Tag Archives: Stewardship

The Problems with Privilege

One of my daughters, Molly,  has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege.  She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege.  It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege.  It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students.  Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context.  Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds.  (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)

But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy.  She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.

The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants.  We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life.  We want to be “first in line.”  It might be first in line for a new technology.  We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets.  We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others.  We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay.  We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work.  Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays.  It’s in us instinctively.   Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are.  We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.

The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives.  Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom.  For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us.  We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below.  All of us are more privileged than some.  Some are more privileged than most.  Most are more privileged than the least.  I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most.  So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”

Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it.  We seem to feel as though everyone else has it.  No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives,  we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged.  The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others.   There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention.  But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.

Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less.  The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been  cause for debate throughout our history.  It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government.  That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.

If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation.  It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion.  But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….

 

New Year’s Revolutions

Even if we deny the need for or intention to establish New Year’s resolutions, we all have ’em, even if tucked away anonymously in the back of our conscious thought.  They are items that we wish we could be better at or that we could improve upon, whether for ourselves of the sake of others.  Often they are health-related, sometimes they are financial determinations, occasionally they call us to change some quirk of personality.  But they are almost always difficult to live up to and can leave us feeling even more inept or unaccomplished than before.  Indeed, some “experts” suggest that resolutions are a bad thing, setting us up for failure or disappointment.  I’m not sure whether they are a help or a hindrance, having resolved many years ago never to establish any such challenges.

Yet with New Year’s Eve on our doorstep and noisy parties on so many calendars , I’m compelled to offer my own list of hoped-for personal transformations for 2017.  I suppose that any of the following could be adopted by others, without copyright infringement, if the fit was right. 

1. I resolve to learn the Spanish language, just as I have resolved for each of the past 10 years.

Knowing a language other than my own grants me a clarity.  The essence of connecting with others lies in the ability to express oneself to others directly and personally, without the intervention of a translator or mechanical interpreter.  The most painful and counterproductive reality of my work in Nicaragua (even with the impeccable translations of my colleague), is my inability to express personally to another human being what I think and feel.  I suspect that no one else suffers from such a shortcoming.

2.  I resolve to be more giving of the immense blessings I have received, both personal and material.

I’m just a temporary steward of everything I am, everything I have.  I don’t get to take any of it with me when I leave.  I’d rather have the enjoyment of giving it away now and feeling the immense pleasure of sharing that which I never deserved in the first place.

3.  I resolve to preserve more water.

I can do without TVs and cell phones and vocation and achievement and even the loves of my life.  But I need water.  (So do you.)  I’m going to collect it and be careful with it.  What a treasure!

4.  I resolve to de-clutter.

While I’m busy giving more things away, I’ll be de-cluttering at the same time.  And when the unnecessary elements of my daily living are out of the way, I’m thinking that the important matters will receive more of my attention.  Have you ever lost anything?

5.  I resolve to be more open to the possibility that newly-elected politicians could actually do some good things.

All resolutions require some time and effort but I really don’t expect to spend much of either on this one, I admit.  People could say that I haven’t really resolved much here, but then again, I can think of few current politicians who have given me any reason to expect honest leadership or commitment to the common good.

6.  I resolve to stay committed to the preservation of my health and fitness, since no one else can or will.

It’s probably true that I am what I eat.  And I am what I drink and how I sleep and how I care for myself.  My health and well-being are a product of my own choices and self-care, rather than the domain of doctors and therapists.  I’d like those professional people to go along for the trip, but I insist on driving.  Who knows, maybe some others might choose to follow.

7.  I resolve to learn more about more of the world, since the politicians and the media are not up to the task.

Like everyone else, I’ve always been a creature who is subject to my own personal perceptions about the truth.  My life experiences necessarily shape my views of things.  But it’s becoming more and more difficult to separate reality from someone’s self-serving spin on the truth.  Absolute truth may not even exist, but I need to get closer to it than I am now.  The future of the world depends on it.

8.  I resolve to better love my neighbor.

It’s what I’m called to do as a moral human being.  I know who they are, I know where they are and I know them as both my obligation and my privilege.  I just need to better understand how to extend my reach.

9.  I resolve to write a book, or at least begin the process.

As I have led organizations and worked with groups around the country (and elsewhere in the world), I’ve come to know that each and every human being has a unique and important story to tell; even the most mundane of lives holds immeasurable gifts.  So it must be true of me, too.  I want to identify and tell that story

10.  I resolve to embrace the truth that peace comes only from within.

I know it’s there, and I have gone to that well more times than I can count over my lifetime.  And still, it is not enough that I have sought and found such peace.  It is there that my joys and trials, achievements and failures, thrills and disappointments are all reconciled within my life.  I know the source of that comfort for myself; I resolve to cherish and foster it.

Maybe your list, if one exists, doesn’t resemble this one at all.  But if I was inclined to set myself up for either enriching my life or, alternatively, creating huge disappointment, these would be my revolutionary priorities.

In any case, I’ve still got two days to think about it….

 

Of Vision and Purpose

While we’re busy preparing for the second Certificate Program for rural cooperative members and managers, technicians, second-tier coop representatives and others, the focus is on methodologies.  After all, we’ve spent portions of the past ten years describing organizational strengthening techniques used successfully in the U.S. in hopes that it might spark interest in the Nica countrysides.  Now that rural producers have asked for greater detail about initiatives like open book management, Lean continuous improvement and organizational transparency, the workshop facilitators are eager to deliver such particulars.

As mentioned here previously, Winds of Peace will have the great good fortune to present Brian Kopas and Alex Moss,  gentlemen whose organizational experiences in the fields of organizational Lean and open book management are extraordinary, and therefore of great potential application to this Nica workshop.  They  possess enormous knowledge and practical experiences, they have already provided materials for the introduction of their topics, they are counseling us in our respective workshop presentations and they will be huge resources for the inevitable questions and challenges that are encountered during the workshop.  (Where people are intent upon learning, their questions and challenges are essential.)

But as I consider the wealth of knowledge that will be available to our audience in September, I am cognizant of another critical piece to the process of teaching and growing an audience: the vision.

Underlying all the operational processes and applications, there must be a vision, a mission, a purpose, a theme for the hard work that the attendees will encounter if they seek to bring an entirely new basket of ideas to their farms and coops.  There must be a core principle that can re-direct and drive the improvements consistently, even when the newly-acquired skills might occasionally seem to become stale or seemingly inapplicable for some  reason.  In moments of frustration or temporary setback, that motivator can keep an organization together, to persevere and regain solid footing for the next advance in their collaborative strength-building.

Some organizations employ a vision, a stated “picture” of what the future might be like.  Others prefer the idea of a mission, an intrinsically important undertaking whose outcome has the capability of delivering fundamental, positive changes.  Still other groups elect to use the language of values, citing social or moral tenets that shape their beliefs and actions.   But whatever words are used, the reality is the same: in order for human beings to change, to adapt, to move from their comfort zones, they universally crave a “cause,” a fundamental, personal reason to do that which is difficult to do.

In the case of the very successful Panamanian cooperative La Esperanza de los Campesinos (the Hope of the Peasants), that bedrock upon which their success has been built is in the historical presence of Fr.  Hector Gallegos, whose spiritual and liberation theological teachings centered the coop members.  (See “A Cooperative That Regulates Markets” by Rene Mendoza.)  For a company like SRC Holdings in Springfield, Missouri, the birthplace of open book management, the bedrock was the liberation of employee thinking and intelligence through information sharing and involvement.  For Winds of Peace Foundation, the bedrock has been the  liberation of financial assets to address the dangerous gulf between the poor and the wealthy.  Initiatives come and go, but the calling for the each of these organizations survives because of the depth of its existence.  These organizations must do what they do.  It is in their organizational DNA.

The coops represented in the Certificate Program will need to identify and embrace their own “calls to being. ”  For some, the cause is already deeply engrained and sustaining the direction of the members.  But for others, the identification might be less certain and less steadying.  Maybe it has never been articulated in terms of a vision.  Perhaps there are several purposes that have been embraced by the members, with no single mission emerging as the great unifier.  In some cases, maybe the issue has never even come up; coop membership was simply a way to access funds for the next planting cycle.  Whatever the case, every coop will require  something to hold onto when the vagaries of weather and middlemen and coyotes of the marketplace interject their disruptions into plans for prosperity.  What will the coops bedrock prove to be?

When Brian and Alex bring their skills to the Certificate Program, it will not be due to monetary gain (they receive none) or for notoriety (the program will take place in the deep countryside, away from media notice).  They will present no political cause, no self-service nor personal advantage.  They will spend more than an entire week out of their professional and personal lives because of deep-seated values that inform their senses of servant leadership and responsible stewardship.  The lessons and know-how they teach may change between September and the next time they are invited to work with such an audience, but the reasons for accepting such an invitation will not.  It is, after all, who they are.

Sometime during that first week of September, we’ll be interacting with some very eager Nicaraguans who know precisely who they are….

 

For Whom Do You Speak?

Whether consciously or not, we all speak for someone.  Of course, we speak for ourselves.  But even what we speak in our own self-interest most often represents others; we live in a pluralistic place which guarantees that what we say likely echoes someone else’s views.  Over the past months I have listened- sometimes intentionally, other times involuntarily- to a host of political voices seeking to speak on my behalf.  Despite the fact that I would be quite uncomfortable having any of them speak for me, each seems to lay claim to the privilege of speaking for a majority of the electorate, including me.  And as I have wrestled with the reality of someone purporting to represent my thoughts and feelings, it got me to thinking about the rest of us.  Who do we speak for?

I thought about the people I know best.  One of my close friends, passionate about the outdoors his entire life, has come to teach environmentalism to college students at a time when most of his peers have retired.  Another has devoted his energies to the cultivation of the arts, and on a broad scale, in a manner that embraces not only accomplished artists but also the most fledgling efforts of the virtually unknown.  A third has ended a career of pastoring his congregations with a voice for social justice,  even when doing so might have generated unrest and personal discomfort.  Each has chosen a cause, a purpose for his voice, a deliberate act of representation.

A lot of people attempt to speak for others but miss the mark. Government officials are notorious for speaking what the constituents want to hear, or what the officials want them to hear.  Religious leaders for centuries have tried to tell their followers how they should behave, only to be challenged by shifting societal norms.  CEOs everywhere adopt the role of corporate spokespersons, but the perspectives of employees are often far different from the company line: ask a CEO about his/her company’s culture and then interview an employee or two.

Others of us are much less overt-  quieter types for whom introversion is a safer form of existence and who are far less likely to mount a figurative soapbox of any kind.  Who or what do we represent in our relative silence?  For assuredly, not to speak is still a statement of one kind or another.

One of the lessons I learned long ago during my earliest years in business was that “silence is acceptance.”  If I was not willing to challenge an idea, then the fair presumption was that the concept was acceptable to me and that I would support it.  While the wisdom served as a potentially liberating management tool, more broadly the notion described the societal reality in which we live.  Just as in the truth of “not to decide is to decide,” there is truth in “not to speak is to speak.”  And there is potential danger in words that are never spoken.

For instance, an article in The Minneapolis StarTribune describes the growing number of “speakers” fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment in rural towns of the Upper Midwest.  The self-appointed proselytizers, whose expertise ranges from used car sales to conspiracy theory, possess an understanding about how to use their words to stoke the fears of the unknown in the minds of their audiences.  Of course, there are many unbiased residents in small-town America.  But the silence of their voices provides amplification to those who portray all Muslims as like-minded, radical jihadists.  The “preachers” speak only for themselves, I hope.

Then there is the case of words spoken out of the side of the mouth. The same political candidates referenced above, with choruses from their legislative colleagues, have all decried the disappearance of the middle-class in the U.S. in the most recent case of a near-extinction.  But while each has accentuated the importance of the species and pledged to save it, their words belie their true loyalties.  While the middle-class faces utter disappearance, the top 1% of the population continues to amass unprecedented wealth. The reality begs the question about who truly speaks for the vanishing strength of America, its middle class.

For whom do we speak?  Whether we dedicate our words and actions to the natural world, the creativity of the arts, the circumstances of marginalized people, a political ideology or something else, our words leave a legacy.  That legacy will be a fingerprint of our lifetimes, a precise identification of who we were in our time, a picture of what was important to us, an identification of our stewardship, the depth of our love, and whether we left the world in any better shape than we found it….

 

 

 

 

The $2 Bill

I spoke before a college social work class last week.  The theme of the discussion was the impact of public policy on the lives of not only U.S. citizens, but also on residents of other countries.   I appreciate sharing the Winds of Peace experience with young people for several reasons: they universally exhibit an interest, they represent the best opportunity for future impact and I can usually recognize “lights turning on” in the face of dramatic stories and photographs that are shared.  What more could a speaker ask?

In this particular class, I tried something new to make a point.  Since the class size was only 15, I decided to distribute brand new $2 bills to each person.  (Thank goodness the class was not immense in size- I might have been forced to reconsider this strategy altogether.) Initially it may have seemed as though I sought to pay the students for their attention and interest, but not even I am desperate (or wealthy) enough to stoop to such a tactic.  Instead, as I explained, the $2 bill was theirs to keep and to reflect upon.  For there are many  for whom that $2 represent an entire day’s wages.                          unnamedThe $2-a-day threshold has been widely referenced when talking about global impoverishment.  Unfortunately, it has been recited often enough that the notion no longer seems to stir the incredulity that it once did; it has become a sad and interesting statistic with less “punch” than it had when we first heard of it.  I wanted the $2 bill to change that, by providing a unique (we don’t see many such bills in circulation anymore) and tangible ($2 in the hand is worth more than words) representation of just how little that amount is.  Then we went on about how some of our own consumption habits influence this state of affairs.

The first reaction of the students was bemusement; perhaps not many guest presenters have left money behind.  But once the bills were in hand, I invited them to consider how their money should be spent, given the realities of everyday needs.  To complicate their deliberations, I also suggested that their dilemma might be even more difficult in real life with the presence of a child or two; the $2 bill is still worth only $2.  There are not many Starbucks coffees to be consumed in that scenario.

When I have spoken about Nicaraguan poverty in the past, some have questioned whether goods are considerably less expensive in Nicaragua than in the U.S.  But by offering a comparison of some common grocery and clothing items in each country, that myth was quickly dispelled in class.  There are no “easy outs” or solutions for this reality.  The fact is that $2 does not come anywhere close to meeting basic living needs, and it’s emotionally disturbing to come face to face with that.   If the students keep the $2 bills for the uniqueness of the denomination, maybe they will also retain the empty feeling they experienced as they contemplated a life of deprivation.

I don’t have enough $2 bills to give away to everyone.  (Do we really need them?)  I can nevertheless invite people to use their own resources to consider what life might be like on $2 a day.  The exercise quickly moves from thinking about which niceties we might be able to do without to a more difficult evaluation of which essentials would have to go.  The first part of the deliberation is vexingly entertaining; the second part is maddeningly impossible.

If the $2 exercise properly infects the students from last Tuesday’s class, they will be left with a virus which has a cure, albeit a difficult one. The treatment for the disparities between those with more than enough and those with less than enough is personal understanding, knowing in both head and heart that the gap exists.  If that treatment truly takes hold, we’ll know what to do next….

 

 

 

Blueprinting Justice

I had the privilege to hear an extraordinary activist and speaker last week.  Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the most acclaimed and respected attorneys in the country.  His memoir, Just Mercyis his story of fighting on the front lines in a country prone to extreme punishments and careless justice.  Time Magazine recognized him as one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2015.  The New Yorker cited Stevenson’s TED Talk on the subject of injustice as one of the five most essential TED Talks.  Oh yes, one additional point:  Stevenson is also a resonant voice for the poor and disenfranchised.

I attended his presentation expecting to learn about dramatic examples of injustices which have occurred in this country, and he provided many of those.  I hoped that he might even offer some insights about both the reasons for and the solutions to some of these miscarriages, and he offered clear views on these.  What I had not expected was his perspective about change and the elements which are critical to bringing about a more uniform and reasonable justice.  As it turns out, he might just as well have been speaking about the poor in Nicaragua as the wrongly-incarcerated in the U.S.  In either case, justice missed its call.

As Stevenson spoke of what would be required of us to mitigate at least some of the miscarriages of justice he has encountered, I was struck by his “blueprint.”  For as he iterated the four important elements of his thinking, he proposed nearly the same set of needs as those which WPF has experienced and amplified over its 30 years of work in Nicaragua.  Consider his priorities for a changed context of justice:

Get Proximate.  Stevenson suggests that in order to truly understand and know the immense cost of injustice (both financial and human), one has to get closer to its reality.  There is an uncomfortable heat generated by institutional unfairness that can bring any of us to a cold sweat, because we are all susceptible, in the same unsuspecting ways as many of Stevenson’s clients once were.

If we wish to truly know the stories of the poor, we face the same call for proximity.  Reading about it in the comfort of a living room is safe, even if sad.  But standing among those for whom $2 a day represents total income is an exposure to virulent indignity.  Being invited to a meal by such a family is an exercise in damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t, as you understand that sharing such food is taking it away from where it is desperately needed, but refusing it is a rude dishonor.  Effective development work  requires being in the middle of the reality, accompanying those who struggle with not only material assistance but also emotional and social support.  Worse than being destitute is being destitute and alone.

Change the Narrative.  Stevenson advocates for a change in our understanding and beliefs about people.  For him, this means addressing the fears and angers that fuel inequities, violence and conditions for injustices to metastasize.  Ignorance about cultures and ethnicities and histories are the breeding grounds for prejudiced thinking and the virus of irrational belief.  Sometimes the storyline  is just plain wrong.

Without a change in the narrative- by living first-hand experiences that shape our basic knowledge and feelings about others- we stand little chance of repairing the systems which pave the way for poverty and injustice.  Our notions that people in impoverished countries don’t really want to be independent are patently false, just as our belief that U.S. jurisprudence is free from factors of class and race is a myth.  Our stories color a great deal of our beliefs; it’s imperative that our stories are therefore factual.

Embrace Hopefulness. In his talk full of poignant stories, Stevenson might have been forgiven if he had allowed the audience to become depressed at hearing case after case of wrongful incarceration and lost lives.  But his outlook is one that is decidedly upbeat, because he believes in the power of the human mind and spirit.

Likewise, the cause for hope in a land like Nicaragua stems from the resilience of its people and the multitude of people- both inside and from outside of the country, including WPF- who are working hard to convert their good intentions for assistance into actual development results.  The degree to which we succeed in such “good change” may well be determined by the degree to which we heed Stevenson’s blueprint for justice, as outlined here.

Be Willing to Do Uncomfortable Things.  Getting out of our comfort zones.  It’s clear that Stevenson’s work takes him into some of the most uncomfortable circumstances imaginable, working with death row inmates, confronting the harsh realities of lifelong imprisonment, consoling the families of victims and perpetrators alike.  Sharing a last meal.  Stevenson confesses to his continued emotional discomfort of such circumstances, even to this day, but also recognizes the importance of it.  He has heard the entreaty, “please come back again,” countless times from voices who have little other source of hopefulness.  The work is not comfortable, but necessary.

Just like in Nicaragua.  The breadth and intensity of poverty there- economic, educational, developmental- makes for environments that are difficult to understand and to accept.  The rural sectors of the country reflect limited opportunities for its people despite their collective determination and the presence of well-intentioned aid organizations.  But if poverty results are to change, then our collective and individual responses to the disease must change, as well, and that will take us out of our comfort zones.

We’ll do with less.  We’ll speak up publicly more.  We’ll have allowed ourselves to get proximate enough to feel the discomforts.  We’ll become intimate with the truths obscured by myth and manipulation.  And we’ll retain our sense of foolishness to believe that each of us can make a difference within our own niches of life, that we will do the things that others say cannot be done.

Without ever likely having been to Nicaragua, Bryan Stevenson seems to know it with clarity….

 

 

 

 

 

It’s All About You

We are bombarded with advertisements all the time, whether on television, radio, Internet or printed materials.  There’s nothing new about this at all, though the ingenuity used to invade our consciousness is sometimes surprising.  (I still maintain that the ads over urinals in public restrooms is arguably the most captive approach.)  But I’ve encountered a number of messages lately with the same refrain:  “It’s All About You.”  There’s the recurrent ad on the radio for a local bank which uses that line in its musical imprinting.  (As if banks these days are even conceivably “all about” their customers.)  One of my favorite retailers has begun to use the phrase in its website ads.  (In reality, it’s more about my purchases than about me, I’m quite sure.)  And it’s a message that makes me uneasy.

I understand the implication:  I’m worthy of the product being offered and the benefits that it will provide.  I must have worked hard in life and am entitled to the luxury-pleasure-convenience-status of the item being offered as a visible affirmation of my worth, one that others will see with admiration and maybe even jealousy, because they, too, are worth it.

It’s an easy trap for us consumers to fall into.  The latest versions of luxurious living and tempting toys are alluring, indeed.  Caribbean cruises on floating hotels and cars that drive and park themselves are nearly beyond imagination.  Even in the far reaches of Nicaragua, cell phone accessibility has become an increasingly commonplace wonder.  If some of the chronically poor peasants enjoy such technology, surely the rest of us are entitled to that and more; we must be entitled.

But the promise of “all about you” and the attendant requirement for acquiring more items in our lives is a misnomer for fulfillment, whatever our socioeconomic status.  Not only because shiny things become dulled in time, but also because they- and we- are all so temporary.  We don’t get to take any of our toys with us when we depart the planet, and they will come to the temporary ownership of someone else.  The cycle will continue indefinitely and we will have been owners for only a second in time, nothing more.  We are only stewards of things, whether they be greater or fewer than others, but they are never truly a part of us.

 

In reality, it’s not all about me.  It’s hardly about me or any of us at all. (I was even reminded of that recently in church, sometimes not a bad place for new perspectives.  See the message from January 25.)   Each of us is but one seven billionth of the planet; a mere one one hundred and eight billionth of human history.  Clearly, it cannot be about you or me; we are not that unique.  So it must be about something else, a perspective that makes the center of attention somewhere other than ourselves.  If not me, if not you, then our focus must be on “the others,” the marginalized among us who need and deserve our consideration.

Yet the more I consider the notion, an unexpected reversal of thinking occurs to me.  Maybe it is all about me.  Not in the sense of the receiving and entitlement, but in the giving and opportunity.  Maybe it truly is about each of us individually taking ownership, not of our things but of our stewardship.  Maybe instead of competing in the marketplace for the most goods, our competition ought to be seen in divesting ourselves of the incredible wealth we have accumulated during our lives of privilege.  Is it possible that the hallmark of success could be measured by the number of lives touched, the number of hungry fed, the number of homeless sheltered?  For we do lead lives of great privilege in contrast to most of the other humans on earth, present and past alike.  How even those kings and emperors of antiquity would be astounded at the lifestyles most of us live!

I received a product ordered online the other day, another manifestation of my own consumerism.  It arrived in a carton marked, “Happiness delivered.”  I was immediately struck by the presumption that the product delivered would make me happy, and that I never even had to leave the comfort of my home to achieve such joy.  The presumption was yet one more attempt to equate a purchase with personal and lasting fulfillment.  In reality, the item was one that, yes, I felt (right or wrong) that I needed, but it did not make me happy. That emotion has to come from somewhere else, somewhere from within.  And that is all about me, and my relationship to other human beings.

I am informed in my thinking by Native American perspectives on the idea of ownership, not only the impossibility of owning individual lands but of things, as well: ““It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome… Children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving… The Indians in their simplicity literally give away all that they have—to relatives, to guests of other tribes or clans, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom they can hope for no return.” (Charles Alexander Eastman, Santee Dakota Physician, 1858-1939.)

I’m not an ascetic and thus cannot call others to such a lifestyle.  But I recognize, like Native Americans long before me, that what we have- whether in material, opportunity, education, energy or aspiration- is never owned by us.   Rather, any of these are gifts to be shared in the best ways that we can, part of a collective competition of largesse, and our lives are truly about discerning how to do just that….

 

 

 

 

Spirit

My U.S. acquaintances almost always have questions about the work that Winds of Peace undertakes in Nicaragua, and especially they are curious about the people with whom we work.  They are curious to know how they are like us in the U.S.  They desire to know whether they are happy, what rural Nicaraguans like to do in their spare time, and what they may know about those of us who live in the North.  (My answers to those specific questions tend to be along the lines of: yes, they experience happiness in some very different ways from us, they have little spare time and they know a great deal more about us than we do of them.)

During my visit in Nicaragua two weeks ago, I became re-acquainted with a woman I had met several years ago, a grassroots coffee producer and member of a very small cooperative.  She attended an organizational strengthening workshop which the Foundation had underwritten and, in fact, turned out to be one of the presenters.  I want to introduce you to Corina, because she is a composite story of who many Nicaraguans are.

Corina
Corina

When we first met, Corina and her cooperative had found themselves in deep economic trouble. But the cause of the difficulty stemmed from the fraudulent actions of “middlemen” who recognized an opportunity to take advantage of small producers who were too trusting, unschooled and undereducated in the responsibilities  and obligations of organizational success.  In that first meeting, Corina and her fellow coop members faced a likely collapse of their group; she thus faced a similar fate for her own farm.  Without the middlemen to provide market savvy and price negotiation (as well as deceptive representation), Corina felt lost.

But I recall her tenacity in addition to the shyness.  She had not spoken much in front of her North American visitor those years ago, but she spoke passionately and with defiance when she chose to speak at all.  But I remember thinking that the odds were definitely against this small-producer coop which now faced significant debt not of their own making.  Winds of Peace has made annual loans to the coop since that first meeting, and the coop has survived thus far.  But providing funds each year for fertilizers and new coffee plants is neither the road away from dependence nor the key to sustainability.

Corina and her fellow coop members have worked hard.  They have attended other workshops.  The coop has been attentive to understanding exactly what project proposal information is required of them and what donor expectations are.   They’ve been scrupulously diligent in meeting their loan obligations.  While a preference for having others intervene on their behalf still surfaces at moments, a movement toward self-sufficiency is happening.

So I was both surprised and not surprised in seeing Corina before the audience two weeks ago.  She towered over the audience, in a way that very few people less than five feet in height can; sometimes captivation comes from unsuspected sources.  She clutched a handkerchief like a good luck token, but her voice was firm and her resolution fixed on two large papers taped to the front wall.  On the pages, Corina had charted her family’s 5-Year Farm Plan.

Set aside for the moment the fact that many businesses never attempt something as progressive as a 5-year plan.  Corina, with the assistance of her husband and children and workshop facilitators,  had undertaken a detailed description of her business, including its dimensions, crops, limitations, opportunities, improvements, environmental impacts, successes and its future outlook.  There on two sheets of butcher paper was a complete strategic plan, one which in its simplicity and breadth presented her story, both current and future.

As Corina related her story, her voice grew in size and confidence. The handkerchief became twisted with emotion and conviction.  The audience, notorious for its restlessness, now sat rapt in attention, utterly astonished at both the woman and the content of her work.  At one moment, suddenly self-conscious of her standing, she looked to the workshop facilitator and observed that, maybe she wasn’t making sense and that he could explain the process better.  To his everlasting credit, the facilitator turned to the participants and asked, “Is she doing OK?”  The audience erupted into thunderous applause, matched in emotion only by the modesty in Corina’s face.  She continued, with even greater fervor than before.

By the close of her presentation, Corina had communicated details of her life which, under any other circumstance, would never have been shared.  She talked of her children and their work on the farm, after school.  She described the long hours of labor contributed by her husband, who hired out as a field hand elsewhere by day before returning home to tend to their own land.  She talked of her own unending work among the coffee plants, and how she nonetheless was able to achieve the equivalent of her high school diploma, the first member of her family ever to do so.  By the conclusion of her talk, I had a distinct feeling of under-accomplishment in my own life.

I suspect that many in the group felt the same.  At the conclusion of her presentation, Corina was surrounded by many, people seeking more information, offering their appreciation for her tenacity and strength, thanking her.  Several members of a coffee-buying group from North America sought to establish direct links for purchasing her coffee.  She may never have experienced so many photographs taken of her.  Clearly a sense of accomplishment welled up within her, and yet the demeanor of humility and reserve never wavered.

IMG_5372Corina’s example to her fellow small farmers resulted in many such family plans being drawn up that day and in the weeks to follow; indeed, they are still being created.  She had extended herself, far from her comfort zone, in order to provide a basis for others to act.  Her courage on behalf of other producers enabled a development threshold to be crossed, one that may cultivate harvests and benefits for a long time.  But I recall the day in a different light.  I will recall her performance and leadership as a challenge to my own way of life, to look at its content, its yields and plantings and harvests, its potential and its character with a greater sense of needing to do better….