Category Archives: Understanding The Other

Updated — Building different futures overcoming intellectual apartheid

Building different futures overcoming intellectual apartheid

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]


                                                                                                Article dedicated to Fr. Jack Moynihan and Sr. Maria Alicia McCabe[2]


-Why are you coming to visit us? María Jesús asked, the grandmother of the community. Not even the priests visit us now–she took charge of the conversation.

-The world is getting more difficult. Without us, it will be difficult for you to improve; and without you, we don´t even know where we are going- I responded.

-Is that right? Whispered the grandmother, inviting me to coffee.

Thirty years ago in most of Central America corn and beans were planted without using glyphosate nor gramoxone; now gramoxone is used even for harvesting beans, in part to keep the rain from making the beans “sprout”. Not to mention vegetables, coffee and cacao. Much less sugar cane, peanuts or sesame. Probably beef and pork meat is more organic than carrots or beans. Where did this come from? The costs of production of a peasant family have increased drastically, but not the prices they are paid for their products; this makes desperation spread, tension and violence intensify, biodiversity erode, and climate variability proliferate.

There are many explanations for these realities. In this article I focus on intellectuals, who dedicate an important part of their time to studying the realities, preparing projects and/or policies, teaching or preaching; they are writers, scientists, artists, scholars; they are “people of culture” who move in different circles from most people, a separation which at times is concealed but abysmal. We use the word “apartheid” to denote this intolerable separation. By way of hypothesis we say that the separation between intellectuals and the communities where most of people live has impaired humanity for at least five centuries, when friars (intellectuals), soldiers, tax collectors and traders burst upon these lands. How can they work together and write a new history? I reflect on this question from the heterogeneity of the rural world.

That wall of intellectual apartheid

We read articles in newspapers and magazines about political issues where generally the rural reality does not appear, and if it does, it is reduced to topics of violence where its structural causes are ignored. There are NGOs with rural agendas whose intellectuals respond to donors, sporadically they show up in rural communities to do surveys or interviews, they show up once and never return. In fact, in the last 20-30 years, there are practically no intellectuals who write about the rural realities of Central America in a systematic way.

At the same time there are young rural women and men who have studied different majors. Finishing their studies, their dream is not to work with rural populations. They work for companies, the government, or they migrate to other countries to work in what they can. If they stay, they go back to agriculture or to be housewives, leaving aside their intellectual role that could give them the possibility of writing peasant and indigenous history from their perspectives, and writing about new futures.

What happened to us? The Fordist and Taylorist colonial mentality that separates experts from workers has nested in our minds, regardless of the political ideology that we might exude. This mental model makes one believe that there is nothing to be learned from rural communities, like some two thousand years ago: “Nazareth! –exclaimed Nathanael. Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). This mental model makes intellectuals believe that they are superior: “I am an accountant”, “I am an engineer”, “I am a professor”, “I am a pastor, anointed by God”, “I am a doctor” or “I am an economist”. This intellectual arrogance means that we do not mix with peasant or indigenous people, that that hidden or submerged population live in the “middle ages” – a Eurocentric reading, as if Latin America had an “ancient age”, “middle age” and “modern age”.

This mentality adds cement to the millennial wall of intellectual apartheid of a “Latin America” where indigenous and peasant people are absent. Peasant and indigenous people walk on their own and intellectuals do so as well, each one on different rails.

I have learned a lesson working for decades with rural populations. Alone, peasants and indigenous, it will be difficult for them to innovate with their economies and societies; alone, we intellectuals will continue exuding Eurocentrism and allowing the spirit of Nathanael to control us.

Experiences that seem to knock this wall down

Fortunately, there are experiences in which that wall is knocked down, even though just a part of it, and just for some period of time. The most well-known came in the 1960s and 1970s when several lines of thinking coincided. The opening of the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979), a church open to the poor; the momentum of the Cuban revolution (1959); popular education under the influence of Pablo Freire; and the dependency theory of Singer and Prebisch. It was a period in which public universities were spaces of debate, where majors in sociology, philosophy and political science prevailed.

Under this framework, university students and professors, priests, sisters and politicians, went into communities and neighborhoods accompanying indigenous, peasant and impoverished people from urban neighborhoods. Churches, classrooms, auditoriums and offices let their intellectuals leave. In Central America the experience of the community of Solentiname (Nicaragua) stands out with Ernesto Cardenal, where they produced the Gospel of Solentiname; the experience of the community of Aguilares (El Salvador), the experience of hundreds of Base Christian Communities. One outstanding regional experience is that of the Radiophonic Schools, where intellectuals (religious and lay) promoted literacy, health care and agriculture, a framework in which many people organized into cooperatives and peasant stores, which still exist today, though very much in a diminished way.

It is a period in which part of that wall was felled; the mentality was that God and freedom were in the impoverished people who seek justice, that people can organize with their own resources, that honesty and solidarity are values that are found in humble people. To a large extent, with this process all the military dictatorships were brought down and democracy was installed throughout Latin America.

But this harmful wall resurged after the years of the 1980s. The institutional church closed itself back up in church buildings and persecuted those religious who refused to leave the communities which were building the Reign of God on earth. Banking style education returned to the classrooms. Political revolutions and democracies took over the military bases and offices, feeling at home under hierarchical and authoritarian structures. Studies in business administration, accounting and law led public and private universities with the dream of making money. The teachings and trainings put learning aside. The spirit of Nathanael returned to the minds of intellectuals, separating them from people with calloused hands who paid for the studies of these intellectuals. This is the reality that made María Jesús ask, “Why are you coming to visit us?”

Breaking the wall and combining ideas and efforts

Visiting people like María Jesús, we jump over that wall of apartheid – we just “jump”. Here we list four ways of knocking the wall down, which, like a constellation of stars could show us one of the paths: get involved in the real lives of the majorities, experience the changes, co-invest in initiatives and recognize several languages.

Intellectuals need to get involved in the real lives of the majorities, combine being in our churches, classrooms, auditoriums, offices and conference rooms, with living in rural communities, organized however they may be, experiencing what it means to generate collective actions beyond one´s own family, and outside of the “synagogue” itself (church, office…. ). If it is a matter of the fact that agriculture and the lives of human and natural communities might improve, food not be poisoned, it is unacceptable that the rural population walk along the rail that the market pulls them on, and that intellectuals walk along another rail, also pulled by the market.

The issue of beans is technology, soils, climate, property, institutions like sharecropping, sharing labor, and land rental, it is intermediation and crop lien lending, it is weighing and quality, it is official data and real data, it is new bean soup and refried beans; all of this varies from year to year. The same with coffee, cacao, corn, squash or lemongrass, gardens, cornfields and farms. It is ethically and scientifically questionable to make proposals without being involved in that world, without studying them and studying oneself. We need to re-understand commercial relationships, not as commodities subjected to the totalitarianism of the market, but as the means for “good living”, as they say in the Andean countries, or the “I am because you are”, as one of the profound perspectives from Africa expresses it.

The topic of violence, specifically violence against women, is an issue of millennial social and religious rules, laws, power relationships, family and structures embedded in religious, political and economic institutions, it is the law of the jungle and human dispositions. It is not possible to reduce and terminate that violence if we do not identify its causes and do not accompany women in their non-violent paths in their own communities.

On the topic of rural organizations, it is cooperation in the midst of conflict, democracy in authoritarian societies, distribution of profits within a context of “trickle-down economics”, it is transparency in the midst of secretive mafias, it is accounting for peasant stores and cooperatives when universities are teaching accounting for companies and corporations…One can advise organizations only if we learn from them how to advise them.

Intellectuals need to experience the changes along with rural people. An idea that is tested, adapted, adjusted, redone, finds legitimacy, motivates, is corrected and polished, is an idea that takes on life, that changes even the details or precisely because of the details. Experimenting in the organization of cooperatives, associations, associative enterprises, community stores or rural banks, helps to establish different processes. Experimenting is digging into decolonializing ourselves, and getting ourselves out of the orbit of Eurocentrism, which is presented as the measure of all things. The same thing happens on the side of rural populations, there are peasant and indigenous people who become pastors, delegates of the word, healers and agricultural and community advisors, many of them also dig into and realize that what is happening and what has happened to them is not natural nor determined by some supernatural being, in this way putting a crack in the wall of apartheid.

As we dig further, we run into more powerful beliefs that support e wall, but we also find people who find their source of motivation in those depths in unimaginable ways. After administering a community store for one year, Yesenia Hernández expressed in an assembly: “I used to sell and I did not understand the numbers, because they say “women are for the kitchen and men for documents”; I prepared myself to understand the numbers, now they don´t make my head hurt, I am also a “woman of documents”. It is not just accounting, it is beliefs and ways of getting into the numbers, it is working together to adjust those audits of cash and inventory each month. When these improvements happen, other colonial “demons” emerge from political, economic and religious intermediations, and from within ourselves, intellectuals and peasant and indigenous people. It is not just focusing on the community store, it is also studying those surroundings and adjusting and polishing the changes.

In many cases it is co-investing in initiatives like community stores. If intellectuals and people from the communities invest in these initiatives, they will be concerned about their resources and will study the stores, because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” In this way, in the midst of tensions and disagreements that collective actions imply, they will produce new ideas, far from just kneeling down before the market of products and knowledge. This interaction or alliance are part of the basic conditions for freedom of thought, in order to be decolonialized.

Finally, breaking down the wall is recognizing several “languages”. The language of accounting talks about “liabilities”, “assets”, “equity”, “expenses”, “cash out” and “inventory”; likewise economics or law have their own language…Peasant language talks about “payment adjustment”, “piglet” (savings), “scraping by” (look for earnings and savings, like a chicken that scrapes the ground looking for food), “tight” (balance without debt), “cornsilk” (small earnings)…These words underly different rationalities, they are communication vehicles for walking together over long distances and times, be it co-investing, experiencing changes or getting ourselves involved in the real lives of peasant and indigenous people.


Good changes walk with two feet, intellectuals and peasants/indigenous who organize. With two feet one can re-perceive commercial relationships governed by societies, and rethink ideas from a perspective of decolonialization from the south. No foot can believe itself to be superior and take leaps without the other foot. As the Italian writer, Luciano de Crescenzo says, “we are all angels with only one wing, and we can only fly if we embrace someone else”; in our case, peasant individuals can fly through associative organizations, but only in an embrace with intellectuals, and intellectuals can only fly in an embrace with peasants who organize.

In this we need to have a long-term perspective of the histories, the changes that might last and deepen over centuries. Seen in this way, the innovative experience of the 1960s and 1970s that I mentioned lasted barely 20-30 years, after which neoliberalism and religious and political conservatism absorbed them, or as Franz Hinkelammert would say, the totalitarianism of the market controlled the state and societies; even though some flashes of that time persist. In contrast, European enlightenment broke down that wall and lasted 74 years (1715-1789), and its impact lasted for centuries in Europe. The same with the Protestant Reformation that broke the Catholic wall into pieces, which had abducted the Bible, lasted 144 years (1454-1598) and its which is remade and has lasted for thousands of years.

How can this wall of intellectual colonialist apartheid, subjected to the totalitarianism of the market, be breached? Our response is that intellectuals and indigenous and peasant peoples organize, and together rewrite the histories of our peoples, on paper, in our minds and in our futures. Rewriting implies conceptualizing, synthesizing processes, self-studying, analyzing actions in the light of different approaches, creating parables like Jesus to communicate and provoke reflection; doing it in an ongoing way, together, not once a year or as project systematizations/intermediate evaluations. These different futures can be written or designed to the extent that “the other” is rescued; rescuing indigenous and peasant people who emerge from the way down below where they were condemned for centuries; they emerge fighting with so many demons (beliefs and rules of the elites) which have been imposed on them; that the peasantry also rescue intellectuals, who also fight against so many other demons (beliefs and rules of the elites) which have led them to walk only on their side of the street; mutually rescuing one another, reflecting with images and parables, synthesizing their paths for sharing and keeping their organizations from falling into neoliberalism, reduced to maximizing their earnings, or the colonialism of “we always need a patron”. Doing it year by year, decade by decade, and century after century, decolonializing rural organizations, churches, classrooms, auditoriums, offices, conferences and farms.

Taking this step will make María de Jesús, the grandmother with the long view, whisper to us, “is that right?” And we will share coffee with rosquillas, even though at that time, like the stardust that we are, we will then be within the energies of the universe.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies and accompanies rural organizations in Central America. He is a member of Coserpross (, associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (

[2] Jack learned how to accompany grassroots communities from an African American evangelical pastor in a neighborhood in New York– according to what our friend Mark Lester tells us. With this knowledge, Jack accompanied rural communities in Bolivia and Central America, and now accompanies marginalized people in the United States. Maria Alicia accompanied communities in Brazil and communities in Nicaragua, now accompanies migrants from Latin America who struggle to enter the United States. Both are living examples of how to break this wall of apartheid.

Out of Balance

Day after day, I have hesitated to write here because the onslaught of news has kept me off-balance.  There have been few times in my life when the matters of politics, social upheaval, public health and dysfunctional economics have all come together with such overwhelming force.  Every one of the issues is daunting.  Facing them all  together is nearly beyond our imaginations.  But here we are, and the national nightmare will not be gone when we awaken tomorrow.

We are living within a perfect storm of challenges.  It’s as if the crises before us conspired to come together at the same moment to test our individual and national resolve.  In the past we have demonstrated strength and resilience and prided ourselves in the effort.  But what about our capacities to triumph over all of this?  Surely it seems that we are being tested.  It’s a little bit like recovering from a physical injury: we nurse ourselves and rest and rehabilitate, and then we’re whole again.  But facing an injury, an illness, an emotional strain and loss of eyesight is an entirely different proposition; recovery is not so simple, nor so assured. That’s when looking at our circumstances requires a more holistic diagnosis, because often the presence of one infirmity causes others.

Over the past year, I have faced a multitude of physical challenges, a sequence of oddities that have offended (and physically hurt) my beloved sense of fitness and well-being.  First it was my hip.  Then my lower back and joints.  This rheumatological malaise was followed by a spinal matter.  The adjustments I had to make for that gave rise to tendonitis in the left ankle.  And, of course, favoring the left ankle caused bruising of my right heel.  Add in a first-ever bout with kidney stones and the picture becomes rather self-explanatory: where one part of the whole is ill, the rest of the parts are not far behind.

Nationally, we are ill.  We have a political system that is failing us, exacerbated by a president whose sole objective is narcissistic self-service.  That dysfunction has amplified a malaise of polarization which prevents even a pretext of collaborative problem-solving.  Those fixed contrapositions have laid a fertile groundwork for a Covid-19 pandemic in which to gestate, taking more than 100,000 lives in our country so far.  The resultant unemployment, loss of stability and economic collapse have fostered a hopelessness not experienced since the Great Depression.  And that despair is the powder keg which the murder of George Floyd ignited, now into our seventh day of dystopian unraveling.  We are loathe to wonder what the next pain might be, what disablement is yet to come.

While I have no single diagnosis for all of the symptoms of our current disease, I do know how some of our best organizations go about the process of problem-solving.  The process is intended to “drill down” to the root cause of the ailment, to identify the most underlying base of pain.  In the present instance, I submit that we know what that root cause is.

Underlying our national malady is a persistent and growing inequality- racial, social and economic- that has been the bedrock for growth and power in our country since its founding.  There is no disputing the foundation upon which the U.S. grew to unparalleled prominence in the world: the lands we control today were territories inhabited by Native Americans long before the presence of the first Caucasian.  The labor upon which the “new” landowners relied for expansion and wealth creation was provided substantially by black slaves imported from other lands.  Inequality is a cornerstone of this nation’s history, whether we feel justification for it or not.  And it persists.

From obscene pay equity issues within our economy (Really?  A CEO is really worth 500 times the compensation of his her workers?) to the knee of a white police officer on the neck of his black suspect (for maybe passing a counterfeit $20 bill?), hostile inequality remains at the forefront of national policy, practice and preference.  It’s there because we allow it.  We prefer it.  In the aftermath of daily upheavals, we hear elected officials or neighborhood residents making the claim, “This is not who we are.”  But it is.  Otherwise, neither the inequality which spawns it nor the  rioting in response to it would be happening.

That is not to say that it must be this way, only that it is this way.  The central mantra of our economic system says that if one works hard and applies creativity and motivation to opportunity, financial and social success can be had.  What is not made clear in that proposition is that in today’s culture of winner-take-all, that achievement will be at an often dangerous expense of others.  This isn’t an argument against free enterprise or the promises of risk-reward.  Rather, it’s simply the underlying truth, the underlying cause, of the inequalities that are driving many of the awful symptoms witnessed this summer so far.

Holistic well-being exists when the body is in synch with itself, when the systems and appendages are well and complementing one another.  A nation’s health is exactly the same: no individual can achieve  maximum well-being as long as others are not well.  As a result, we’ll have some decisions to be made in the months ahead, once the smoke clears and political actions have been promised.  We’ll either have interventions that we’re willing to embrace, or we won’t.  We’ll actually deliver the systemic change promised over decades of disparity, or we won’t.  At the end of the day, it will be up to us to determine whether the level of inequality has finally become intolerable, or whether a knee to the neck is just something we prefer to live with….


We Are Like the Frogs

“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….




Together Is Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inherent Lens

Bias.  It’s what we as human being use to see the world around us, whether we like to admit it or not.  We see the world through the lens of our own experiences.  Sometimes that comes from things that have happened to us.  Sometimes it comes from things we’ve been told.  Often our vision comes from the way we would like to see reality, for our own benefit.  But we are born with the predilection toward bias.  Is it also true about the way we view the poor?

I received the following article from the organization, “Progress Through Business,” a non-profit located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  It was founded by an acquaintance of mine, John Hoffmire, whom I came to know through his advocacy in the ESOP world.  I found the subject and the data of the article provocative, and decided to include it here:

How The Rich View The Poor

The discussion over rising inequality in the U.S. has captured headlines, been featured in the November election campaign, and incited heated debates analyzing and criticizing the relationships between the rich and the poor. “Out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” have become buzzwords used to describe the attitude of the haves toward the have-nots.

Despite this narrative unfolding in the media, the question remains whether the headlines reflect reality.

The Associated Press recently cited research saying that 1 in 5 Americans reaches affluence at one point in their lives. This 20 percent block is a far cry from the critique offered by many who want change but still provides evidence of a large disparity between the wealthy and the poor.

Some might ask how this division affects the social aspects of our society. What is the best descriptor of the relationship between those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum? The prevailing story conveyed through the media would suggest that “out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” do accurately portray the well-off portion of the U.S. society.

However, those who question this viewpoint might pose the following queries: What about the billions of dollars donated every year to poverty-focused charities? What about the wealthy investors who have recently turned their focus to social innovation and impact investing in order to address social ills through business? Doesn’t this demonstrate a stronger interest than we might otherwise think? Or does the philanthropist merely seek notoriety through his or her contributions, and is the socially minded investor motivated by the opportunity to gain new market share or attract new customers?

So the question remains, are the wealthy truly invested in the poor and do they care?

A  New York Times blog by Daniel Goleman detailed research on social interactions between two groups of people on significantly different rungs of the social ladder. I’ll call this research “study one.”

Members of one group had a much higher income than the members of the other. Subjects of both social classes were instructed to share and communicate, with another individual, about hardships that they had experienced in their personal lives. Researchers then observed the interaction between the two individuals. The findings of the research show that the rich consistently demonstrate disinterest in the personal difficulties of the poor.

The wealthy showed less sympathy and concern as they listened to the poor recall personal trials, such as divorces and deaths in the family. Conversely, the poor tended to be as attentive to the difficulties of the rich as they were to the difficulties of their socio-economic equals.

The researchers concluded that we tend to be interested in those whom we value. Partly due to a void in material wealth, the poor tend to value social relationships. They develop “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions”. This is a trait that anyone — and everyone — could develop, regardless of financial wealth.

If the researchers are correct in their conclusions, and members of our society are only interested in those whom they value, then inattention would demonstrate that the rich undervalue the poor. Why is this? It may be that the rich judge the poor. The rich may assume the poor live a “substandard” life brought upon themselves through their own ignorant or incompetent decisions.

Wealthier members of society may assume that everyone has the same opportunities and that those whose cognitive abilities are less efficient should not receive certain advantages in society because they have not earned them. This attitude, if it exists, is undermined by research that says that many cognitive difficulties are environmentally induced. In other words, those who live in economic stress may be impaired cognitively as a result of the stress caused by consistently living in situations where their economic lives provide bitter choices.

The research, which I will label “study two,” includes an experiment performed at a New Jersey mall and is detailed in a 2013 article written by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, all prominent university researchers. The subjects of the study were confronted with a scenario. They were told that they faced a common financial problem, such as paying for a car repair.

This problem was meant to activate real financial concerns that existed in the participants’ own lives. After thinking about how to come up with the money to make the payment, the subjects were asked to answer common IQ test questions. This research included a component that tested the respondents’ ability to answer questions correctly and quickly while under pressure. After providing a solution to paying for the auto repair, the subjects were asked to disclose their income.

The subjects were assigned either “hard” or “easy” financial situations, with an auto repair cost of $1,500 or $150 respectively.

When contemplating “easy” situations of $150 auto repairs, the poor and the rich answered the IQ test questions correctly at a very similar rate. When the auto repair cost was raised to a “hard” situation of $1,500, the rich performed about the same on the IQ test as they had during the “easy” situation. However, when faced with “hard” situations, the poor experienced a significant drop in the number of questions they answered correctly. This was in line with the researchers’ original hypothesis.

The experiment was then adjusted to include a financial reward of 25 cents for every correct response. Although the poor have a presumably greater need for the money, they still performed worse during “hard” situations than the rich, and earned roughly 18 percent less.

This seems relatively reflective of reality. The researchers go on to explain that the poor earn less not out of incompetency, but because they must allocate mental capacity to problems that are more pressing to them than to the rich.

Remember that the poor performed just as well as the rich when the stakes were low. The difficulty for the poor arose when the payment increased to $1,500, even when they had the ability to make money by answering correctly. Many expenses, which the rich consider minor, become major obstacles for the poor, requiring a significant amount of attention to address. This allocation of attention to pressing concerns may in turn prevent the poor from taking advantage of opportunities (such as earning extra cash in the above study).

Additionally, solving these problems comes at the expense of other basic needs. The researchers cite prior studies showing that the poor “use less preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents and worse managers of their finances.” According to the study, these troubling behaviors are caused neither by laziness nor incompetence but by decreased capacity brought on by the situations the poor face. This is due to the overwhelming nature of stressful situations, many of which are not nearly as difficult for the rich.

The study’s results provide key insights into the relationship between the rich and the poor. The occurrence of the types of problems discovered in study two should not elicit negative judgments from the rich but rather understanding. The wealthy could be much more interested in the poor, knowing that the personal difficulties in the lives of the poor may have more serious repercussions than situations in their own lives. The resources of the poor, financial and mental, are often already stretched to their limits.

If studies one and two are reflective of the reality of how the rich view poverty-stricken people, and I believe they are, it is a major misperception on the part of the rich to believe that the poor should always be able to recover from setbacks in the same ways as others. And if both of the above studies are true, then less-advantaged individuals’ traits of “keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions” are all the more impressive. Low-income individuals are able to allocate their attention to focus on other people, while the rich do not seem to have this same ability, often depriving the poor of sympathy and understanding.

The studies give us observations and a neurobehaviorialistic view of the relationships between rich and poor. But what else might motivate the lack of demonstrated concern of the wealthy for those less fortunate? Perhaps it is that the rich are so focused on gaining more wealth, status, and contact with other wealthy people that there is little incentive for them to get to know and care for the poor.

So the question arises, how can the rich turn their attention outward and toward those on the opposite end of the social ladder? One way would be for everyone to better understand the role of good fortune and the assistance they have received from others. Many have benefited from those who stand a few rungs up and a few rungs down.

We, of all social classes, could consistently be looking out for those who find upward mobility difficult and we could understand that trials and burdens are taxing, painful and often devastating for those at many points along the socio-economic spectrum, but are especially paralyzing for those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. While those who are well off enjoy the comfort of ample financial resources, they could also strive to develop and use their own sense of a “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions.”

I say this not only on account of the poor. It seems that many in other social classes are missing out on a special opportunity. I notice at times in our society that many people lack a sense of purpose. Dedication to the poor and a willingness to act on their behalf can bring great value to the life of someone who is willing to serve.

One who certainly showed attention to those less fortunate was the late Nelson Mandela. Leading a nation out of apartheid also meant fighting a war against poverty. Partly due to his work, South Africa began a process leading toward greater development in Africa. Mandela understood that our social interactions are key tools in combating poverty. He described our duty to do our part to help those around us and across the globe when he said:

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

We could all benefit from allocating our own financial and mental resources in an outward way, paying special attention to those around us who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Adam Turville

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

Distant Drums

It’s June.  The trees are leafed out, I need to cut my lawn at least once a week and summer seems as though it wants to stay around for a while.  It’s what we in the north have pined for during the past six months.  And all I can think about is Nicaragua.

I haven’t been in Nicaragua since February and likely won’t make another return trip until August.  No farms, no cooperative counsel, no ownership enthusiasm, no face-to-face conversations with people who do not speak English, but who nonetheless speak “my language.”  Memory of earlier trips fade over time and I begin to feel more and more distant from people who are the focus of our work and the hopes of sustainable Nicaragua.  That exemplifies a problem, a big one for all of us.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also creates distance.  Physically, I am no further away from my Nicaraguan colleagues and acquaintances than I was upon my return from there in February.  But the ensuing four months have distanced me, nonetheless.  Obviously, I do not see their faces.  I do not hear their voices or the anxieties  within their words.  They do not shake my hand in the morning or wish me a pleasant night in the evening.  We cannot share meals together.  I am not there to encourage and they may quickly forget lessons shared.  We are… apart.  Despite my heartfelt desire to be a resource and a friend, the time and distance erode the intensity of our relationship.  I’ve experienced the phenomenon before.

In 2000, my wife and I traveled with our four children (our two sets of twins) to the land of their birth, South Korea.  One of the many blessings of that travel was the opportunity to meet with both sets of birth parents.  The reunions were priceless, the time spent with these extended families were filled with emotion and love beyond our possible expectations.  We became family with these South Korean kin; by the time of our departure from their country, we promised each other ongoing love and communication.

For a time, we kept our pledge to one another.  From the U.S., we regularly telephoned long distance with the aid of an interpreter. (E-mail was not yet the readily available tool that it was to become.) From Korea, we received gifts and photos.  Christmas featured gifts in both directions.  The bonds remained vibrant.  But in time, they grew less frequent.  Our kids grew into busy young people already pressed for time and energy.  Birth families likely grew increasingly frustrated with time lags and difficulties in translating letters.  And eventually, not even the bonds of shared parenting and extended family could sustain a continued embrace.

It’s perhaps an obvious reality that time and distance intrude on the most sincere of desires and necessities.  And if they can erode our intentions even with respect to those whom we know and love, we can only speculate about the difficulties in nurturing connections with those we do not know.  I experienced it happening with South Korean family.  I feel it developing with Nicaraguan friends.  We become victims of our isolations.

At a time when our government and some of its population look to isolate our nation- to create greater distance and fewer collaborations to Make America Great Again- we would do well to recognize the realities of distance and time.  They are already formidable enemies of peace and humanity.  They siphon away touch and contact and emotion.  They feed doubt and gossip.  They sew seeds of suspicion.  Our needs are not to withdraw even further from the presence of “the other,” but to draw closer.

At the very least, I’m determined to reach out to two families in South Korea.  And to get back to people whom I know and care about in Nicaragua….