Care for the stranded traveller

Travel, especially when you are an independent consultant, can have unexpected challenges.

I arrived in Khartoum in the early morning. That is how the plane schedule works. And I hadn’t thought to find out the name of the hotel where I was staying, because someone was going to meet me.

I had forgotten that I had to put a hotel name on the form you fill out for the immigration desk, so I made a stab at what I thought the hotel name might be. It didn’t seem to be a problem; I got through.

After I got off the plane, I had put on my head covering and the long coat I had gotten in Somaliland, in order to seem respectful of local customs. I got my battered suitcase off the luggage belt, and I headed outside the luggage area.

No one had a sign with my name on it. No one approached me to ask if I was the person they were supposed to meet. I got a bottle of water, and sat down to wait.

I waited for a long time, so long that most passengers had gone.

After a time, a taxi driver approached and asked if I needed a ride into town. I said I was waiting for someone to meet me.

He went off, probably to pray, and then he came back sometime later. He asked again, if I wanted to go into town. It was about 4 a.m. by then. He seemed like a kind man.

I asked if he knew any hotels in town where I might stay, and he said he knew one. I panicked, in the taxi, when I realized I didn’t know how far it was to town. Did I have enough US dollars? I asked him how much it would be, and panicked again when he said $50. But it turned out he was talking about the hotel, not the taxi ride.

He brought me to a nice-looking hotel, and I checked in. In the morning, I called my friend, who was by then worrying about me. A family emergency meant she couldn’t come to meet me herself, so she had asked someone else to do it. That person likely had not expected to see a North American woman wearing a head covering and long coat, so probably I had caused confusion myself.

We had coffee, laughed about the situation, and she took me to the hotel she had booked, which was near her office.

It was not the first time I had neglected to get details I needed before I travelled. One other time, I had been going to Juba, in South Sudan, and someone was going to pick me up.

I got to the airport, lined up in the self-organizing line to get my passport stamped, retrieved my suitcase, had it inspected, and moved out to the front of the building. But there was no one there to meet me.

I spent time chatting with some of the taxi drivers loitering there, explaining that I was being met. Soon, however, the sky clouded over and it looked as if it was going to rain.

I thought I had better take some action. I remembered a hotel name from an Irish friend who had been in Juba earlier that year, and a taxi driver took me there.

The cost of a room for the night was high – $125 US, as I recall – but the hotel said it had internet. I could send a message, and find out where I should be, I thought. And if the worst came to the worst, I could stay there overnight.

The storm hit as I was headed to the room, which was one half of a trailer unit. I tried to log in to the internet on my laptop. It didn’t work. Then I started to hear a loud pounding noise, which I thought might be coming from the other half of the unit. Was there a maniac next door, I wondered. But it was pouring rain outside, far too strongly to go outside.

When the rain finally slowed down, I ran to the main office to say that I couldn’t log on to the internet. Along the way, I discovered that what I had thought was pounding on the wall was actually nuts falling on to the roof from the trees above the huts. I laughed at myself.

The hotel let me send a message via their internet. Soon, the person I was meeting drove up to the hotel, explaining that another international person working with their group had had a major health emergency and they had been at the hospital with her since the night before.

The hotel was very pleasant and gave me the money back, although they didn’t have to, and several hours after landing in Juba, I was finally at the hotel where the workshop was taking place.

I had gotten careless, I guess, after much travel over the previous year. I should have made a note of relevant information like hotel names and phone numbers – and from then on, I did.

But these incidents were encouraging in a way. They showed me that in every place you go, no matter where it might be, there are people who will do their best to help a stranded traveller.

Airlines, unfortunately, are not so kind when it comes to the problem of a badly battered suitcase. Now I travel with one that is much harder to damage.

The value of transparency

When you lead a team of local people on an international development project, and your agency advertises a job locally, you get a lot of emails. Especially when there are very few jobs available generally in a small community.

Many of them are clearly being sent by people who are shooting out a general response to a wide variety of ads.

But not all. Some of them come from people who are seriously applying. Our ad offers hope, in an otherwise bleak economy. And people will reach out for hope whenever they can, even if they don’t have the qualifications spelled out in the ad.

When I worked on a project in Serbia more than a decade ago, the agency’s policy was that while their human resources officer placed the ads, the responses came to the team leader. That was me.

They told me I should review the responses, short list them, and only respond to those who were short-listed. So that was what I did….

Until one day, I got a polite email from a local person who had submitted an application but hadn’t received an acknowledgement. Politely, they said that they had thought our procedures were different than those they had been used to. Their sense of disappointment – of hurt, even – came through the message.

From then on, I sent a reply to every applicant, whether I thought they were serious or not. I explained the process we were following, and that we would be short listing candidates and only inviting those people to an interview. And I thanked them for their application. Often I got messages back thanking me for those replies.

Sometimes it was challenging. Once, I got an application from someone working in our agency’s Belgrade office who wanted to join our team. I thanked him, and explained that he didn’t have the necessary qualifications. While he didn’t reply, I came to realize that fairness mattered to him. When the agency head pushed me out of my job, it was this man who took me aside to say that what had happened to me was not fair. (He subsequently went to work for the agency in Afghanistan.)

Sometimes, having short listed candidates, the interviews could be challenging, too. If we wanted to support community capacity, we had to acknowledge it, even when people didn’t have the particular skills we needed.

I remember one, in particular. An older gentleman who had qualifications, but not the ones we needed for our team. I suppose I could have just said that, very early on, but it did not seem respectful. And so I asked him to talk about his background and what he had done in his life, and expressed appreciation for his service to his community over the years.

Some years later, when I was doing research in northern Bosnia, I got to know a young woman who was one of the first local people hired for an important international office there.

The war in Bosnia had been going on when she went to high school. She didn’t have a lot of qualifications to offer, but she was spunky. She asked how she was expected to be able to put forward a traditional resume when her country was coming out of a devastating war.

Long story short – she ended up being hired for the team, and eventually managed a very large portfolio of economic development projects. Ironically, as things settled down in Bosnia, other international agencies in the country found it hard to believe her impressive post-war resume.

From these experiences, I learned that if we want to create change, we need to model good ways of working. If we are not going to be transparent about our own procedures, it is hard to demand that others (including governments) be transparent about theirs – and that matters in countries where procedures have not been fair and transparent.

Sometimes, people think they are short-circuiting procedures for a good purpose – to promote local young people who you have treated as proteges, for example. But the answer is not to promote them by manipulating the hiring process. I heard from some local people, looking at the two jobs advertised in one organization, who wanted to know if the outcome was fixed. It was normal for them that while a competition was being held, someone had already been chosen – and why should they waste their time applying? It was hard to know what to tell them, because the honest answer was yes, the ‘competition’ was effectively fixed.

It is not just ‘what’ we do in terms of international development that matters – it is ‘how’ we do it as well. And that applies to everything we do, including the hiring processes. There, if we don’t demonstrate our values, we support the status quo – and that may not be the intended result of the project itself.

A tank in the distance

We were driving around the countryside looking for polling station locations when I saw a tank in the distance.

In Bosnia in 1996, there were many tanks – international forces were stationed in many areas to support peacebuilding after a terrible civil war in the Balkan country. This one was still hazy in the distance as we got closer to the small building that apparently was the local polling station.

I still don’t know how to explain my intense sense of panic.

I had been in the country for six weeks, travelling with a driver and interpreter. In our area, much ground had been extensively mined and burned over by retreating forces. When you spend your time working with people primarily through interpreters, in an area where you always have to watch where you step – actually, as well as metaphorically – you can come to feel disconnected from yourself in odd ways.

And somehow, I found myself – for a few minutes, at any rate – feeling as if this was still wartime.

We stopped at the school. Soon, as the tank got closer, I could see that it was a French tank, in desert camouflage paint. The tank pulled up, and soldiers got out. For a few minutes, there was some confusion. They thought my interpreter was the election observer, and I was the interpreter. Once that was resolved, we had a bit of a chat, and then we were both on our way – us to visit another polling place, the tank to continue its patrol of the area before heading back to the French base at Mostar.

I didn’t remember that time until years later, when I was watching the movie Saving Private Ryan at the theatre in Yellowknife. There is a scene, in that movie, where a tank comes trundling over a bridge towards a soldier crouched down on the other side of the bridge.

And bam! The panic of seeing that tank approach, years before, hit me. I am not sure how I managed to stay in my seat. I could feel my heart pounding; I wanted to get up and run.

Mostly when we tell stories about our time on overseas assignments, we don’t share stories like that. We tend to focus on our achievements, our solutions, and our capacity – not the times when we felt insecure, or panicked, or completely at sea. It is easier to share stories where we are in control, not the ones where we felt vulnerable.

So I rarely if ever tell this story.

But not so long ago, I did. It seemed to have been drawn out of me, by the subject we were discussing. And it had a completely unexpected result.

It encouraged someone else, who had served overseas as a soldier, to share a similar story of an experience he had when he returned home. He had reached out to help me, in a powerful way. Somehow, shared vulnerability had created a powerful moment of connection. And I felt a tension relax in the room.

It hadn’t occurred to me, in Bosnia in 1996, that maybe what I had experienced might be a manifestation of PTSD. I hadn’t even heard of the term then. Once PTSD became part of our lexicon, I connected it primarily with military service overseas in conflict situations – when one was under fire, having to deal with IEDs or bombs, having to fire at others, having to ride in tanks or hide in bunkers.

But maybe our experiences did have one thing in common – a feeling of intense vulnerability, in a situation where one wasn’t in control of much – if anything. And maybe that was why it had been so hard for me to remember it – I didn’t feel comfortable with having felt so vulnerable and so frightened, even if it was only for a few minutes.

A few years ago, at a seminar at my university, I was part of a panel with soldiers. Being a civilian working in a post-conflict situation, with little institutional support, is a different experience than being part of military service – I wondered if we would have anything at all in common.

When I spoke about doing election observation, in other countries, I mentioned how, after I got back to Yellowknife, I didn’t use paths through fields for almost a year. I walked only on the paved sidewalk or the road. In Bosnia, where no one knew what areas had been mined but where, if there were mines, they were likely to be along the roadside and near bridges, one had to be careful. I remembered a Swiss commander who told me that his men even had to pee on the road, not go off to the side.

The next morning, at coffee, a Canadian colonel came over and said that when I told that story, he was instantly back in Bosnia, where he had served as a peacekeeper. It seemed as if that one story had created common ground between soldier and civilian – a ground that is not always there.

As I get older, I am less inclined to draw big and overarching  lessons from stories. I pretty much just tell the stories, and let others draw their own conclusions. In this case, the lesson for me was that sharing vulnerability can sometimes create common ground in a way that sharing stories of strength may not.

Grieving while away from home

My friend Vi died while I was working in Serbia on a large-scale international development project. So, even though she had asked me to write her eulogy, I never heard it delivered in person – because I was in Uzice when I got the news of her death. It was second hand, in a sense, through a condolence message from another friend. Her husband had tried to reach me, but didn’t know how, and her computer, which had been such an important link to her friends around the world as she was dying at home, had been damaged in the flurry of the end.

We had been friends for a long time, during most of the 25 years I lived in Yellowknife. We used to have lunch together every Wednesday, and we shared much that grew from our initial work at a local newspaper – the impact of dysfunctional childhoods, seeking public office, travelling to Siberia to run a women’s conference. I could go on for a long time….

She had become ill after I went to Serbia in the late summer of 2001. She chose to share her experiences of illness, and then of dying, via email messages shared with friends around the world. She tried many things to deal with the illness.

One I remember vividly to this day. She was having a major operation in Edmonton the same night I was expected to be at a dinner in Uzice hosted by the man who led the organization carrying out the project. My agency was a sub-grantee, and there was a great deal about the relationship between the organizations that I didn’t know then, but learned later. However, even not knowing that history, it was clear that the grantee somehow saw our organization as a threat – not a partner.

It was one of those typical Balkan dinners – noisy, lots of alcohol, people fawning on the organization’s leader, lots of self-congratulation, and smoky. It was when they pulled out the big cigars, and the man was smoking his, that I was asked to speak.

I don’t remember what I said, in truth. It was as yet a long way from the time when the people working for his organization would be calling me a ‘witch’, and I didn’t at the time fully realize that the way our team worked – and thus the way I worked – was seen as a threat by his organization. I didn’t fully realize myself, in fact, how different my approach was to the typical Balkans one – that I saw myself as enabling my team to do their job effectively, to plan collaboratively with them, and to support them in doing their work. This was also different from how the grantee organization organized its work within the country team. It was, in hindsight, a clash of cultures.

At any rate, back to the dinner. The subtext, as I saw it, was a kind of gloating about his agency’s success and prowess. (And not long afterwards, I was called to Belgrade for a discussion with our agency about an imbalance in messaging that he had seen during his visit. As it turned out, this referred to the opening of the sub-office in Valjevo for which our agency had been made responsible. We had just moved in, and to ensure that local people could find the office, there were two 8.5×11 pages with our agency’s name on it, and only one page with his agency’s name on it, temporarily taped on the gates outside the office yard.)

The overall project was about revitalizing communities through democratic action, and so I spent a lot of time in the 60 communities we worked with. That was what I was focused on – the ways in which communities were finding hope, and new possibilities, through the work of our project. But it was hard, because my heart was back in Edmonton, wondering how Vi’s operation was going.

Later that year, as her health status worsened, I had to make a hard decision. When was I going to go home for a yearly visit? She was determined to stay alive until Christmas, to see her newest grandchild. I decided to go in November, rather than waiting til Christmas.

She had persuaded the health authority to let her die at home. She had a hospital style bed in the living room, and people gathered there regularly to talk to her. For years, ever since her mother’s death, when some friends crossed the street so they wouldn’t have to talk to her, she had worked quietly with bereaved families, helping them put together the small booklet about the loved one that is such a typical feature of northern funerals. And she took the same compassionately unflinching approach to her own passing.

I remember several evenings in her living room, as we talked. What I most remember is the time when I had to leave. Our friend Anke, who delivered the eulogy, came with me to drive me to the airport. But she, and Vi’s husband Richard, went into the kitchen to give us time alone.

We hugged, and she told me she would say hello to another friend who had died a few years earlier. And then she began to cry, great wrenching sobs from the heart. We knew we would not see each other again.

When I got back to Uzice, I worked on the eulogy. Vi had asked me, during that visit, if I would write it. She also was working on her own pamphlet, choosing pictures and stories of the significant events in her life – and it was beautiful. Anke had agreed to deliver the eulogy, and so I knew I needed to give her time to read through and reflect on it. But it still didn’t seem fully real, in a sense, particularly because I was regularly working 14 hours a day with few breaks.

I was in the office just after our Christmas (Serbians mark Christmas on January 7th, so our Christmas Day is just an ordinary day) when I got the condolence message from a friend. I sent my own condolence message to her family, and then I began to hear the details from friends, including the women from the Siberian trip who had helped with the memorial service. Typically, Vi had found a way for ministers from all the churches in town to take part. And people said the eulogy had touched people. She had celebrated Christmas with her family, and (through the infinite grace of hospital staff) had been able to see her newest grandchild. She had achieved all that she had hoped for.

After I was back in Yellowknife, the next year, I ran into George Tuccaro, who had done similar work with bereaved families and as quietly as Vi, and he hugged me and said “we gave her a good sendoff”. That was healing, for me.

But that day, I was alone in a small office, in a community not my own. I played music, and I grieved, and my friends in the office did their best to give comfort. It was something they knew how to do, because they had so often had to provide similar comfort to bereaved friends during the bleak years of sanctions against Serbia, and then the war in neighbouring Bosnia, and then the bombing of key Serbian infrastructure in a western bid to force Milosevic out of Kosovo.

I tell this story because, given the many times we debate the practicalities of international development work, we rarely talk about how this work affects us as human beings while we are doing it. My New Year’s resolution, this year, was to begin reflecting on this process for myself. This is the first of an occasional series of posts on that topic.

(This post was inspired, in part, by a thoughtful and lovely talk I just listened to this morning. With thanks to Meghan O’Rourke and Hanya Yanagihara, who talked about grieving as part of Foreign Policy’s Global Thinkers podcast.)

Challenging the ‘victim-in-chief’

There is a choice, in the US election, that goes beyond politics, it seems to me. And it seems to me that the choice is between two styles of approaching issues, challenges, and problems – from a place of ‘victimization’ or from a place of ‘empowerment’.

If you are a victim, your focus is on whoever or whatever you think victimized you.  That victim identity can give you a lot of energetic power, and make it difficult for others to respond to you in a way that would help you to actually change that identity.

If you choose empowerment, even if you are at the bottom of a system, you can make changes – although you may well attract a lot of resentment from those who chose the victim identify.

Unfortunately, these terms push buttons for many of us – as one can see in the US campaign.

The victimization/empowerment choice doesn’t break down by party lines. It is, as anyone who has read the work of Barry Oshry knows, a bigger issue than political party affiliation. It is a choice in how one wants to regard the world in which one lives.

But there are echoes of these two identities in the two main parties contesting the election.

Many Trump supporters, whose sense of victimization has been stoked over a long time by talk show hosts who have become millionaires in the process, see him as the person who is going to revenge them on the establishment that they see as having made them victims. To do so, they have to disregard news coverage (because it is the product of a ‘liberal media’) of the stories of how Trump has victimized hundreds of small businesspeople as part of his rise to apparent billionaire status.

Trump himself, who – in the views of some conservative radio commentators is likely to lose the election badly – has taken to stoking the narrative of victimization in recent days. He claims that the election is going to be rigged by a corrupt establishment, and thus, that he also will be a victim of ‘the system’

‘Dance of blind reflex’

In my experience of social change, victimization – while it can generate powerful energy – does not create meaningful change. People who see themselves as being victims of any system can empower others in the sense of helping them to also claim an identify as victims – but they cannot help them see themselves as people who individually hold the power to make the kind of changes they want, in their own lives or in the society in which they live.

They find themselves in what Oshry calls the ‘dance of blind reflex’ – in which they end up victimizing others, and not changing their own status.

Empowerment, in its truest sense, is not easy. It requires one to examine one’s values and beliefs and ideas, and to take responsibility for how one acts and thus how one is treated by others around you. It requires you to go beyond blind reflex, to go beyond instinctively lashing out at others. It requires us to recognize, and name, what we are doing and what others are doing. None of this is comfortable.

It is especially uncomfortable, I think, in a world in which so many of us have conflated ‘anger’ and ‘violence’. Many of us feel extremely uncomfortable with anger, and don’t recognize that it is a sign of health – that someone has crossed our boundaries, has done something that is not acceptable to us. And because we don’t know how to express anger in a healthy fashion, especially in a political setting, we often swallow the anger, leaving it to seethe below conscious awareness, until something happens that pushes that button and we flare up in rage.

Rage and revenge

Via the internet, I’ve seen a lot of rage being expressed at Trump rallies, which seem to validate and even encourage expressions of rage. Many people seem to see Trump as the one who is going to revenge them on the system that has failed them – a system which they feel they had no part in creating or sustaining. ‘The worm has turned’ might well be their slogan.

Even Trump’s geopolitical commentary is cast in the tone of ‘victimizer’. He talks often about how others are talking advantage of America, of how it is time to stand up to them and take America’s power back. This sense, that America is losing its power and authority in the world, is – as some commentators have noted, akin to Russia’s perspective on the west.

But I think it is bigger than that, and it echoes something I heard Gwynne Dyer say a long time ago – that the biggest challenge of the 21st century, for Canada, would be to deal with a superpower neighbour that was losing its superpower status.

It seems to me that the 21st century story, for America, is that it is no longer the ‘city on the hill’, isolated from the world around it as if the experiences of the rest of the world are not shared by the US. The 21st century, I think, is when America begins to realize it is not exceptional, and that it shares the problems that the rest of the world has been experiencing for a long time.

Trump would have Americans build walls and turn America into a gated community that keeps out the rest of the world. But that is a narrative that goes nowhere in an interconnected, inter-related world – even if it was achievable.

The other choice

There is another choice, I believe. America can choose – as many of its citizens have – to act from an empowered narrative, even if they feel they are at the bottom of the system. They can identify the changes that they want to make, to solve the problems of joblessness, homelessness, crime, urban blight, and poverty in their communities. They can do it in relationship with the rest of the world, not in isolation. There are many examples of exactly how Americans are doing this, both at home and in the world.

It is not a narrative they are likely to hear from the conservative talk radio hosts, who – at least one of them suggests – are promoting Trump because it is good for ratings and thus good for their own bottom line. It is a quieter narrative, and sometimes it takes work to find these stories. But the examples are there, and they are powerful, of how individuals and communities are creating change. It is a narrative that Americans share with many other countries, in which people have created social change individual by individual, action by action, project by project.

That change is not coming just from one political narrative or party. Utah, for example, has done an extraordinary job of addressing homelessness in an effective way that is sustainable and saves money for the public purse. Other American cities and states also have taken action, and it is not a blue or red question – it is a question of what works, and to me, that is in fact the essence of conservatism.

No future in ‘being a victim’

I don’t believe, myself, that most Americans buy into that victimization narrative, but I can imagine it is hard to rise above it when it is blasted so relentlessly by talk radio hosts and cable tv shows. There is comfort in seeing that somebody else has caused the problems that we face, that we ourselves don’t have any responsibility for contributing to them. Acting powerfully to create change is difficult, and learning how to do it – and finding others who will support you as you do it – can be challenging.

But what I have learned over my lifetime is that there is no future in always seeing oneself as a victim, or in banding together with others to bemoan that victimization. It may feel good for a while, but it doesn’t change anything. Often, in many societies, that narrative has led to terrible conflict and war. Only when people come together to hear their stories, to resolve differences between individuals and groups, and find ways to work together – difficult as that may be at first – can they build or rebuild the peace that allows them all to live well together.

So, even as Trump promotes his gospel of victimization, I want to celebrate all the Americans who – even if they might feel that they are at the bottom of a system they don’t like – are choosing to act powerfully to create change around them. They are the future of America.

We as observers in the ‘world outside America’ can support them by a strategy of ‘accompaniment’. We can share stories of how people – inside and outside the USA – are acting powerfully to create change. We can respect those – in the US and elsewhere – who are struggling with how to express their values in a confusing time, even if we don’t share their views of how those values should be expressed in society. And we can name the kind of behaviour we see (bullying, for example), even when it isn’t comfortable to do so. Naming it clearly, without responding in kind, is the first step towards changing it.

The tears of grandmothers

I have been reflecting, as I weeded the raspberry patch, on the power of grandmothers in our world. It is not the kind of power we are used to thinking of – political power or economic power. It is the power of care for the future – and, sometimes, the power of tears.

One story in particular came to mind. It is told by Sam Obaydee Doe and Emmanuel Habuka Bombande, in A View from West Africa, in A Handbook of International Peacebuilding: Into the Eye of the Storm, edited by John Paul Lederach and Janice Moomaw Jenner. It is about the women of Mano River, who intervened in a violent dispute among the Kissi people who lived on the the border between Guinea and Liberia.

Forty of the women, led by Saram Daraba Kaba, of the Mano River Women’s Network for Peace, were listening to the elders on the Guinean side of the border. “To the astonishment of the women, the level of anger and bitterness could not allow any meaninful exchange with the elders. Sponstaneously, the women decided to sit and just listen. They did nothing but listen. As the elders spoke, their emotions deppened, and they cursed and swore to massacre their own kinsmen on the other side of the Liberian border.

“At a point where the women could no longer take in the outpouring of violent language and the quest for revenge, they broke down in tears one another the other. Some of them rolled on the grass and wailed loudly, ‘What is the future for our children?’

“Suddenly all the elders, who a few moments before had been swearing and cursing, also broke down and joined in the weeping…..The elders looked at one another and one by one began thanking the women for their patience and tolerance in allowing them (the elders) to discover reason and wisdom. They vowed that on the contrary, they wanted to reach out to their brothers on the other side and swear an oath that they would never allow government soldiers or rebels to use their territory or kin to inflict further pain and suffering on the two communities.”

Other powerful stories from the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding also are told in this chapter, but it is this one – the grandmothers sitting down and weeping, and by doing so, illuminating what the conflict was doing to their people and society, that has always remained in my mind..

It is one of many stories of how grandmothers are weaving togehter the frayed and broken places of our society. The grandmothers of Africa are raising a generation of grandchildren orphaned by their parents’ deaths from HIV/AIDS – aided by Canadian grandmothers who were moved by their courage and reached out, through the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign, to nurture their African sisters.

Or the story of the grandmothers of the Playa del Mayo in Argentina, who stood in the plaza silently, wanting to know what had happened to their children during the dirty war when so many people disappeared. They stood there patiently, month after month and year after year, and their quiet presence was more powerful than any protest demonstration could have been.

Or the grandmothers of the Greek Islands who, having once been refugees themselves, welcomed families fleeing violence in Syria and other parts of the world, seeking peace and a future for their children. They saw cold and hungry people, and they welcomed them into their homes and communities.

I find myself wearied beyond words by hearing the anger and contempt expressed by people like Donald Trump. All it does is create more and more anger – there is no empathy, no understanding, and very little listening.

So I have been wondering what it would look like if the grandmothers of the United States sat down and wept about what is happening to their children, and grandchildren, their famiies, and their communities.

I imagine them, listening to the angry voices around them, trying to make sense of their grustration and grievance, and finally breaking down in tears, and asking ‘Where is the future for our children?”

Sixteen years ago, the women of Mano River showed the power of tears.

I think it is time for the grandmothers of America to reach out to one another, across borders, across political differences, across ethnicity, and speak for the children and grandchildren – through their tears. By doing so, they may create powerful change indeed.

The potential power of ‘many small coffee shops’ – a reflection on personal agency

A long time ago now, I lived in a small town in Canada’s North, where a bitter strike was underway at a local mine. It happened, coincidentally, that plans for expanding a local hotel, which housed a coffee shop where a great many people came to have coffee in the morning, were underway. Phase 1 was to tear down the coffee shop.

As a consequence, people had to find new places to have coffee in the morning. Other places were smaller, and so it happened that many of the people engaged in the strike – on one side or the other – found new places to have morning coffee. And so some places became associated with various sides in the strike.

Economic problems put the hotel expansion on hold, and so there never was a replacement for the big coffee shop where most people had gathered.

Looking back now, it seems that one consequence was that the conversations in the various coffee shops became limited and self-reinforcing. Where people would have, in the big coffee shop, heard other points of view, they began to hear only the views that they agreed with.

All of this became clear, of course, only in retrospect. The strike became more violent, and one miner set off an explosion that killed a group of men who had been working as replacement workers. The town was shocked to its core.

I have been thinking about this in light of the Brexit vote. I began thinking about how, in earlier times, people gathered at local pubs and coffee shops in England and chewed the proverbial fat. It provided a place for people to let off steam, complain, blame factors beyond their control. But rarely did people have a chance to let their complaints change the larger society in which they lived.

Fragmenting as it expands

Social media has changed that utterly. In a sense, when social media first began to influence us, it was a lot like the one big coffee shop in that small town. Now social media has fragmented as it expanded, offering a selection of ‘coffee shops’ that we can go to, so that people can gather virtually in a place with others who think the same way as they do.

And social media has offered a way for a variety of actors to influence the discussions everyone else is having. I try to use social media to share stories of locally-led achievement (and there are many such stories to share), but I know that there are a lot of other motivations at work.

There are ‘made up’ stories – ranging from satire to deliberate distortion – so that it can seem extremely difficult to know what is actually fact and what is fiction. And often it doesn’t seem to matter, as people seize on the stories that support what they believe and agree with.

In effect, we are all in a variety of small coffee shops, exchanging our stories – and grievances – which are magnified upwards through that same social media, which is proving to be easy enough for people to manipulate.

When the conversation focuses on grievances, on what people perceive as an individual loss of agency, the conversations end up reinforcing that sense of loss of ability to influence the larger conversation. And when the focus is on ‘globalization’, just as in an earlier time when the conversation would have been about ‘industrialization’, we lose the stories of how individual people are acting – from the local level upwards – to change the pictures they don’t like.

The narrative of ‘lack of agency; or lack of ability to create change around us is a pernicious one. When we feel as if our lives are out of our control, we try hard to find ground to stand on. Often that ground is about the things we can’t control, ignoring the fact that others around us are finding ways to act on those problems in small ways that start from the ground up.

The power of locally-led change

We focus on the nation state response to climate change, or refugee arrivals, or the economy, as if the state has an ability to control the bigger forces at play. We ignore the ways in which individuals, and smaller units of governance like our cities, are responding effectively to these issues. In doing so, we empower politicians, or would be politicians, who suggest there are easy solutions to complex problems – the idea that from the top of the system, they can institute the change that we want, even as we recognize – at least to ourselves – that this kind of control is no longer possible in a globalizing world.

In many ways, I suspect, the debate is not so much about ‘globalization’ as it is about how our process of governance is changing, in ways that are just as hard to see clearly as it was for that small city to see what would happen when there was no longer a place people could gather to hear what others in the community were thinking and saying.

I believe a new form of governance is emerging – one that some scholars call ‘nodal’ governance, because it reflects the idea that governance is a collective process in which ‘governmentness; is only one factor – not one that is privileged above all others. It is a process that largely grows from local initiative and agency.

There are many stories, if we care to look for them, about how this new kind of ‘bottom-up’ and ‘locally-led’ governance is emerging to offer an alternative to ‘big governance’, which seems hopelessly gridlocked. If you are feeling a ‘lack of agency’, I encourage you to look for – and then share widely – these stories about how people are creating change for themselves, from the bottom up. In this way, we can harness the power of many ‘small coffee shops’ to help create a different narrative of agency in that ‘one big coffee shop’ that is our world.