Category Archives: Privilege

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….

 

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….

 

 

 

 

Our Mutual Enemy

I’ve taken to re-reading the Charles Dickens classic tale, Our Mutual Friend It’s Dickens’ last work, a long piece of literature that captured my imagination as a young man and for some reason (perhaps the recognition that if I ever intended to re-read it, I’d better get going), I decided to tackle it again.  It’s full of lessons and observations about Victorian (and modern) life, as well as those long and circuitous sentences with which Dickens was so adept.

Dickens’ focus on the great disparities in Victorian London are well-known, such as in his tale,  A Christmas Carol.  But I ran across a passage in the current book that I simply couldn’t pass up for sharing.  One doesn’t really need to know the context of the story or the characters to understand the clarity of the message.  It reads like this:

In the meantime, a stray personage of meek demeanour, who had wandered to the hearthrug and got among the heads of tribes assembled there in conference with Mr. Podsnap, eliminated Mr. Podsnap’s flush and flourish by a highly unpolite remark; no less than a reference to the circumstance that some half-dozen people had lately died in the streets, of starvation.  It was clearly ill-timed after dinner.It was not adapted to the cheek of the young person.  It was not in good taste.

“I do not believe it,” said Mr. Podsnap, putting it behind him.

The meek man was afraid we must take it as proved, because there were the Inquests and the Registrar’s returns.

“Then it was their own fault,” said Mr. Podsnap.

The man of meek demeanour intimated that truly it would seem from the facts, as if starvation had been forced upon the culprits in question- as if, in their wretched manner, they had made their weak protests against it-  as if they would have taken the liberty of staving it off if they could-  as if they would rather not have been starved upon the whole, if perfectly agreeable to all parties.

“There is not,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing angrily, “there is not a country in the world, sir, where so noble a provision is made for the poor as in this country.”

The meek man was quite willing to concede that, but perhaps it rendered the matter even worse, as showing that there must be something appallingly wrong somewhere.

“Where?” said Mr. Podsnap.

The meek man hinted Wouldn’t it be well to try, very seriously, to find out where?

“Ah!” said Mr. Podsnap.  “Easy to say somewhere; not so easy to say where.  But I see what you are driving at.   I knew it from the first.  Centralization.  No.  Never with my consent.  Not English.”

An approving murmur arose from the heads of the tribes; as saying, “There you have him!  Hold him!”

He was not aware (the meek man submitted of himself) that he was driving at any ization.  He had no favorite ization that he knew of.  But he certainly was more staggered by these terrible occurrences than he was by names of howsoever so many syllables.  Might he ask, was dying of destitution and neglect necessarily English?

You know what the population of London is, I suppose?” said Mr. Podsnap.

The meek young man supposed he did, but supposed that had absolutely nothing to do with it, if its laws were well-administered.

And you know, at least I hope you know,” said Mr. Podsnap with severity, “that Providence has declared that you shall have the poor always with you?”

The meek man also hoped he knew that.

“I am glad to hear it,” said Mr. Podsnap with a portentous air.  “I am glad to hear it.It will render you cautious how you fly in the face of Providence.”

In reference to that absurd and irreverent conventional phrase, the meek man said, for which Mr. Podsnap was not responsible, he the meek man had no fear of doing anything so impossible; but-

But Mr. Podsnap felt that the time had come for flushing and flourishing this meek man down for good.  So he said:

“I must decline to pursue this painful discussion.  It is not pleasant to my feelings; it is repugnant to my feelings.  I have said that I do not admit these things.  I have also said that if they do occur (not that I admit it), the fault lies with the sufferers themselves.  It is not for ME- Mr. Podsnap pointed ME forcibly, as adding by implication though it may be all very well for YOU- “it is not for me to impugn the workings of Providence.  I know better than that, I trust, and I have mentioned what the intentions of Providence are.  Besides,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing high up among his hair brushes, with a strong consciousness of personal affront, “the subject is a very disagreeable one.  I will go so far as to say it is an odious one.  It is not one to be introduced among our wives and young persons, and I-“

He finished with that flourish of his arm which added more expressively than any words: ” And I remove it from the face of the earth.”

It is an easy thing to simply banish disagreeable realities with a sweep of the arm.  Or to claim that something is true when it is not.  But doing so does not change the realities or absolve us from the human stewardship that we owe to one another as fellow-travelers on this earthly journey.  Dickens knew it.  And as unpleasant, repugnant, disagreeable and odious as it may be, so do we all….

 

The Problems with Privilege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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