Having traveled throughout Latin America, people everywhere seem to embody a warm tenderness and kind spirit that many times is rare to experience in other major cities of the west. From Mexico to Brazil, you can feel and see in the eyes of most the daily struggle and sacrifice of surviving with limited resources and services. Despite entrenched and generational social, economic, and political challenges, the hope and resilience of the continent are more evident today than ever in the laughter and optimism of those with least.
If we are to be sincere about doing economic and political development anywhere, it must be development WITH people and not TO people.
We should break the exclusive and elitist nature of networks and conferences of those in wealth and leadership across religion, government, and business. As an experienced reporter in Ecuador stated, we in the west struggle with the solidarity and humility of the everyday person. Those of us in positions of influence should seek local experiences with local people to understand, empathize, see, and feel the reality of the justice we are striving to champion in the world. Out of that, ideas and deeds will have a stronger and more authentic foundation based on experience and a mutual dignity beyond any economic and political challenge before us. Language can't be a barrier or an excuse. If we are truly available to the possibility of social change, then we will find a way to reach across our common human ground to truly be local examples of inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility for all.
At the Rights of Nature Symposium, I met an indigenous leader from the Pacific coast of Ecuador that was looking for willing partners to support his indigenous community. As president of his association, he was representing 1,600 people looking to improve the daily lives of his community. He was looking to build a water tower, to have more computers for greater access and communication with the world, and to acquire a new motor for their fishing boat. Beyond a boardroom and grant application, it is important to listen to the resilient and communal ways of indigenous people as a greater lesson for us in the west. This modest and pure-hearted fisherman was not seeking western economic standards of living, he was looking to create a partnership of mutual dignity so that his people could continue a sustainable land and ocean life. His community departs daily at 5 am to different cities in Ecuador to sell crabs, shrimp, and fish and returns after sunset with the income of the day for the benefit of the whole community. Imagine all of us living lives where shared leadership and a shared economy are second nature!
From my own experience in government and philanthropy, when grasstops are too disconnected in time, resources, heart, and spirit from the grassroots, then we are turning our backs on the majority of the world. An experienced freelance reporter I met in Quito indicated: in the imagination of the poor, the higher you go on the social ladder, the more likely most tend to forget altogether about the lack of opportunity of those with least resources, education, and know-how.
How local can we live?
At home and abroad. A neighborhood life worth living is one that chooses to see and feel how simple actions lift the hopes and spirits of those with least. Simple actions when we just tip people a little extra and when we bear witness to their powerful life stories of resilience and struggle.
At the Rights of Nature Conference, I also spent an hour learning from an indigenous woman from the Amazon of Ecuador about simple living and culture. She educated me about teas and remedies used daily by her community of 300 people. She was selling arts and crafts created by the women of her village. She taught me to discover living in harmony with all communities. How?
She taught me to live a life that discovers a feeling in our hearts and in our souls for service.
A life of service that will benefit future generations and, along the way, ourselves. She teaches her community to identify with their indigenous origin and tradition. The roots of noble ideas and good deeds will be more effective if we see and feel the necessity and sacrifice of daily life in every person we encounter.
As an undocumented immigrant to the United States from communist Nicaragua in the late 1980s when I was just two years old, I found empathy for the many Venezuelans I spoke to in Ecuador and Colombia fleeing the communist take over by the Maduro government. Buses, rafts, and rivers were part of a journey I myself knew as an infant fleeing war. It was one I saw in the eyes of worried parents and the smiling gentleness of tired children on the Ecuadorian and Colombian border. Communism is a dying ideology that never lived up to its noble intention, yet it has fooled millions in Latin American countries led by false and corrupt prophets of the people.
On the poor hills of Quito, I met two brothers in their early 20s that had just arrived from Venezuela after a four-day bus trip. They left their lives and families behind because selling Salchi Papas (fries and sausages) and hamburgers on the street of a foreign land was a better alternative to living under an authoritarian government.
My cab driver in Quito also migrated from Venezuela with his wife and daughter. He left behind his car, motorcycle, house, family, and a job as a department manager in a supermarket. His upward mobility was disrupted — he started working at 13 as a bag handler in a grocery store. There he was starting anew, which meant he rented a car for $150 a week to be a cab driver and rented a home for $200 a month for his family. He had owned the same resources where he came from. The poverty he was quick to mention was the poverty in mind and in spirit.
In Cartagena Colombia, I heard the story of a Venezuelan refugee: after receiving his first-month check for $413, he invested $275 of it in three fellow refugee women to set up an empanada stand. With very little but big hearts, these are the stories of the 80% of the world that lives on $10 a day or less. This is resilience, a courage and strength of spirit that you can see and feel across the refugees and immigrants in the world when we bear witness with solidarity and compassion.
Lets witness and spend the time seeing and feeling the sacrifice of the working poor and we will be transformed by the hope and resilience of their stories.
We will have a true foundation for social change, for social innovation, and for disruptive ideas and deeds that will serve people and planet. Our eyes cannot hide from the proximal reality all around us, nor can our hearts. We must be moved to humility and solidarity. How local can we live when we visit places? How are we examples of neighborhood life at home? How much can we learn from those with least? How much can we learn from the hundreds of Venezuelan families I saw crossing into Ecuador for asylum with almost nothing? How much can we learn from the children at the Ecuadorian-Colombian border receiving UN-funded health and immunization services after days of journeying by bus?
System thinkers and leaders in government, religion, and business must carry with them a vast bank of stories of the people, for the people, and by the people that can truly heal and lift the hopes and spirits of all. We need a standard of living based on dignity and care, not the very consumer and extractive economies that are hurting the planet more than ever.