The salmon are one of our best teachers. We watch the salmon as smolts going to the ocean and observe them returning home. We see the many obstacles that they have to overcome. We see them fulfill the circle of life, just as we must do. And if the salmon aren’t here, the circle becomes broken and we all suffer.
-Leroy Seth, Nez Perce Tribe
It’s a truth for many creatures of this earth that progress and success must be forged in the face of great currents. As with the salmon of the Pacific Northwest, and the Native American peoples who relied upon them, their histories define the very idea of struggling against the tides. And like their distant North American cousins, rural Nicaraguans have found themselves fighting against undercurrents from both within and outside of the country for generations. Like the salmon, Nicaraguans have experienced swimming upstream as a way of life. But unlike the salmon, Nicaraguans clearly see the possibilities in navigating a different way.
So when the plan was created late last year to have Winds of Peace Foundation underwrite a cooperative certificate program in Nicaragua, we readily endorsed the idea. The notion of developing an holistic, best practices curriculum for rural producers engendered immediate enthusiasm because -maybe for the first time- a peasant cooperative population was being offered a menu of topics befitting any progressive North American business enterprise. In addition, this program would consume an entire week of the participants’ lives, a block of time that by definition signaled a serious commitment to learning. That willingness, along with the logistical reality of dormitory-style living quarters, suggested that the attendees felt the urgency and importance in making an offering such as this a seminal event.
Not least of importance, the developers of the program were proven leaders in their knowledge of both the materials and the
participants. Dr. Rene Mendoza is a Nicaraguan researcher, teacher and writer, a co-founder and former director of the University of Central America’s well-known NITLAPAN research and development institute. For the past several years he has visited and counseled with scores of rural cooperatives in exploring their viability and sustainability in the face of global and national economic change. He continues to present much of his research in the form of articles posted to this website.
Edgar Fernandez is a broadly-experienced rural development practitioner, a frequent collaborator with Mendoza and also a co-founder of NITLAPAN.
An exceptional analyst of organizational strength and weakness, Fernandez readily connects with and engenders confidence in rural Nicaraguan producers.
Ligia Guitierrez is a psychologist and “firebrand” for helping rural populations-
especially Indigenous communities- to recognize their cultural heritage and powers of influence and self-destiny. In the face of growing economic disparity and marginalization of large sectors of the population, her lessons of personal integrity and self-esteem resonate with those who fear losing hope.
But participant readiness and facilitator expertise are only parts of a successful learning equation. The other essential ingredient is a content that is both worthy of the interest and useful in its application. Here, the magic of a week’s investment was evident from the earliest iterations of the agenda.
The modules of the week’s activities might have been copied from an advanced leadership training prospectus: Day 1- An important historical context for the current state of cooperatives; Day 2- Organizational innovations (including open book management and Lean process improvement) from a North American employee-owned company; Day 3- Gender and the loss of relationships and resources; Day 4- Climate change impacts, current and future; Day 5- Spirituality in work; Day 6- Individual and organizational health. (I may have more to say about any or each of these in future essays, but for now it is sufficient to recognize the scope of the program.)
In between the content-rich plenary dialogues, breakout discussions and creation of action plans, the days offered important opportunities for relaxing the difficult work of introspection and self-analysis. There were songs sung, dance and music performances by participants and visitors, and an awe-inspiring hike to the topmost reaches of Peñas Blancas. We tossed a ball to introduce ourselves to each other, threw wadded up paper at speakers and each other to stay positive in the face of the enormous challenges and laughed endlessly at one participant’s
uncanny ability to sound exactly like a crying child! Indeed, all of the intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, occupational and physical aspects of our collective and individual wellness were fully in play during the entire week. This was an exceptional educational event.
By addressing all of the components of the Nicaraguan cooperative circumstance, this program and its presenters managed to identify and contextualize Nicaraguan realities and prospects in an important and unique way. For perhaps their first time, cooperative members were able to behold their organizations, their mutual responsibilities to one another, the economic elements which are truly beyond their control and those which are within their influence, the nature of transparent and collaborative work and the research that underscores all of that. The lessons were difficult. The truths were uncomfortable. The currents undoubtedly prompted some to consider turning around and swimming away. But the integrated view of their cooperative lives and an inherent drive to surmount obstacles like “it’s the way we’ve always done it,” or “we can never understand” allowed transformations to take place over the week.
Time will reveal which of these possible innovators will succeed in fighting the stream of status quo and in what ways. Maybe like the salmon, there exists sufficient and innate will to complete the journey to which their lives are called, to fulfill the most basic needs for work and sustenance and dignity. In a very real sense, without that chance the circle of their lives becomes broken, and we all suffer….