Category Archives: Amazing Events

Pushing Back

The tensions have not diminished.  The rhetoric has not cooled.  The confrontations have not stopped.  The misrepresentations have not ceased to confound and anger.  But in an age of “alternative facts,” pictures can and do speak louder than words.

It was not that long ago that a certain politician set the tone for his presidency by claiming that the crowd on hand to observe his oath of office was the largest in history, and much greater than his predecessor.  The pictures said otherwise.

In Nicaragua, some of the voices of government claimed that last Wednesday’s demonstration was not significant in terms of numbers.  But after one look at the video footage below,

one would have to conclude that, regardless of denials, the turnout and the outrage expressed against the Ortega government is significant, indeed.

Truth is always a slippery treasure to hold on to.  But misrepresentations and outright lies never diminish the truth, they just hide it for a while.  Nicaraguans are apparently raising their voices in volume perhaps not heard since the days of the revolution.  The truth may be inconvenient for some, but it is no less the people’s reality….

 

Shadow Steps

We live in an age of walks and runs, and I’m not talking about baseball.  It seems as though nearly every organization will sponsor some kind of event that is intended to get people moving for some bigger purpose, like disease research, feeding the hungry or saving animals.  I generally like the approach of these initiatives, because they involve the potential donor in active ways that money donation alone cannot, and the exercise by itself is a good thing!  But every once in a while, an individual will embark on an undertaking that does not necessarily invite throngs of participants or the clicks of many cameras, but rather demonstrates a kind of quiet commitment, a solitary sojourn to symbolize something important.

A young Korean woman by the name of Kyong Juhn will simply begin to walk.  But it won’t be just another Sunday stroll in the Spring.  Kyong Juhn will commence a journey of 323 miles on foot, starting in Rochester, Minnesota and ending in Bemidji, Minnesota some three weeks later.  The purposes of the trek are several: Ms. Juhn will re-create the long pedestrian migration of her mother from North Korea to South Korea a generation ago, a much more demanding effort; Ms. Juhn will walk, as the event is called, “For Hope and Peace,” an initiative which some may view as naive, but which is something she can do; and finally, Ms. Juhn likely hopes that her pilgrimage will awaken in all who might chance to see or read about her what commitment looks like.

The first rationale of her hike is beautiful in its honor and remembrance of Ms. Juhn’s mother.  I do not know the particulars behind the woman’s journey from North Korea to the south, but I can imagine its dangers and demands and the perseverance required to complete such steps.  I can further infer that the odyssey was undertaken before Ms. Juhn had been born, imbuing her trek with a determination for her future, and whatever child or children  might inhabit that world in the fullness of time.  Ms. Juhn will pay a remarkable homage to a woman who is known to very few of us, but who has earned our deep and enduring respect, and her daughter’s abiding love.

Her second rationale for walking might well be a reflection of the artist who is Kyong Juhn.   She is a School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) Distinguished Scholar Scholarship awardee, who recently finished her Fine Arts degree at SAIC, where she studied photography and art history.  Self-described as having transformed herself from a first generation immigrant-homemaker to a tenacious artist who expresses the complexities of rediscovered identities after returning to school, Ms. Juhn is a creator.  Through whatever media or motion suits her need for expression, she undertakes this walk because it conveys an image, a story-  several stories, in fact-  in manifestation of a deeply-held worldview.  This walk is her art on display.  Pursuit of peace and hope may be daunting ideas, but the walk is tangible and the act of doing it is an imaginative statement in time which sorely needs personal acts of harmony.

Ms. Juhn will be supported, in part, by the organization Vets for Peace, which will accompany her.  They will follow her progress with a “SAG” (support and gear) vehicle for her safety and immediate needs during the trip.  (In fact, the sag vehicle is a Vets for Peace bus funded, in part, by a gift from WPF Founders Harold and Louise Nielsen.)  With help from VFP, Ms. Juhn will seek all the attention that she can get for the purpose of her walk, so that people like you and me will understand that this is what is required of us: that we have the capacity to make an impact in whatever ways are within us, that we each have a role to play, a responsibility for the good or ill that becomes our collective life together.  But we are called to actually do what we imagine, to actually take the first steps for hope and peace.

She will take her first steps on May 6, according to the route below.  I hope the date does not find me standing still….

Kyong Juhn Walk

 

 

My Name Is Char-les

Mark and I had a particularly interesting dinner last month in El Cua.  I mean, our dinners are usually pretty interesting moments in the day, whether because of the agenda we have just experienced, the menu of a small restaurant we have found, conversation about upcoming meetings  for the following day or just in telling each other life stories.  There’s always plenty to observe and discuss in these dinner moments and I truly enjoy them.  (Not to mention the food, which is usually very basic and very good.)  But this night featured a guest, a boy by the name of Char-les.                                                                           

Let’s be clear about one thing right away: the name is Char-les, not Charles, because he does not like the nickname Charlie.  By pronouncing his name with two syllables, there is less chance that one might make the mistake of calling him Charlie.  Acquaintance with another young boy by the name of Charlie- a peer who is apparently not a favorite of our dinner guest- has rendered the nickname lost forever from the monikers Char-les may adopt over his lifetime.

Aside from the same smiles afforded every young person we might encounter during the day, we had issued no invitation or gesture to encourage his attendance.   He simply drifted over to our table and began to talk.  Maybe it was the unusual presence of two gringos in the small cafe.  Perhaps it was the allure of my broad-brimmed hat (sombrero grande) which suggested a cowboy’s presence.  More likely, it was the pure curiosity of a little boy who, it turns out,  was full of questions and observations about almost everything.

Char-les wanted to know everything we could possibly disclose over the course of a meal, and some things that we could not.  Names?  Home country?  Where is that?  Where is China?  Where are you going?  Why are you here?  Do you know about whales?  Where is your hotel?  Do you have kids?

He balanced the inquisition with some facts of his own:  I’m eight years old.  My mom is in a meeting back there (motioning to a back meeting room in the restaurant).  I like football.  I go to the school that is right behind your hotel.  I like to read.  My mom says that I ask a lot of questions.  I have a brother but he has a different dad.  Some day I’m going to go to Mexico.

Between the inquisition and the exposition, Char-les tended to his job for the night: every time a cell phone rang from among the belongings of the meeting participants, he would dash off to find the phone and take it to the proper owner.  It happened three or four times, and on each occasion, Char-les sprang into action, leaving our discussion dangling until his return.  His reaction to the cell phones made it clear that he not only knew every person in attendance at the meeting, but also knew the ringtone of every phone.  The meeting attendees were both amused by and grateful for this service in telecommunication.  Char-les seemed matter-of-fact about  his duty, but more focused on his interrogation.

“I’m very fast.  Do you know about airplanes?  I have never been on an airplane.  What are you eating for dinner?”  The stream of consciousness hardly paused for those intermittent phone calls and, undeterred by such momentary interruptions, Char-les continued to weave his way throughout the entirety of our dinner agenda.  We were fully engaged in discourse with an eight-year-old orator.  “Is Iowa in Mexico?  You are my new friends.”

With that bond being said, Char-les eventually welcomed his mother to our party and introduced his new-found amigos to her.  She hoped that he had not been a bother to us and observed, to no surprise by us, that Char-les had demonstrated this curiosity and outgoing personality for his entire life.  She described his love for learning and inquiry as exhausting and amazing; we could only concur.  Amidst a continuing flurry of his questions, we bid him a good-night and appreciation for his conversation.

I have been around many eight-year-old children, including our own four as they passed through that inquisitive phase.  But I find it hard to recall an eight-year-old with the persistence and aplomb of Char-les.  Mixed in with such admiration, perhaps there was also the sense of promise that such examination and unpretentiousness holds for his years ahead.  In the center of this rural community, in the center of Nicaragua, in the center of the Americas, is a young boy deserving of every opportunity to learn and expand his understanding, his visions. his outlook for the future.  The need is not his alone.  We all have a stake in the critical importance of listening to the voice of Char-les….

 

 

 

The Unlikely Pizza

I’ve consumed a lot of pizza in my days.  Maybe it’s because pizza came into its own as an entre′ while I was a teen, or the fact that it’s probably my favorite food indulgence.  I’ve eaten more than my share of those pies.  I’ve had them homemade in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was nine years old, I’ve eaten them across Italy and the rest of western Europe, I’ve consumed them in the Virgin Islands, Mexico, Canada, Hungary and even on board a sailing vessel on the ocean.  I’m reasonably certain that I must hold some sort of unofficial pizza consumption record for my days in college.  In short, I am an expert.

But one of the most unlikely and satisfying slices occurred just last month, during my most recent visit to Nicaragua.  Yes, it was the first pizza I have consumed in that country.  But more important than that was the group of young women with whom I shared the pizza.  What might be the odds that on any given day in my life I would find myself having a Chefella’s pizza with 15 female cooperative members in Matagalpa, Nicaragua?  On March 12th, the answer was 100%

I love pizza anywhere, and under nearly any circumstances.  But when we arrived to join this mid-day meeting of entrepreneurs to the announcement that we would share pizza for lunch, I admit to being triply-excited: first, to talk again with these adventuresome women, most of whom were new to the idea of cooperative life; second, at the prospect of my first-ever Nicaraguan pizza; and third, to consider once more the collaborative symbolism of my favorite food.

You see, pizza in my experience has always been a cooperative meal.  When our kids were young, pizza night was a time for all of us to be in the kitchen and contributing our own labors to the creation of something worthwhile, in this case, for dinner.  Katie made the crust, I formed it in the pan, Megan and Molly spread the sauce, Ian added the meat and Nikki sprinkled the cheese.  We collectively watched the baking and timing.  And of course, we shared happily in the end result.

The entire process was one of great participation, involving every member of our family.  The fear might have been that if you didn’t help out, you wouldn’t get any pizza.  But the reality was more that this was something that we loved doing together, and that made the entire outcome- the pizza- even better.  Of course, the process mandated complete transparency.  Some of us couldn’t eat onions; indeed, a hidden agenda here would have resulted in stomach upset! Others didn’t care for green peppers.  One in our family didn’t wish to eat meat.  So we had to be very clear in drawing the lines of content in our pizzas.  Those ingredient boundaries were our respective stakes in the outcome.   And, of course, eventually we experienced the satisfaction and reward of shared effort: taking a piece of the pie.  Collaboration made homemade pizzas tastier than frozen ones, and more cost-effective than pizzeria models.

A pizza with the 15 women did not involve our collective making and baking, but it did connect us in a shared result.  Sitting around the tables which had been laid end-to-end created a loop of continuity, of solidarity,  of oneness for at least that special lunch period.  It will be up to the women members of the cooperatives to determine whether they can sustain that linkage to their ongoing mutual benefit.

Meanwhile, it made that unlikely pizza one of the best slices I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot….

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….

 

Olympic Mistrials

Here they come again.  It’s those television advertisements hyping the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea.  I’m a minor fan of both the winter and summer games, but not so much a fan of the nationalistic lead-up to the competition.  Sure, I like to see the U.S. win medals and realize dreams in competition.  but not so much the “heroism” storylines that accompany our introduction to the athletes, nor the presumption of U.S. preeminence.

One of these over-the-top promotional pieces features some of the USA athletes reciting words to “America, the Beautiful,” intoning deeply serious recitations against a backdrop of dramatic, athletic scenes.  The combination of somber voice, a stirring verse of “America, the Beautiful” and scenes of personal sport triumph are designed to capture us and convey an sense of ultimate importance for the upcoming games.  I know what they’re after, but for me it accomplishes the opposite.

“O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,”

I suppose that sports excellence has always conveyed a heroism upon the performer; we hold our athletes in the highest esteem, even when they exhibit behaviors which would be unacceptable when demonstrated by anyone else.  But sports competition is hardly strife.

Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!

The idea of Olympic athletes competing more from loving country than self would be a difficult notion for me to accept, given the fame, the surroundings, the money and accolades conferred upon them.  Indeed, I would be very surprised to learn that an Olympic athlete had grudgingly taken up a sport and sacrificed  a career in medicine or law or social work essentially for the good of his/her country.  And I certainly can’t equate commitment to an Olympic sport with showing mercy upon others or giving up one’s life.

America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!”

The interventions of a divine presence in winning a gold medal will best be left to someone else’s analysis; Olympics aren’t likely the domain of heavenly hosts, and in any case, for every prayer uttered by a U.S. athlete there are potentially 2,872 additional prayers from the other athletes.  (This is the total number of athletes participating in the last Winter Games.)

It matters little whether the U.S. wins the medal count or the National Anthem is played more often than those of others nations.  Success in the Olympics does not define a nation or a people, their character or their compassion.  The Olympics is not a surrogate for battlefields of conquest or measures of character.  But what we can watch closely is the capacity of human endeavor.

The Olympic Games, like their summer counterpart, have always been about the athletes.  They provide a showcase of human physical and psychological accomplishment, a stage for imagining, and seeing, the limits of human capabilities.  That’s the draw and the drama of Olympic sports.  The attempt to make the competitions something more than they are does a disservice to the notions of sport,  competition and the hope that is kindled during this brief unification of mankind.

Yes, the Olympics will provide a world stage for exciting competitions.  But during those 16 days, there will be far more people in the world who cannot or will not be watching.  For them, real heroes are the ones rescuing injured children following a bomb strike or hurricane.  The strife being fought by these competitors is not against a clock, but against oppression or disaster or disease.  These are the ones about whom it may truly be said that they put mercy and compassion ahead of their own lives, that the future of their people holds greater importance than themselves.  Many of these will neither note nor care about the Olympics and the stories behind the athletes there.  For them, there exists an even greater Herculean effort at hand, and one of far greater importance: giving of themselves to others.

So I will watch portions of the XXIII Winter Olympic Games next month.  I’ll vicariously enjoy the breathtaking accomplishments of well-conditioned athletes in their prime.  I’ll cheer for individuals and teams I like- for whatever the reason- and enjoy the hopefulness in seeing even a North Korean team present.  But I’m not likely to mistake either the importance or the heroism embodied by the event.  For that, I’ll look for the anonymous servants who tend to the also-rans….

 

Headwinds

I can’t help but be startled by the contrast.

I spent the better part of last week with colleagues and guests at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis.  The annual gathering features recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates and many others whose passions are about peace-making.  In this year’s edition, Winds of Peace was invited to host a dialogue about the potential impact of cooperatives on post-conflict societies.  In the session, our colleague Rene Mendoza offered his research conclusions about what constitutes strong cooperatives, how all of the “actors” in the cooperative chain sometimes unknowingly contribute to a lack of fairness to the small producer, and how Fair Trade isn’t always fair.

Our session featured representatives from all quarters of the coffee cooperative chain: producers, buyers, roasters, funders, cooperative associations, consultants and even academics.   They came from Europe, Central America, South America, Canada and the U.S.  We sought as many perspectives as we could find to consider the research and join in the discussion about where and how improvements might be made on behalf of the small producer, and in the process contribute to better chances at creating more peaceful societies.  The gathering was an impressive one, made even more so because of the intensity that they brought to the Forum: these were people who were serious about the topic and, especially, to the notion of contributing to peace.

We heard stories from peasant farmers and the nature of perseverance.  We listened to the findings about premium payments in the Fair Trade and Organic markets and how that money often never reaches the farmers who grow the crops.  We heard stories of progress, for women, for peasant farmers, for struggling organizations attempting to fight the currents of political and monied interests.  We learned about the importance of transparency, of walking in another’s shoes, collaborative work, the importance of “the common good.”  And we felt the passionate undercurrent of an eclectic group of people seeking, in their own way, a means of peacemaking.

And then there was the news coverage this week at the U.N.

The President of the United States openly taunted the leader of North Korea, in front of the rest of the world, by referring to him as “rocket man.”  In the same breath, he stated flatly that, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  Later in the week, the leader of the free world, in addressing African leaders, twice referred to the African nation “Nambia.”  Unfortunately, there is no such country.  The chief peacemaker in the world did not know the name of the country to which he referred.

In quoting the President I imply no judgment as to his intelligence or the soundness of his political strategies; all persons on the planet can judge for themselves the appropriateness of the President’s position. I only note the stark contrast between last week’s energies toward building peace, and this week’s headlines threatening an annihilation.

I can’t help but be startled by the contrast….

 

Working from the Outside

As a U.S. private foundation, Winds of Peace has been providing development assistance in Nicaragua for more than 30 years.  Most of that time and effort has been rendered on the “inside,” hand-in-hand with the members of the cooperatives and associations and networks with who we have partnered.

It has been very personal work.  We can describe the organizations.  We can remember where they are and the circumstances in which their people live.  We can name names.    That accompaniment is a condition of our work, being “on the ground” where there is little access, few outsider visits and sparse resources.  It’s being with partners on the inside, helping to find a small opening where opportunity might be waiting on the other side.  It’s still our model, still the way that we will continue to work in Nicaragua.  But we also have added a component to such work, this time from the “outside.”

The Nobel Peace Prize Forum is an event which Winds of Peace has sponsored for many years.  The Forum exists as the only sanctioned event under the Nobel Peace Prize name outside of the award selection itself.  Annually, it has brought together past peace laureates, activists, scholars and those working in their own ways and in their own niches for peace and justice, “on the inside,” where life is actually lived.  This year’s Forum will be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota during September 13-16.  It will feature many stories of peace-building and human development.  And it will include work underwritten by Winds of Peace.

In what is billed as a “high-level dialogue” session, major research and “inside” work on cooperatives will be presented by Foundation colleague Rene Mendoza.  Rene is recognized as a development innovator and engages in “participatory action research” to facilitate actions by cooperative members themselves.  Specifically, Rene will highlight the  efforts and conclusions from cooperatives in various countries.  And he’ll emphasize the importance and stabilizing impact of cooperatives in societies emerging from periods of conflict, and how their financial impacts serve as an essential ingredient for both economic and social well-being. He has also assembled a panel of six cooperative members from Central and South America to join in the conversation and share their experiences of cooperative life and meaning.  Yet, that’s not the full extent of the session.

The rest of the invited audience will be comprised of individuals from cooperative-supporting organizations, entities which have in some way positioned themselves as partners with the small cooperatives, whether in the roles of funders, marketers, associations, Fair Trade and Organic certifiers, buyers, roasters or retailers.  They are (hopefully) big names.  The presentations are designed to invite dialogue with this invited audience about where the entire process chain is working well, where it isn’t, and how collectively all actors might make it more valuable to the essential focus:  the producer and his/her family.

As a result of the discourse, the participants will be encouraged to arrive at an objective or change that might be affected during the ensuing 12 months, a plan of action which will be shared with the at-large Forum attendees.  In 2018, some of those discourse participants will then return to the Forum for a report-out on success, and whether the conclusions and actions identified in 2017 really made an impact.  It’s a very action and accountability effort, unlike many conference end results, and one that Forum organizers (and sponsors, like WPF) hope can bring real impact to cooperatives as major peace components.  It’s “outside work,” changing the focus temporarily to the ambient world surrounding places like rural Nicaragua.  Consider this blog entry as an invitation to experience at least this part of the Forum in the Fall.

Why?  Because sometimes circumstances don’t allow us to achieve our needs fully by ourselves.  There is not one among us who has reached full potential and well-being on our own.  Sometimes, we require the intervention of “outside work….”