All posts by Steve Sheppard

Steve is Board Chair of the Winds of Peace Foundation

The Eyes of Laura Mars

“Suddenly Laura Mars can see through the eyes of another…..”

It’s been some time since I added new thoughts to this site; you can either thank me or curse me as you deem appropriate. But it hasn’t been for lack of activity or experiences, as I’ve made three trips into Nicaragua since the first of the year, with number four to commence just a week from now.  But these trips have been quite different from my usual Foundation visits: the first one I made with my wife Katie and daughter Molly. Trip number two was with our entire Winds of Peace Foundation Advisory Committee.  An excursion in March was undertaken in the company of the executive team from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, home to The Center for Global Education.  I have discovered that there is nothing quite like traveling with others to sharpen the experiences encountered en route.

For starters, maybe you’d agree with me that the best way to learn something new about the world is to experience it personally, to travel there, somewhere, to see first-hand what can be seen.  That’s what each of my previous trips to Nicaragua has provided to me, a personal and up-close look at the country, its people, its problems and its glories.  Each time I’m there I learn something new about the place, and myself, too.  It has been an education par excellence, and a privilege to absorb it all on behalf of Winds of Peace.  I really can look inside of myself and see the changes, the different perspectives and the growth that is taking place.  (Who would have guessed it at my advanced age?)  Yet the recent trips taken with others has seemingly magnified the experiences; I have returned home each time feeling more full, more absorbed, more tired, more enlightened.  In short, I’ve been allowed to see Nicaragua through many sets of eyes,  multiplying my own experiences.

For instance, when my daughter Molly returned from our week in January, I naturally wanted timageo know    image what she took away from the adventure.  I could not have anticipated her answer: “I was really struck by the sheer number of children.  They seemed to be everywhere and I couldn’t tell what they might be doing or where they were going.”  I suppose that I had become somewhat accustomed to the omnipresent kids, but for Molly their numbers and the perception that too few were headed for or returning from school stood out.  When I asked the same question of my wife Katie, one of her observations  hit home in its simplicity and truth: “It (Nicaragua’s reality) is too real.” 

The Winds of Peace Advisory Committee is seven in number, and six were able to make the February trip.  I value these every-other-year  gatherings in Nicaragua, because it gives all of us an opportunity to see where we have been, where we might be headed next, and how we feel collectively about the wide range of projects that we see.  I can anticipate some of the positions and feelings of my colleagues by now, having traveled and image met with them on numerous occasions.  But on our final evening in-country during the February trip, we drove through the streets of Managua amidst the usual crowds of street people, seeking to wash windshields, sell baked goods or simply receive a handout.  At one stoplight, a young woman approached our van with a baby in her arms, a child which might not have been more than several weeks old.  Window-by-window she beseeched each of us to take pity, yet this is a temptation that we have learned how to avoid.  But as each of us forced our eyes straight ahead, I noticed a single tear running down the cheek of one AC member.  I watched from the seat behind her as she dried her eyes and whispered, “I hope that I never forget that woman and her child.”  Even for those who see themselves as sensitive to such plight, it is far too easy to look past it.  Familiarity breeds contentment, and through another’s eyes I, too, wanted to weep.

In March, I had the good fortune to accompany the Augsburg College President and his executive cabinet.  Their mission was to experience something of what The Center for Global Education has to offer its participants in cross-cultural experiences, and to do so in a very personal, face-to-face way.  The eight members met an array of personalities and circumstances while there, ranging from a session with the President of The University of Central America to visiting the Managua dump-site, the actual home to scores of Nicaraguans who derive their entire lives from its contents.  For the better part of a week, I was privvy to the reactions and emotions of this dedicated group as they experienced the realities of Nicaragua.  Moments of subdued silence punctuated the hyper-activity of the short week, and I felt anew the discomforts, the questions, the awe, the awakenings of being on-site.  Participating in their reflections and observations, I was able to feel the power of an initial experience all over again, though my fellow travelers.

About the time I begin to feel as though I have come to know or understand something, it’s time for me to connect up with some other folks, to hear what they are hearing, to feel what others are feeling, to try to see what they might see.  When I can do that, everything old is new again…..

Where Is the Good News to the Poor?

I have been musing for days about an appropriate message that might coinicide with this bustling, busy, beautiful time of year. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I love this time of year, not for the materiality of it all, but for a reawakening in my consciousness about what is truly special. I feel wonderful about the advent season, about what it means for us, but I’m always a little shy about being too effusive with my feelings because I know many people do not share such warmth.

And then, the very message that I wanted to write showed up in my mail, from a partner organization of ours in Nicaragua, the Jubilee House Community. Winds of Peace and JHC have collaborated on a number of projects, including the new spinning plant initiative at Ciudad Sandino, and I regularly receive their newsletter. On the back page was a reflection written by Kathleen of the JHC group, and I reproduce a portion of it here. I can pen no more moving or inspiring words than these:

Advent is a time of waiting and hoping…. We think of the babe in the manger, who was to come to come and bring good news to the poor, and we wait and hope.

The poor wait and hope….sometmes they wait too long and hope becomes despair. Sometimes we despair…when we learn that the gap between the richest countries and the poorest is greater today (50 to 1) than in 1800 (4 to 1)…we despair and the poor do, too. Where is the good news to the poor?

When we hear of the billions and billions of dollars spent to “stop terror” when it could feed the world many times over and end terror…we wonder, where is the good news to the poor?

When we see mega-churches spending millions to broadcast their tirades instead of clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned, and instead actually calling for more prisons…we pray, where is the good news to the poor?

When we see corporations grabbing more and more power through treaties and therefore ssweatshops to feed their endless appetite for greed…we ask, where is the good news to the poor?

When we look at stores pushing and pushing for people to buy and buy and buy for Christmas, we cry where is the good news to the poor?

Where? Where? Where is the good news to the poor?

Many times it is found in the poor themselves…people like Diana, Vilma and Sulma give hope to others. They believe so strongly that there can be good news they help it happen when given the slightest chance.

Sometimes it is found in the very wealthy…people who give to empower the poor and end the diseases of poverty.

The news is that the founders of religions/philosophies and caring people we as societies admire have told us through the ages to work for justice and to eliminate poverty. The question is…will we be the good news for the poor?

Or rather, WHO will be the good news to the poor? Indeed, we each have a role to play, because in this world of ours we are inextricably connected, and in ways we do not always know. I’m reminded of perhaps the most impactful “religious” movie for me of all time, “Oh, God!” At the end of the film, God (in the interesting guise of George Burns) gives his final advice to the only human who can see or hear him, played by John Denver. And God says something to the effect, “Tell everyone that it can all work. I’ve given you everything you need.”


What we need is each other, and in the playing of each role there can be good news to the poor, to be sure. But there is perhaps even greater import in the learning and the transforming that happens to US. This season I’m buoyed by the thought, as perhaps are the poor, that it can all work and we are the architects….

The Empty Nest

I recently had the good fortune to attend the 25th Anniversary Celebration for The Center for Global Education at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. The gala was a weekend affair, as it brought together many of the staff and past CGE travelers from over the years, and wonderful stories flowed freely during the entire time. To top off a very exciting and energizing time, I also received a framed drawing from the Center, in thanks for past affiliations.

CGE Art.jpg

The drawing is a black-and-white rendering of a flourishing tree, with rugged roots and trunk supporting thick and spreading foliage above. At the top of the tree sits a well-formed nest, with an adult bird keeping watch over two young chicks and, in the distance, another adult member flying in apparent return to the home. The very first image that popped into my head had to do with empty nests, and how this nest, too, would soon be vacated by the young. Actually, the pen-and-ink artwork is evocative of many feelings, depending upon my mood and experiences of the day. I love it for the many ideas that flow from it.

Maybe the idea of an empty nest struck me because we are experiencing some of that in our household, as well. Our second set of twins has now left for college, with no younger siblings to demand the attention of my wife or me. I’m acutely aware of the relatively quiet and orderly feel to our home and the sense that somehow this is the proper order of things, that now is the time for parents to sit back and reclaim their own time, to relax in the aftermath of work (hopefully) well done. And many people have observed to us that the empty nest represents our time, supposedly for places and activities for our enjoyment, a reward for having survived parenthood.

I’ll admit to liking the sound of all of that: a victory celebration, at last a time for self, having fewer obligations for others, a chance to finally enjoy the nest that we have spent our lives building. I even looked forward to the transition with that self-focus in mind. That is, until I got to thinking about what an empty nest really is.

The proverbial nest is emptied as its young fledglings reach a stage in life where they fly away to do what they were born to do. They are finally able to navigate the world around them with enough instinct, experience and strength to not only survive, but also to raise up other generations. They become the legacies of those who have come before and the purveyors of the future. It’s a noble and necessary role. It is a “circle of life” transition, and that is why I have come to regard it as my own.

It occurs to me that the empty nest is the one that I should leave behind, that it is my flight that is beckoning. Yes, my children need to get about the task of moving into full adulthood, but the time for new opportunity now exists for me as well as for my kids. And that big, broad world needs me every bit as much as it needs the promise of my children; in fact, I have a lifetime of perspective that the young are just beginning to accumulate. Those of us old enough to contemplate the reality of an empty nest bear a mantle of responsibility to fly from it ourselves. There are many places and people simply waiting for us to show up. Just look about. Our children are not the only ones with a bright new future ahead.

When I coax new thoughts from the pen-and-ink drawing, the nest itself always stands out from among the leaves and branches. It is a durable dwelling place that will withstand the winds and changes of seasons with resilience. The nest is central and constant, and I imagine that its inhabitants return whenever the homing instinct brings them back. The young as well as the old can take comfort in that….

Which Is the More Compelling?

Kids4.jpgHaving raised two sets of twins in our household, I am well-acquainted with the frequent and inevitable observations that our kids make about equal treatment. From their earliest days, each child measured portions of treats, wrestled for a closer snuggle in the lap than the other, compared allowances and even tracked the number of miles put on a shared vehicle. For Katie and me, the tracking intended to create near-equal treatment. For each kid, there was little interest in equality unless a lesser consideration or portion happened to fall to her/him. And even though we parents came to understand the reality that the kids did not have equal needs, always in the back of our minds has been the quest for an even divide of the family spoils, whatever they may be.

Winds of Peace Foundation, perhaps like many organizations, struggles with similar questions. In our evolution we have come to seek out communities and organizations which are overlooked by many other potential sources of support. Women’s initiatives, the circumstances of Nicaraguan Indigenous people and the rural poor have become among our priorities. We have sought to identify entities which are in the greatest need of outside support and accompaniment, which are least likely to have the collateral, experiences or so-called sophistication of lower-risk partners. It is that degree of unworthiness, high risk, inexperience, and often inaccessibility that is frequently the attraction that such groups have for WPF.

Concurrently, whether engaged in grantmaking or microlending, WPF is focused on measuring success in any project. We study the objectives and their metrics and the process by which such measures are to be made. And at the end of the day we tend to judge the impact of our support against the achievement of as many of the objectives as we can count. So, the groups which most successfully navigate the cultural, social, financial and geographic obstacles- as measured against their objectives- are the ones which stand the best chance of additional future funding. Those which stumble or delay in repaying a loan or otherwise render sub-par performance run the high risk of becoming ineligible for future consideration. It’s a most reasonable and equitable cause-and-effect: the stronger organizations are more trustworthy and lower-risk, while the weaker performers are less reliable and higher-risk. As a private foundation which accepts no outside funding, WPF is drawn to the most immediate and long-term successes it can find, so as to leverage its funding as best possible. In the end, we tend to favor those organizations in comparison to their weaker counterparts.

And therein lies the struggle. The very groups we most wish to assist are the the riskiest and sometimes most difficult in which to effect positive change. Having made an initial decision to support such a group, how long do we stay with them if the traditional metrics of success falter? When organizational and cultural habits that are centuries in the making conflict with new directions and aspirations, do we back away in favor of easier groups? Or conversely, is there such a thing as an organization that is “too safe,” and therefore perhaps not truly as in need of our support? For that matter, what does constitute success in our accompaniment? I am fairly certain that WPF can be operated into perpetuity if we only consider the financial well-being of the foundation. But the mission is not to operate into perpetuity alone. There is a serving objective, a call to make a difference in the lives of other human beings, and some of the neediest on earth, on top of it all. That cannot always be best achieved by taking the more certain route.

At home, we sometimes made decisions with regard to the younger kids that we never would have made with the older, and vice versa. We monitored them differently. While we encouraged all of our children in their various endeavors, our expectations were often different. In measuring their academic successes, for example, sometimes a grade of “C” was something worth celebrating. Other times and for other kids, a grade of “B” felt a little empty. We treasure our kids uniformly; however, our relationship with each is based on the individuality that is in each. Which is the more compelling? There is no answer to that question, of course. And perhaps it is just so when working with communities or organizations which have different capacities and personalities. We need to recognize them for who and what they are, with all of their possibilities and risks, successes and failures, steps forward and back. The kids never stop growing and developing; maybe it’s the same with human organizations.

For many, this issue may be very black-and-white, with little reason for debate. But I know that I spend a great deal of thought around it, and often with less resolution that I would like. I’d be interested in what others might think.

It's Who You Know

16954814325fee6e63eo6ph[1].jpgI observed some interesting good-byes at the Managua airport at the conclusion of my most recent visit. While I awaited the announcement of my flight, I watched from a mezzanine above the main floor security entrance. Here is where families say their final farewells before someone boards a plane for destinations far away. It’s a sometimes-touching sight as people face travel separations which, however exciting or opportunistic they may be, are nonetheless poignant reminders of our importance to one another.

On this particular occasion, I observed a group of U.S. college-aged men and women saying their good-byes to what appeared to be their Nicaraguan hosts, newfound friends and surrogate families. I watched young men awkwardly and self-consciously hug their host moms, embrace their temporary dads and knuckle up with their Nicaraguan peers. The emotions and tears in parting made for a sweet sight and one that dampened my own eyes for what it clearly represents.

When we come to know one another- and I am speaking particularly from an International perspective here- the boundaries go away and the seeds of global hope are sewn again. For if these young men and women are able to retain even a fraction of the feeling and memories from their visits to Central America, their connections with and personal “stake” in the future of their hosts has fundamentally changed how they see the world. By living with and becoming part of their host families, these young travelers have become emotionally invested in ways that reading books or listening to news reports could never achieve. Now, the Nicaraguans are real, and what happens to them happens to their former guests, as well. In the future, questions about U.S. government foreign policy, or actions that take place in-country, or natural disasters or achievements all will have a more direct and meaningful importance to these young people, because they have “family” in the place called Nicaragua.

As the group gradually began migrating through the security line, I watched one reluctant student tearfully mouth the words, “I’m coming back” to her equally-tearful host mom. And I thought to myself that there’s a lot to be hopeful about these days….

Family Farm

Imagine a little bit with me. Imagine owning your family’s farm, located not far from where you currently live. It’s been in the family for generations now; that long history is probably one of the reasons no one has ever deigned to sell it off. There have been many offers over the years, as the farm is a prime piece of land. But it is family history and it still produces for the folks who rent it from you, and you need the income it affords you, and most of all, it’s yours. That has special meaning all unto itself, a treasure of the past that links you to your family history.

Then, imagine the unthinkable. Quite suddenly and without reason, strangers show up and claim your family’s farm for themselves. They claim that the farm never really belonged to your family at all, and because you have wrongfully claimed it as your own for all these years, they are filing papers to appropriate the lands for themselves. The renters are driven away, not wanting or daring to be in the middle of the dispute. Your rental income is gone and now you are required to go to an attorney, to court and anywhere else you have to in order to protect what you know is yours.

The disposition of this mess is, as you fully expected all along, in your favor and the courts declare that the land really does belong to you. But as you prepare to contact the previous renters and invite them back, you’re astounded at a new development. While you and the “invaders” were battling it out in court, a third party has suddenly shown up on the property and says it’s theirs. As unbelievable as it may seem, this nightmare has turned from awful to worse! Not wanting or being financially able to engage the attorney again, you turn to the local mayor’s office, with the court’s edict in hand along with your affidavits of land ownership, and the mayor says he’ll take it all under consideration. You can’t understand what could possibly need considering in all of this, but after all, you are known to play by the rules and wait for the civic process to work as it should.

The day following your plea to the mayor, you drive the several miles to the farm, just to see what might be happening, and you are horrified to see the acreage dotted with small, green, metal outhouses, maybe t twelve or thirteen in all, scattered all over the acreage!


They’re a blight on the fields, completely out of character with the land and having no apparent usefulness at all (unless the squatters have some digestive problems). It’s absolutely untenable, and you can’t imagine what these monstrosities are doing across the land. You head back to the mayor’s office to register your outrage, only to confront a more monstrous reality. The mayor declares that your family’s farm is now under his jurisdiction and that it is his intention to make substantial improvements to the property and, in the process, claim eminent domain. He states that he can do this because of the many improvements that have already been made to the farm. You’re incredulous: “the outhouses?!” The mayor calmly explains that they are just the start of the many improvements that he has in mind to more fully develop the land for possible sale, and which will serve to strengthen his claim to the lands based upon his “many improvements.” He suggests to you that you can go back to the courts and make your claim, but in the meantime he will continue to “develop,” thus enhancing his claim upon your land.

Of course, this isn’t a dream at all. It’s a nightmare, one of those experiences that could never really happen because of the utter absurdity of it all, disconnected, surreal events that have no semblance to reality as we know it. But this is quite literally the circumstance facing the Indigenous People of Talpaneca in Nicaragua. Following a pattern of the past hundreds of years, the Indigenous people fight over and over again for recognition as a people, for rights that are centuries old and for simple justice in the most basic of claims. The irony here is the same as it is in North America: those who were here first are treated as last.

To be sure, any of the Indigenous people of Nicaragua have both cultural and social problems that get in the way of their sustainable success, as all populations do. The “old” models of leadership, including payoffs and pandering Indigenous patrimony to the wealthy, are deeply ingrained habits. But the added difficulty of a populace and a government that have repeatedly refused to acknowledge the Indigenous has also forced a reliance on alternative systems that generate some sort of rewards, even if for a few. If a people are not permitted to function within the prevailing social and cultural system, then they will create an alternative of their own to best access what others already have. And the cycle of exclusion and denial continues to feed upon itself.

I returned from my most recent visit to Nicaragua to find strangers visiting at my house, enjoying the peace and comforts offered to any callers. But they were guests and when I told them of my fatigue, they took their leave as they should, and I could rest in the peaceful confines of my own home….


I made another journey to Nicaragua this week, visiting many of the people and sites with whom we have partnered of late. The irony of these trips is that they are so exhausting and energizing at the same time time: the people bring me up to a level of energy that is nearly addictive, and the stimulation of it all saps every ounce from me.

This time, prior to Nicaragua I flew into San Pedro Sula for a visit to a very ESOP-like cooperative there, and then drove to Tegucigalpa for another meeting before heading down to Nicaragua. But the small hotel in which I stayed in Tegucigalpa offered this bit of warmth to the travels. It was on a laminated card on the bedside table of my room and I thought it was unique and touching enough to share:


Since this hotel is an institution

To serve people,

We hope that God will grant you peace and rest

While you are under our roof.

May this suite and hotel be your “second home.”

May those you love be near you

In your thoughts and dreams.

Even though we may not get to know you,

We hope that you will be comfortable and happy

As if you were in your own house.

May the business that brought you our way prosper.

May every call you make

And every message you receive add to your joy.

When you leave, may your journey be safe

And the Lord take care of your arrival and departure.

May these days be pleasant for you,

Profitable for society,

Helpful to those you meet,

And a joy to those who know and love you best

With special affect,


Such is the sentiment and the hospitality of these Central American people whom I get to visit with regularity. It is a totally different world, as many have observed to me. And in some respects, different in very positive, tangible ways. It would be good, in fact, if each of us could go, even if only one time.

So, another visit to Nicaragua is complete in the blink of an eye. Although I have never felt out of place in Nicaragua , I am becoming more comfortable here all the time. (Except for my doggone lack of language!) Likely it is due to the tremendous tutelage of Field Director Mark Lester and his many contacts and friends with whom I have been privileged to meet. Likely it is due to the growing sense of familiarity which all human creatures crave in their desire for “security.” Likely it is due to a clearer recognition of the discomfort that I experience about myself, my fellow citizens and my government in relation to this place. Likely it is due to a growing sense of understanding of the purpose for WPF and my role in effecting that. But most likely it is the blossomed awareness of both the beauty and the plight of the people here and the opportunity that we have to make even a small difference in their lives and legacies. I close with a quote from the poem, Isle Madeline” by S.S. Charles:

“I leave having learned who it is that I am,

And richer for that, I’ll return when I can.”

I’m already ready for the next time….

The Real World

I had the delightful duty last week to attend a Luther College orientation session with our youngest daughter. She’s still undecided about what she wants to do with her life and, therefore, where she should go to school to prepare. In one session that my wife and I attended without our daughter, the question was posed to the mostly high school crowd, “What’s the purpose of a college education?” to which several responses were, “To prepare for the real world.”

The students went on to describe the “real world” as a place where moms and dads are not always present to help out or fix things, where you might have to earn your own way and provide for yourself to put food on your table or fuel in your car, or where independence means more than being able to stay out late at night. One student suggested that the real world is a place where you do things for yourself, finally enjoying the freedom earned over eighteen years of perceived servitude. The professor facilitating the session concurred that, yes, all of those things might be apt descriptions of a more real world than the nurtured, protected lives that most of these students live. He paused a good long time, as if he would have welcomed additional perspective on the question, but the topic had apparently become exhausted.

The real world facing these young people goes way beyond what they can imagine today. Their worlds will be turned nearly upside-down as they transition themselves from being children to adults, as they experience the requirement to be collaborative with people and circumstances they might not particularly like, experience the occasionally arbitrary whims of college professors who might demand more than can be delivered, and perhaps for the first time in their lives begin to understand the scarcity of a dollar, how far it must stretch and the importance of the job that generates that cash. They will certainly acquire an entirely new social experience, as the circle of their acquaintance, interaction and influence is broadened. Living in close proximity with previously total strangers is an education unto itself. So, there is certainly a major “leap” facing these young people in the weeks and months ahead as they merge into a more real world.

As the audience moved on to other questions, however, I lingered in my view of the real world. I thought about the issues cited by the students and the way that each young person seemed to reflect both an excitement and a trepidation in facing them. I tried to recall how I might have felt at age eighteen and imagined that these were many of the same issues haunting me as I prepared for college. In my now advanced middle-age, of course, I have a different perspective.

The real world confronting my daughter and her peers today is a much smaller place than the one I stepped into. It’s more immediate, connected, personal and fragile than ever. It’s full of more opportunity and far greater risk. The shadow of a child’s parents is replaced by the shadow of global competition; these students do not simply compete with each other to make a living, they compete with millions of others from around the world for the very same opportunities. The problem of having enough money to put fuel in the car is eclipsed by the questions of whether there is any fuel left at all, and what price has been paid by current and past generations to secure it.

The real world of today poses more strongly than ever the question, what will they do with the poor and the disenfranchised, who become more numerous and needful every day. How do they respond to the notion that soon we will have only two types of people: those who cannot eat and those who cannot sleep. (The first group exists because they have no food. The second group exists because while they have more than enough to eat, they must stay awake at night to protect themselves against those who do not.) In the real world, we are truly all neighbors and our individual well-being is directly linked to the well-being of the all who are around us; the body cannot be healthy if the arm is wounded.

I could have exited the session in a depression, but I felt quite the opposite. If the “real world” is to become a more hospitable place and even survive, it will be because people such as these soon-to-be-college students have come to understand the real scope of the world, its inhabitants, its interconnectedness. And before they have even attended a single class in at least this one place of higher learning, they have been confronted with the question of what truly constitutes the real world. Their views today still may be narrow and self-oriented, as they naturally should be. But through their learning opportunities, technology and today’s instant access to information, they have every chance, like never before, to broaden their understanding and impact. They have every need, like never before, to do so.