Bias. It’s what we as human being use to see the world around us, whether we like to admit it or not. We see the world through the lens of our own experiences. Sometimes that comes from things that have happened to us. Sometimes it comes from things we’ve been told. Often our vision comes from the way we would like to see reality, for our own benefit. But we are born with the predilection toward bias. Is it also true about the way we view the poor?
I received the following article from the organization, “Progress Through Business,” a non-profit located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was founded by an acquaintance of mine, John Hoffmire, whom I came to know through his advocacy in the ESOP world. I found the subject and the data of the article provocative, and decided to include it here:
How The Rich View The Poor
The discussion over rising inequality in the U.S. has captured headlines, been featured in the November election campaign, and incited heated debates analyzing and criticizing the relationships between the rich and the poor. “Out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” have become buzzwords used to describe the attitude of the haves toward the have-nots.
Despite this narrative unfolding in the media, the question remains whether the headlines reflect reality.
The Associated Press recently cited research saying that 1 in 5 Americans reaches affluence at one point in their lives. This 20 percent block is a far cry from the critique offered by many who want change but still provides evidence of a large disparity between the wealthy and the poor.
Some might ask how this division affects the social aspects of our society. What is the best descriptor of the relationship between those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum? The prevailing story conveyed through the media would suggest that “out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” do accurately portray the well-off portion of the U.S. society.
However, those who question this viewpoint might pose the following queries: What about the billions of dollars donated every year to poverty-focused charities? What about the wealthy investors who have recently turned their focus to social innovation and impact investing in order to address social ills through business? Doesn’t this demonstrate a stronger interest than we might otherwise think? Or does the philanthropist merely seek notoriety through his or her contributions, and is the socially minded investor motivated by the opportunity to gain new market share or attract new customers?
So the question remains, are the wealthy truly invested in the poor and do they care?
A New York Times blog by Daniel Goleman detailed research on social interactions between two groups of people on significantly different rungs of the social ladder. I’ll call this research “study one.”
Members of one group had a much higher income than the members of the other. Subjects of both social classes were instructed to share and communicate, with another individual, about hardships that they had experienced in their personal lives. Researchers then observed the interaction between the two individuals. The findings of the research show that the rich consistently demonstrate disinterest in the personal difficulties of the poor.
The wealthy showed less sympathy and concern as they listened to the poor recall personal trials, such as divorces and deaths in the family. Conversely, the poor tended to be as attentive to the difficulties of the rich as they were to the difficulties of their socio-economic equals.
The researchers concluded that we tend to be interested in those whom we value. Partly due to a void in material wealth, the poor tend to value social relationships. They develop “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions”. This is a trait that anyone — and everyone — could develop, regardless of financial wealth.
If the researchers are correct in their conclusions, and members of our society are only interested in those whom they value, then inattention would demonstrate that the rich undervalue the poor. Why is this? It may be that the rich judge the poor. The rich may assume the poor live a “substandard” life brought upon themselves through their own ignorant or incompetent decisions.
Wealthier members of society may assume that everyone has the same opportunities and that those whose cognitive abilities are less efficient should not receive certain advantages in society because they have not earned them. This attitude, if it exists, is undermined by research that says that many cognitive difficulties are environmentally induced. In other words, those who live in economic stress may be impaired cognitively as a result of the stress caused by consistently living in situations where their economic lives provide bitter choices.
The research, which I will label “study two,” includes an experiment performed at a New Jersey mall and is detailed in a 2013 article written by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, all prominent university researchers. The subjects of the study were confronted with a scenario. They were told that they faced a common financial problem, such as paying for a car repair.
This problem was meant to activate real financial concerns that existed in the participants’ own lives. After thinking about how to come up with the money to make the payment, the subjects were asked to answer common IQ test questions. This research included a component that tested the respondents’ ability to answer questions correctly and quickly while under pressure. After providing a solution to paying for the auto repair, the subjects were asked to disclose their income.
The subjects were assigned either “hard” or “easy” financial situations, with an auto repair cost of $1,500 or $150 respectively.
When contemplating “easy” situations of $150 auto repairs, the poor and the rich answered the IQ test questions correctly at a very similar rate. When the auto repair cost was raised to a “hard” situation of $1,500, the rich performed about the same on the IQ test as they had during the “easy” situation. However, when faced with “hard” situations, the poor experienced a significant drop in the number of questions they answered correctly. This was in line with the researchers’ original hypothesis.
The experiment was then adjusted to include a financial reward of 25 cents for every correct response. Although the poor have a presumably greater need for the money, they still performed worse during “hard” situations than the rich, and earned roughly 18 percent less.
This seems relatively reflective of reality. The researchers go on to explain that the poor earn less not out of incompetency, but because they must allocate mental capacity to problems that are more pressing to them than to the rich.
Remember that the poor performed just as well as the rich when the stakes were low. The difficulty for the poor arose when the payment increased to $1,500, even when they had the ability to make money by answering correctly. Many expenses, which the rich consider minor, become major obstacles for the poor, requiring a significant amount of attention to address. This allocation of attention to pressing concerns may in turn prevent the poor from taking advantage of opportunities (such as earning extra cash in the above study).
Additionally, solving these problems comes at the expense of other basic needs. The researchers cite prior studies showing that the poor “use less preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents and worse managers of their finances.” According to the study, these troubling behaviors are caused neither by laziness nor incompetence but by decreased capacity brought on by the situations the poor face. This is due to the overwhelming nature of stressful situations, many of which are not nearly as difficult for the rich.
The study’s results provide key insights into the relationship between the rich and the poor. The occurrence of the types of problems discovered in study two should not elicit negative judgments from the rich but rather understanding. The wealthy could be much more interested in the poor, knowing that the personal difficulties in the lives of the poor may have more serious repercussions than situations in their own lives. The resources of the poor, financial and mental, are often already stretched to their limits.
If studies one and two are reflective of the reality of how the rich view poverty-stricken people, and I believe they are, it is a major misperception on the part of the rich to believe that the poor should always be able to recover from setbacks in the same ways as others. And if both of the above studies are true, then less-advantaged individuals’ traits of “keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions” are all the more impressive. Low-income individuals are able to allocate their attention to focus on other people, while the rich do not seem to have this same ability, often depriving the poor of sympathy and understanding.
The studies give us observations and a neurobehaviorialistic view of the relationships between rich and poor. But what else might motivate the lack of demonstrated concern of the wealthy for those less fortunate? Perhaps it is that the rich are so focused on gaining more wealth, status, and contact with other wealthy people that there is little incentive for them to get to know and care for the poor.
So the question arises, how can the rich turn their attention outward and toward those on the opposite end of the social ladder? One way would be for everyone to better understand the role of good fortune and the assistance they have received from others. Many have benefited from those who stand a few rungs up and a few rungs down.
We, of all social classes, could consistently be looking out for those who find upward mobility difficult and we could understand that trials and burdens are taxing, painful and often devastating for those at many points along the socio-economic spectrum, but are especially paralyzing for those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. While those who are well off enjoy the comfort of ample financial resources, they could also strive to develop and use their own sense of a “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions.”
I say this not only on account of the poor. It seems that many in other social classes are missing out on a special opportunity. I notice at times in our society that many people lack a sense of purpose. Dedication to the poor and a willingness to act on their behalf can bring great value to the life of someone who is willing to serve.
One who certainly showed attention to those less fortunate was the late Nelson Mandela. Leading a nation out of apartheid also meant fighting a war against poverty. Partly due to his work, South Africa began a process leading toward greater development in Africa. Mandela understood that our social interactions are key tools in combating poverty. He described our duty to do our part to help those around us and across the globe when he said:
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
We could all benefit from allocating our own financial and mental resources in an outward way, paying special attention to those around us who are less fortunate than ourselves.
It’s an interesting study and a sobering one. I wonder what misconceptions others have about me….?
If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out (Jesús, Lc 29.40)
“I already saw that movie”, said the drunk, on seeing the animation of the lion that roars at the beginning of many movies. In the beginning of the 1990s, dozens of women from Marcala (Honduras) began to be trained to defend their rights and cultivate an awareness of equality, to “marry to live together and not to be the property of anyone”, “leave the house to participate in workshops on learning”, and “overcome conformism”. Over the years they understood that that awareness and that fight against violence would require generating their own resources, “on earning some money you can decide what to buy for the house”, so they envisioned an organization that would help them to have land, produce on it, and sell their products. So in 1988 they founded the Coordinator of Women Peasants of La Paz (COMUCAP), and learned that “organization is for bettering oneself and not for being envious”, and that “it is beautiful that both the man and the woman work, you have what you need to eat and you can rest.”
As COMUCAP grew in number of members and economically they acquired investments for processing coffee, aloe and juices; they exported coffee and sold soap, shampoo and juice; they bought land and planted it;M and many projects came in. Nevertheless in 2012 they learned that their organization of 283 women members was about to fall off a cliff. What had happened? What had pushed them to the edge? How could they move away from that cliff? In this article we try to respond to these questions, precisely to “not trip over the same stone twice.” Behind the animation of the roaring lion there is a movie that has not yet been seen. Let´s look at it.
Crisis Situation in COMUCAP
An independent audit revealed that the debt of COMUCAP was close to one million dollars, that the assets of the organization had a lien on them due to the debt, that a piece of property bought for $150,000 had not been turned over to the organization, and that it was not clear where resources from international aid had gone. This information raised the eyebrows of the members in the 2012 assembly. Other data followed: 100% of the coffee exported was organic and fair trade, in the last 3 cycles prior to 2012 they had exported close to 10,000 qq of export coffee; a good part of that coffee was bought off of individuals who were not members, close to 1,000 qq of coffee was from the coordinator of COMUCAP herself, whose quality surprisingly scored at 85, while the coffee of the members was equal to or less than 81; the yields (from 1 qq of cherry coffee to export coffee) were dropping; the premiums for organic and fair trade were confused with project financed by international aid, making it impossible for the members to see that they had not received neither premiums. The crisis was even more harsh because it coincided with the arrival of the coffee rust on the plants, that not only lowered their production yields, but in many cases anthracnose came behind the rust leaving the coffee fields with dead trees.
What had happened? From the beginning the board of directors had granted the coordinator a General Power of Attorney, with which she was able to take loans out of the bank, buy and sell the assets of the organization and sign international aid projects. They had technical and administrative staff subordinated to the coordinator, whose daughter was the commercialization manager for all the COMUCAP products, her sister was the manager of the aloe plant, and her son in law was the coffee manager. The board of directors was used only to sign checks. The reports to the annual assembly appeared to be “sharp” bathed in a sea of numbers, reports that were legitimated by the representatives of international aid as “transparent”. The audit and fair trade and organic certification inspections would confirm every year that “everything was in order.”
The coffee rust and the “human rust” had bashed the organization of the 256 members. Obviously all those losses and debts had to be assumed by the members. All this is like the animation of the roaring lion, because this type of movie is repeated in many parts of Latin America. Nevertheless, as the philosopher Heraclitus said, though we bathe in the same river, we never do it in the same water; the next section responds to the question about what things pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the precipice. Let´s sit down to watch this film.
Process that pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the cliff
Problem: COMUCAP in 2012 was on the edge of the cliff. What pushed it therer? To help, let´s use the “5 whys” of the methodology of Lean: find the cause of the problem, then the cause of that cause, until we reach the root cause. This methodology was developed in the 1950s by Taiichi Ohno, Toyota pioneer (http://www.toyota-global.com/company/toyota_traditions/quality/mar_apr_2006.html). It is the methodology that is behind Aristotle´s idea in seeking the origin of movement: “everything that moves is moved by something” and there is a “motor” that moves everything. That is why we ask ourselves 5 times “why”. See the Table with the 5 “whys” for identifying the “tripping stone.”
Why was COMUCAP on the “brink of a cliff” –debts, poor administrative management and a hold on their assets? The members and aid organizations listened to information in the annual assemblies, but it was information that was not telling them what was really happening. The staff was subordinated to the family that coordinated COMUCAP and the board of directors relegated to being “only for show”, to sign checks; even a leader turned into an employee for two years signed checks as if she were the president. In other words, they would produce information in a disloyal way for the organization and in a way subordinated to the coordinating family.
Why did they not have access to the real information. A good part of the 256 women had been trained for 10, 15 and 20 years in negotiating their rights, managing funds for groups, political advocacy and values like transparency and equality. Why then did they not demand the real information? “Because we fell asleep”, said one of the historic leaders: they stood by. Ther trust in the coordinator was blind and total, because since 1993 she had trained them in women´s rights, and used to tell them that “she worked for the women”, she was from a family with resources and they nearly worshipped her: “having what she needs to live and she works for us” they would say with gratitude, feeling themselves blessed. One member could not be mistrustful when the reports would be presented before the international aid organizations, who would repeat “everything is in order”. One member could not prove that she did not receive the organic nor fair trade premiums for her coffee when the fair trade and organic certification audits would conclude “that everything was in order.” If everything was in order, it was logical to conclude that the information that they were being presented was correct, and it was obvious that if a member dissented, she was running the risk of not being a beneficiary of the next project. It was like feeling like an ant under a transnational elephant that grew and grew.
Why did they stand by? Because they left the decisions in the hands of the coordinator who had an administrative role, and was part of the staff of the organization, not elected by the assembly, as were the women on the board. The decisions that should have been made in the cooperative bodies (board of directors, committees and assembly) and supervised (oversight board or auditing body), were taken on by the coordinator. For the members the coordinator was “the gate” to the market and to international aid projects, and for the fair trade buyers and the aid agencies, the coordinator was the gate to the women leaders and the members. If a aid representative would visit a member, she would say marvelous things about the coordinator, and if a member visited Germany, the buyers would say wonderful things about the coordinator. So COMUCAP functioned as if it were a private enterprise where the 256 members were the poor beneficiaries, defined as such by the coordinator herself: “the women of the board are not capable of administering even 100 lempiras ($5).” This woman who did training on rights saw them as ignorant and those who financed projects and bought coffee saw her as the “Honduran Che Guevara.”
Why did they leave the decisions in the hands of the administration? Because the millennium institution of “we always need a patron” absorbed them. The women had been trained to defend their rights in their homes and to seek equality with their husbands. And this they were doing, supported by an office of COMUCAP itself. Nevertheless, they did not expect that “the patron” would appear in the “new guise”: who would subordinate the staff with loans and salaries, control the members on the basis of projects, and the leaders through travel allowances, and ran COMUCAP as something independent from the members. Like a large estate owner who believes that the land and everything on it is his, or like the holder of an encomienda in the colonial period that would receive land “including the indians that lived on it”, she would repeat to them: “without me COMUCAP would not exist, everything that is here is because of me” – meaning that everything was hers.
Why did the old “patron-client” institution absorb them? Because even though the women woke up about their rights and the importance of generating their income to sustain that awareness, COMUCAP was an external product with members dispersed in several municipalities, started on the basis of external resources and not on the basis of the contributions of the members; and because they did not learn to lead the organization through its organs (assembly, board, oversight board), and in accordance with its rules (statutes), because “we felt it was far away, someone else´s”. That is why they would hold an assembly once a year, as if an organization would have so few decisions that merited meeting only once a year; the board members were content to sign checks and travel every now and then; the groups never met with their boards; a member who needed something from COMUCAP would not propose it in the group meeting, nor to her group board, she thought it was not her right but a favor, which is why she would go directly to the “big honcho.” This lack of ownership and effectiviness in leading the organization left COMUCAP in conditions where the proverb “in an open treasure even the just sin” became a reality. COMUCAP had become a “factory” where a member would become a beneficiary, a leader subordinated, and a coordinator with a social vocation would become the big honcho (patron). Here is the root of the problem – “the motor” as Aristotle would say.
The energy to get out of the crisis
The member assembly in 2012 heard the results of the audit. There was a mixture of everything: silence, murmurs, rage, impotence, feeling of having been betrayed…Some returned to their homes, and recalling the sacrifices that they had made for so many years, cried wanting to hear an echo in the universe. Others moved to defend the offices and the coffee and aloe business of COMUCAP, because the coordinator, her family and allies did not even want to turn over the assets with liens on them. They spent 3 years in hard legal battles, negotiating with the banks, getting the aid agencies and the buyers to see the obvious facts of what was happening, getting the members to trust again, looking for money to buy coffee, looking for markets for their coffee, their aloe, their shampo and juices.
On this path they continued to wear themselves down and had financial losses. The interest and arrears for the debt grew year by year, even though negotiating they were able to get considerable relief. They lost the best coffee areas to the labor lawsuit from the ex-employees, and had expenses on lost trials. They had international coffee buyers who decided NOT to buy their coffee under the logic that “COMUCAP without the “big honcho” did not exist, and because, as one leader said, “a dozen stars will fall from the sky before they ¡recognize that they were mistaken.” And a star did fall! The representative of an aid agency recognized: “I believed in her (the coordinator); forgive me because I did not believe in what you were telling me.”
What really caused the beginning of the change in COMUCAP? Each year an audit would be done, fair trade and the organic certifiers also did audits. There were more than 17 bank accounts because the aid agencies wanted their money to be administered separately. The results indicated that none of that ensured good administration. It is very possible that without the support of two people who worked in 2 aid agencies, who detected the problem, recommended an independent audit, and accompanied the board for some time, and without the awakening of the new board, COMUCAP would now have fallen off the cliff or been completely privatized by the coordinator and her family.
Crisis happens when what should die, does not, and what should be born, does not. After 5 years COMUCAP has been able to grab ahold of some “rock” and not fall off the cliff, in contrast to the prophesy of those who opposed it. Nor has it moved away from that “cliff”, the risk that it might trip over the same “stone”, described in section 2, and fall even harder off the cliff is real. In other words, that which should die still has not died. How can it move away from the cliff, or build a bridge to cross it? For what needs to be born to happen, we suggest three steps (see attached Figure) under the sequential order that follows: awareness and vision of the members as a reference point, looking inward where their roots are, and looking outward to be accompanied.
First step, start from the awareness and vision of the women members. Awareness: “everything that exist is there because we sweated with our fellow members with the sacks of fertilizer planting coffee, aloe, cooking, leaving the family on their own.”; as Jesus would say, if they keep quiet, the stones from the aloe and coffee business and the orange and coffee farms, WOULD CRY OUT. The original vision of dozens of women: COMUCAP started to sell the products of its members and accordingly built equity in their homes and communities. To sell whose products? The products of ITS members!
Second step, finding a solution to the root of the problem, ownership and operating within the democratic mechanisms of COMUCAP. There is their new “motor”. Their “break even point” is not buying coffee from whoever and however, it is not adding new members as best as possible. It is going back and building trust in each family, each group, the board of each group, the asembly, the board of directors, the oversight board and the staff that they have. COMUCAP now has 505 members. Let us recall popular wisdom, the stronger the daughters and sons are, the stronger their parents will be – in other words, the stronger the families are, the stronger the groups will be, the stronger the groups are, the stronger their board and their staff will be, and COMUCAP will be stronger.
Third step, weave alliances with people (and organizations) like those who helped them to begin the change in 2012 and who left them the secret for getting ahead: study the reality itself, wake up to what the study finds, and be accompanied in the process of change.
For these three steps the notion of stewardship helps us: our lives are a breath in the life of the universe, our participation in an organization like COMUCAP is at the most a tenth of a human life: a leader who lives for 90 years will hold posts for less than 9 years, a salaried worker will not be there for much more than that. In other words, while we hold positions of responsibility we must give the most of ourselves serving the 505 women, many of whom are single mothers taking care of their grandchildren, assuming the roles of mother and father. Stewardship, according to Block (2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest), is “the willingness to be responsible for the wellbeing of the organization, working in service of those who surrond us, instead of controlling them. It is responsibility without control nor compliance”.
Can the 505 women and the organizations that consider themselves to be their allies let die what needs to die, and give birth to what need to be born? The lionesses of Marcala are roaring: this movie has barely begun.
-William Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act III, Scene iv
It’s good advice for any of us. The only way to really understand the point of view of “others” is to walk a mile in their moccasins, experience what they experience, see life through their lenses. Truth is ultimately made up of our experiences, what we have seen and felt. If we have never exposed ourselves to the reality of others, as well as our own, we will never have the knowledge to move closer to the truth.
Most immigrants seek to enter this country for reasons which have nothing to do with terrorism or destruction. In fact, most immigrants would prefer not leaving their own homelands at all. But the prospect of losing family members to the violence of war or the ravages of hunger will overshadow nearly any other consideration. What wouldn’t you be prepared to do for the protection of your child, or spouse or parent? Necessity is the mother of invention, perhaps especially when it comes to survival.
It might be instructive for the billionaire leaders of our new administration to encounter hunger or violence face-to-face, for a personal understanding of what’s behind many of the immigrants’ motivations. For example, I have found sharing a meal of egg and tortilla- when such food might well represent the entirety of a host Nicaraguan family’s larder- to be an educational, humbling and emotional event. I’m fairly certain that our new President has never wanted for clean water, so maybe a visit to areas of Central America where clean water is an absolute rarity could provide an alternate view on trading water security for oil pipeline routing in the Dakotas. (Along the way, he might find himself grappling with the question of why some of the pipeline was re-routed after wealthier folks to the north expressed alarm that the pipeline ran too close to their own properties and thus needed to be located elsewhere. Like where the Native American reservations are.) Actually, a second trip into Mexico could be a useful journey for the new President if, this time, the stay included a hike into a barrio where most of the inhabitants are poor; it could provide a different slant on Mexico’s ability to pay for a wall, one that would serve the U.S. border.
I like the idea of being “first.” In many ways, it’s encoded in our DNA to strive and succeed. Competition has been the engine which has brought about many of the most important inventions and discoveries in human history. I readily confess to having lived a good share of my life in this mindset. It wasn’t until my first venture into an impoverished world that I was able to truly “feel what wretches feel.” The awakening might not have been pleasant, but it was important.
That experience provided the insight to understand that being first is not only a hallmark of success, but a label of obligation. When we are first, we have the duty toward the last. In fact, we need the last to be with us, to advance with us, to complete us. How the poorest of the world’s humanity lives is not a reflection on them, but upon the rest of us. It is not only the elite members of the new U.S. presidency who could use exposure to the rest of the world’s realities. After all, a presidency is presumably a reflection of its constituents. Rather, such perspective is needed in all of us, each of us, who claim to be seeking truth as part of the human journey.
A shared vision is only possible with a shared experience….
We’re finally into flat-out, full-bore, blossom-laden Spring in my part of the world! We haven’t had any freezing temperatures for weeks now, the sun is high enough to quickly warm even the coolest mornings and every living thing is in motion. I took a long run along the river over the weekend, just to listen and smell and hear the magnificence of Spring in northeastern Iowa.
The water is flowing freely right now, the beneficiary of snow melt and early rains. The water is clear at the moment- no chemicals in the mix as yet-and not yet affected by the farm field runoff which still carries too much valuable soil and nutrient to the south. The bubbling rapids are pristine and there is joy in the sight and sound of them; clean water is not only an essential, but a wonder for which to be grateful. I am delighted by its language, except for the realization that its abundance is shrinking everywhere in the world.
Already, fields have been plowed and crops are being planted for a hoped-for bounty by Fall. All around the area, the smell of lilac and pine are at their intoxicating peaks, crabapple and black locust permeate entire neighborhoods. The essence is nearly transformative, lifting me on my run. I am saturated with gratitude at the sweet scents of the earth, except for my memory of the smells of urban decay, both in the U.S. and abroad, which can quickly overpower the natural beauty of a Spring day.
I encountered five other runners and walkers on this day, each showing elation at the emergence from hibernation with smiles and greetings. We are all in moments of leisure, blessed in a communion with the beauty of a Spring idyll. I am glad, not only for myself, but for the experiences of my fellows, except for a sadness that so many others may never know this kind of moment. Maybe their days will be filled with other joys, but I selfishly want them to feel this moment the way that I do.
I am amazed at my running. For fifty years I have traversed wilderness and street, winter freeze and summer swelters, from the Superior Trail to Budapest, Managua to Kyongju. I have run for my own good, for a sense of accomplishment, to be healthy, and to spark creativity. I’ve been blessed with good knees and strength, and I recognize every day what such activities have meant to my well-being. And I find myself full of joy, except for the nagging realization that elsewhere, people conserve their energies for more practical tasks, such as survival. The thought most often slows me down, even if my step remains light. Wherever the journey leads, the contrasts are the same.
“Whether you are writing about anger, love, jealousy, desire, hate, it does not make a great difference whether you use a plowed field or a city alley, a garbage can or a rural dump, a city park or Quabbin Watershed Wilderness Area. The great central human considerations may be found everywhere.” -Joseph Langland, Poet
So I run on, in a delicate balance between the sublime and the disquiet, knowing that what I hear is not always heard, what I feel is not always felt, and the others I see are but a fortunate few of the many unseen. Wherever I am, I run between the conflict of beauty and decay, health and hurt, confidence and despair, for we are whole except for where we hurt, helpless except for when we choose otherwise….
Whether consciously or not, we all speak for someone. Of course, we speak for ourselves. But even what we speak in our own self-interest most often represents others; we live in a pluralistic place which guarantees that what we say likely echoes someone else’s views. Over the past months I have listened- sometimes intentionally, other times involuntarily- to a host of political voices seeking to speak on my behalf. Despite the fact that I would be quite uncomfortable having any of them speak for me, each seems to lay claim to the privilege of speaking for a majority of the electorate, including me. And as I have wrestled with the reality of someone purporting to represent my thoughts and feelings, it got me to thinking about the rest of us. Who do we speak for?
I thought about the people I know best. One of my close friends, passionate about the outdoors his entire life, has come to teach environmentalism to college students at a time when most of his peers have retired. Another has devoted his energies to the cultivation of the arts, and on a broad scale, in a manner that embraces not only accomplished artists but also the most fledgling efforts of the virtually unknown. A third has ended a career of pastoring his congregations with a voice for social justice, even when doing so might have generated unrest and personal discomfort. Each has chosen a cause, a purpose for his voice, a deliberate act of representation.
A lot of people attempt to speak for others but miss the mark. Government officials are notorious for speaking what the constituents want to hear, or what the officials want them to hear. Religious leaders for centuries have tried to tell their followers how they should behave, only to be challenged by shifting societal norms. CEOs everywhere adopt the role of corporate spokespersons, but the perspectives of employees are often far different from the company line: ask a CEO about his/her company’s culture and then interview an employee or two.
Others of us are much less overt- quieter types for whom introversion is a safer form of existence and who are far less likely to mount a figurative soapbox of any kind. Who or what do we represent in our relative silence? For assuredly, not to speak is still a statement of one kind or another.
One of the lessons I learned long ago during my earliest years in business was that “silence is acceptance.” If I was not willing to challenge an idea, then the fair presumption was that the concept was acceptable to me and that I would support it. While the wisdom served as a potentially liberating management tool, more broadly the notion described the societal reality in which we live. Just as in the truth of “not to decide is to decide,” there is truth in “not to speak is to speak.” And there is potential danger in words that are never spoken.
For instance, an article in The Minneapolis StarTribune describes the growing number of “speakers” fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment in rural towns of the Upper Midwest. The self-appointed proselytizers, whose expertise ranges from used car sales to conspiracy theory, possess an understanding about how to use their words to stoke the fears of the unknown in the minds of their audiences. Of course, there are many unbiased residents in small-town America. But the silence of their voices provides amplification to those who portray all Muslims as like-minded, radical jihadists. The “preachers” speak only for themselves, I hope.
Then there is the case of words spoken out of the side of the mouth. The same political candidates referenced above, with choruses from their legislative colleagues, have all decried the disappearance of the middle-class in the U.S. in the most recent case of a near-extinction. But while each has accentuated the importance of the species and pledged to save it, their words belie their true loyalties. While the middle-class faces utter disappearance, the top 1% of the population continues to amass unprecedented wealth. The reality begs the question about who truly speaks for the vanishing strength of America, its middle class.
For whom do we speak? Whether we dedicate our words and actions to the natural world, the creativity of the arts, the circumstances of marginalized people, a political ideology or something else, our words leave a legacy. That legacy will be a fingerprint of our lifetimes, a precise identification of who we were in our time, a picture of what was important to us, an identification of our stewardship, the depth of our love, and whether we left the world in any better shape than we found it….
We are bombarded with advertisements all the time, whether on television, radio, Internet or printed materials. There’s nothing new about this at all, though the ingenuity used to invade our consciousness is sometimes surprising. (I still maintain that the ads over urinals in public restrooms is arguably the most captive approach.) But I’ve encountered a number of messages lately with the same refrain: “It’s All About You.” There’s the recurrent ad on the radio for a local bank which uses that line in its musical imprinting. (As if banks these days are even conceivably “all about” their customers.) One of my favorite retailers has begun to use the phrase in its website ads. (In reality, it’s more about my purchases than about me, I’m quite sure.) And it’s a message that makes me uneasy.
I understand the implication: I’m worthy of the product being offered and the benefits that it will provide. I must have worked hard in life and am entitled to the luxury-pleasure-convenience-status of the item being offered as a visible affirmation of my worth, one that others will see with admiration and maybe even jealousy, because they, too, are worth it.
It’s an easy trap for us consumers to fall into. The latest versions of luxurious living and tempting toys are alluring, indeed. Caribbean cruises on floating hotels and cars that drive and park themselves are nearly beyond imagination. Even in the far reaches of Nicaragua, cell phone accessibility has become an increasingly commonplace wonder. If some of the chronically poor peasants enjoy such technology, surely the rest of us are entitled to that and more; we must be entitled.
But the promise of “all about you” and the attendant requirement for acquiring more items in our lives is a misnomer for fulfillment, whatever our socioeconomic status. Not only because shiny things become dulled in time, but also because they- and we- are all so temporary. We don’t get to take any of our toys with us when we depart the planet, and they will come to the temporary ownership of someone else. The cycle will continue indefinitely and we will have been owners for only a second in time, nothing more. We are only stewards of things, whether they be greater or fewer than others, but they are never truly a part of us.
In reality, it’s not all about me. It’s hardly about me or any of us at all. (I was even reminded of that recently in church, sometimes not a bad place for new perspectives. See the message from January 25.) Each of us is but one seven billionth of the planet; a mere one one hundred and eight billionth of human history. Clearly, it cannot be about you or me; we are not that unique. So it must be about something else, a perspective that makes the center of attention somewhere other than ourselves. If not me, if not you, then our focus must be on “the others,” the marginalized among us who need and deserve our consideration.
Yet the more I consider the notion, an unexpected reversal of thinking occurs to me. Maybe it is all about me. Not in the sense of the receiving and entitlement, but in the giving and opportunity. Maybe it truly is about each of us individually taking ownership, not of our things but of our stewardship. Maybe instead of competing in the marketplace for the most goods, our competition ought to be seen in divesting ourselves of the incredible wealth we have accumulated during our lives of privilege. Is it possible that the hallmark of success could be measured by the number of lives touched, the number of hungry fed, the number of homeless sheltered? For we do lead lives of great privilege in contrast to most of the other humans on earth, present and past alike. How even those kings and emperors of antiquity would be astounded at the lifestyles most of us live!
I received a product ordered online the other day, another manifestation of my own consumerism. It arrived in a carton marked, “Happiness delivered.” I was immediately struck by the presumption that the product delivered would make me happy, and that I never even had to leave the comfort of my home to achieve such joy. The presumption was yet one more attempt to equate a purchase with personal and lasting fulfillment. In reality, the item was one that, yes, I felt (right or wrong) that I needed, but it did not make me happy. That emotion has to come from somewhere else, somewhere from within. And that is all about me, and my relationship to other human beings.
I am informed in my thinking by Native American perspectives on the idea of ownership, not only the impossibility of owning individual lands but of things, as well: ““It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome… Children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving… The Indians in their simplicity literally give away all that they have—to relatives, to guests of other tribes or clans, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom they can hope for no return.” (Charles Alexander Eastman, Santee Dakota Physician, 1858-1939.)
I’m not an ascetic and thus cannot call others to such a lifestyle. But I recognize, like Native Americans long before me, that what we have- whether in material, opportunity, education, energy or aspiration- is never owned by us. Rather, any of these are gifts to be shared in the best ways that we can, part of a collective competition of largesse, and our lives are truly about discerning how to do just that….
The inevitability of mortality is no solace when we lose someone whose life has transcended the usual boundaries of what it is to be a human being. We know that whatever one’s legacy is to be, it is certain to come in time, whether we are prepared for it or not. When we learned the news of Father Fernando Cardenal’s illness several weeks ago, there was collective hope and prayer that his time had not yet come and that he might recover to extend the remarkable legacy of his life. But it was not to be. Despite several rallies in recent days, Father Fernando died Saturday, at age 82, an age that belies the enormous impact of his life.
Neither this site nor this writer can pretend to adequately express what Father Fernando has meant to a world which refuses to see and people who ignore the truth of the poor. (There are ample locations to learn of the Nicaraguan priest’s background and life story; visit them, and understand the kind of person the world has lost.) He became the voice and patron of the impoverished, in many ways at the cost of his own vocation and voice. Indeed, he was expelled from the priesthood for his continued educational work with a revolutionary regime which in the 1970’s overthrew the longstanding Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. Such was his commitment to those who possessed no voice of their own. (And such was his commitment to his faith, that he earned his eventual reinstallation to the priesthood years later.)
His story, recounted in part in the recent autobiography, Faith and Joy, (and assisted by WPF colleague Mark Lester and Kathy McBride), is a life lesson to make even the most egocentric among us re-think our own journeys and legacies. But such was Father Fernando’s gift, to speak for the poor, andfor the rest of us, in ways that could touch us profoundly. I met with Father Fernando on four separate occasions. I can share without shame that upon each occasion, the passion of his words and the depth of his dedication to “the small people” prompted tears- of joy, of admiration and of self-reflection. For Father Fernando, his calling was crystal clear: “I cannot accept that people live this way. As a human being and as a Christian, I cannot accept it. It has to change.” I found it an impossible perspective to refute.
Even at his age of 82, it was still too soon to say good-bye to a life of such inspiration. We needed more of him, more words of hope and perseverance for the poor and more words of encouragement and for introspection among the rest of us. We all conduct our life journeys with too little of either, and now one of the important instructors of our consciences is gone. Take a moment to learn who he was. His loss begs for for prayer and remembrance….
(“It is my hope that the young people return to the streets to make history.”) -Father Fernando Cardenal
I’ve been making entries in this space since the Winds of Peace website came into being; my earliest entry dates back to January of 2007. I don’t often go back in time to read what was on my mind back then, partly because I’m prone to wince at some of the inexperience and naivete reflected in those early days, but mostly because my views are different today than they were eight years ago. In fact, the context of the country has changed. Our partners have changed. It’s a different world than it was. The Foundation has evolved.
One of the most significant changes has been the work we have undertaken with Dr. Rene Mendoza Vidaurre. I have referenced him here many times in recent years, describing the one-on-one work that he has done with our partner cooperatives, Indigenous groups and others. Rene is a tireless pursuer of healthy development for Nicaraguans. He is a co-founder and former director of NITLAPAN, the University of Central America entity which is the leading research organization in the country. He has worked extensively in the rural sectors of Nicaragua, where development efforts are particularly difficult and few resources are available. He has created and conducted scores of workshops to help strengthen organizational effectiveness and sustainability of the coops. This year he created and conducted The Cooperative Certificate Program, a six-day holistic, intensive, residential workshop designed primarily for rural producers. Earlier this month, Rene completed a week-long visit to the U.S. to study organizational strengthening techniques in venues including Springfield, MO, Minneapolis, MN and Boston, MA.
The significance of Rene’s involvement with WPF is that he has brought an intensive research focus to our work. With more than 30 years of experiences in the Foundation’s history, Rene is synthesizing those experiences with current realities to generate perhaps the most extensive, research-based thinking and writing about Nicaraguan rural development. In an age of global economic interdependence and enormous economic uncertainties, access to fact and successful practice are more important than ever to aid organizations operating anywhere in the world. It might be said that, at one time we were primarily placing funds. Today, we are acting with perspectives of knowledge and specific purpose that are true to the Nicaraguan context.
Many of the recent findings and observations about current context in Nicaragua can be found in Rene’s many weblog entries, featured at this website. If you’ve entertained a curiosity about the Nicaraguan realities with which Winds of Peace has operated over the past 30 years, you will find Rene’s writings insightful, candid revelations about the challenges and importance of financial aid. If you work with a foundation or other agency tasked with providing such aid, you will find Rene’s discernments and conclusions to be perceptive resources for consideration in your grantmaking or lending practices, because they reflect the entirety of Nicaraguan realities: financial, historical, political, social, religious.
From time to time I receive feedback on some of my entries here. I’d be equally interested to hear of reactions to the in-depth work that Rene has undertaken in the name of compassionate research….