Tag Archives: Accompaniment

Distant Drums

It’s June.  The trees are leafed out, I need to cut my lawn at least once a week and summer seems as though it wants to stay around for a while.  It’s what we in the north have pined for during the past six months.  And all I can think about is Nicaragua.

I haven’t been in Nicaragua since February and likely won’t make another return trip until August.  No farms, no cooperative counsel, no ownership enthusiasm, no face-to-face conversations with people who do not speak English, but who nonetheless speak “my language.”  Memory of earlier trips fade over time and I begin to feel more and more distant from people who are the focus of our work and the hopes of sustainable Nicaragua.  That exemplifies a problem, a big one for all of us.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also creates distance.  Physically, I am no further away from my Nicaraguan colleagues and acquaintances than I was upon my return from there in February.  But the ensuing four months have distanced me, nonetheless.  Obviously, I do not see their faces.  I do not hear their voices or the anxieties  within their words.  They do not shake my hand in the morning or wish me a pleasant night in the evening.  We cannot share meals together.  I am not there to encourage and they may quickly forget lessons shared.  We are… apart.  Despite my heartfelt desire to be a resource and a friend, the time and distance erode the intensity of our relationship.  I’ve experienced the phenomenon before.

In 2000, my wife and I traveled with our four children (our two sets of twins) to the land of their birth, South Korea.  One of the many blessings of that travel was the opportunity to meet with both sets of birth parents.  The reunions were priceless, the time spent with these extended families were filled with emotion and love beyond our possible expectations.  We became family with these South Korean kin; by the time of our departure from their country, we promised each other ongoing love and communication.

For a time, we kept our pledge to one another.  From the U.S., we regularly telephoned long distance with the aid of an interpreter. (E-mail was not yet the readily available tool that it was to become.) From Korea, we received gifts and photos.  Christmas featured gifts in both directions.  The bonds remained vibrant.  But in time, they grew less frequent.  Our kids grew into busy young people already pressed for time and energy.  Birth families likely grew increasingly frustrated with time lags and difficulties in translating letters.  And eventually, not even the bonds of shared parenting and extended family could sustain a continued embrace.

It’s perhaps an obvious reality that time and distance intrude on the most sincere of desires and necessities.  And if they can erode our intentions even with respect to those whom we know and love, we can only speculate about the difficulties in nurturing connections with those we do not know.  I experienced it happening with South Korean family.  I feel it developing with Nicaraguan friends.  We become victims of our isolations.

At a time when our government and some of its population look to isolate our nation- to create greater distance and fewer collaborations to Make America Great Again- we would do well to recognize the realities of distance and time.  They are already formidable enemies of peace and humanity.  They siphon away touch and contact and emotion.  They feed doubt and gossip.  They sew seeds of suspicion.  Our needs are not to withdraw even further from the presence of “the other,” but to draw closer.

At the very least, I’m determined to reach out to two families in South Korea.  And to get back to people whom I know and care about in Nicaragua….

 

 

 

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….”

What’s the Matter With Kids These Days?

We had an update from the Indigenous youth of the north on my most recent trip to Nicaragua.  Meeting with this group is always an excitement.  They can be as shy as their parents’ generation can be, especially during first-time encounters, but there is an underlying energy and freshness about the youth.  Maybe it just goes with being somewhere between 16 and 30 years of age.  (I really hate to even write that suggestion down, because if it’s true, where does it leave someone like me?)

There are lots of things to like about the members of NUMAJI:  in addition to the aforementioned energies, they are organized, they take their organizational responsibilities seriously, they are constantly seeking ways in which to grow- both organizationally and personally- and they are undaunted by the societal forces which seem to conspire against their quest for independence and preservation of Indigenous tradition.  It’s easy to root for underdogs.

Like their young brethren in most other countries, the members of NUMAJI carry a bias toward “rebellion.”  Not physical confrontation, but a desire to go their own ways as compared to their elders.  The irony for this Indigenous group of youth is that their rebellion is aimed not at abandonment of past ways but at preservation of their heritage, “the Indigenous patrimony.”  It’s in danger of extinction due to passage of time, loss of youth to technology and migration, local and national governments which prefer not having to deal with the reality of Indigenous traditions and rights, and other Indigenous voices which speak about the artifacts of their heritage as being for sale.

This group of young people has been through a lot.  They first came together under the recognition that they needed and deserved a structure in which their voices might be heard by their elders; sometimes elders have a difficult time ascribing value to their eventual successors.  Next, they waded into the swamp of forming themselves into an association, a process which is as long as it is daunting, and especially for the uninitiated.  They face the scorn of many elders who view the association as too inexperienced and too young to be of importance.  They battle the entrenched and politics-driven agendas of some Indigenous and municipal community “leaders,” for whom an association of independent thinkers and actors constitutes a threat to established order.  In short, there are few resources on which to rely as they defend their heritage and birthright.

Except in the case of their work.  As we listened to the issues faced by the youth- many of whom are still in their teens- I was struck by the content of the proposal they made for association work in the coming year.  I wonder where else I might hear youth discussing issues like: internal and foreign migration; the need for development of greater emotional intelligence as a personal development strength;  the impacts of “adultism;” confronting child abuse; writing the statutes and administration of a legal association; or preserving and protecting archaeological sites when municipal and national authorities demonstrate little interest in doing so.  These are not matters of pop culture or social media, but rather, the very real issues of an entire Indigenous people being met head-on by their youth.

It’s an uphill battle, at best.  Maybe NUMAJI will be able to sustain itself through sheer force of wills; young people often have that capacity.  Alternatively, the obstacles may prove to be more than even an energized group of committed youth can withstand.  But either way, this group has educated and experienced itself in ways that will serve its individual members well in the future, whatever that may hold.  Good character and personal courage are qualities that are always in demand and short in supply.

When we left the meeting, I noticed that I actually stood a little straighter, taller than when I walked in….

 

 

Dormilona

The Bashful Plant
The Bashful Plant

While visiting a Nicaraguan farm one Sunday in September, just before the start of the Certificate Program, we hiked some of the property with the owner of the land, Ernesto, along with several of our Nicaraguan colleagues.  His is a small-but-diverse operation, where he has raised beans, corn, coffee, cattle and cacao for his entire life.  Walking the plot of land, even briefly, was a great enjoyment.  I’m always amazed at what grows in sometimes-suspect soil, and how creative farmers have to be with the logistics of five crops growing on very limited acreage.  But the plant that commanded my attention was not one planted in straight rows or intended for harvest.

As we walked to the grove of cacao trees, one of the family members bent over and pointed to a tiny plant growing wild in the pasture.  The stems of the plant were no more than an inch or so in length, with delicate leaves symmetrically extending from each side of the stem.  Though the plant was not in bloom, I was told that it boasts a beautiful pinkish flower.  The stems were all over the area, like some special ground cover that I might see in a backyard where I live.  The plant is called dormilona, sometimes called the “sleeper plant” or the “bashful plant.”  For when its tiny leaves are even gently brushed, they immediately close up like the pages in a book.  It’s a fascinating response to observe, as though the plant is either ticklish to the touch or so shy as to be physically introverted.  The leaves eventually unfold again, once they are sure that the intrusion has passed.  The experience of touching the plants and observing their response is oddly addicting.  And I had it in the back of my mind at the start of the workshop.

On the following day, the Certificate Program began with each of the 40-some participants- class members, presenters, hosts and guests-  introducing themselves to the rest of the crowd.  This is an interesting and instructive process, however routine it may seem.  For within these brief statements of “who I am,” we get perhaps our first opportunity to meet each of the individuals with whom we will be sharing an entire week.  It’s a quick gauge of personality and perspective to guide the interactions to come.

It’s not unusual for members of a group like this, in any country or setting,  to be a little hesitant or even shy about speaking up; many of us are “hard-wired” to be cautious about how much we reveal of ourselves until we’re sure that the surroundings are safe.  It’s better to venture forth slowly, lest we jump into waters way over our heads and we suddenly discover that we don’t know how to swim.  And particularly with rural Nicaraguans, many of whom have not spent much time in the presence of visitors, the tendency is to be reserved and quiet.  (Unless you’re like the ubiquitous “Juan,” one of whom seems to be in every group, wisecracking and joking from the start!)

Nonetheless, we always start with these introductions, not for the completeness of what they can tell us, but for the brief glimpses of who is in the room.  On this occasion, it’s what started me thinking about the dormilona plant once again.  It seemed to me that there were many in our group who, when their turn to introduce arrived, were clearly humbled to even offer their names,  standing in withering modesty, almost turning inward upon themselves, so tangible was their bashfulness.  I thought of fragile green leaves, folding inward for protection until threats had passed.

During the ensuing week, the dangers must have dissipated, because the Program participants opened up in ways as beautiful as those little green, flowering plants which covered that Sunday hillside.  We came to recognize each member for the capacity which he or she brought to the week.   The participants were engaged and energized, and full of the ideas that could make their week successful.  Indeed, by week’s end when the certificates were awarded, each individual was recognized for his or her own particular character and contribution, and there was nothing bashful about it.  Only a sense of accomplishment and some pride.

Working alongside the Nica participants during the Certificate Program was not unlike interacting the dormilona plant.  At first touch, palpable humility showed itself as a “folding inward” for many.  But with time, the folded arms of shyness gradually reached out to embrace what was good in the environment, to soak in the essential components of well-being, whether personal of group.  It’s a universal truth, though one that we seem to forget the next time we find ourselves among strangers.

Maybe I make too much of the dormilona and my fascination with its gentle ways.  But I have found its character enormously attractive, and worth spending my time on….

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Five “Wise”

During the Second Certificate Program in rural Nicaragua, held during the first week of September, participants were escorted more deeply into the worlds of open book management and Lean process improvements.  Having experienced a taste of both methodologies in the First Certificate Program, conducted last year, producers expressed a desire to know more about the concepts and how to apply them.  These programs are all about organizational strengthening, and these two initiatives are as important to organizational health as any strength-building efforts.

For teaching Lean, the Foundation enlisted the expertise of Brian Kopas, of Fabcon Precast in Savage, Minnesota.  (Brian was an important presence at Foldcraft Co., where he honed that company’s storied strengths in continuous improvement.)  Brian’s expertise and inviting demeanor won over the Nicaraguan participants thoroughly as he introduced the elements of Lean.  And among those elements, Brian asked “why?”  A lot.

Asking “why” is one of the core tools employed in any Lean implementation, and maybe especially so in an environment where tradition and culture play such a big role in defining activities and protocols.  So Brian was quite specific in encouraging his audience to ask “why” at least five times before settling on the root cause of any problem in need of a fix.  To do otherwise was to simply assume the reason for a difficulty, which can lead to missing the solution due to not knowing the real problem!  “Drilling down” to the real cause of a difficulty requires discipline and patience, but leads to a much better identification of the root cause of our pain.

It’s not a usual practice for anyone, and certainly not for rural Nicaraguan producers, who have followed the habits and traditional wisdom of past generations.  Think about it for a moment, as in this hypothetical sequence: your production of coffee in this cycle is down.  “Why?”  (Your initial observation might be that a fungus has infested part of your crop.) You might go no further in your analysis and respond by destroying your plants and starting all over again, in hopes that in the next cycle you will be luckier.  Instead, Lean would have you ask “Why” has the fungus attacked.  The answer this time is that the fungus affects coffee plants that have not been fully protected by proper nutrients and care.  “Why?”  Because there have been insufficient resources to purchase all of the necessary inputs for a successful crop.  “Why?”  Because the limited resources available were used for discretionary spending by each producer, rather than partially contributed to a general coop fund for a collaborative “emergency” response to threats.  “Why?”  Because the notion of an effectively-functioning cooperative has been lost over the years, and the organization has come to be seen as simply an access point to outside funders.  After five “why’s” we might see the fungus disaster in a new light, a problem of institutional purpose and not one of plant biology.

The Certificate Program attendees became pretty good at asking the five why’s, though it’s not as easy as it may sound.   As is true with most tools,  it only becomes effective with practice.  But over the course of our week together, participants were playfully (and effectively) asking “why” about nearly everything, a process that gradually made it clear to them the importance of the question.  The hope is that the exercise becomes a habit, and then an actual tool for eliminating many of the pains of their work lives.

A treatise on the use of the “five why’s” in the Certificate Program might seem like an odd entry for a blog topic here.  But in observing the impact of the tool upon the newly-introduced, it dawned on me that the process, in fact, isn’t just for the agricultural producer or factory worker or office administrator.  The process of asking “why” takes us closer to the truth of whatever issue might be complicating our lives.  Our human tendencies to jump to conclusions, without seeing the full extent of the issues before us, often lead us to wasteful and even dangerous end results.  Seeing the true, underlying causes of our difficulties is the first step in finding solutions, to becoming truly wise.

Many rural cooperatives in Nicaragua are disintegrating.  “Why?” Because they have limited access to financial and learning resources. “Why?”  Because they are perceived to be poor risks for credit and education investment.  “Why?”  Because development agencies have little knowledge of and relationship with them.  “Why?”  Because the effort and cost in traveling to rural sites to listen to the peasants’ own analysis of circumstances is too great.  “Why?”

Good question….

 

Acts of Commitment

The hiatus here over the past couple of weeks has been the result of spending time in Nicaragua, participating in the second Certificate Program for development of rural producers and their counterparts in commercialization and credit.  With so much information and context to consider, reflection and writing are crowded out in favor of absorption.  Seven days of presentations, applications, ideas, questions, analysis, laughter, sharing and learning (from one another) was consuming.

I’ve had ample time to sort out my various reflections about the week spent among the rural participants, and I’m sure that some of those images will show up here in the weeks to come.  But as I recall the week in its entirety, there is one observation that rises to the top of mind above the others.  It is the matter of commitment.

Imagine for a moment what it would require of you to leave your home and your work for six full days (eight if you count travel to and from the conference site) to attend an educational workshop.  To further complicate the matter, the work that you will leave behind will not be performed by anyone else.  It is time-sensitive work, agriculture, which will consider no excuse if it is not done on time.  It is your only livelihood.

The conference site itself is a long way from your home, a location to which you will likely travel for hours by crowded bus.  Once at the site, you will be housed in dormitory-style, rustic quarters, but the outdoor toilets are really not more than twenty-five yards away.  Access to sinks and showers is shared, so the earliest risers have the best chance at access.

These are the accommodations that will be yours for an entire week as you learn materials that are quite foreign to your experience; the facilitators will be requiring you to get out of your “comfort zone” every day.  Most of the instructors do not speak your language, so you will be receiving their information through translation.  Furthermore, the instructors are not even from your own country, so the cultural, social and educational norms they bring are not your own.  They have brought books with them, which, though translated into your language, you may or may not be able to read, given your previous educational experiences.  You know few of the other participants, perhaps just the one other person from your own business.

This, then, is the context of the Certificate Program held from September 5-10 at the foot of Peñas Blancas, home of the GARBO Cooperative.  Yet despite the need to come to terms with  inconveniences which might keep most of us away,  forty-five producers, technicians and funders attended this second gathering of organizational innovation.  Their mere presence was an astonishing testament to a desire to learn and implement new ideas in a world that, at times, is changing as quickly in rural Nicaragua as anywhere else in the world.  No one was present because they had to be; they participated in the 9-hour days of presentations and exercises because they had committed themselves to learning something new, to improving upon what they have practiced for generations, to becoming someone different.

Perhaps a part of that commitment stemmed from the presence of several unusual “teachers.”  My own face and voice has become familiar to at least some in the audience, but I was accompanied by two new faces, friends/colleagues from the U.S. who brought a unique and valuable bundle of organizational development experiences with them.  Brian Kopas is a former teammate from Foldcraft Co., the leader in our efforts for implementing Lean Manufacturing there, a continuous-improvement-by-method. one of the main hallmarks of that company’s success in recent decades.  Alex Moss is President of Praxis Consulting Group, one of the truly personal and high-values consulting firms in the U.S., and an outstanding teacher of open-book management cultures and practices.

Imagine for a moment what it would require of you to donate an entire week of your life to helping complete strangers grapple with the difficulties of organizational strengthening.  You will need to seek time off from your “real work” to make the journey.  To further complicate matters, you will receive no monetary compensation for your time and there will be no prospects of financial gain in the future from this endeavor.  You will be required to travel for a day-and-half to reach the conference site. You will be addressing an audience which does not speak your language.  Your accommodations will be modest but comfortable, as long as you don’t drink the water.

There is but one motivation to compel people like Brian and Alex, as well as the participants in the Program, and that is the notion of commitment.  The attendees were as committed to learning as any group I have encountered in the U.S. in over 45 years.  The commitment on the part of Brian and Alex, to bring their expertise to a part of the world where it is sorely needed, is a statement of faith in stewardship and sharing, an unselfish giving that flies in the face of today’s headlines of self-centeredness.

There was a lot more going on in the Certificate Program that week; I look forward to sharing it with you.  But for me, the overriding truth of the week emerged from the strength of its commitments….

 

 

Being There

Among the many newsletters, magazines and Internet articles which I receive about Nicaragua, every so often someone’s reflections about being in the country capture my attention.  I found one such article in the most recent newsletter from ProNica, the U.S.-based organization which works to build cross-cultural relationships between Nicaraguans and North Americans using Quaker values.  It’s an organization which has done good work in Nicaragua focusing on community cohesiveness and just, economic development.

ProNica’s new Program Director is Bambi Griffin.  In the most recent newsletter, she has written an introductory piece which I think captures an important element of providing assistance of any kind in Nicaragua, or any other country.  She writes of her first visit to Nicaragua shortly after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country in 1998.  I have excerpted her article below:

When I arrived, it was the dry season, hot and dusty.  I was going to help community members by digging postholes.  Wooden posts would be cemented into the holes so the black plastic tarps could be wrapped around them to create basic shelters, the residents’ new homes.  I made it a point to wear my oldest, grungiest clothes that I planned to discard when leaving Nicaragua.  When we arrived, women were hanging freshly washed clothes on anything they could find: barbed wire or a tree stump, to dry them under the sun.  Children were running around.  Little girls were dressed in bright frilly pageant dresses that looked out of place with the dusty brown earth and rows of black tarp tents.  People were trying to put order into their day-to-day lives while living without running water, electricity, or even walls.

The community members came out to meet the volunteers, and when they did, I realized something very embarrassing, something that was the start of an important transformation for me.

The residents of Nueva Vida had done the opposite of what I had done.  They had taken the time to put on the very best they had.  They didn’t come out to meet us looking disheveled.  They were neatly dressed, their hair was combed, the lady whose house we were going to dig postholes for that morning had applied lipstick.  In contrast, I was wearing stained jeans with a hole ripped in the knee.  I had on an old tee shirt that I used to sleep in, that was also stained, and I had a bandana on my head.

Although the community members had lost almost everything they owned, in some cases even their families, they looked presentable that morning when they came to meet the volunteers.  I was ashamed.  I was going to meet people I had never met before to work with them on a project.  Why did I think it was OK to wear clothes that I planned to throw away?  Why did I present myself to them in a way that I would never present myself to any other group of people that I would be working with?  Did I feel that they deserved any less than anyone else?  Why had I not done for the residents of Nueva Vida what they had done for me?  Put their best foot forward.  They, who had so little, offered what they had, and I, who had so much, didn’t consider that these people deserved the same basic respect I would have shown to anyone else.  That day I started questioning myself, my motives, and my actions.

I realized that I unknowingly went into a community under the impression that I was going to “help.”  I entered their space with a lack of sensitivity and awareness of who they were, what they had experienced, and I focused on my own needs and wants.  I had not even thought about them, but rather me.  I thought I was going to do a job, to “help.”  I realized that they did not need me to dig postholes for them.  They were just being kind to let me do it.  What they needed was to be treated with dignity, respect, and compassion.  That is what they needed.  I mistakenly thought I was just there to dog postholes….

I don’t often talk about my first experience in Nicaragua because I didn’t live through what the residents lived through.  I did not live with a dirt floor, four posts surrounded by black plastic tarp for my walls, struggling daily for the survival of my family.  I talk about it now because it was the start of my understanding of my privilege, something that I will never be able to un-do.  When I think I am helping, I might actually be causing harm.  That first experience was when I seriously questioned my motivations, the purpose behind my actions, and my understanding of what I was doing and why….

Like so many other occasions in life, we are sometimes subject to the unintended consequences of what we do.  The desire to “help” in a country like Nicaragua may be well-intentioned.  But without an understanding of the current context, the traditions, the social milieu and even the international histories between nations- being there in the fullest sense-  aid workers and organizations run the risk of perpetuating inequalities, power disparities or even creating setbacks for Nica progress.  Bambi Griffin writes perceptively about that reality, one from which many other aid workers could learn an important truth.

As hard to believe as it may be, giving of yourself isn’t always an easy thing, even if it’s nearly always a good thing….

 

For Whom Do You Speak?

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….