Thanks to UW-Madison students for inviting me to address the topic “Learning in Unexpected Places” at their November 23rd event. It gave me an opportunity to reflect about global engagement that I did in my 20s in Central America –work in an orphanage in Honduras, a war zone in Nicaragua and a water project in a remote rural community in Guatemala. Here is the youtube video and below is a text version of my reflections.
Start Small, Change the World
Today I am going to talk about changing the world. Perhaps I should have a narrower focus, and I did try, but I finally decided that besides saying I love you, or telling a really good joke, changing the world is probably the only thing worth talking about ever. Making change, addressing suffering, and mending the brokenness in our world should be what we dream about, and study, and talk about. With teachers, with friends, with colleagues. With people who are like us, and with people who are different from ourselves. Visions of healing, peace, joy and abundance should inform our lives.If you are a young person who has had the audacity and heart to proclaim to someone older and wiser that you want to change the world, you might have had some surprising, even discouraging, responses.
They might say, who do you think you are? What makes you think you or your ways are best? What right do you have to try to change other people?
Or they might say, Good intentions are not enough. A lot of do-gooders have been ineffective. Some have even done harm. They will tell you stories, mostly true, of unfinished schools, half-built clinics, latrines with holes large enough for a small child to fall inside, and other efforts that have solved one problem, while creating another. Worldchanging, as you have probably already guessed, is messy.
Another common response might be, There is plenty to do right here in your own community. This, of course, is very true. It is easy to be drawn to the drama, the exotic, the faraway places, and sometimes hard to remember that changing the world includes addressing disparities and injustice in your country or neighborhood. On your own street. We all need to visit the familiar places in our lives with our eyes wide open.
Then there is the predictable, Things are more complicated than you realize. What makes you think your simple fix-it scheme will work? Don’t you realize that the cultures that you think you can outsmart are hundreds of years old? Don’t you know that advanced study and assessment are needed before you can do anything at all?
You might be told that the abundant, sustainable life that you want for all people is just not possible! You are too idealistic. To accomplish what you are proposing would take generations. It is not possible to provide food, water, housing, education, and health care to everyone. It is not possible to live in a safe world where ALL people are free to express their identify and culture.
I can’t help but note that these messages about the impossible are spoken in a world that can distribute millions of Harry Potter novels in a single day; in a place where people think it is perfectly feasible to provide cell phones for everyone in the world; in a society where, in a given year, people collectively throw away enough food to satisfy the global food deficit.
Despite my refutations, though, the counsel you are receiving is valid. You must practice cultural respect and humility, embrace complexity, and consider the effectiveness, feasibility and sustainability of your efforts. I come back to these issues again and again in my global health work, and I find new mistakes, and new pathways to something better, every time.
I do sometimes wonder why we who mentor young people often start out with a long list of don’ts and cautions, instead of encouragement. I suspect, there is some generational tension here. Your hopes and confidence about what is possible remind us of all the ways that we, regardless of how much we might be doing, could be doing more. Your energy is wonderful. And terrifying.
You keep things simple. You ask simple arithmetic questions like “what if every student at our university sponsored basic needs for a child or family facing poverty in Milwaukee, Appalachia, Botswana, or India?” Wouldn’t that add up? What if I tutor a child or build a well, or provide a sewing machine? Couldn’t that make a difference? You use the sound and adequate arithmetic of a 5 year old, and it exasperates the experts.
Thankfully you persist. You are more globally interconnected than any previous generation. You are more able to embrace diversity. You are a generation of caring optimists. You are willing to try, take risks, ask questions, take responsibility for your mistakes, and try again. The truth is, you are better able to assess and predict what is possible than we are.
I would like to share some ideas about being part of change in our world. And this is where learning in unexpected places becomes so important. In my global public health work I have partnered with governments and NGOs, and mentored students in global efforts around the world. Today I will talk about my early global health experiences, work that I did when I was in my 20s, as many of you are now.
In 1983 I left the United States for the first time. I join the Peace Corps and was sent to Honduras. My job was to provide counseling and support to teenage girls in an orphanage there. I lived with them, and also traveled with them to the villages where they were born to help them get their birth certificates. These journeys took me all around the country, on buses, in the back of pick up trucks and on foot.
When I think about the lessons from that time that might be useful for you today, one particular series of events comes to mind. I was having coffee one day with a Peace Corps friend who expressed concern that I was getting burnt out as a live-in counselor, and that I wasn’t really doing development work. There was no sustainability to what I was doing, she said. No multiplier effect, like when you train trainers, or provide seed to farmers, who in turn provid seed to others. I was mainly counseling, comforting, and refereeing the girls on chores. Kind of a gloried babysitter, really. It doesn’t sound like world changing, does it?
A few weeks later I was involved in a fair at the orphanage. We filled the dusty, colorless field near the children’s homes with games and fun for a day. The girls and I dressed up like clowns to entertain the younger children. By the end of the day I was answering to the call “Payaso, venga,” which means “Come here, Clown.” We had a piñata and candy. It was simple. A day at the fair. A magic day that we hoped the children would remember.
That night one of the girls came to my room to talk. Carolina sat down on my bed and said nothing, clearly on the verge of tears. I was sure it was boyfriend trouble again, and began to fill the silence with words of advice, solidarity, support, questions that might help her tell me what happened. “It’s not that,” she said finally. “I just miss her.” At 17 years old, after living in the orphanage for most of her life, she finally wanted to talk about her abandonment, and she had come to me. I felt so sorry to have gotten things so wrong, to have missed the obvious sorrow. I put my arms around her and she cried for a while, and I cried also. She did not expect me to do anything more, and I didn’t.
After she left, I sat alone in my room and thought about the words “multiplier effect” again. Suddenly I realized how arrogant and wrong that whole idea was. It implied that comforting Carolina, being a buffer against her sorrow for a few hours, was not important enough for some one like me to bother with. That a one to one return on investment was not acceptable when it came to the people like Carolina. According to the multiplier logic of international development work, the fun fair didn’t measure up either. Making joyful memories for children who had suffered so much? That was, at best, a loss leader.
I let go of wanting to do great things just a little bit that day. I realized I wanted to be a person who has the time and heart to do small things. The small things that justice, friendship and compassion demand. In this case I had not done the small thing particularly well, but I could work on that, I could keep trying. I hoped that meaningful change could come from this kind of engagement somehow. I took some comfort in arithmetic. After all, one and one does make two. That was certain, multiplication aside.
During graduate school I went to Nicaragua as part of a health and human rights research team from the Harvard School of Public Health. We were visiting a town in Chontales, which was as far into the war zone as we could go and still be relatively “safe.” We conducted a household survey to document the impact of the war on civilians. Things like disruptions to the health care systems, damage to schools, internal migration, and various negative health impacts. The results told the story that we expected, an important one, and we published them as planned.
For me though, the greatest learning occurred at the end of the interview, when I put down my clipboard and asked, “is there anything else you would like me to know.” Then I leaned forward and listened. I listened to what people said when they were free from the confines of structured questions and coded answers. When the clipboard was not creating a small barrier between us. They told me stories about how the war had affected them. They talked about their fears and their hopes. They talked about how they might solve problems in relation to food, shelter, and getting the kids back in school somehow.
During the course of the interviewing we came to a house that had all the windows and doors shut, even thought it was the middle of the day. I wasn’t sure if I should knock, but I did, and Juana and Fidelia, two sisters who lived together there let me in. After the survey they told me their stories. Juana spoke briefly and calmly. She was married to a Misquito Indian. He’d been a miner, but was now working as a day laborer. They were relocated by the government because their town was unsafe for civilians. Her home was in a war zone. Violence or the threat of it was everywhere. She looked over her shoulder when she washed clothes or when she walked upright in the quiet fields. She heard gunshots in the morning. Her sister Fidelia had a thin face and urgent speech. She began to speak each time Juana paused for a moment. It was sometimes hard to keep track of who was saying what. Fidelia, a widow with eight children, had lost her husband when he was killed at a family party on their farm, along with nine other men and a woman who tried to defend them. Fidelia began to list the widows and count the orphans — 34 children in that small village had lost their fathers, a while generation of men were lost, she said. Because of what they had been through, Juana and Fidelia were often afraid to speak out, but they wanted to tell me these things. They wanted me to know, and they wanted me to tell someone else.
Research is an important tool for changing the world. I knew that before I went to Chontales. But what I didn’t expect, was that the fact-finding survey that we had worked so hard to design would be the lesser source of information for me. I learned about the importance of story, witness, solidarity, and hope.
A few years later I found myself in Guatemala working with CARE to develop a monitoring system for a water and sanitation program. This took me to a remote village in Quetzaletango, to see the newly installed well.
We set out at sunrise (seemed earlier) and drove until the road ended. A simple meal awaited us there — blue corn tortillas, beans, sour cream, and sweet coffee in a tin cup. I am not sure if it was the early morning air, the hospitality, or the food itself, but I still remember this as one of the best meals of my life. Then we hiked up to the village through the beautiful sparsely inhabited terrain. We came to a river that had to be crossed on a walking bridge. It was just a plank really, the width of a log with no rails. Everyone in our party crossed with ease. But I made the mistake of looking down, I hesitated, and then my anxiety spiraled. I was sure I would fall from this balance beam bridge down to the water below. I stood there frozen on one side of the bridge, with the rest of the team on the other. A local woman happened to be coming up the path on the other side. She smiled at me reassuringly – she did not speak English or Spanish, and I did not speak her language, Mam. She looked to be 5 months pregnant, but she crossed over the bridge and extended her hand to help me cross. Her kindness enabled me to look straight ahead and cross the bridge. I am not sure what I would have done without her help.
When we arrived the villagers were assembled, waiting for us. We sat in a circle and they told us about the water project. Until that moment I only knew that CARE had provided materials and assistance with building the water tank. As the head of the water committee told us the history of the project, I realized the extent and intensity of the community effort. What the NGOs called “the local contribution” included working with government over months to procure land rights to the site of the well. It involved carrying every brick, and all other materials, up to the village along the route we had just hiked. It included building the water system, building the latrines, and deciding who would do extra work on behalf of the widows and the elderly who could not do their share.
The lessons of that day in rural Guatemala have echoed again and again in my work. Communities are full of energy and desire for change. While outside assistance can be useful, if we look honestly at our successes, our contributions are always small when compared to the efforts and contributions of partners, local leaders and community members. We who have the privilege of crossing worlds are constant recipients of hospitality, assistance, we are accommodated in ways that we don’t even see, and, mostly, we are treated with kindness.
As you can see from these stories, learning often happens in unexpected places. In the background. On the way. While we are supposed to be paying attention to something else.
There is one more unexpected place that I want to mention. That place is honest reflection in a quiet room. Reflecting in silence, writing in a journal, taking the time to savor and more deeply understand your experiences. Honoring relationships with remembering, and being as honest with yourself as you can. This “unexpected place” is where we learn to live more, love more, risk more, and laugh more. This is where we change ourselves.
So you want to change the world. You want to live the selfless intimacy, the giving, the solidarity, the friendship. I say go for it. Dream about it, study it, talk about it, and most importantly, take action. Personally, locally, and globally. Sing all the songs while you are young, in as many languages as you can.
But go further. Do more than change the world. Have the courage to work very very hard, for small things that you can change. And do this every chance you get. Have faith in others, have faith in the future, have faith in faith itself, if you can. And when having faith is hard, do the math. If you have trouble with the math, ask a five year old for help.
Small changes are big. They move the frontiers of what is possible – they are the galvanizing force behind big important changes. Acting in this way will align your values with who you are in the world, and you will end up being part of change in bigger ways than you ever imagined. Start small. Change the world. And let the world change you.