Tag Archives: Stewardship

The Inherent Lens

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.

Adam Turville

It’s an interesting study and a sobering one.  I wonder what misconceptions others have about me….?

Step Lightly

I recently took the opportunity to travel to some places I had never been before.  Specifically, my wife and I visited for the first time the jewels of the Southwest United States:  Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  Such an experience is many things: renewing, educational, inspiring, humbling, a privilege and even existential in nature.  Especially at this time of great upheaval within our country, the opportunity to “pull back,” even for a short time, provided a welcome relief.  And an important lesson.

Most of the sites we visited are well-known to those who have visited the Parks, and the trails leading to these vantage points are well-marked and well-trod by millions of visitors before us.  And at each of those trailheads, the Park Service feels obligated to post a message to its visitors, one which might seem unnecessary in the shadows of majestic peaks and rims of jaw-dropping chasms, but which is offered nonetheless.  It’s a small sign which reads, “Your Steps Matter.”                                                

The sign is simply a reminder of the transience of these landscapes and our impacts upon them.  They are fragile.  People too often have the desire to leave their own imprints on these monuments of creation, as if to satisfy a need to make a statement of existence, to leave their own modern-day petroglyphs about which future visitors might wonder.   Perhaps it was the reflective nature of our trip or my tendency to look for hidden meanings where none may be intended, but the words on the sign prompted other thoughts for me.

Our steps do matter, whether for the health of ground vegetation, rock formations or water quality in the parks.   Trees that have withstood the extremes of nature for more than 100 years are nonetheless dependent upon “breathing space” from the hordes of human visitors who come to these sites constantly to witness the immense majesty of the natural world.  It’s among the places where it’s not OK to take “the road less traveled,” as Frost suggested, and where we’re discouraged to blaze our own trails, in deference to the survival of other life.

In light of the signage, I felt a certain pride at keeping to the paths, as though I was contributing something good to the welfare and sustainability of the parks.  I know that the notion is ridiculous, but staying on the trails was perhaps the one act of preservation that I could make.  But that same sense of self-righteousness led me to consider other steps in my life.

Steps everywhere in our lives matter.  Every stride taken in our journey makes an imprint, leaves a trace, impacts our surroundings. Like the proverbial beating of butterfly wings that affects weather patterns on the other side of the world, we are part of a global tapestry wherein all of us are inextricably dependent upon and impacted by each other.  Choices we make in the U.S. have an impact in Nicaragua.  We might elect to trespass over someone else’s space, and might even be able to “get away with it,” and to do so without detection.  But the space will be changed forever, in ways that we may never know. How and where we walk are matters of choice: we can elect to tread lightly and with respect, or to trample according to our own narrow wills.  Either way, we leave a story for those who follow.  Like our children.  Or our grandchildren.  Or our children’s children’s children.

Our steps are our legacies, like those artifacts we covet from millennia past.  They are the messages we leave behind that attempt to declare our existence and portray the kinds of lives we led.  What a pity if, in our wakes, all that remains are traces of once-resplendent times and places….

 

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….

 

New Year’s Revolutions

Even if we deny the need for or intention to establish New Year’s resolutions, we all have ’em, even if tucked away anonymously in the back of our conscious thought.  They are items that we wish we could be better at or that we could improve upon, whether for ourselves of the sake of others.  Often they are health-related, sometimes they are financial determinations, occasionally they call us to change some quirk of personality.  But they are almost always difficult to live up to and can leave us feeling even more inept or unaccomplished than before.  Indeed, some “experts” suggest that resolutions are a bad thing, setting us up for failure or disappointment.  I’m not sure whether they are a help or a hindrance, having resolved many years ago never to establish any such challenges.

Yet with New Year’s Eve on our doorstep and noisy parties on so many calendars , I’m compelled to offer my own list of hoped-for personal transformations for 2017.  I suppose that any of the following could be adopted by others, without copyright infringement, if the fit was right. 

1. I resolve to learn the Spanish language, just as I have resolved for each of the past 10 years.

Knowing a language other than my own grants me a clarity.  The essence of connecting with others lies in the ability to express oneself to others directly and personally, without the intervention of a translator or mechanical interpreter.  The most painful and counterproductive reality of my work in Nicaragua (even with the impeccable translations of my colleague), is my inability to express personally to another human being what I think and feel.  I suspect that no one else suffers from such a shortcoming.

2.  I resolve to be more giving of the immense blessings I have received, both personal and material.

I’m just a temporary steward of everything I am, everything I have.  I don’t get to take any of it with me when I leave.  I’d rather have the enjoyment of giving it away now and feeling the immense pleasure of sharing that which I never deserved in the first place.

3.  I resolve to preserve more water.

I can do without TVs and cell phones and vocation and achievement and even the loves of my life.  But I need water.  (So do you.)  I’m going to collect it and be careful with it.  What a treasure!

4.  I resolve to de-clutter.

While I’m busy giving more things away, I’ll be de-cluttering at the same time.  And when the unnecessary elements of my daily living are out of the way, I’m thinking that the important matters will receive more of my attention.  Have you ever lost anything?

5.  I resolve to be more open to the possibility that newly-elected politicians could actually do some good things.

All resolutions require some time and effort but I really don’t expect to spend much of either on this one, I admit.  People could say that I haven’t really resolved much here, but then again, I can think of few current politicians who have given me any reason to expect honest leadership or commitment to the common good.

6.  I resolve to stay committed to the preservation of my health and fitness, since no one else can or will.

It’s probably true that I am what I eat.  And I am what I drink and how I sleep and how I care for myself.  My health and well-being are a product of my own choices and self-care, rather than the domain of doctors and therapists.  I’d like those professional people to go along for the trip, but I insist on driving.  Who knows, maybe some others might choose to follow.

7.  I resolve to learn more about more of the world, since the politicians and the media are not up to the task.

Like everyone else, I’ve always been a creature who is subject to my own personal perceptions about the truth.  My life experiences necessarily shape my views of things.  But it’s becoming more and more difficult to separate reality from someone’s self-serving spin on the truth.  Absolute truth may not even exist, but I need to get closer to it than I am now.  The future of the world depends on it.

8.  I resolve to better love my neighbor.

It’s what I’m called to do as a moral human being.  I know who they are, I know where they are and I know them as both my obligation and my privilege.  I just need to better understand how to extend my reach.

9.  I resolve to write a book, or at least begin the process.

As I have led organizations and worked with groups around the country (and elsewhere in the world), I’ve come to know that each and every human being has a unique and important story to tell; even the most mundane of lives holds immeasurable gifts.  So it must be true of me, too.  I want to identify and tell that story

10.  I resolve to embrace the truth that peace comes only from within.

I know it’s there, and I have gone to that well more times than I can count over my lifetime.  And still, it is not enough that I have sought and found such peace.  It is there that my joys and trials, achievements and failures, thrills and disappointments are all reconciled within my life.  I know the source of that comfort for myself; I resolve to cherish and foster it.

Maybe your list, if one exists, doesn’t resemble this one at all.  But if I was inclined to set myself up for either enriching my life or, alternatively, creating huge disappointment, these would be my revolutionary priorities.

In any case, I’ve still got two days to think about it….

 

Of Vision and Purpose

While we’re busy preparing for the second Certificate Program for rural cooperative members and managers, technicians, second-tier coop representatives and others, the focus is on methodologies.  After all, we’ve spent portions of the past ten years describing organizational strengthening techniques used successfully in the U.S. in hopes that it might spark interest in the Nica countrysides.  Now that rural producers have asked for greater detail about initiatives like open book management, Lean continuous improvement and organizational transparency, the workshop facilitators are eager to deliver such particulars.

As mentioned here previously, Winds of Peace will have the great good fortune to present Brian Kopas and Alex Moss,  gentlemen whose organizational experiences in the fields of organizational Lean and open book management are extraordinary, and therefore of great potential application to this Nica workshop.  They  possess enormous knowledge and practical experiences, they have already provided materials for the introduction of their topics, they are counseling us in our respective workshop presentations and they will be huge resources for the inevitable questions and challenges that are encountered during the workshop.  (Where people are intent upon learning, their questions and challenges are essential.)

But as I consider the wealth of knowledge that will be available to our audience in September, I am cognizant of another critical piece to the process of teaching and growing an audience: the vision.

Underlying all the operational processes and applications, there must be a vision, a mission, a purpose, a theme for the hard work that the attendees will encounter if they seek to bring an entirely new basket of ideas to their farms and coops.  There must be a core principle that can re-direct and drive the improvements consistently, even when the newly-acquired skills might occasionally seem to become stale or seemingly inapplicable for some  reason.  In moments of frustration or temporary setback, that motivator can keep an organization together, to persevere and regain solid footing for the next advance in their collaborative strength-building.

Some organizations employ a vision, a stated “picture” of what the future might be like.  Others prefer the idea of a mission, an intrinsically important undertaking whose outcome has the capability of delivering fundamental, positive changes.  Still other groups elect to use the language of values, citing social or moral tenets that shape their beliefs and actions.   But whatever words are used, the reality is the same: in order for human beings to change, to adapt, to move from their comfort zones, they universally crave a “cause,” a fundamental, personal reason to do that which is difficult to do.

In the case of the very successful Panamanian cooperative La Esperanza de los Campesinos (the Hope of the Peasants), that bedrock upon which their success has been built is in the historical presence of Fr.  Hector Gallegos, whose spiritual and liberation theological teachings centered the coop members.  (See “A Cooperative That Regulates Markets” by Rene Mendoza.)  For a company like SRC Holdings in Springfield, Missouri, the birthplace of open book management, the bedrock was the liberation of employee thinking and intelligence through information sharing and involvement.  For Winds of Peace Foundation, the bedrock has been the  liberation of financial assets to address the dangerous gulf between the poor and the wealthy.  Initiatives come and go, but the calling for the each of these organizations survives because of the depth of its existence.  These organizations must do what they do.  It is in their organizational DNA.

The coops represented in the Certificate Program will need to identify and embrace their own “calls to being. ”  For some, the cause is already deeply engrained and sustaining the direction of the members.  But for others, the identification might be less certain and less steadying.  Maybe it has never been articulated in terms of a vision.  Perhaps there are several purposes that have been embraced by the members, with no single mission emerging as the great unifier.  In some cases, maybe the issue has never even come up; coop membership was simply a way to access funds for the next planting cycle.  Whatever the case, every coop will require  something to hold onto when the vagaries of weather and middlemen and coyotes of the marketplace interject their disruptions into plans for prosperity.  What will the coops bedrock prove to be?

When Brian and Alex bring their skills to the Certificate Program, it will not be due to monetary gain (they receive none) or for notoriety (the program will take place in the deep countryside, away from media notice).  They will present no political cause, no self-service nor personal advantage.  They will spend more than an entire week out of their professional and personal lives because of deep-seated values that inform their senses of servant leadership and responsible stewardship.  The lessons and know-how they teach may change between September and the next time they are invited to work with such an audience, but the reasons for accepting such an invitation will not.  It is, after all, who they are.

Sometime during that first week of September, we’ll be interacting with some very eager Nicaraguans who know precisely who they are….

 

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….

 

 

 

 

The $2 Bill

I spoke before a college social work class last week.  The theme of the discussion was the impact of public policy on the lives of not only U.S. citizens, but also on residents of other countries.   I appreciate sharing the Winds of Peace experience with young people for several reasons: they universally exhibit an interest, they represent the best opportunity for future impact and I can usually recognize “lights turning on” in the face of dramatic stories and photographs that are shared.  What more could a speaker ask?

In this particular class, I tried something new to make a point.  Since the class size was only 15, I decided to distribute brand new $2 bills to each person.  (Thank goodness the class was not immense in size- I might have been forced to reconsider this strategy altogether.) Initially it may have seemed as though I sought to pay the students for their attention and interest, but not even I am desperate (or wealthy) enough to stoop to such a tactic.  Instead, as I explained, the $2 bill was theirs to keep and to reflect upon.  For there are many  for whom that $2 represent an entire day’s wages.                          unnamedThe $2-a-day threshold has been widely referenced when talking about global impoverishment.  Unfortunately, it has been recited often enough that the notion no longer seems to stir the incredulity that it once did; it has become a sad and interesting statistic with less “punch” than it had when we first heard of it.  I wanted the $2 bill to change that, by providing a unique (we don’t see many such bills in circulation anymore) and tangible ($2 in the hand is worth more than words) representation of just how little that amount is.  Then we went on about how some of our own consumption habits influence this state of affairs.

The first reaction of the students was bemusement; perhaps not many guest presenters have left money behind.  But once the bills were in hand, I invited them to consider how their money should be spent, given the realities of everyday needs.  To complicate their deliberations, I also suggested that their dilemma might be even more difficult in real life with the presence of a child or two; the $2 bill is still worth only $2.  There are not many Starbucks coffees to be consumed in that scenario.

When I have spoken about Nicaraguan poverty in the past, some have questioned whether goods are considerably less expensive in Nicaragua than in the U.S.  But by offering a comparison of some common grocery and clothing items in each country, that myth was quickly dispelled in class.  There are no “easy outs” or solutions for this reality.  The fact is that $2 does not come anywhere close to meeting basic living needs, and it’s emotionally disturbing to come face to face with that.   If the students keep the $2 bills for the uniqueness of the denomination, maybe they will also retain the empty feeling they experienced as they contemplated a life of deprivation.

I don’t have enough $2 bills to give away to everyone.  (Do we really need them?)  I can nevertheless invite people to use their own resources to consider what life might be like on $2 a day.  The exercise quickly moves from thinking about which niceties we might be able to do without to a more difficult evaluation of which essentials would have to go.  The first part of the deliberation is vexingly entertaining; the second part is maddeningly impossible.

If the $2 exercise properly infects the students from last Tuesday’s class, they will be left with a virus which has a cure, albeit a difficult one. The treatment for the disparities between those with more than enough and those with less than enough is personal understanding, knowing in both head and heart that the gap exists.  If that treatment truly takes hold, we’ll know what to do next….

 

 

 

Blueprinting Justice

I had the privilege to hear an extraordinary activist and speaker last week.  Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the most acclaimed and respected attorneys in the country.  His memoir, Just Mercyis his story of fighting on the front lines in a country prone to extreme punishments and careless justice.  Time Magazine recognized him as one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2015.  The New Yorker cited Stevenson’s TED Talk on the subject of injustice as one of the five most essential TED Talks.  Oh yes, one additional point:  Stevenson is also a resonant voice for the poor and disenfranchised.

I attended his presentation expecting to learn about dramatic examples of injustices which have occurred in this country, and he provided many of those.  I hoped that he might even offer some insights about both the reasons for and the solutions to some of these miscarriages, and he offered clear views on these.  What I had not expected was his perspective about change and the elements which are critical to bringing about a more uniform and reasonable justice.  As it turns out, he might just as well have been speaking about the poor in Nicaragua as the wrongly-incarcerated in the U.S.  In either case, justice missed its call.

As Stevenson spoke of what would be required of us to mitigate at least some of the miscarriages of justice he has encountered, I was struck by his “blueprint.”  For as he iterated the four important elements of his thinking, he proposed nearly the same set of needs as those which WPF has experienced and amplified over its 30 years of work in Nicaragua.  Consider his priorities for a changed context of justice:

Get Proximate.  Stevenson suggests that in order to truly understand and know the immense cost of injustice (both financial and human), one has to get closer to its reality.  There is an uncomfortable heat generated by institutional unfairness that can bring any of us to a cold sweat, because we are all susceptible, in the same unsuspecting ways as many of Stevenson’s clients once were.

If we wish to truly know the stories of the poor, we face the same call for proximity.  Reading about it in the comfort of a living room is safe, even if sad.  But standing among those for whom $2 a day represents total income is an exposure to virulent indignity.  Being invited to a meal by such a family is an exercise in damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t, as you understand that sharing such food is taking it away from where it is desperately needed, but refusing it is a rude dishonor.  Effective development work  requires being in the middle of the reality, accompanying those who struggle with not only material assistance but also emotional and social support.  Worse than being destitute is being destitute and alone.

Change the Narrative.  Stevenson advocates for a change in our understanding and beliefs about people.  For him, this means addressing the fears and angers that fuel inequities, violence and conditions for injustices to metastasize.  Ignorance about cultures and ethnicities and histories are the breeding grounds for prejudiced thinking and the virus of irrational belief.  Sometimes the storyline  is just plain wrong.

Without a change in the narrative- by living first-hand experiences that shape our basic knowledge and feelings about others- we stand little chance of repairing the systems which pave the way for poverty and injustice.  Our notions that people in impoverished countries don’t really want to be independent are patently false, just as our belief that U.S. jurisprudence is free from factors of class and race is a myth.  Our stories color a great deal of our beliefs; it’s imperative that our stories are therefore factual.

Embrace Hopefulness. In his talk full of poignant stories, Stevenson might have been forgiven if he had allowed the audience to become depressed at hearing case after case of wrongful incarceration and lost lives.  But his outlook is one that is decidedly upbeat, because he believes in the power of the human mind and spirit.

Likewise, the cause for hope in a land like Nicaragua stems from the resilience of its people and the multitude of people- both inside and from outside of the country, including WPF- who are working hard to convert their good intentions for assistance into actual development results.  The degree to which we succeed in such “good change” may well be determined by the degree to which we heed Stevenson’s blueprint for justice, as outlined here.

Be Willing to Do Uncomfortable Things.  Getting out of our comfort zones.  It’s clear that Stevenson’s work takes him into some of the most uncomfortable circumstances imaginable, working with death row inmates, confronting the harsh realities of lifelong imprisonment, consoling the families of victims and perpetrators alike.  Sharing a last meal.  Stevenson confesses to his continued emotional discomfort of such circumstances, even to this day, but also recognizes the importance of it.  He has heard the entreaty, “please come back again,” countless times from voices who have little other source of hopefulness.  The work is not comfortable, but necessary.

Just like in Nicaragua.  The breadth and intensity of poverty there- economic, educational, developmental- makes for environments that are difficult to understand and to accept.  The rural sectors of the country reflect limited opportunities for its people despite their collective determination and the presence of well-intentioned aid organizations.  But if poverty results are to change, then our collective and individual responses to the disease must change, as well, and that will take us out of our comfort zones.

We’ll do with less.  We’ll speak up publicly more.  We’ll have allowed ourselves to get proximate enough to feel the discomforts.  We’ll become intimate with the truths obscured by myth and manipulation.  And we’ll retain our sense of foolishness to believe that each of us can make a difference within our own niches of life, that we will do the things that others say cannot be done.

Without ever likely having been to Nicaragua, Bryan Stevenson seems to know it with clarity….