by John Denver. And God says something to the effect, “Tell everyone that it can all work. I’ve given you everything you need.”

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What we need is each other, and in the playing of each role there can be good news to the poor, to be sure. But there is perhaps even greater import in the learning and the transforming that happens to US. This season I’m buoyed by the thought, as perhaps are the poor, that it can all work and we are the architects….

The Empty Nest

I recently had the good fortune to attend the 25th Anniversary Celebration for The Center for Global Education at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. The gala was a weekend affair, as it brought together many of the staff and past CGE travelers from over the years, and wonderful stories flowed freely during the entire time. To top off a very exciting and energizing time, I also received a framed drawing from the Center, in thanks for past affiliations.

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The drawing is a black-and-white rendering of a flourishing tree, with rugged roots and trunk supporting thick and spreading foliage above. At the top of the tree sits a well-formed nest, with an adult bird keeping watch over two young chicks and, in the distance, another adult member flying in apparent return to the home. The very first image that popped into my head had to do with empty nests, and how this nest, too, would soon be vacated by the young. Actually, the pen-and-ink artwork is evocative of many feelings, depending upon my mood and experiences of the day. I love it for the many ideas that flow from it.

Maybe the idea of an empty nest struck me because we are experiencing some of that in our household, as well. Our second set of twins has now left for college, with no younger siblings to demand the attention of my wife or me. I’m acutely aware of the relatively quiet and orderly feel to our home and the sense that somehow this is the proper order of things, that now is the time for parents to sit back and reclaim their own time, to relax in the aftermath of work (hopefully) well done. And many people have observed to us that the empty nest represents our time, supposedly for places and activities for our enjoyment, a reward for having survived parenthood.

I’ll admit to liking the sound of all of that: a victory celebration, at last a time for self, having fewer obligations for others, a chance to finally enjoy the nest that we have spent our lives building. I even looked forward to the transition with that self-focus in mind. That is, until I got to thinking about what an empty nest really is.

The proverbial nest is emptied as its young fledglings reach a stage in life where they fly away to do what they were born to do. They are finally able to navigate the world around them with enough instinct, experience and strength to not only survive, but also to raise up other generations. They become the legacies of those who have come before and the purveyors of the future. It’s a noble and necessary role. It is a “circle of life” transition, and that is why I have come to regard it as my own.

It occurs to me that the empty nest is the one that I should leave behind, that it is my flight that is beckoning. Yes, my children need to get about the task of moving into full adulthood, but the time for new opportunity now exists for me as well as for my kids. And that big, broad world needs me every bit as much as it needs the promise of my children; in fact, I have a lifetime of perspective that the young are just beginning to accumulate. Those of us old enough to contemplate the reality of an empty nest bear a mantle of responsibility to fly from it ourselves. There are many places and people simply waiting for us to show up. Just look about. Our children are not the only ones with a bright new future ahead.

When I coax new thoughts from the pen-and-ink drawing, the nest itself always stands out from among the leaves and branches. It is a durable dwelling place that will withstand the winds and changes of seasons with resilience. The nest is central and constant, and I imagine that its inhabitants return whenever the homing instinct brings them back. The young as well as the old can take comfort in that….

Which Is the More Compelling?

Kids4.jpgHaving raised two sets of twins in our household, I am well-acquainted with the frequent and inevitable observations that our kids make about equal treatment. From their earliest days, each child measured portions of treats, wrestled for a closer snuggle in the lap than the other, compared allowances and even tracked the number of miles put on a shared vehicle. For Katie and me, the tracking intended to create near-equal treatment. For each kid, there was little interest in equality unless a lesser consideration or portion happened to fall to her/him. And even though we parents came to understand the reality that the kids did not have equal needs, always in the back of our minds has been the quest for an even divide of the family spoils, whatever they may be.

Winds of Peace Foundation, perhaps like many organizations, struggles with similar questions. In our evolution we have come to seek out communities and organizations which are overlooked by many other potential sources of support. Women’s initiatives, the circumstances of Nicaraguan Indigenous people and the rural poor have become among our priorities. We have sought to identify entities which are in the greatest need of outside support and accompaniment, which are least likely to have the collateral, experiences or so-called sophistication of lower-risk partners. It is that degree of unworthiness, high risk, inexperience, and often inaccessibility that is frequently the attraction that such groups have for WPF.

Concurrently, whether engaged in grantmaking or microlending, WPF is focused on measuring success in any project. We study the objectives and their metrics and the process by which such measures are to be made. And at the end of the day we tend to judge the impact of our support against the achievement of as many of the objectives as we can count. So, the groups which most successfully navigate the cultural, social, financial and geographic obstacles- as measured against their objectives- are the ones which stand the best chance of additional future funding. Those which stumble or delay in repaying a loan or otherwise render sub-par performance run the high risk of becoming ineligible for future consideration. It’s a most reasonable and equitable cause-and-effect: the stronger organizations are more trustworthy and lower-risk, while the weaker performers are less reliable and higher-risk. As a private foundation which accepts no outside funding, WPF is drawn to the most immediate and long-term successes it can find, so as to leverage its funding as best possible. In the end, we tend to favor those organizations in comparison to their weaker counterparts.

And therein lies the struggle. The very groups we most wish to assist are the the riskiest and sometimes most difficult in which to effect positive change. Having made an initial decision to support such a group, how long do we stay with them if the traditional metrics of success falter? When organizational and cultural habits that are centuries in the making conflict with new directions and aspirations, do we back away in favor of easier groups? Or conversely, is there such a thing as an organization that is “too safe,” and therefore perhaps not truly as in need of our support? For that matter, what does constitute success in our accompaniment? I am fairly certain that WPF can be operated into perpetuity if we only consider the financial well-being of the foundation. But the mission is not to operate into perpetuity alone. There is a serving objective, a call to make a difference in the lives of other human beings, and some of the neediest on earth, on top of it all. That cannot always be best achieved by taking the more certain route.

At home, we sometimes made decisions with regard to the younger kids that we never would have made with the older, and vice versa. We monitored them differently. While we encouraged all of our children in their various endeavors, our expectations were often different. In measuring their academic successes, for example, sometimes a grade of “C” was something worth celebrating. Other times and for other kids, a grade of “B” felt a little empty. We treasure our kids uniformly; however, our relationship with each is based on the individuality that is in each. Which is the more compelling? There is no answer to that question, of course. And perhaps it is just so when working with communities or organizations which have different capacities and personalities. We need to recognize them for who and what they are, with all of their possibilities and risks, successes and failures, steps forward and back. The kids never stop growing and developing; maybe it’s the same with human organizations.

For many, this issue may be very black-and-white, with little reason for debate. But I know that I spend a great deal of thought around it, and often with less resolution that I would like. I’d be interested in what others might think.