René Mendoza Vidaurre, Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo
Along the trails
-Cousin, you have traveled so much that I am sure that you earn and know a lot, help us to travel in that way as a cooperative.
-I have traveled along the highway, it is fast, and you only see money rolling on wheels.
-That´s right…. We want to make money.
-When I get out of the car and walk on foot or on horseback, I see people, groups together, I hear that song of the cicadas.
-What do you mean to say?
-If the cooperative takes to the trails, it will touch hearts, dig into our roots, make people think and walk together.
-In other words, feel, walk and begin to cooperate, instead of taking the highway.
-That´s right, Ana, it is the first step…along the trails!
The hurry to make money makes us run and keeps us from seeing what is at our sides. When we reach the goal, we are like the dog in the countryside, who at the first sound of some car, takes off barking at full speed, and then when it reaches the car, nothing happens, it returns in silence. Organizations, aid agencies and institutions are desperately providing their resources and trainings under the discourse of stamping out hunger or poverty, and when they achieve these investment goals, they return in silence. The impoverished population are like the car that the dog reaches, increases its speed of adding more people. With COVID-19 that velocity is increasing dramatically. How can one get out of extreme poverty? The parable tells us that in order to begin to cooperate, let us take to the trails and delve into our origins. What does this mean? It is the time for communities!
1. The reality is in full view
The march of COVID-19 lifts the covers, and realities appear that are difficult for us to recognize. The rural population migrates to the forests or outside the country under the pressure of mono-cropping agriculture or ranching, pushed in turn by the financial and commercial industries. This is not new, with or without cover, we have known it for decades and centuries.
With COVID-19 we were hoping that the internal assets of communities, which have been supported by hundreds of international aid projects, might be guiding preventive actions. That the churches, with so many centuries of preaching the Good Samaritan, might mobilize. That first- tier cooperatives, members of second tier organizations, might move in the face of the virus. Strangely they are still. “We are waiting for directions from above”, “without projects, there is no organization”, “donors are not sending aid to those who organized in cooperatives”, “everything is in the town (municipal capital), the meetings, the harvest collection”. What is left of the “anchor”, “articulations”, “networks”, “public-private alliances” and “empowerment”? The gaze of elderly women seem to tell us: “nothing”. Maybe that is what is new, in the sense that we are surprised.
It would seem that the projects, sermons, credit and commercial policies instead eroded communities. They pushed ideas about being individual, taking on mono-cropping agriculture and relying on aid; some argue that by supporting an individual they are supporting rural families, but a family as an institution is hierarchical and patriarchal, in addition to the fact that the notion of “nuclear family” is nearly non-existent in the rural world, where it is common to see a son or daughter grow up with their grandparents, aunt or uncle, and/or mother. With COVID-19 that erosion is intensified, the quarantine and confinement accentuate the neoliberal idea of “save yourselves those who have”. Because a daily wage earner in farming or construction and most of the population who work in the so-called “informal economy” cannot stay home for more than a week, they begin to go into debt, buy on credit, make storefronts go broke, and affect their daily food intake, and this in the long term will mean loss of human life.
2. Knowing how to get to communities
The idea of harmonic communities of Robert Redfield (1931, A Mexican Village: Tepoztlan), has been left far behind. Since the studies of Oscar Lewis (1951, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied) we understand communities as heterogeneous spaces with diversity, and even opposing interests. They are communities with which people identify, it is their utopia and mission – as Thomas More would say (1516, Utopia: The Happy Republic): They are not a “sack of potatoes”, as Marx suggested, nor “pockets of peasants” as certain agrarian literature categorized them for years from 1980 to 1990. They are disputed spaces where external policies and resources should know how to get there, facilitating the first lesson of humanity: cooperation. People who organize can bring their produce together and get better prices, free themselves from usury at the point of group savings, protect water sources in the high areas, and along the length of the creek, and coordinate to prevent natural and social viruses. Individually, they cannot change prices, free themselves from usury, protect water nor prevent viruses.
Let us illustrate how these community assets move from the few interesting experiences that exist in Central America. Rodrigo Pérez, a delegate of the Word from the community of San Antonio, said, “this community store saves me a day, and the bus fare of going to the town to buy what I now buy here.” If the crowding in town favors COVID-19, people like Rodrigo find what they are looking for in the community store. “It is the first cooperative that came to coordinate work with us,” they said in the school in Samarkanda, appreciating the support of the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative so that students and teachers might protect themselves from the virus. “Only our cooperative collects the harvest in the community, and right here does the payments and assemblies,” said Selenia Cornejo. “Buyers and financiers come to visit us in the community,” said Daniel Meneses, from the October 13th Cooperative. We find similar words about community coffee roasters, bread makers, groups of beekeepers…”The coffee that we produce and roast, we sell ourselves along with our relatives outside, isn´t that a network?” Each organization has a mural with information to prevent COVID-19, while at the same time together are weaving a support network for people who end up affected by the virus.
What is common for all of them? They are in the community itself. Their focus is on their origins. They function with their own resources and rules polished in their assemblies. They improve their oral tradition with writing. They represent a diversity of ages, where youth under the age of 40 are leading them. They distribute their profits. They organize and are transparent with their information. They compete for and rotate their leadership. They organize their solidarity. They fight against their old “demons”, the rules of elites that have nested in their minds: “in group, but for me”, opportunistic actions when internal and external control is weak, prejudice against women legitimized by the churches, prejudices against workers without land (“the cooperative is for those who have land”), and providentialism (“God has a plan to protect us”, “the big chief has a plan to take care of his people”). This type of grassroots organization no longer waits for direction from outside, they visit one another, discuss and, in the midst of their internal tensions and mutual distrust, resort to their social fund, while they look for external contacts that can reinforce their collective actions.
How are these community assets formed? Following a universal lesson: studying realities to innovate as a group and train ourselves. Combining efforts of people from the communities and from outside to organize social enterprises in the communities. Recording data, analyzing it and making decisions. Delving into histories to find values and rules with which to cooperate and recreate identities, because “the origins are in front of us, not behind”, as the Mapuche taught us, the indigenous people in Chile and Argentina. Bringing to light their old “demons” and ours as well as accompaniers (“providing information confuses people”, “donating food is the solution to hunger”, “we know your future because that future was our past”). Walking along the trails discerning what the processes themselves show us about how to accompany them.
3. New veins that the effect of COVID-19 forces us to think about
COVID-19 raises the covers, and what appears are not just those realities that it is difficult for us to recognize, but also new veins to be worked on related to the social fund, the connection between organizations, the coherency between words and actions, and the decentralization of decisions.
Grassroots organizations, like those that we have described previously, have the practice of equitable distribution of what they have saved in a social fund. In the current context of COVID-19, that social fund gains importance, like the use of offerings and tithings on the part of churches. If the State provides curative health care, preventive health is an area where grassroots organizations and churches can invest resources and energies. This includes how to improve nutrition, prevent obesity and diabetes, invest in natural medicine and clean water, improve hand washing and introduce the use of masks in crowded spaces. How can this social fund be organized into areas of prevention?
If a person discovers the importance of combining efforts of several people, in the same way also organizations (collective groups) discover that coordinating among organizations to face COVID-19 is fundamental. Making connections among churches, schools, rural community Banks, community councils, businesses and the municipal government expresses the spirit of superimposed communities that exist in every territory. It is like the baby chick that breaks the eggshell, moves out of its comfort zone and connects with other organizations, it is something that we are not accustomed to do, but we need to do. For example, connecting with the church is not to sit down to discuss one or another form of religious faith, it is to rethink together the solidarity of the Good Samaritan, who did not rely on God sending his angels to save the wounded man, but simply acted, while other were in a hurry (“passed by on the other side”). Being connected is having the freedom to express these community cultures of each organization of which one is a member or participant. On their part, each organization should understand itself as a community, where their members or their staff identify with that organization, not so much for “what one gets”, but for “what one gives” the organization, where titles are opportunities to serve. How can churches, farms, community stores, schools, cooperatives and health centers be connected?
Governments, aid organizations, international enterprises should be coherent. Importing the best coffee, and leaving the worst for the producer families, feels bitter. Demanding meat that deforests, and at the same time being ecological, is disgusting. Supporting small scale production with credit for agrochemicals like glyphosate, that is damaging to natural and human health and increases rural unemployment, is repugnant. Donating certified seed to get rid of native seed and making them dependent on companies that sell that certified seed is shameful. Extracting minerals through strip mining and defending nature, seems like that Nazi who during the day sent children to the gas chambers and at night played with his children at home. How can coherency be obtained and also benefit rural communities? How can each organization and institution conceive itself and organize itself as a community?
Decentralizing decisions seem urgent, it is like letting the baby take its first step, this is in all spheres. That each delegate of the word celebrate the Eucharist (sharing bread and wine) in the rural communities would be a real institutional change in the Catholic church. If a grassroots organization understands their community better than an organization with an office in a city, why do aid organizations and international enterprises persist in believing that organization means having an office and manager in the city? Do grassroots organizations need accompaniment? They need it, like aid organizations need grassroots organizations to accompany them. If people organize in a cooperative or a community store to administer their loans, technology and commercialization, why doesn´t a second-tier organization support them in these purposes, instead of abducting those services and decisions? How much we need to reflect on that old and still good principle that “the stronger the children are, the stronger their parents will be”.
The effects of COVID-19 tend to produce more extremely impoverished people, like the title of the novel of Victor Hugo published in 1862 (Les misérables). Along with extreme human impoverishment, the extreme impoverishment of nature, compiled in Laudato Si: “the cry of the poor and the land.”
Between 2000 and 2014, according to ECLAC, 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean reduced people in a situation of hunger (extreme poverty) from 73 to 38 million. Julio Berdegué of the FAO stated that between 2015-2018, without the virus, those 38 million increased to 43 million people. ECLAC projects that if economic growth in 2020 falls by 6% we will have 73 million people hungry, the same amount that there were in 2000. And with hunger, probably, will come social and political rebellion. Playing with hunger is playing with fire.
The solution to hunger that aid organizations have practiced and continue suggesting is that States provide food, and that they rely on social and economic organizations; in fine print this means that governments, with the taxes paid by the entire society, buy from large corporations GMO food, coopting grassroots organizations and providing that food to hungry populations. This movie we have seen before, including the magic they tend to perform with the indicators of extreme poverty, its resulting erosion of community assets, and what is called family agriculture, the nullification of native seed, the fact that rural populations become docile masses dependent on aid and electoral patronage, and that aid organizations resist conceiving themselves and organizing themselves as communities, and of something bigger that would cover all of us.
In this article we showed that community efforts can be effective in the face of COVID-19 and the virus of hunger, and that these aid agencies, organizations and institutions of the world that talk about “providing food” as the panacea to evils, might rethink their modus operandi and that culture of believing that they already know the solution without previously knowing the people “in extreme poverty”. We should recognize that if communities organize and have accompaniers who also feel and function as communities, they can – and we can – face this and other viruses, eradicate hunger, producing and distributing food, mitigating climate change and contributing to social cohesion, which prevents violence and instead puts our societies on the path to their democratization.
It is the time for rural communities. It is time for organizations, aid agencies and institutions to feel and act as communities. It is time to feel and think that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.
 René accompanies rural organizations in Central America, is an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University, member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/). Fabiola and Esmelda are advisors to rural organizations in Nicaragua.
I dedicate this article to my daughter Itza Irene and my sons Jaren and Inti Gabriel.
Planting a cooperative
A cooperative was attacked from outside and inside; it went broke. Its administrative council called the last assembly where they provided an accounting of each cent of the cooperative, the motorcycle, the computer, the desks, the portfolio of debts…
Given that their own sons and daughters and other youth from the community formed a new cooperative, the assembly agreed to donate all their resources to them: “We started with 10,000 córdobas and we worked 20 years, receive these 300,000 córdobas and let them serve our community at least 30 times more than us”, they said. Along the paths and creeks the rumor of the people was left etched in the stones: “The president, the Vice President, all left with a clean slate”, “humble and honest they started, humble and honest they left”. And more helpful”, shouted an elderly woman.
The 10,000 or 200,000 was not as important as the humility, honesty and service.
Is this what it means to be a cooperative member? Asked the granddaughter of the president. “In part, daughter, in part”, responded her mother as she gave her a hug.
The graveyard for cooperatives is sizable, larger in some countries than in others, generally because their members forget that the cooperative is a mean for a larger objective, their community. They do not follow their own agreements. Some of their board members “get big heads”, stay in their posts under “death do they part”, and others take over the resources that belong to all the members of the cooperative. In this way the collective effort turns into “damned money” that is served mouth to mouth in bars, and this type of cooperative, like a vine that climbs into the branches of lemon, tangerine and orange trees, choking them off and preventing them from bearing fruit, chokes off the communities where their members come from.
The parable reveals a different prospect, where even death, a good death, can generate life. Sporadically we know how to find some cooperatives that, even going broke, plant the future: they leave good footprints in women and men who were their members. This footprint is like the collective effort of 300,000 córdobas that the cooperative did not split up into pieces, nor let some few appropriate them, as happens with most peasant families who are always dividing up their land into pieces. Those members, in assembly, agreed to give it to the new cooperative that was starting, and committed it to return to the community “30 times more”. Behind this collective effort are values like humility and honesty that guide their steps, and what the cooperative cultivated and the elderly woman observed: service. Behind these values and that sense of service is the vision of a cooperative as a means (instrument) of living communities, that is the horizon in which that inheritance of values and resources become very important, but let us notice, just “partly”, as the mother points out to her daughter.
Those of us who also share these perspectives and support these processes in rural communities tend to be asked by rural families, with some incredulity, why do you come in to support us? What interest do you have in us when not even presidents of cooperatives nor mayors visit us? Even though in our mind it is that “part” of being cooperatives that the stones whisper “along the paths and creeks”, sometimes we have responded recounting the experience of the Catholic Church between 1958 and 1978, within the framework of its social doctrine, that opened the doors of their churches and monasteries and allowed for decades of religious and laity to accompany impoverished families in their communities; that experience allowed believing that God was living in these impoverished families, a seed of service and commitment that has germinated in hundreds of people.. Other times we have responded alluding to the fact that each person has a sense of service, and that each person deploys that service in a thousand ways in the places where they live.
In this article we show the idea of stewardship as a more thought out response to the questions that they tend to ask us. Stewardship is a perspective that gives more meaning to cooperativism and that adds another additional “part” about what the mother saw and the daughter heard in the parable. We do so basing ourselves on something from the indigenous, religious and business traditions, to then conceive of the cooperative as a rooted organization that could take on stewardship in their communities. At the end of the article we re-conceptualize this idea of stewardship as the greatest motor and the most intense light of humanity.
1. Seventh generation thinking
“Now we crown you with the sacred emblem of buck antlers, the emblem of your lordship. Now you will become a mentor of the people of the Five Nations. The thickness of your skin will be seven tranches, in other words you will be a test against anger, offensive actions and criticism. […] Look and listen to the wellbeing of all the people, and always have present in mind not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are still below the surface of the earth, the future nation that has not yet been born.”
(Law of the Iroquois nation written between 1142 and 1500)
A Confederation of five Iroquois nations in the United States wrote their law between the years 1141 and 1500, that started seventh generation thinking. It is a principle of innovative stewardship, conceived and taken on prior to the Spanish colonization in Latin America, and before the British colonization in the United States. The principle suggests that in each deliberation its impact up to the seventh coming generation should be taken into account, that is, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren. In other words, when we deliberate, make decisions and take actions we should ask ourselves: “Where is the seventh generation in these decisions? Where are we going to take that generation? What are they going to have?” Imagine if you were an Iroquois, let us say centuries ago, when the climate was relatively stable, your people were connected to nature, living certainly with conflicts between nations, you had that thought to the seventh generation. Meanwhile now, in the current conditions of climate and degraded nature, we realize clearly that we have abandoned that thinking. In spite of that, this thought challenges and guides us. Correspondingly, the decisions that we make today on the environment, water, energy, social relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people, the relations between women and men, or about the life of the communities, are going to have an impact on the lives of coming generations, up to the seventh, which is a nation of people who have yet to be born. It is a matter of living and working for the benefit of that future seventh generation; that really is thinking long term!
There are two ways of understanding this principle. The first way, if each generation differs from the previous one by 20 years, the seventh generation is in 140 years, which is why we should think about 140 years in our deliberations and decisions: see Figure 1.
The second way is varying the thinking about the seventh generation, and expanding the period in years in which a person is touched (influenced, awoken) in their lives by their great-great grandfather/grandmother, who in turn was touched by their great-great grandfather/grandmother. In other words, we place ourselves in a 360 year period and from there, looking 180 years backward (7 generations) and 180 years forward (7 generations), we can understand our roots and plant our future: see Figure 2.
When from our peasant realities we look at the questions asked within the framework of the seventh generation, they seem very hard. Following the first perspective, most peasant families are reducing their land area by inheritance and the sale of land, this means that the seventh generation will be left without land, and with a relationship divorced from nature, for example. Given the graveyard for cooperatives and those cooperatives taken over by elites, what cooperative are we leaving for the seventh generation?
Following the second perspective, this very reality of the division of land is demonstrated by looking at the 180 years since our mothers/fathers and grandmothers/grandfathers, and so we question ourselves looking at the the next 180 years: How can we stop this dividing up? What are we leaving the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? We can respond to these questions in each family and community, or we can respond to them alluding to current issues like climate change, water…we can also see them from the history of our countries with a historical perspective, issues or challenges like peace and indigenous and non-indigenous social relations. For the case of Nicaragua, Oscar René Várgas (1999) argues, based on an event that happened in the XVI Century, more than 400 years ago, that Nicaragua is a prisoner of the syndrome of authoritarianism and disregard for law; Alejandro Bendaña (2019) presents to us the invisibility and margination of women by historians and the guerrilla leaders themselves in the war of Sandino between 1926 and 1934, something that in light of our current realities appears not to have changed. In that 400-year view and 100-year view, it frightens us to confirm that authoritarianism (hierarchical structures) and gender inequality, both accompanied by violence, changed so much as to not change “even a little”. We find the same thing in each country. It would seem that each generation that has gone by has not been able to leave not even a little change that might benefit the seventh generation, it would seem that each generation intensifies those old and harmful institutions.
The notion of stewardship, from the Iroquois indigenous tradition, begins to move us. It makes us think about the change of any “syndrome”.
2. Stewardship in the biblical tradition
The Catholic and Evangelical religions, professed by most of the population in Latin America, have the notion of stewardship in the Bible, which can be understood in two ways. The first way is God as the creator of the earth, where people are his administrators (stewards). Paul explains it this way: “Because we are collaborators with God, and you are the work of God, God´s edifice” (1 Cor 3:9). Stewardship is oikonomos: the person who administers. The second perspective is that people, women and men, are co-creators with God: if previously they had to multiply as the creation of God, in the new testament women and men are co-creators: “Go and make disciples of all peoples” (Mt 28:19).
The first perspective assumes that the patrón (owner) of all is God, and that tends to justify “each one of the verticalisms on earth”, warns the ex-Jesuit priest, Peter Marchetti. Correspondingly, Marchetti continues, “at the level of subjectivity, it is up to the grassroots to begin to work on the concept of God”. The second perspective as “co-creators” is a more horizontal perspective, even though the subordinated relationship of nature to human being persists. Marchetti counsels us: “The challenge is recovering traditional ecological knowledge that existed prior to the idea of God the patrón; the path is emulating traditional knowledge to be able to dismantle the idea of God the patrón.” Correspondingly, the Iroquois seventh generation thinking, for example, is very useful for us, because it comes precisely from prior to the Spanish and English colonization, where we could say that the “patrón” is the seventh generation.
From both sections, our challenge is “working on the subjectivity at the same time as the materiality”. The latter is, for example, the democratization of organizations and their economies, while the subjectivity is working on attitudes. Among these attitudes is dialoguing with the biblical perspectives of God as “creator” (patrón) of everything and humans as co-creators, as well as dialoguing with our great-great grandfathers and grandmothers, and at the same time thinking about the impact of our actions on – or dialoguing with – the great-great grandchildren of our great -great grandchildren. Here are the first brushstrokes about what stewardship is, which combines subjectivity and materiality, begins to dialogue with other perspectives, generations and with the attitude itself to free ourselves from the “patróns”, not matter what they may be. Now let us look at how businesses address and take on stewardship, to later focus on cooperatives.
3. Stewardship in businesses
In the past the church and the military caste dominated the world. 30 years ago the private sector dominated the world. Common interest, the State, education, the church, health care, the army are all read from the perspective of business; for example, each one of these areas or institutions are measured by their efficiency, costs, and their power relationships defined as technical things, that can be resolved through social engineering, through management. It is recognized that businesses create jobs, that they fight against racism, assume actions compatible with environmental sustainability and “social responsibility.” Business people who achieve financial success are admired as true heroes, and are named as directors of health care, education, churches or presidents of countries, like war heroes or religious martyrs used to be venerated, no matter what side they were on.
We identify two perspectives in these enterprises. In the first perspective are most of the large corporations, who prioritize their profits, dividends (% of profits) for their shareholders, while they are desperate to produce wealth today, and satisfy consumer society; this is short term thinking that produces short term results. There are few corporations in the second perspective, they are, for example, investors in pension and insurance funds, businesses that innovate, invest in the formation of their staff and get involved in profitable recycling actions instead of dumping it in spaces of poor countries; they look to develop long term thinking (MacNamara, 2004). Nevertheless, business organizations, like the churches and military structures in past centuries, intensify those millennial authoritarian, patriarchal and hierarchical structures that concentrate wealth and power. It changed so much in order to not change much at all.
Recognizing these hard institutions, and at the same time seeing the potential of companies, Block (2013) proposes the notion of stewardship as
An alternative to leadership. Stewardship asks us to be profoundly responsible for the results of an institution, without forcing the purpose of others to be defined, controlling them or overprotecting the rest. It can be defined more simply as ordering the dispersion of power.
Block defines stewardship as the change in the governance of businesses, that distribute power, privileges and wealth in favor of the people below and people marginalized in the businesses. Stewardship as “alternative to leadership” conceived as hierarchical and patriarchal, that does not subdue nor treat others as “minors” (“overprotected”); more than directing organizations, it is cultivating organizations, more than controlling and deciding for others, it is facilitating so that people might be empowered – controlling is accepting “the dispersion of power”; facilitating is democratizing (ordering) power. Stewardship is seen as an option of action at the service of those with little power and for the common good, it is long term thinking. This is taking care of the wellbeing of the next generation. How can this idea of stewardship be carried out? Block thinks that it is difficult to carry out with the dominant patriarchal leadership of our times, in the service of the short term and being operational with those few who have power.
Block provides the elements that characterize a real stewardship, whose notion we try to draw in Figure 3.
Stewardship has to do with a partnership of working together in democracy, which is opposed to the colonial belief that those above are the only ones responsible for the success of the organization and the wellbeing of the members. It is a matter of empowering each member of the enterprise, where it is assumed that their security and freedom is in their own hands, contrary to depending on those above, believing that they know what the rest of the people need, and contrary to the fact that they treat people as subordinated children. And it is a matter of service, that is committed to their organization and their community without expecting anything in exchange, cares for the common good and creates community, and distributes power and wealth, because it assumes a commitment for something beyond oneself, contrary to looking out for ones own interest at the cost of others.
In this notion of stewardship, of working together, in partnership, empowered and in service, underlies the idea that our life is brief, “we are on borrowed time”, as rural populations say, and our work in any organization or area is even briefer, which is why we want to turn over any task that we have taken on in the past in a more advanced stage. In this sense, let us remember the parable of the talents (Mt 25. 14-30), that we should multiply the talent received; this challenge becomes difficult in the case of peasant families, for whom if that talent was the land that they received from their parents as inheritance, after some 30-40 years that land would have to be more fertile and not “worn out” (less fertile, eroded soils) – something very difficult, while for enterprises, the land conceived as something that produces only based on agrochemicals, it is impossible for them to turn over land in 30 or 40 years with more fertile soils.
Bringing those questions about the seventh generation here, we would say: How can businesses be built in partnership, that empower and are of service to the seventh generation? How can the land be worked so that it might benefit the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? If the land is the mother of any product and any life, can businesses be built of any size with long term thinking, which would be watchful over its social and environmental impact and the elements of stewardship that Block advocates? Paraphrasing Jesus of Nazareth, probably it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than C-Corporations to assume this role of stewardship that Block proposes. Nevertheless, from the world of corporations there are good attempts; B-corporations, founded in 2006 and by the end of 2018 totaled 2500 in 50 countries around the world, could meet what Block proposes; B-corporations are certified for having good governance, transparency and good social and environmental impact. Also businesses whose workers become owners, governed by the ESOP law in some countries, could be taking on Block´s stewardship, particularly those that function under the approach of “open book management”, because they cultivate a culture of ownership (of being owners) for long term success.
4. Stewardship in cooperatives
B- corporations and ESOP enterprises with “open book management” could be exercising a role of stewardship. But the most suitable seem to be cooperatives, and even more so, if they bring together people with few resources. The problems is that most cooperatives also are an expression of hierarchical structures, like C-corporations, and are more and more moved by the short term thinking of the god of the market. Recognizing this fact, we argue that a renovated cooperative, that “is born again”, can be a serious option. To assume this role of stewardship, the cooperative must take up the ideas of Block and impress on it their own historical essence, because it is with renovated cooperatives that the ideas of Block could have greater possibilities of being carried out. See Figure 4.
We reread Block from the perspective of a renovated cooperative: in partnership we understand that people from different ages (grandparents, offspring, grandchildren), sexes and social sectors (e.g. workers) participate in a cooperative; that the cooperative is a space where each person is empowered in horizontal and vertical agricultural and non-agricultural diversity, using the market and not subordinated to it; and that the members cultivate a sense of voluntary service coherent with the idea of co-creation in dialogue with nature. Given this interpretation, the type of renovated cooperative is one that walks with both of its “feet”, the associative and the business one, is distinguished by its democracy, transparency and for distributing its profits (wealth). With these elements the members, and also their allies, make their own values and cooperative values their own, more and more intensely illuminated by a long-term perspective, and deliberately seeking to have an impact on – and dialogue with – its seventh generation.
This is the perspective of stewardship which a reborn cooperative implements, which pushes it to reorganize itself systematically as an alternative to despotic, hierarchical and patriarchal leadership. This is the promise that each member makes to the other members and to themselves from the first day in which they join a cooperative, which in turn, bears the potential of significant self-realization, which frequently is lacking in our organizations.
Correspondingly, how can a cooperative be reorganized from a role of stewardship? How can a cooperative member be a steward? First, a member accepts an office conceiving it as a service, serving other people, it is not to serve oneself at the cost of the other people. The office responds to the mandate of the members, which is why this service implies willingness and availability, being a person who does not have time, and always has time to serve other people, who listens and helps them to connect events and ideas, so that the members resolve their problems and/or take advantage of opportunities. Coherently, a person who occupies the office of president fulfills their role of president, and respects the role of each member of the Administrative Council and respects the functions of organs of the cooperative (Administrative Council, Oversight Board, Education Committee, Credit Committee). The same does the vice president, treasurer, secretary. Likewise, each member of the Oversight Board, the credit committee, the education committee. In addition to taking on their own role and respecting the other roles, these member help other people to exercise their offices; if the secretary has difficulties in writing the minutes, or the treasurer doing their financial report, the people from other offices, or those who already had those offices, support them (facilitates or trains them), so that they might lean to do the minutes and the financial report, but without taking their place. The assembly does not name people to posts to just to fill a post, nor out of formality, but it is a real need.
Promoting the culture of stewardship is going against the current of the culture of most of our rural organizations, where a person tends to believe they are the patrón and God, it is like a person walked around with 10 hats on their head at the same time, the hat of president, secretary, treasurer, oversight board, assembly, education committee, credit committee…That is not possible, right? That is what generally happens. One of the consequences of this fact is that that person believes himself to be the owner of the cooperative, and treats the members as their “minors”, does not let them grow, wants them to serve him, be subject to him; he disempowers them. “My poor patron, he thinks that the poor person is me” goes the song of Cabral, that seems applicable to this type of person with multiple hats, and who does not obey the mandate of his assembly. A president or manager with the commitment of stewardship is completely different: he supports and celebrates the work of the oversight board, administrative council, credit committee, because those structures help him to fulfill the sacred responsibility of co-creating the cooperative to the benefit of their communities, to redistribute power and surpluses, to empower the members so that they might take their own steps.
Secondly, a cooperative member, with or without an office, administers in a responsible way – and generates – financial resources (money), physical resources (building, infrastructure, assets) and productive resources (coffee, cacao, beans, bananas…) for the members. There is an awareness that those resources will last beyond our present lives. No one individually appropriates them under the pretext that “it is my effort”. Everyone cultivates the relationships of their organization with other global and local actors (financiers, buyers, accompaniers), without centralizing those contacts for their own exclusive benefit. Each person is accountable to themselves, their families, the cooperative and their community. It makes them think about co-creating and benefiting their community and the seventh generation, a task for which they are guided by the virtuous rules from the time of the great great grandparents of their great great grandparents, and in accordance with agreements and rules of their cooperative in line with the cooperative principles defined 175 years ago, in 1844, by 28 working artesans in cotton factories in the city of Rochdale, England. Correspondingly, any loan of money to a member, for example, is done from the appropriate body, according to agreements, with a receipt and later accountability to the assembly; the board members understand that they cannot make and use the resources of other at their own discretion, that there are organs and rules under which the resources, information and power relations flow. This very specific exercise can be generalized to other levels, including the country, building citizens with rights and obligations, not so much consumer societies.
Third, support to people to exercise their offices, and the fact that there are rules and structures that guide being cooperative members, implies also that the members be committed to learning and changing. If there is no transformation inside each member, if there is no re-evaluation of our desires, yearnings and expectations as far as we are explicit about the harmful and virtuous rules that govern us, any structural change for the operations of our cooperatives will be like a stripped bolt. In fact, in Central America we have experienced dictatorships and revolutions, a boom of organizations and religions, and all those changes have been like stripped bolts, our lives continue being guided by century-old structures and harmful rules that reproduce social, environmental and gender inequalities, which make us see the cooperative as “a thing of men”, “mono-cropping services” and “hierarchical and authoritarian bodies.”
Joining a cooperative means that we have chosen and accepted that relationship of organizational and personal transformation to energize our communities. The choice and acceptance become our contract. Our desires for financial gain, participation, self-expression and the expectations that we have for being part of a community, are only possible if we are committed to the objectives, results, limitations and principles of the organization in general. The agreement on the elements of the contract is the basis for the association and the basis of the community. Stewardship offers more options and local control, in exchange for that promise of commitment on the part of its members, a promise that should be given from the very beginning (Block, 2013).
With these three elements the cooperative can “be born again” and assume its role of stewardship in light of its community, which is as local as it is global. Forming its own membership, generating collective innovations, working on equitable rules, adding value to the products of the community, producing good land…to benefit the seventh generation.
The Church dominated the world for centuries. The military as well. For half a century, businesses have dominated the world. Century after century the land and the relationships between human groups seem to have deteriorated, currently we find ourselves in an inflection point in terms of the future of the earth; the domination of the private sector – the god of the market – intensified it. Our bet is that the decade of 2020 the community might begin, through its forms of cooperative organization, not to dominate the world, but contribute to the democratization of the world, and that we rethink nature not as something subordinated to homo sapiens, not even in a relationship humans-nature, but homo sapiens as part of nature. This is possible if the communities, through their cooperatives, and other organizational expressions, take on the role of stewardship.
In this article we have reviewed the idea of stewardship from the indigenous tradition, religious tradition and from economic business sciences, in order to re-conceptualize cooperatives. From this review and re-conceptualization, we understand that stewardship can be applied to individuals, businesses, organizations, institutions and communities. Stewardship is the word that summarizes the vision of the cooperative, and any organization, for its members. That is so if the community is the starting point, while at the same time the horizon – that community as local as it is global. It makes us learn another way of understanding and organizing life. What is the idea of stewardship that we have been shaping in this article?
Figure 5 shows the perspective of the community that rereads the cooperative in its material expression (organizational) and its subjective expression (personal), from which originate 4 elements that make the meaning of stewardship visible.
The community of human beings and nature is something living, geographically concentrated and at the same time globally clustered through dense relationships around products. This utopia or horizon makes us reread the transformation of a cooperative in its material expression, organizational change, and in its subjective expression, individual change. In other words, a person awakens, for example, to the fact that only through collective actions can some problems be resolved, like hierarchical and authoritarian structures; it is that material-subjective combination that mobilizes the cooperative in its role of stewardship, expressed in its 4 elements. First element, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren, in other words, more than 140 years, which is contrary to the short term thinking or the mining and push button culture, of wanting to earn money immediately believing that tomorrow everything could change. Second element, co-creating that world along with other people, with nature and with divine energies beyond our human comprehension, empowering particularly impoverished people, which is contrary to believing oneself to be the patrón (owners of this world), intensifying social and environmental inequality. Third element, cultivating a spirit of voluntary service, taking on offices and cultivating the cooperative, which in the long term benefits each individual, which is contrary to abusing the cooperatives for personal profit at the cost of coming generations. Fourth element, being guided by human values like humility, honesty and respect for the collective good, which is contrary to just betting on finances.
With this reconceptualization of stewardship, we can reorganize the cooperative in another way. We can even expand on the Iroquois law; that each person have “skin as thick as the bark of a pine tree” to confront not only “anger, offensive actions and criticisms”, but to exercise a stewardship that benefits “the future nation that has not yet been born.”
In the parable, “planting a cooperative, the daughter “reads” being a cooperative is about that collective force, values and sense of mission, while her mother recognizes that precisely is what it means to be a cooperative member, even though just “in part”. With the expansion of the framework that we have worked on, the reader can read this article again and contribute “30 times more” to the effectiveness of their decisions and actions. Even so, in light of the seventh generation, that contribution to the notion of stewardship, surely, will continue being “in part”.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) and a member of the cooperative COSERPROSS RL. email@example.com I am grateful to Steve Sheppard and Mark Lester, president and director of WPF, respectively, for the inspiration and ideas that they have offered us in the work with cooperatives, and particularly in regards to a very brief first text on this topic, published at the end of 2019.
 We recount the experience of the Catholic Church, but the same happened with a good number of protestant churches, particularly the historic ones- Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans. Also, university students in those years, without necessarily professing any religious faith, also moved to the countryside and marginal neighborhoods. It is also the experience of many people who later on were connected to guerrilla movements.
 These questions we adapted from the questions that Oren Lyons, chief of the Onondaga nation, formulated and are quoted in “An Iroquois Perspective”, in: Vecsey, C. and Venables, RW (Eds), 1982, American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Vol. 46.4. New York: Syracuse University Press. p. 173, 174. For a broader understanding of the indigenous culture in the United States and their lessons for today, see: Kathleen E. Allen, 2018, Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World, USA: Morgan James Publishing.
 “Touched” is when a person feels gratitude for something good that someone did for that person. In the context in which we are using it, by “touched” we mean when your great-great grandmother or grandfather made you look at your life in a different way, or something fundamental in your life, that marked you in your feelings or perspectives for the rest of your life. What is yours for the future, the possibility that you, on becoming a great-great grandfather, might influence (“touch”) the lives of your great-great grandchildren, which is possible because you had the possibility of learning about life for nearly a century.
 There have also been methodological proposals based on seventh generation thinking. One of them is the alternative proposal to the logical framework, a planning tool that organizations tend to use. See: Kathleen Allen, 2018, “Seventh Generation Thinking – A Replacement for SWOT”, https://kathleenallen.net/seventh-generation-thinking-a-replacement-for-swot/ It deals with locating ourselves in the fourth generation and from them gathering lessons from the three previous generations and using them as information for our future decisions that would include the next three generations. This can be done as an organization, particularly if there are people from 3 generations within its membership; they can be worked on in groups.
 Vargas, O.R., 1999, El Síndrome de Pedrarías. Managua: Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Nacional.
 Bendaña, A., 2019, Buenas al Pleito, Mujeres en la rebelión de Sandino. Managua: Anama ediciones.
 For example, Goodwyn (1978, The Populist Moment, New York: Oxford University Press) studied the rural populist movement that occurred between 1870 and 1910, about a peasantry that organized into cooperatives in such a way that they founded their own political party and came close to an electoral victory, but which the political and economic elites coopted and subsumed until crushing them. Goodwyn concludes that that democratic process in the United States was the last opportunity for the US nation to democratize.
 Owners can sell their businesses to their own workers, there is a law in the US and England to facilitate this. In the United States it is called Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and in England there are two types, the incentive plan and the savings plan. There are also ESOPs in India.
 Jack Stack and a group of workers bought the business of Springfield ReManufacturing Corporation in the 1980s. More than being successful, they designed a transparent form to govern and work the business, which they called “open book management”. See: Stack, J and Burlingham, B., 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday.
Stewardship is a biblical idea. God is the creator of the earth, and people are his administrators. Paul explained it, “Because we are co-workers of God, and you are the God´s field, God´s building.” (1 Cor 3:19). Stewardship is oikonomos: a person who administers. In business the idea of stewardship evolved, from a servant to being the administrator of assets, and from there comes the word stewardship: the responsible administration of the resources of others. From here we can understand stewardship in the cooperatives as meaning that each member of the organs, and each member of the cooperative, should be a responsible administrator of the resources that belong to the members, resources that will last beyond our present lifetimes. It is a serious pledge that each member makes to the other members and to himself/herself. And it carries with it the potential for a significant self-fulfillment that is all-too-often missing in our organizations.
If a board member administers responsibly the resources of the members, resources that in the end belong to God, how can a cooperative follow this principle of stewardship? First, a title is a service, for serving other people, it is not to serve oneself at the cost of other people. Second, that service implies a willingness and availability, of being a person who does not have time, yet always has time to serve others. Third, being watchful over the resources of the members, resources that in the end belong also to the community, to humanity, to God. Fourth, it is a voluntary and watchful service in coordination with other members of the cooperative, and allies from other global and local organizations.
What do these four elements mean for the actions of a cooperative? If a post is a service, then a president fulfills his role as president, and respects the role of each member of the Administrative Council, and respects the functions of each organ of the cooperative (Administrative Council, Oversight Board, Education Committee, Credit Committee). The same with the vice president, treasurer, secretary, and each member of the Oversight Board.
When we practice biblical stewardship in the cooperative, we do not make loans without receipts, and without the approval of the credit committee, we are accountable to the members who are the owners of the resources, the board members understand that they cannot make use of the resources according to their own whims. Their sacred responsibility is to care for them.
A president or manager with a commitment to stewardship does not act on their own, but support and welcome the work of the oversight board, the administrative council, the credit committee, because these structures help them fulfill the sacred responsibility of caring for the resources of the cooperative. If the secretary has difficulties in writing up the minutes, it is up to us to support that person learn to write the minutes, but not to replace that person. If a treasurer has problems doing the financial report, it is up to us to help them, but not to replace them. People are not named to a post just to fill a vacancy.
Promoting the biblical culture of stewardship means going against the current of the culture of most of our rural organizations, where one person believes themselves to be the patron and treats the other members as fieldhands. “My poor patron, he thinks that the poor person is me” – goes the song of Cabral.
But this support also means commitment in return. If there is no transformation inside each member, if there is no re-evaluation of our wants, longings and expectations, then all of the structural change in the world will have no impact on the functioning of our cooperatives. Membership in a cooperative means we have CHOSEN and ACCEPTED this relationship. The choice and acceptance become our contract. Our desires for financial gain, participation, self-expression- whatever we may want from being part of a community- are possible only so long as we can commit to the objectives, the results, constraints, principles and difficulties of the larger organization. If we cannot support these requirements, then we should leave. If our colleagues cannot commit to this contract, they should leave or we should separate them, even if it takes time and discomfort. Agreement on the elements of the stewardship contract is the foundation for partnership and the basis for community. Stewardship offers more choice and LOCAL CONTROL in exchange for a promise from its members. The promise the larger organization requires needs to be clear and agreed to right at the beginning. (Stewardship by Peter Block)
Stewardship is administering the sacred resources of the cooperative in accordance with collective rules and with transparency and justice. These resources are financial (money), physical (building, infrastructure, assets), productive (coffee, cacao, beans, bananas…), human (people with different capacities). The rules are the statutes and agreements that the cooperative approved in their Assembly. Transparent and just action is that each organ and each member be accountable to themselves, their family, the cooperative, the community and to God.
The practice of stewardship is a different way of organizing a cooperative. But it is a better way of strengthening and sustaining its success and long life.
From time to time I have reproduced the writings of others at this blog site, because they have stated ideas so powerfully. I have elected to do it again, given the words written by Kathleen at the Center for Development in Central America (CDCA). Kathleen has been quoted here before because what is in her heart is so well said in her words. The following is excerpted from the CDCA May 2019 newsletter.
My mother has said over and over that one of the two things Jesus wished he had never said was, “The poor you will have with you always.” Why?
Because so many Christians use that phrase to justify pouring money into church buildings and doing nothing for the poor. But what if we re-examined that phrase, and instead of looking at it as meaning an impossible goal of eradicating poverty, look at that phrase as an indictment of the rich?
It is true that, “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed,” a quote from Frank Buchman.
Staying with my daughter in the Northeast, it is easy to let the poor slip my mind. As she recuperate from surgery, my daughter is watching mindless television so she can crochet and heal. One of her shows is “Top Chef.” I have found it addictive but also, when I remember the poor in Nicaragua, nauseating.
In Nicaragua with climate change and with the socio-political crisis there, people are looking more and more at hunger. It is easy to forget that as the Top Chef judges say to a contestant that the prime rib was not plated to please the eye.
It is easy for the wealthy or the intellectual class in Nicaragua to create and foment a crisis when their children will be fed and given medical care or even schooling if a new government comes in and discontinues social programs.
It is easy to forget that people are sweating and bearing unbelievable heat when there is cool air at a touch. When you have food to eat and can jump in an air-conditioned car, it is easy not to feel the urgency that climate change should be our top priority (when diesel prices had dropped, one opposition leader said that the Nicaraguan government was doing the people a disservice by investing in renewable energy!).
A Brazilian priest, Frei Betto, helps those of us who would say we choose to stand with the poor by telling us that, “The head thinks where the feet stand.”
He says that, “It is impossible to be a leftist without dirtying one’s shoes in the soil where the people live, struggle, suffer, enjoy and celebrate their beliefs and victories. To engage in theory without practice is to play the game of the right.”
Many tell us that our opinion of what is happening in Nicaragua is just wrong, and maybe it is; but Fr. Betto also says, “Choose the risk of making mistakes with the poor over the pretension of being right without them.”
“Frogs were the first in the evolving animal world to develop a true voice. Pushing air into their pouches, across vocal cords, frogs produce a variety of sounds, from trills and whistles to grunts and chuckles, depending on the species. Each species actually sings its own unique tune, which has now become an important mechanism for identification. All of us have our own songs to sing, in the celebration of life.” -Linda Jade Fong
I get to hear the frogs for most of the year. They live on the river banks of the Upper Iowa River, or in the rain garden on the north end of a campus. I happen to live in a college town. It’s a small town and a small private college, but the presence of the school nonetheless enriches the lives of the citizens in the community. At various times of the year, we have opportunities to hear national speakers on current topics, watch athletic events, attend classes, observe whatever is current in the lives of students, attend plays, or enjoy concerts. Of course, we don’t have to partake in any of these activities, but it’s certainly a nice benefit to have the choice to do so. And, of course, we have the frogs.
The college is Luther College. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful campus settings in the entire country, further adding to its value to the community. And Luther College boasts (appropriately, I think) one of the most accomplished music programs in the country, as well. Its 600+ member combination of orchestra and vocal choirs annually stages a musical performance that is, by any measure, exquisitely professional. The crystalline sounds of the voices from each of the six ensemble choirs is an emotional experience worthy of the distances that audiences often travel in order to be swept away to yet another place altogether.
Of course, development of exquisite sounds requires great determination, practice, exceptional teaching and exhaustive coaching. Members of the choirs work one-on-one with voice coaches to cultivate and extract the very best from themselves, to discover the ranges and tones and expressions that will wring tears of sheer joy from those who have the good fortune to hear them. A voice coach can “reach inside” of the student to bring forth the unique character of sound residing within. The result is nothing short of astonishing.
I have thought about the remarkable role that voice coaches play. When students first arrive on campus, they are, for the most part, only full of potential. But raw talent requires forming and nurturing, confidence and a calling, a shaping capable of creating not just beautiful expression, but reflecting an essence of life. Through voice, we have the privilege to glimpse the soul, and to know its most basic self. In many ways, that peek into the spirit is a great gift.
By truly hearing the voice of another, we are gifted with the opportunity to respond to it, with our own precision and perfection, to that individual’s deepest need. We are given the chance to fully hear and know that which could confer a greater well-being, a connection between us, a promise of mutual strength. There may be few gifts so important or precious as those which meet the deepmost needs of another.
It’s a rare skill, this voice-coaching. To enable others in the full scope of their expression requires more patience and selflessness than most of us possess. Encouraging others to venture out beyond the boundaries of comfort and reticence calls for the full valuation of one’s own voice. Only then can there exist a belief in the intrinsic value of others’ voices and an elevation of their self-esteem, sufficient to enable confidence of articulation. Voice coaches bring vision to sounds. We need the tonic of their inspiration.
Among our own varied, daily aspirations, being a voice coach should rank somewhere near the top of our lists. Coaxing others in the practice of their own voice makes us more equal. It’s enabling. Voices together, like those which have been coached in ensemble choirs, are more powerful than solos, and capable of achieving more than any one alone. Not incidentally, releasing the power of voice is one of the coaching jobs most important to WPF in Nicaragua.
We each deserve the release of our own voice. It’s a little like those frogs I mentioned above. It’s the music of life and fulfillment, the integral piece of the sound that is full humanity. And I am especially energized at the realization that we can be, each of us, voice coaches to others. Just listen, sometime, to the frogs….
“So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we hold the key.” -The Eagles
As the new year has begun its reign, WPF has been thinking about and planning for some of the activities that will consume our time and attention over the coming months. Our team in Nica has already designed the next major workshop, a two-day session to analyze the land and its use, through the gathering and understanding of data about that land and its use. The workshops are digging deeper and challenging conventional thought more than ever before. For the participants, it’s scary and thrilling.
The team works hard to discern what the rural producers need. They have become intimate partners with many of the coops, cultivating a deep understanding of the challenges faced there. In turn, the team does its own analysis to identify the tools that they might bring to workshops and on-site sessions so that the farmers might become better equipped to succeed. The farmers, in turn, are eager to hear new ideas, maybe even to discover a “magic pill” that can make their production and commercialization efforts substantially improved over the past. In short, the team is determined to deliver and the “students” are avid learners of methodologies.
But as I consider the ideas and tactics that WPF might provide, or that I personally might be able to share, I’m struck by another factor, one that likely receives too little emphasis in development efforts. (Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve only been involved in this field for 12 years, a mere blink of the eye over the history of poverty.) The notion occurred to me as I read a short meditation the other day, one that rekindled thinking that I have cherished myself for many years. The quote reads as follows:
“The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind. But the goodness of a person speaks in all directions.” -Chanakya
It’s a beautiful thought. But its meaning runs deeper than just a sweet sentiment. For herein is the truth of the power of the individual, the potential that each human being has for impact on the world around him/her. Even in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances, whether climate, political, social or economic in nature, we each have the faculty- an enormous capacity- for impacting everything that surrounds us. For many, it’s a gift that we are reluctant to acknowledge and trust; it seems so much smaller than a new methodology or technology. It’s too inherent within us to feel credible. But like our very core understanding of right and wrong, it’s a reality.
What our partner producers may need is something more than a technique. It’s a message of personal deliverance, the need to remember each and every day the absolute truth that we impact every person around us, either for good or for ill, intended or not, and those impacts shape the success of our endeavors. How our influences work is not preordained or fated. It is by choice. The cooperative’s success, the relationships between members and even success of a single producer are all outcomes over which the individual has tremendous influence, and in ways that most of us do not comprehend well enough.
Like any organization, the cooperative prospers or fades based upon the character of individual leadership, and every member of a cooperative is a co-leader. Successful cooperatives need transparency, which in turn requires the stewardship of individuals to share information- good or bad- with fellow members. Collaborative work thrives on honesty, putting the good of all before the individual good of one’s own circumstances. That’s a tall order when faced with the daily struggle of trying to simply provide for the basic necessities of family life. But therein lies the irony of success: sometimes the surest way to one’s own well-being is to look out for the well-being of others first. Even in our so-called developed nations, we are limited in our own well-being by the level of well-being in others. If you doubt that, see the condition of the world today. Neither the have’s nor the have-not’s are as well-off as they could be.
The impoverished people of Nicaragua and elsewhere in the world assuredly deserve support, be it financial or the wealth of true accompaniment. But that accompaniment is most effective when coupled with the truth of self-direction. When any of us come to understand our impact, our influence and what we are capable to give, we stand at the threshold of making the greatest single contribution to our work that we could ever make.
I know that it’s one thing for someone to speak of these things and another thing to put them into action. When it comes to advice , Nicaraguans know that it’s cheap, whatever the source, and usually carries with it some kind of “catch” for which they will pay a price. As a result, they continue searching with healthy skepticism.
I’ve taken to re-reading the Charles Dickens classic tale, Our Mutual Friend. It’s Dickens’ last work, a long piece of literature that captured my imagination as a young man and for some reason (perhaps the recognition that if I ever intended to re-read it, I’d better get going), I decided to tackle it again. It’s full of lessons and observations about Victorian (and modern) life, as well as those long and circuitous sentences with which Dickens was so adept.
Dickens’ focus on the great disparities in Victorian London are well-known, such as in his tale, A Christmas Carol. But I ran across a passage in the current book that I simply couldn’t pass up for sharing. One doesn’t really need to know the context of the story or the characters to understand the clarity of the message. It reads like this:
In the meantime, a stray personage of meek demeanour, who had wandered to the hearthrug and got among the heads of tribes assembled there in conference with Mr. Podsnap, eliminated Mr. Podsnap’s flush and flourish by a highly unpolite remark; no less than a reference to the circumstance that some half-dozen people had lately died in the streets, of starvation. It was clearly ill-timed after dinner.It was not adapted to the cheek of the young person. It was not in good taste.
“I do not believe it,” said Mr. Podsnap, putting it behind him.
The meek man was afraid we must take it as proved, because there were the Inquests and the Registrar’s returns.
“Then it was their own fault,” said Mr. Podsnap.
The man of meek demeanour intimated that truly it would seem from the facts, as if starvation had been forced upon the culprits in question- as if, in their wretched manner, they had made their weak protests against it- as if they would have taken the liberty of staving it off if they could- as if they would rather not have been starved upon the whole, if perfectly agreeable to all parties.
“There is not,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing angrily, “there is not a country in the world, sir, where so noble a provision is made for the poor as in this country.”
The meek man was quite willing to concede that, but perhaps it rendered the matter even worse, as showing that there must be something appallingly wrong somewhere.
“Where?” said Mr. Podsnap.
The meek man hinted Wouldn’t it be well to try, very seriously, to find out where?
“Ah!” said Mr. Podsnap. “Easy to say somewhere; not so easy to say where. But I see what you are driving at. I knew it from the first. Centralization. No. Never with my consent. Not English.”
An approving murmur arose from the heads of the tribes; as saying, “There you have him! Hold him!”
He was not aware (the meek man submitted of himself) that he was driving at any ization. He had no favorite ization that he knew of. But he certainly was more staggered by these terrible occurrences than he was by names of howsoever so many syllables. Might he ask, was dying of destitution and neglect necessarily English?
“You know what the population of London is, I suppose?” said Mr. Podsnap.
The meek young man supposed he did, but supposed that had absolutely nothing to do with it, if its laws were well-administered.
“And you know, at least I hope you know,” said Mr. Podsnap with severity, “that Providence has declared that you shall have the poor always with you?”
The meek man also hoped he knew that.
“I am glad to hear it,” said Mr. Podsnap with a portentous air. “I am glad to hear it.It will render you cautious how you fly in the face of Providence.”
In reference to that absurd and irreverent conventional phrase, the meek man said, for which Mr. Podsnap was not responsible, he the meek man had no fear of doing anything so impossible; but-
But Mr. Podsnap felt that the time had come for flushing and flourishing this meek man down for good. So he said:
“I must decline to pursue this painful discussion. It is not pleasant to my feelings; it is repugnant to my feelings. I have said that I do not admit these things. I have also said that if they do occur (not that I admit it), the fault lies with the sufferers themselves. It is not for ME- Mr. Podsnap pointed ME forcibly, as adding by implication though it may be all very well for YOU- “it is not for me to impugn the workings of Providence. I know better than that, I trust, and I have mentioned what the intentions of Providence are. Besides,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing high up among his hair brushes, with a strong consciousness of personal affront, “the subject is a very disagreeable one. I will go so far as to say it is an odious one. It is not one to be introduced among our wives and young persons, and I-“
He finished with that flourish of his arm which added more expressively than any words: ” And I remove it from the face of the earth.”
It is an easy thing to simply banish disagreeable realities with a sweep of the arm. Or to claim that something is true when it is not. But doing so does not change the realities or absolve us from the human stewardship that we owe to one another as fellow-travelers on this earthly journey. Dickens knew it. And as unpleasant, repugnant, disagreeable and odious as it may be, so do we all….
With acknowledgement to author Shel Silverstein who gave us the classic children’s book, The Giving Tree, I use the title here to consider two “giving trees” which are reaching an end of sharing their extraordinary gifts. And while my musings here are premature- neither of the two are yet completely gone- I cannot help but reflect on their importance, their meaning and their impacts, not only upon me, but on the world in which live.
Northeastern Iowa, where I live, is home to many emblems of rugged survival. The high river bluffs of the driftless region, the forest cover overlaying the limestone beds of ancient geologic formation, and the burr oak trees of those woodlands, all stand as watchmen against the march of time and evolution. The oaks, in particular, with their gnarly limbs and diminutive acorns, are omnipresent here, bookmarks of an earlier age, a time before settlements and agriculture and highways. I have come to deeply admire them, for both their arboreal beauty as well as their symbolism of a time that was somehow better.
The oak at the north end of the college campus here has enjoyed its own history and prominence. It has graced a hillside there since the very earliest days of the school, likely gaining no notice in its fledgling years as first a shoot and then little more than a sapling. But as the burr oaks are wont to do, it survived. It stood by as settlers migrated to this area to farm and as educators traveled here to teach and preach. It withstood the winds and the winters of the Oneota Valley, and the inexorable march of settlement and development of the territory. It became a visible boundary of the college, a sentinel to the people and histories that emerged from that place. And it continued to grow.
Over time, the oak commanded attention, as an imposing tower at the north end. A building was built in its shadow. A road passed under its limbs. Students sat beneath it, considering the deepest questions of our lives, while contemplating the directions of their own. In more recent years, an entire native grass savannah and rain garden became cultivated around it, to show it off, call attention to its prairie heritage and to reclaim a piece of what once was: a prairie oak savannah. It steadied us, was a visual touchstone to certainty and continuity, and embodied a needed constancy.
Last year, in the bloom of Spring, nearly half of the burr oak failed to leaf out. Arborists attempted some treatments, but with no effect. The tree was reaching the end of its service and accompaniment. Last week, the tree was taken down.
There remains a wide space in the savannah where the tree’s umbrella once shielded deer and fox, birds and learners alike. A stump remains for now, chronicling the 125 year life of what was a fixture of the prairie. For now, I can still walk to the base and sit upon what remains. The world may not notice its absence. But I do.
Concurrent with the loss of a great tree is the impending departure of a colleague in Nicaragua. Ligia Gutierrez will end her consulting role with Winds of Peace Foundation in March, not so much in retirement as in opening herself to the next possibilities in a world which she has so richly served already.
Ligia has served as consultant for Winds of Peace, particularly with regard to the circumstances of the Indigenous people of Nicaragua, as well as working with women’s groups in helping them to discover their collective and individual voices. To state here that she will be missed is an absurdity, because it does not begin to tell the story of this remarkable individual.
She is a child of the revolution, a committed and activist member of the Sandinista vision of a country free of the dictatorship and inequality that had fouled the country’s circumstances for generations. She is a psychologist by training, a philosopher in practice, a teacher of holistic and cooperative living that extends far beyond social norms and legal statutes. Her work is defined by the closeness of the relationships she creates: she is a mother to the youth, an intimate friend to the women, a friendly-but-persistent agitator within a still-machismo culture, a persistent prospector for equal rights and respect, both within the law and within the heart. For me personally, she has been a Nica mentor, providing context and perspective that has helped me better understand the history and culture in which the Foundation works. She is a student of physical and spiritual health. She is a friend.
Ligia is also the source of one of my greatest frustrations in my Nica experiences: I have never been able to speak with her without the voice of a translator. We have never been able to exchange thoughts and ideas directly with one another, thereby greatly reducing the interactions which might have educated me in untold ways. My regret over this is a palpable wound that does not heal.
Like the burr oak on the prairie, Ligia has given of herself over a lifetime of service to ideas and others beyond herself. Though small in physical stature, she is a powerhouse. She is one of those rare individuals of the universe, seeing both the complexity and the beauty of the whole and striving to manifest it. That personality, that persona, is what draws the rest of us toward her, for our own sakes.
And like the burr oak, the seeds which she has planted- ideas, self-regard, respect, justice- will far outlive her active service. Hers is a testament that branches across generations and shelters the hopes of those in need of wisdom and love. And like a strong oak suddenly gone, her absence will leave both a gaping space and a magnificent legacy.
The removal of the burr oak tree did not elicit notice even in the local newspaper. Ligia’s retirement will not be the stuff of international news or perhaps even local notice. Their respective “graduations” are but the latest examples of the ongoing stream of life. But they are to be missed. The beauty, the lessons, the lives that they modeled are gifts for which I will be always grateful….