Transforming a Society Against all Odds

Helio Borges

This article is longer than usual because it follows a five months evolutionary journey of three dreamers, who in their effort to transform a society that is suffering the effects of a complex humanitarian emergency under a very authoritarian regime, are undertaking a transformation of their own.

Small Sample Of Change Makers Stories

The news that a group of teens led by Maryuri Ruiz, all students of the Maria Inmaculada school of Petare the largest slum in Latin America, organized an emergency brigade might not look like a big deal. What makes this event an extraordinary one, is that the purpose of the Hikola Brigade is to bring emotional support to the members of the school’s community, students, teachers, parents, and workers. They do it by holding deep listening sessions learned during their four months formation at Proyecto Hikola. Maryuri and her fellow students turned the school system inside out, assuming the responsibility for bringing to light and addressing the precarious emotional state of the school’s community members.

Vicente Paez is a young man who lives in Petare. His personal political views led to him being estranged from his own family. His parents are local community leaders for the government party, while Vicente is a councilman for the Primero Justicia opposition party that was outlawed by the government. Seven years ago, Vicente was expelled from his paternal home due to his political thinking and for a while was homeless.

When he began the program, his intention was focused on his political future, because he believed that Proyecto Hikola was going to help him polish his political skills. However, with every session to which he attended, his intention slowly shifted back to reconcile with his family. Now Vicente has been able to reach out to his family and engage them in dialogue. Today, Vicente is more aware of the importance of human relationships, looking to develop spaces for deep listening and generative conversations in his personal life and political career. In an extremely polarized country, Vicente’s example has the potential of becoming a model for political reconciliation.

Raixa Rivero is a Master Coach with more than 20 years of experience in teaching, counseling and mentoring, and has held key executive positions in different coaching schools. As a participant in our second cohort, she was exposing her case in one of the deep listening circle sessions, and she said: “What makes me really happy is to do voluntary work”. Later on, while having a conversation with her coach and friend Marietta Perroni, she unveiled a purpose of massive transformation to positively impact the world “by connecting and transforming lives” with the creation of human “oases” where its participants would live full experiences in the loving company of other people.

With that call in her mind and heart, she went to Father Ángel Ríos, Parish Priest of El Hatillo and Mercedes de Silva President of the local Pastoral and they founded #TejiendoEsperanzas (Knitting Hopes), where 30 neighbors, mostly grannies from El Hatillo district participated. Their knitting work impacted directly and indirectly about 528 people in their first year of operation, mostly young mothers and their newborn babies. A new social startup had been born.

Maryuri Ruiz and her team, Vicente Paez, and Raixa Rivero. Photos: @hborgespics

Proyecto Hikola

These transformational stories are a small sample of the testimonies of change that the 220 participants in the Proyecto Hikola program experienced in 2018. Proyecto Hikola is an adaptation and customization to the Spanish language of the MITx course u.lab. Leading From The Emerging Future. It was an initiative of Maria Antonieta Angarita, Marietta Perroni and I. We are the Co-hosts of the Caracas Ulab Hub, the local center for action research, diffusion, and discussion of the Theory U in Venezuela.

This program builds capacities on social leaders that help them change their mindset so that their decision-making process is focussed on the wellbeing of the whole system. Consequently, the educational community members, social activists, and NGO leaders of the Great Caracas area who took the program in 2018 are more able to identify, bring to light and address in their communities and workplaces, the deep causes in which the Venezuelan crisis is rooted.

We wholly appreciate the understanding and collaboration given by the Universidad Metropolitana of Caracas and Opción Venezuela, and we are deeply grateful to Barrett Values Centre, whose fund awarded us a grant because they “were inspired by our efforts to bring positive change to the educational ecosystem”. Thanks to those organizations, Proyecto Hikola is a reality today.

The Societal Transformation Lab. Expanding Our Scope While Living The Disruption.

“Welcome to the Societal Transformation Lab! We are really excited to have you on board for this journey”.

That was the heading of the letter that we received last Jan 2, 2019, from the Presencing Institute. We were one of the 300 teams from all over the world that had been selected to participate in that program. We felt blessed for having been given this opportunity to take our work to the next level.

u.lab-S. Co-Initiation. Image: “Intention”. Olaf Baldini, Presencing Institute

The Societal Transformation Lab is an initiative of the Presencing Institute, a think tank located in Boston, USA, founded by Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer of MIT, and creator of the Theory U. His books, courses and programs “outline a framework for updating the “operating systems” of our educational institutions, our economies, and our democracies, applying the core concepts of Theory U to the transformation of society at large”. He believes that “true leadership today is the capacity to facilitate a shift of mindset in multi-stakeholder groups from a narrow understanding of self-interest (ego-systemic) to one that makes decisions based on the wellbeing of the whole system (eco-systemic). We call this capacity Eco-System Leadership.

The Societal Transformation Lab aims to build this type of leadership capacity at scale, across multiple sectors and geographies. Ultimately, the aim of STL is to activate a global ecosystem of innovation that works to ensure wellbeing for all”.

January. Co-Initiating

“Our intention is to co-activate together with you, a global movement that is creating practical solutions that bridge the three divides, Ecological, Social, and Spiritual, by reinventing the education through the integration of head, heart, and hand, by advancing democracy, by making it more direct, distributed, and dialogic, and towards transforming our economies towards sustainable wellbeing for all”. Otto Scharmer.

Global map and screenshot of participants

On Jan 17th u.lab-S held its first live session. It was a breathtaking experience in which more than 600 people located in 149 cities of 35 countries in the 5 continents participated. They belong to more than 300 teams that work in every kind of transformational and innovative endeavor that you can think of.

Locally, we assembled an extended team of 16 change makers coming from our past cohorts, and in this “train the trainer” first session, we expressed our intentions:

Proyecto Hikola’s Intention word cloud

We had planned to participate in the program with a focus in Education, but the systemic forces that shocked the country made us shift it to Democracy as time went by, because as it turns out, no effort in education is sustainable in a country suffering from a “complex humanitarian emergency” under an authoritarian regime.

The Disruption

Jan 10 — Nicolas Maduro is inaugurated for a second term as president after a widely disputed election in May 2018, from which most opposition parties were either banned or refused to participate, and most of the electorate boycotted. Immediately, more than 50 countries refused to recognize him as president.

Jan 23 — Juan Guaido, the newly elected President of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), the only legally elected democratic institution left in Venezuela, is acclaimed as interim president in massive popular assemblies held across the country. For the Venezuelan people, as for the rest of the world, this was a time to choose between democracy and authoritarianism.

Jan 28 — The United States announces sweeping sanctions against the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA, to increase pressure on the Maduro government.

Jan 30 — Maduro says the effort to unseat his government is a coup’d’etat instigated by the United States to steal the country’s oil reserves.

February. Co-Sensing

Societal Transformation Lab, u.lab-S. Image: “Our Collective Fingerprint”, Kelvy Bird, Presencing Institute.

“In this new February phase, the teams are beginning to work hands-on to map out the system and go to its edges, to gather key observations and insights. These practices establish a better understanding of how all the stakeholders experience the current situation — particularly the ones that are most marginalized, whom we often know the least about. Through this module, participants are learning new ways of perceiving blockages, needs and opportunities in their stakeholder systems, using various levels of systems-thinking analysis: from symptoms down to the deeper root issues at play”. Presencing Institute.

We felt chills run up our spine when Adam Yukelson mentioned the Venezuelan team and our picture was shown on the screen. It was real, we were there! This was the live session of Feb 14, in which the Core Team of u.lab-S, composed by Otto Scharmer, Adam Yukelson, and Kelvy Bird, together with Danya Cunningham and the MIT Co-Lab students, officially launched the lab and showed to us how the 3D systems modeling methodology worked.

The Venezuelan Team

After watching the live session we, the core team together with our extended team, made our own 3D Mapping experience created by Marietta Perroni, which she called “Cornucopia”. This 3D modeling system was created by her with the purpose that the participants may be able to observe beyond the obvious (the disruption surrounding us) and focus on the resources available to them, sometimes in unsuspecting places, to come up with a systems change intention.

u.lab-S. Co-Sensing. Image: “Reinventing The 21 Century”. Olaf Baldini. Presencing Institute.

We met for the third time on Feb 28 to practice the 3D Mapping methodology broadcasted by PI on Feb 14. We also practiced the 20 minutes dance of 4d Mapping, a Social Presencing Theatre tool developed by Arawana Hayashi.

3D Mapping

“The 3D mapping exercise revealed very important barriers within the psychological, that is, work on the emotions of Venezuelans, twenty years of controversial feelings have left scars that must be transmuted from hatred to love”. Nathaly Briceño, a member of our Extended Team

The Disruption

Feb 2 — Juan Guaido starts leading nationwide demonstrations to allow international aid into Venezuela to alleviate the Complex Humanitarian Emergency. Most of the European Union endorses Guaido as Venezuela’s president.

Feb 6–8 — The Venezuelan National Guard blocks a bridge on the Colombian-Venezuelan border using shipping containers and a tanker truck ahead of the arrival of aid trucks escorted by Colombian police. Speaking on February 8, Nicolas Maduro states “with…aid they want to treat us like beggars…we can take care of our children and women. There is no humanitarian crisis here.”

Feb 22— British billionaire Richard Branson hosts the Venezuela Aid Live concert in Cucuta, a Colombian city located in the Venezuelan border. Juan Guaido attends and meets with presidents of Colombia, Paraguay, and Chile, among others.

Feb 23— The aid showdown at the border comes to an end. Aid trucks fail to enter Venezuela from Colombia and Brazil while clashes between protestors, Maduro supporters, and the Venezuelan military injure 285 and lead to more than four deaths.

March. Co-Inspiring

During this month, you will transition from looking at the system from the outside to exploring what it looks and feels like from within. This will surface deeper leverage points for change and prototyping possibilities.” Presencing Institute

u.lab-S Image: “Listen Deeply”. Olaf Baldini, Presencing Institute

Exploring The System From the Inside… The Hard Way

On March 7th we had met to give structure and sense of direction to our new Core and Extended teams. Laly Irazabal and Myren Lucia Lozada, members of our extended team, facilitated a Team Grid workshop, where we would work on: what we want and have (maintain), what we want and do not have (achieve), what we do not want and have (eliminate), what we do not want and do not have (avoid). We completed the first part and agreed to meet again at a later date. We wouldn’t because a major disruption got in our way.

The Disruption.

Caracas at dusk during the blackout. Photo: @hborgespics

The following is an excerpt from my article 120 Hours Into Obscurantism, published on March 16 on Medium.

“At dusk, I noticed something odd. I have a privileged view of the eastern part of Caracas, which lights up at dusk just like any big city, but this time I sensed that something terribly wrong was happening when all that I could see was a huge, dark shadow where the city was supposed to be…”

On top of the political crisis, and the Complex Humanitarian Emergency that we were enduring, Venezuela had begun to experience the most prolonged total blackout in her history. For details, please refer to the article mentioned above.

Nevertheless, We Managed To…

… hold the space for our team and staged the next session on March 21st. Maria Antonieta Angarita had recently gone to a Social Presencing Theatre workshop held in Bogotá, and she explained to us this concept of “The Village”, a Social Presencing Theatre practice. Consequently, the first part of our workshop, titled The Hikola Village, was a generative dialogue about the role of Proyecto Hikola as a team that was confronting the multisystemic calamity that the country was experiencing. In the second half of the workshop, we held a Current Reality Movie about the Venezuelan political system, which is a sort of Gordian Knot that tangles the Venezuelan progress.

Current Reality Movie experience.

Because the Current Reality Movie revealed the crudeness and complexity of the Venezuelan disruption, we decided that for the 4D Mapping experience due in April, we would convene a broader audience and explore the Venezuelan reality at a deeper level.

Letting Our Work Be Known.

Proyecto Hikola was invited by the Professional Coaching Association of Venezuela to participate in the 3rd Venezuelan Coaching Congress, which was held in celebration of the 25 years of the coaching practice in the country. We titled our workshop, Impact of Theory U in Coaching and the Transformation of the Venezuelan Society. In 45 minutes we managed to hold a workshop where the participants had an overview of the U methodology and had the chance to experience a Stuck Exercise. The workshop had great reviews, so much, that many of its participants assisted in the SPT experience that we held later in April.

April. Co-Creating

4D Mapping. Making Sense o Chaos

According to the Presencing Institute, “4D Mapping explores how the highest aspiration in a system might come forward. We assume there is underlying wisdom –in spite of the diverse values or goals of stakeholders in a system — that could come to the surface and be visible as we move from Sculpture 1 to 2. Participants apply mindfulness of body and awareness of the surrounding space. 4D mapping is not about acting out pre-conceived ideas or concepts we have about a system, it is about the surfacing and noticing what shifts in a system that might be significant in going from current reality to an emerging future reality. Movement is based on what is actually emerging, not based on manipulation or what we think something should be”.

u.lab-S Image: “Presencing”, Olaf Baldini, Presencing Institute.

At Proyecto Hikola, we have been using 4D Mapping for analyzing complex systems since Dec. 2016, when we staged our first “Escucha a Venezuela” (Listen to Venezuela) experience, this would be our 5th time in which we analyzed the Venezuelan Social Field. This time we invited more than 40 people, most of them experienced coaches.

We had a total of 45 attendants, 25 of which represented a role in the complex Venezuelan social system, and the other 20 were citizens-observers. Due to the extreme polarity that the country is experiencing, every actor represented a role unknown to him/her, which only was revealed at the end of the exercise. The initial sculptures, the positions held in the field, be it at the center, or at the margins, the movements made, the connections with others, the new positions in the field, the final sculptures, the surprise of everyone including the actors and the statements that they said when the role was revealed, the feelings, the body sensations, the images that come to the participants’ minds, everything was valuable data that revealed a very dynamic and rapidly evolving emerging future that was a true expression of the complexity of the Venezuelan social field. The experience shocked some, and surprised us all, as the other past experiences of this kind did.

SPT experience “Escucha a Venezuela” (Listen to Venezuela). Venue: Espacios Mil

As I am writing this paper, the reality of the field keeps changing, because time does not exist in the Social Field as we know it — linear. The Social Field expresses the emerging future as a possibility. It is up to us to act and make that emerging future an emerging reality. That is what we do at Proyecto Hikola.

The Disruption.

On Apr 30th, another major disruption happened. Here is an excerpt from the NY Times, “For more than three months, the Venezuela opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, has been exhorting the armed forces to join his side in ousting President Nicolás Maduro. On Tuesday Mr. Guaidó made his plea at a military base in the heart of Caracas, the capital, raising speculation that the military might be ready to heed him. Clashes erupted outside the base and elsewhere… “.

The rebellion was crushed, and as I wrote in the article As Systems Collapse, People Rise? “At the end of the day, rocks, songs, and prayers, wouldn’t make it. 4 demonstrators died of gunshot wounds, two of them 14 and 16 years old teenagers, one 27 years old mother, 1 other youngster died of wounds when he was run over by an armored truck, hundreds were injured, more than 200 were illegally detained and very probably are being subjected to tortures as I write this note. After that brutal repression, the dictator is still in office, and the “Complex Humanitarian Emergency” is getting even worse”.

May. Co-Shaping

“The most important question that any changemaker can ask him-herself is “What future do you want to create? Personally, relationally, professionally. In terms of society. In terms of u.lab, or any global movement that you feel part of”. Otto Scharmer

u.lab-S. Image: “Prototyping” Olaf Baldini, Presencing Institute.

Due to the frequent and deep disruptions that we were experiencing, Proyecto Hikola was a little behind the rest of the teams participating in the STL. To keep up with the schedule, we held the “Visit To The Field Of The Future” experience at the beginning of the month, and the “Prototyping” session one week later.

A Journey To The Field of The Future.

Otto Scharmer has created a deep mindfulness session that allows any person, not only to dream about their future but literally to step into it and to experience it so vividly that they can make in the present time, decisions to act and bring that future to a tangible reality. For the participant, it is like having an out of body experience.

In my experience facilitating u.lab, I have seen all sorts of things happening when people are exposed to this experience, mostly regarding the urgency of bringing to the reality the future that they want to create, but for one reason or another, they keep postponing the necessary, and in most cases courageous actions required to do it.

A Journey to the future surrounded by nature. Venue: Marietta’s home.

In our particular case, we were working on two dimensions, one where everyone explored his/her particular emerging future, and another where we explored the future of Proyecto Hikola as an emerging organization. Regarding the first dimension, everybody had clear paths of action revealed to him/herself. In the second one, the future was somewhat foggy for different reasons that we began to clarify after the prototyping session.


We held two prototyping sessions, one in person, another virtually. After a deep mindfulness meditation based on “The Pale Blue Dot” of Carl Sagan, we guided our extended team through the PI methodology of prototyping, answering the following questions:

What is the grand idea? Whom do I need to invite? How do I break up that idea into small, practical steps that I can do in the following days? We completed the session using the PI Prototype Evaluation Methodology “7 R Criteria”. Is it Relevant, Revolutionary, Rapid, Rough, Right, Relational, Replicable? And what are the key learnings?

As I said before, we were able to hold the space for the participants to go through the journaling and reflection process about their prototypes successfully. However, I manifested to the rest of the members of the core team, that although at the personal level I felt that I had new revelations about my emerging future, I continued having the feeling that at the group level something was missing.

The Hikola Village

We felt that we had accomplished something meaningful in 2018, when with a little help from the universe, a core team of three people was able to obtain funds, forge alliances, and facilitate u.lab, a complex consciousness based systems change program, adapted to the Spanish language to three cohorts of change makers, totaling two hundred and twenty participants, 55% of whom developed prototypes of social change.

Ist Cohort Proyecto Hikola. Photo: @hborgespics

The Road Ahead

Now in 2019, we are integrating an extended team and trying to take this emerging organization to the next level, but we are lacking the funds that we need. Moreover, we have a different sense of direction and purpose depending on what member of the core team you ask to. Things get more complicated when you ask the members of our extended team. We look more like a giant ameba which keeps changing shape as new members come and go, which is navigating with the flow of a current that has turned violent at times by the force of the disruptions that we are experiencing. I honestly have felt at a loss sometimes…

…That is a way to look at it.

Nevertheless, we have always maintained our deep listening capacity tuned on, giving ourselves the opportunity to “let come” some new ideas and insights that will give form to complex concepts and processes.

Turning Weaknesses Into Strengths

In our case, the lack of structure that we were perceiving as a team weakness, was instead an open space permeable enough to allow an atmosphere of free participation, in which everyone had the freedom to develop their prototypes with the certainty that we would be holding that space for them. As time, new knowledge, and disruptions went by, we morphed into something more than a project, the Hikola Village turned out to be a sort of oasis in the desert for our change agents, who were thirsty of liberty, creativity, and innovation for developing their projects.

One example of this is Nathaly Briceño, one of the members of our extended team, who beautifully and succinctly summarized the Hikola Village concept.

“Our goal as the Híkola Village (breath of life in the Yanomami language) has been to build comprehensive visions of our political — social reality and our emotions as a country, analyze them and develop really innovative and comprehensive diagnoses that allow us to generate our own collective plans focused on our human development. For this we have worked on our consolidation — linking as a team, moving from co-detection to co-evolution with a clear vision, open heart and open will and understanding of our own role in a village of which we are part, through our personal and collective journeys”.

We,the inhabitants of this village, keep iterating, listening to what the field is whispering to us, speaking with key stakeholders, exploring new ideas, forging new alliances, looking for new sources of funds, creating new programs, detecting new needs, reaching out to the global u.lab-S community, and developing our prototypes within the context of a collective societal transformation journey.

May God bless us all.

Helio Borges

Helio Borges

Written by

Transformational Coach. Theory U Changemaker and Facilitator. Speaker. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges

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