Tag Archives: Winds of Peace Foundation

Together Is Better

Long ago and far away, I sat in a January classroom and concluded what was then called January Interim.  The month of January was dedicated to students choosing a topic of study that was likely outside the realm of their major field.  Biologists studied Shakespeare, English majors learned about personal investments, accounting majors looked at the solar system.  (One cold January I even studied a UI, the “language of space,” developed by one of the school’s psychology professors.  Foosh um bru?)  The Interim was an open space in which to explore new ideas while taking a break from the rigors of  a major field of study. The J Term, as it is now often called by many of the schools which offer it, is still very alive and well, though it has morphed significantly.  Instead of reading about far-off spaces, today’s J Term student is just as likely to travel there.

As expansive as that opportunity may be, there’s another level of engagement that has been created at some schools.  More recently, it’s a matter of not just traveling there, but also interacting with local populations and contributing something of significance and lasting value.  Winds of Peace Foundation has been in the middle of facilitating that. The Foundation has partnered with Augsburg University for more than 30 years as it has sought to study, analyze and provide resources for development in rural Nicaragua.  It’s the Augsburg Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) that has led the Foundation there and served as significant conduit for contacts and entres to the country and the countryside.

What has worked so well is a synergy.  WPF has a acquired an in- depth understanding of Nicaragua’s persistent poverty through its development work; it has not only funded organizations seeking to strengthen themselves through access to capital and education, but also created  a research base of sociological evidence.  Meanwhile, Augsburg has had the benefit of a development “laboratory” at its CGEE site in Nicaragua, a real-life classroom application for students and academics from around the entire country.  What began as a small symbiotic partnership has expanded to something larger and more potentially significant.

What the synergy has created is a real-life boilerworks, wherein learners have the direct contact and impact on people somewhere else in the world.  It’s well past book learning, and even beyond the personal immersion experiences of the old J Terms.  The synergy here is bringing together students who seek to learn and to understand the reach of their abilities, coupled with rural peasants who live day-to-day in deep need of modern resources.  How else would one describe the application of mathematics to measure arboreal CO2 outputs of the actual forest surrounding a peasant farm?  The result is knowledge for the farmers who can now appreciate the precise contribution and importance of their trees, and real-life, vocational application by students who experience the practical effects of a chosen field of study.

It has been a curious mix, this bridging between rural Nicaraguan populations and urban U.S. students.  They would seem, at first glance, to be unlikely collaborators.  They speak different languages.  Their worlds are thousands of miles apart.  Many of the peasant farmers are of an older generation; their student counterparts are millennials or Gen Z members.  Rural Nica education is experience, with perhaps a bit of history thrown in.  Student education is primarily from the books and classrooms of expensive university surroundings.  How different can two group be?

But the “synergy” which holds them together is their universal longing and need to work together, to benefit from each other, to give in return what each has received.  What they have experienced, what the University and WPF has sought to foster, what real life teaches us to be true, is that we need each other.  We’re better together.  We may see the world differently and hold differing views of what that world is trying to tell us, but our differences help us to see it better.  What a lesson!  If you doubt its truth, just observe any group of U.S. young people saying good-bye to their Nica community.

The collaboration between peasant and student is a remarkable coming together of two disparate entities; that’s a lesson in and of itself.   It’s also a mirror of the alliance between Augsburg University and Winds of Peace Foundation: another two disparate entities in collaboration.  And, if I may be so bold, a blueprint for our organizational and political leaders in an expanding fog of mutual marginalization….

Four Days in November

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us here in the United States, which means that we have moved into late November and early Winter.  It’s always a transition time, with the reds and golds of Autumn giving way to dormant brown and, eventually, snow white.  Lots of people don’t care for November here in the upper Midwest of the country, but I love it.  It’s another promise of change and of time moving on, hallmarks of getting out of the “comfort zone,”  and that’s a good place for us to be.  But this month has already presented a series of “moments” for me, three significant days in a row, even before the promise of turkey.

The first day of note was the U.S election.  To my knowledge, and certainly in my experience, there has never been a contest as coarse, demeaning, undignified and as utterly devoid of fact as the election of 2016.  Much has been written about the candidates’ behaviors by others (nearly everyone), but from the perspective of one rather ordinary citizen, I characterize the fiasco as an event which oozed disgrace and lack of civility at every turn.  If this is, in fact, democracy in action, then my own sensitivities suggest that we search for an alternative form of government altogether.

Yet the discouragement and even despair that I felt during this election season is ironically what made the second day of my November journey stand out so brightly.  On the  day following the election, I met with both the Managing Director and the Program Director of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.  We convened to meet one another for the first time, to talk about some of the new aspirations for the Forum and to discuss a potential presentation by Winds of Peace at next year’s assembly.  The conversation was a stimulating and hopeful one.

I mean, how could it NOT have been, when elements of the discourse included the names of past laureates, the efforts being made around the world to convene peaceful resolution of conflict. Yes, members of the Tunisian Quartet, the 2015 recipients of the Peace Prize, would be in attendance.  President Obama has been invited, in addition to his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who is among the faculty at peace and conflict resolution institute in Hawaii.  Congresswoman Gabby Giffords will be in attendance, with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.  And many others, less celebrated and completely anonymous, will be present over those days to talk about their own initiatives and experiences with peace-building.  Against the glow of enthusiasm and commitment of my hosts, a feeling of hope seemed to lift me a bit straighter in my chair.  I walked back to my car with a little more bounce in my step, I think.

On the third day of this sequence, I was to speak to a University of St. Thomas class about the work being done by the Foundation, and how it mirrors, in many ways, the strategies and attitudes brought into play in my former for-profit organization, Foldcraft Co.  I arrived on campus a little early, so I took advantage of the beautiful morning and walked around for a while, taking in the surroundings and feeling the promise that only a university campus can provide.  Quickly I noticed the scores of banners hung around every sidewalk and building, which read, “All for the common good.”  I was struck by the rightness and optimistic promise of that phrase and truly moved to see its presence everywhere.  It was an advent to the class experience to follow.

The presentation went well ( I was told).  The class participants were engaged and curious and full of outward excitement at ideas of organizational wealth-sharing, broad participation and transparency, collaborative work and rewards, and the practice of capitalism without distinction of class, the sanctity of human worth. The questions penetrated the essence of broad ownership and widespread involvement.  The students were intrigued and enthused.  I was pumped and energized.  Together, we had a good time.  After the class period, several students asked for my business card so that we might talk further about the marriage of business and social responsibility.  On this day, I did not notice a bounce in my step as I walked back to the car; I rather had the sense of floating

Within the span of three days, I experienced the lows and the highs that I know are inevitably a part of our human existence.  The outcome to all of it was simply this: I am reminded that the lows are to be found wherever we choose to see them.  There are enough to bring the entirety of mankind to its knees and complete dysfunction.  But just as assuredly, the highs are at least as numerous, and carry the potential to raise us above the mire of surrender.  It’s a matter of where one’s gaze seeks direction.  With heads down, we see the world as a dark place, indeed, and its paths lead to seemingly endless disappointment and loss.  But there is a great deal more to seen with heads up,  absorbing the brighter prospect, allowing us to see and draw strength from the hope that still does surround us.

All of which leads me to the fourth important day of this month, the one during which we are encouraged to be thankful for every blessing of our lives.  What a great idea, gratitude.  What a terrific posture for looking up, noticing the uplift that surrounds us, for acknowledging and embracing it, and for choosing to be the very engine for change, “all for the common good.”

Wow, Happy Thanksgiving, indeed….

 

 

Teacher Education

I’ve made a point here over the years to highlight the education I’ve been receiving while working with our Nicaraguan partners.  It turns out that I may have far less to teach my Nicaraguan acquaintances than I might have once thought, and that they have immensely more to teach me than I ever dreamed.  In a development activity wherein we have supposedly been the givers and the Nicaraguan people the receivers, the roles can easily be said to be interchangeable.  Indeed, I have gained immense insights about people, the universality of our needs, the depth of human desire and the comparative shallowness of my own journey.

Nonetheless. WPF has been instrumental in helping our partners to acquire new ideas and perspectives about their own circumstances and has thus impacted many  of them in very positive ways.  Concurrently, the Nicaraguan colleagues with whom we have worked closely have proven themselves to be not just good teachers of the rural poor, but great mentors and life-coaches for people who too frequently have had little or no access to such resources.  In short, there has been no shortage of teaching and learning taking place within our work; in fact, it is the essence of transformation.

Nicaraguan education of another sort is now slated to begin in

Rene Mendoza
Rene Mendoza

another week or so, as WPF consultant and colleague Rene Mendoza will travel to the U.S. for an intense week of study and experience on behalf of the rural cooperatives which he has been serving for much of his life.  It’s a learning journey for Rene, who will be studying topics including open book management, continuous process improvement, organizational dynamics, successful cooperative models and more.  It’s also an expedition of preparation, providing Rene with more of the tools to be shared with small cooperatives who are in desperate need of organizational savvy.

Rene will spend four days immersed in open book methodologies, absorbing the best practices of some of the best OBM companies in the U.S.  He’ll then change venues and meet with a real-life practitioner of organizational continuous improvement, or Lean, to gain deeper insights into the sequence and content of teaching newcomers to the concept.  At the same time, we’ll be planning for future Nicaraguan workshops to supplement the Lean materials previously introduced to our partners.  Lean is a subject matter entirely unto itself, but to strategize its absorption and practice by rural farmers (many of whom have received little or no formal education) adds a dimension of difficulty requiring Lean knowledge as well as sophisticated teaching skills.  Finally, Rene will travel to the east coast, there to spend time with Equal Exchange, a cooperative of widespread renown and which strives for mutually beneficial relationships in all of its dealings.  After an entire week of whirlwind experiences, Rene will head back to Nicaragua with a wide range of new experiences and potential strategies, in addition to a need for some rest!

The prospect of Rene’s activities during that week is exciting for him as the main participant, exciting for his WPF colleagues due to the possibilities that such exposures might bring to our development work and exciting to our rural partners who have come to recognize the wide range of enterprise education that exists, and how that might contribute to elevating their circumstances.  The scenario represents “education on steroids,” where practical training meets actual needs, and in real time.

The point of all this is simply that none of us can ever afford to stop the learning, the teaching, the mentoring, the sharing, the growing that lies within us.  We are all purveyors.  We are creatures who possess not only the capacity for development, but the need for it, as well.  Our health, well-being and futures depend upon our openness to it.

In another week, there will be at least one sojourner here who will carry a big load, as a significant pivot for Nicaraguans in need of some friendly leverage….

Ten Years After, Part 2

There’s no question but that the modest beginning undertaken by Harold and Louise Nielsen has evolved into something broader and deeper than a funding mechanism for poor Nicaraguan peasants.  Yes, the grants and loans have been exceedingly important to those rural recipients who received them.  But the lessons embedded in those transactions and the fruits which have blossomed from them may hold a much greater value than the strictly financial one.  The impacts can be transformational, and that has the potential to change not only lives, but ways of life.

Looking forward to the next ten years has both precedence and importance.  Years ago, Harold and Louise envisioned a foundation that would somehow help to alleviate poverty and marginalization of rural Nicaraguans.  WPF has likely evolved in ways far different from that initial vision, but the shape of that initial dream has been the base upon which any good results stand.  Nonetheless, it can be dangerous to attempt prognostications.  (I cannot even make a fair prediction about my day tomorrow, let alone a look into the future of a people and their country.)  No one can ever say for certain what the future will hold, whether in terms of natural evolution or human interventions.  But not to dream is a missed opportunity, a failure to imagine better circumstances for the rural poor in Nicaragua and perhaps elsewhere.

What lies ahead?  Our dreams and discussions continue  around the idea of a Synergy Center in Nicaragua, a site in Managua which is the intersection among WPF, Nicaraguan development and an education entity from the U.S.  The Synergy Center concept presents a progressive opportunity for a U.S.-based education institution to become the owner and administrator of a facility that can utilize data and experiences for the real-life learning of its students, as well as for other international visitors seeking to understand and bridge the immense gaps between the Global North and South, for mutual global benefit.  It’s a notion that is bold in light of the frequent tendency of education entities to “pull back” in times of global and economic unrest, the very times when this very sort of personal education presents perhaps the only realistic means of addressing such gaps.  It’s a big initiative for a little foundation, but that is not likely to have stopped Harold and Louise.

The creation of the Synergy Center would represent  a significant boost to education development within Nicaragua, as well.  While the Foundation has funded scholarships for elementary to university-aged students, we will continue to seek additional bridges between opportunity and learning.  The path for rural Nicaraguans to move from poverty is located squarely within education.  The Foundation’s commitment to growing such opportunities was born of Louise Nielsen’s determination that young women, in particular, could become key resources to Nicaraguan society through their education; our continuation will be based on objective data that confirms the essential nature of improved education opportunities at all levels of society.  The Synergy Center can serve as one education “pivot” between Global North and South, an intersection of research and education between the regions.

Concurrent with the establishment of the Synergy Center, the Foundation dreams of collaborations which could bridge the gaps that exist among the various funding agencies which still operate in Nicaragua.  We are all still victims of our own thinking in terms of what Nicaraguans can accomplish and how they will accomplish it.  As a result, there are many development resources which operate in total independence from one another, and sometimes even at cross-purposes.  As is true for any organization, there is greater strength in numbers and collaboration, a truth which still represents a major hurdle for those of us who operate in Nicaragua.  In a curious conundrum, it’s another potential value of a Synergy Center, but only if WPF and other organizations would be willing to abandon a “not invented here” mindset and choose to collaborate and learn with one another.

My own background includes experiences with some of the most important tools for transforming organizations into higher-performing enterprises.  Cultivation of organizational transparency (Open Book Management) in the cooperative’s function and adoption of methodologies which cultivate continuing improvement (Lean Methodologies) are two concepts that will generate transcendent, positive change in both the businesses and the lives of their practitioners.  It’s a movement whose seeds have been planted, and whose harvest needn’t wait for ten more years.  And I can readily imagine rural Nicaraguan cooperatives embracing and applying the tools for themselves as a means to retain the ownership and value of the lands they tend.

Finally, the future must hold one additional achievement, this one perhaps more essential, more transformative, more vital to development of the rural poor (and therefore to the success of WPF) than any of the others.  It’s the awakening of the global conscience to the circumstances of the poor and the terrible costs that we all pay for their plight.  Even if we collectively have no empathy for those who struggle (a terrible supposition by itself), we are inextricably tied to their outcomes.  It’s a sobering prospect to consider.  Those who know and feel it have an exclusive obligation to educate, to touch, to move others who have had no personal connection to draw upon.  That work, too, will continue to be mission and vision of WPF.

The next ten years will pass by like the flash of lightning in a summer storm.  We know this, given the passage of the past ten years.  It is a short term in which to create truly transformative movement in any environment, even shorter when working abroad.  Our aim will continue to be improvement in Nicaraguan and North American lives, by helping people in both lands become more globally literate.

These are visions for WPF, not roadmaps.  Our fuel for change continues to be made up of capital and accompaniment.  But  we will also continue to remind ourselves that better circumstances do not imply greater monetary wealth only.   Indeed, as the adage goes, some people are so poor that all they have is money, and we know that we can aim higher than that….

 

Ten Years After, Part 1

There must have been some kind of special “karma” in the air last weekend.  I had an urge to listen to a record album (yes, the kind that are played on a turntable) from the 60’s by a group called Ten Years After, and featuring a song entitled, “I’d Love to Change the World.”  After listening to both sides of the 33 1/3 RPM, I realized that both the song and the group hold special meaning this week: today, October 1, I have worked with Winds of Peace Foundation for ten years.  And naturally I have honed a deep yearning to change the world!

Ten years ago I left my role as corporate CEO with no plan about what I would do for my “next chapter.”  I had two kids in college and two more headed that way, a nice home with its accompanying mortgage, a desire to distance myself from the obligations of corporate demands (both personal and philosophical), and a need to search for meaningful work that was closer to my passions and compassions.  Firmly believing in the shelf-life of a CEO, I chose an early retirement on September 30, an option some companies afford to folks who are not old enough for Social Security but who are old enough to recognize when it’s time for a change.  I had no plan or prospect in mind.

I became involved actively with Winds of Peace the following day. Having served on its Board of Directors since its inception in 1980, I was familiar with its mission and history.  And with one of its founders, Harold Nielsen, in the hospital with pneumonia at age 90, I might have been the most logical and available person to step in on a temporary basis.  But within a week, I recognized the work as something I wanted for my “next chapter.”  By the time I could visit Harold personally later in that week, he apparently had come to the same conclusion.  He offered me the opportunity.  I jumped at the chance and have never looked back for even a moment.

There have been many affirmations about that decision.  The first was that I continued to work with founder Harold and Louise Nielsen, two of the most genuine and selfless people I have ever known.  (Harold was the wise  and entrepreneurial founder of Foldcraft Co., my firm of some 31 years.  Louise was his wife and co-conspirator, as Harold would say.)  The second immediate affirmation  was in the person of Mark Lester, the Foundation’s “feet on the ground” in Nicaragua, a most exceptional man, a student of and advocate for development in the country, and one whom I had met years earlier during my first visit there.  The third affirmation emerged a bit later, during my ensuing visits to Nicaragua when I was able to meet face-to-face with the potential and actual beneficiaries of the Foundation’s work.  This was where the true richness of the work has been experienced, where the longing to serve meets the hunger and thirst of people who are living their very lives on the edge of collapse, continuously.  These and other affirmations are endless and continue to this day.

Ten years is a long enough period to measure any organization´s impact and progress.  Over the past ten years alone, WPF has issued grants totaling over $2MM, loans totaling $7.6MM and maintained a loan default rate of just over  2%.  It has partnered on more than 300 agreements representing thousands of families.  It has underwritten scores of organizational and technology workshops as its focus has become focused on a territorial strategy.  The Foundation has added primary, secondary and university education as additional focal points for funding and development.  We have accompanied.  We have researched and written.  We’ve been busy.

The past ten years have brought about change in the lives of our partners, as well.  Access to capital in some of the most rural settings of Nicaragua has been a critically important element of life for those served by WPF.  For some, it may have meant survival.  The accompaniment in organizational development by our colleagues has illuminated some dark places where myth, falsehood, forgery and undereducation have festered for generations, rarely permitting the light of opportunity to foster growth.  Women’s voices have been heard.  Students bloomed.  People wept.  And smiled.

Well and good; the actions behind these measures what WPF has been called to do.  But there have been personal impacts, as well.  The past ten years have also rather dramatically changed the way I personally experience the world and its complexities.  I have come to understand how incredibly difficult it can be to “give away” resources.  Not the physical distribution of them, but the ways in which such work must be done to achieve meaning and impact; the presence of large amounts of funding does not guarantee success in the move away from poverty and marginalization.  Sometimes it even contributes to the problems.

I have experienced the importance of accompaniment.  I am still surprised and moved by the importance of our accompaniment with partners.  There is a feeling of strength on the part of rural peasants knowing that they are not entirely alone, that someone else knows of their existence and plight.

I now know the face of the poor.  I have established relationships, friendships, partnerships with individuals, real people with real families and real problems.  These are not statistics or photographs, but real human beings for whom my empathy and concern runs as deep as for any member of my community, my neighborhood, or other niches of my life.  That has changed me, as it would you.  I now personally understand why Harold and Louise Nielsen were so easily moved to tears when talking about this Foundation’s work.

In ten years’ time, Harold and Louise have both passed away.  Our focus has both broadened (with the addition of education and research) and narrowed (with the emphasis on a specific territory).  Our processes have sharpened, with the involvement of our three Nicaraguan consultants and their personal commitments to WPF work, and our own experiences in nurturing healthy organizations.  The presidency of Nicaragua has changed, the country’s relationships within the international community are different and so is the landscape within which development must conduct its efforts.

But the poverty remains.  The Nicaraguan poor are as omnipresent as ever, perhaps not in every statistical metric, but certainly according to any reasonable measure of basic human needs.  And therein lies our work agenda for the next ten years, which I’ll envision in Part II of this message, next week….

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the Tears and Laughter

The remembrances and fond memories of Harold Nielsen were shared by scores of family and friends last Sunday in a celebratory service that would have made Harold very self-conscious.  He never felt comfortable accepting recognition for anything he had done, unless in some way he thought it might further assistance or awareness for the people he sought to serve.  But the afternoon was filled nonetheless with both tears and happy reflections for the man who influenced so many niches of life for so many.

In the aftermath of the service, as the conversations swelled with stories of Harold and Louise and their adventures, one question surfaced several times, to my great surprise.  The question essentially was, what changes might be expected in the months ahead for WPF?  I felt surprise at the question because I had not anticipated it.  And I had not anticipated it because I foresee very few changes to the Foundation due to Harold’s passing.  Allow me to elaborate. Continue reading After the Tears and Laughter