Taking An Empathy Walk On The Wild Side

Food line in Caracas
Ana K had told us a harrowing story that in five minutes took us on a 500 km Sensing Journey to the wild side of a country, in which we had the opportunity to get very close and personal to some of the deep causes in which Venezuela’s systemic crisis is rooted upon.

Taking a walk on the wild side means to engage in risky, raucous, adventurous, or licentious behavior. The meaning that I give to the phrase in this article is literal, because I live in the wild side of the world — Venezuela. This country has an appallingly inept leadership that has brought it to the brink of collapse, generating a humanitarian debacle that has no precedent in the western world and is only comparable to “Germany’s descent into monetary hell in the 1920s”.

The term “Empathy Walk” was coined by Dr. Edgar H. Schein, Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Business, and one of the most well-known theorists of organizational culture. He proposes that a leader should open his/her heart to his/her subordinates by taking an empathy walk with them. Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT, creator of the Theory U, incorporates Prof. Schein’s walk in the Co-Sensing stage of the U process, where it is one of the key practices by which the U practitioner opens his/her heart, a fundamental requirement to travel successfully the U transformational journey.

Theory U is a consciousness based leadership methodology in which the practitioners are guided trough a journey that allows them to open their minds in order “to see with new eyes”, to open their hearts, “putting themselves in the shoes of the other”, and to have the presence to open their wills, empowering them “to act in an instant” on and about the issues that affect them the most.

My partners Marietta Perroni, Maria Antonieta Angarita, and myself, are experienced Theory U practitioners. As such, we have created the Hikola Project (Hikola means “life breath” in Yanomami language), in which we teach social change agents Theory U.

Hikola Project plenary session. Helio Borges, Maria Antonieta Angarita, Marietta Perroni.

This is particularly pertinent in Venezuela, due to the collapse of the institutional leadership in the country, and to the harsh conditions with which the people have to deal in their work and lives.

With the Hikola Project, we seek to sow the seeds of a values based culture, one in which the citizens are empowered not only to lead their own lives, but also to consciously relate with the others at home, work and in their communities, looking to fulfill the well being of all, and not be guided solely by their self interest.

In one of the sessions of our 4 months program, we were holding a generative dialogue about one of the disruptions that we confront everyday, the polarization and confrontation of the population between “chavistas” (supporters of the government and of the late Hugo Chavez ) on one side, and the opposition (those who are against the government) on the other. The dialogue centered about the importance of listening to the other and to suspend our own “Voices of Judgement an Cynicism” in order to open our minds and hearts to the other’s point of view. After several people had spoken, one of our practitioners, Ana K, as she likes to be called, a community leader of a Caracas neighborhood asked “¿Do you know what does it take for one kg of meat to reach your table?” Everyone looked at her wondering what had she meant by that. She explained…

The Journey Of One Kg Of Meat

In Venezuela, the regime has waged war against the private sector of the economy, making it almost impossible to sustain a business. Particularly hard hit were farms and agro-industries, who were confiscated and given to Stalinist style “comunas”. The result of this policy is a total chaos in the production and distribution of basic food staples . When you go to the market to buy food or to the pharmacy to buy medicines, the most frequent answer that you get is “no hay” (there isn’t any). When word gets out that there will be an open market of any scarce product, the result is massive “colas” — long lines of people waiting for extended periods of time for the food to be sold to them.

Maria Antonieta and Ana K

Ana K, began to speak… “One neighbor of ours, a community leader who to the best of her ability tries to bring us products at better prices, published in the neighborhood chat that there would be a food truck selling meat the next day at the local park, she works at an important government office, so I assume that’s why she has connections. The next day, from early hours in the morning, long colas waited for the truck to arrive, and the people kept waiting patiently during most of the day, because the truck didn’t arrive until mid afternoon. Meanwhile, I spoke with the people in line and had the opportunity to listen to every kind of complaints, some of them referring to the woman who had published the post, about her political affiliation, about how the regime was playing with them like pawns, others commented and were grateful for the organizer´s willingness to bring meat to their community at low prices, some spoke about the incompetence of the opposition leaders, and about how leaderless the country is, etc. When the truck arrived, they let everyone know that instead of selling 4 Kgs of meat per person, they would sell half of it. The level of the complains intensified, but nobody left because of the low prices, which the people appreciated in light of the rampant hyperinflation. The sale process advanced slowly during the rest of the afternoon until well advanced the night. At 10.00 pm, when there was no more meat to sell, the few people who were in line left, and the truck crew began to pick up their belongings. I was curious about what had happened and I spoke with the truck driver and his helpers. Here is what they told me”.

Route from San Juan to Caracas

“We come from San Juan de Payara, in Apure estate, close to the Colombian border, we buy the meat to the few ranchers who remain in that area, and drive all night in order to arrive to Caracas in the morning”. I asked him why they had arrived in the afternoon, and he said to me just one word “alcabalas” (police road blocks). Alcabalas? I asked. “Yes, the first one that we encounter is from the Colombian guerrilla. I most have shown a horrific expression in my face, because he told me “don’t panic señora”. I asked him if they didn’t harm them, “No, they don’t harm us, however, they are very dangerous people, I know about one man that messed with them somehow, and they killed him, chopped him to pieces and delivered the parts to his family. We treat them very carefully”. Do they take meat from you? I asked him. “No they don’t, the police do”. The police? I asked. “Yes, state governors have declared a merchandise transit tax, which is illegal of course, and the estate police set up road blocks, and confiscate part of our merchandise”. If you refuse to do it? I asked ingenuously. “They would confiscate all the merchandise and we would go to jail”, he said matter-of-factly. He added, “We pass several road blocks in different states, that is why we arrive here late and with less merchandise than we originally thought”. I thanked them for what they had done, and left with a sense of appreciation for them.”

When she finished speaking, she looked at me as if asking “now what?” I was speechless and looked at the audience. It was evident that they were profoundly touched by Ana K’s intervention. Maria Antonieta spoke and invited everyone to one minute of deep breathing and reflection. We all needed that.

Ana K had told us a harrowing story that in five minutes took us on a 500 km Sensing Journey to the wild side of a country, in which we had the opportunity to get very close and personal to the deep causes in which the Venezuela’s systemic crisis is rooted upon. Two weeks later, at the next session, Ana K told me that the woman who had organized the meat distribution operation had died of Lupus --probably for the lack of adequate treatment and medicines. Again, she left me speechless.

There Is A Crack In Everything / And That’s How The Light Gets In. Leonard Cohen

How The Light Gets In

After Ana k´s intervention, the following reflections remained in our collective consciousness.

  • So much effort had been done by so few well intentioned people, trying very hard to alleviate the situation of a large group of their of fellow citizens, with the final result of providing only some meager meat rations to them. How are we, as a community going to act in order to provide a sustainable and affordable supply of food and medicines for the population?
  • The different and contradicting perceptions that the people had about their whole experience, and the patience that they had shown. When are we going to sit down, see each other in the eyes and into our hearts and reach some common ground on which we can walk emphatically towards a common goal? Perhaps one like well being for all?
  • The truck crew’s journey and their vicissitudes, and specially their commitment to their task despite of the adversities and hazards that they had to face everyday, even at the risk of their own life. When all of us, authorities and citizens alike, are going to act responsibly and consciously in order to treat other human beings as part of our own selves?
  • The fragility of the food supply for a city of four million inhabitants, whose very subsistence depends on people like that truck’s crew. How do you migrate from a dangerously inept leadership that not only has failed to fulfill its promises but is also constantly acting to perpetuate itself in power regardless of the cost in human suffering and lives ?
  • Before that apparently undecipherable maze, What am I called to do? What are we called to do as a collective?

The answers my friend, are not going to be blowing in the wind. Not on our watch!

On Dec 8th we finished teaching our second cohort. Now Ana K knows that she is not alone, because she is part of a 200 Band of Brothers like community of Spanish speaking Theory U Societal Change Makers. We speak a common language, we are empowered to act on behalf of our fellow human beings, and we support each other on our purpose of making of this a better place to live for all.

Everyone of our “U Leaders”, as we call them, has stories like Ana K’s. All of those experiences brought us to the point that we now know that we are wholly capable of being catalyzers for the evolution of the Venezuelan society from its present violence and disintegration situation, to a culture with a solid base of values, whose mainstream purpose is to reach quality of life for all. Our programs point out in the direction of fostering in the citizens the internal transformation and coherence that enable them to unleash their leadership capacities that taken together will generate a cultural change in the society. At the Híkola Project, our profound ethical and democratic values are in the deepest level of our desires. Consequently, that is where our purpose, intentions and our destiny lie.

Behind The Híkola Project Curtains

How to facilitate this transformation in social systems, rapidly and at an unprecedented scale, is the number one leadership challenge of our time. Otto Scharmer
www.presencing.org/s-lab

The Híkola Project is an initiative of the Caracas ULab Hub, the local point of diffusion and training of the Theory U in Caracas, Venezuela. This effort has been carried out in 2018 due not only to the splendid education that we receive and impart thanks to Otto Scharmer ´s MITx course “u.lab. Leading From The Emerging Future”, with the support of the Presencing Institute ´s amazing staff, but also to a grant that Barrett Values Centre provided to us, because as they stated, “we were inspired by your efforts to create positive changes in the educational ecosystem”.

In 2019, we are carrying our work one step forward by participating in the Presencing Institute´s Societal Transformation Lab, which is “A multi-local innovation journey for teams who are co‑shaping more sustainable and equitable social systems worldwide”. Simultaneously, the first trimester of next year we plan to open the third cohort of the Híkola Project. Due to the fact that we will need funds to run it, we need to contact institutions that give grants for the work of training of leaders in societal transformation. Dear reader, we kindly ask you or anyone else of whom you are aware, that if you know about any of those organizations, please let us know its whereabouts by sending a message to us at caracasulabhub@gmail.com. We, on behalf of the social change agents who we train, deeply appreciate it.

Blessings and thank you for your support

Helio Borges

Helio Borges is a bilingual (Spanish- English) writer. He writes about Personal Growth, Spirituality, Psychological Well-being, and Organizational and Societal change. He has an experience of more than 20 years in Change Management in organizational settings. He is a member of the community of change-makers who uses the “Theory U” methodology, created by Otto Scharmer Senior Lecturer of MIT. He co-hosts the Caracas u.lab Hub in Venezuela, and he is a co-leader of “Proyecto Hikola”, an ONG that works in the values based transformation of the Venezuelan society. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Boston University. He is an ICF certified Ontological Coach, and a Positive Psychology and Theory “U” workshop facilitator and speaker.