ABOUT UTOPIAS, REPUBLICS OF CONSCIENCE, SANCTUARIES, FANTASIES AND ACTION
Few days have passed after the Global Gathering and my brain is still having a hard time making sense of it all (For those new to my profile, I explain more of what I am up to in the paragraph at the end of this post).
My first days at work made me feel back to reality in a snap, which implies that during the event my brain/body felt somewhere else; and, to be honest, that week in Naivasha (Kenya) was so surreal it almost feels like a dream… like being a character of Murakami’s books, or having taken the red pill in The Matrix.. like having access to certain wisdom that you know is beyond your understanding but it is also a revelation of sorts… an enlightenment that you want to freeze and hold, but that you know will break away if you don’t try to make sense of it.
The Global Gathering was emotionally intense, intellectually dense, purpose driven, value oriented, and just powerful… It was like a weird roller-coaster of emotions and I had high-highs and lows-lows…both in the same week.
It was just so fascinating to see so many people I knew and to realize how many more of us are walking the same journey.
It was humbling to hear other fellows’ stories and to see the work that they do.
It was also a slap in the face in many ways…but it was reassuring.. it made me realize we are not alone and that we need each other, it made me realize it is a choice that we are taking, and a journey that has just begun.
10 days ago I was getting out of the Nairobi airport, after a ~35 hrs. journey from Bogota, and full of expectations for the week ahead: after all the event was going to have ~400 attendees: ~320 fellows from all over the world (a connected ecosystem across more than 32 countries, 11 global cohorts, and 15 regional cohorts), ~ 50 guests and partners, and ~40 Acumen staff members. In addition, the event had one of this rare agendas where you find yourself trying to clone in order to attend all the cool things happening at the same time, and, the cherry on the top: a rare chance to meet the people you already knew, especially those that have taken the time to polish and shape who you are today.
I remember I did not know what exactly to expect, but I knew it had been a while since I had been this excited. The days that came right after, did not disappoint me, and it was not because it is hard not to fall in love with Naivasha, but because I could not stop writing down the amount of thoughts this event sparkled, and the amount of ideas/opportunities ahead I see for this community.
The Gathering also send us home with these three powerful tools we were reminded of, by Jacqueline Novogratz (Acumen’s founder and CEO):
· To listen
· To speak our truth even if our lips tremble
· And to help each other dream, as, in her words, this is how the world changes
Now, after a full week of work, a weekend with old-time-friends, and a few days with my sister (always the best way I have to ground), I am trying my best to distill down what this gathering -and actually probably the whole journey so far- has meant for me. Again, it is not easy, as it definitely seemed longer than a week and it was a combination of too many things.
Here are my reflections so far, clustered by the topics that I feel have been constantly present (warning: it’s kind of a long read):
· Privilege: It is very interesting how this is a common theme of this community. We constantly reflect about how blessed we are and how working in this sector is not only a calling but some sort of luxury. The interesting part, at least for me, is that the luxury is not necessarily related to wealth and/or income. It is related to having a choice, to having opportunities. Walking this journey has implied “connecting back” my dots in many ways. The more and more I do this, the more I realize the amount of privilege I have: starting with the upbringing I had (that awesome opportunity of fitting in two opposite worlds, and growing being a part of both at the same time), the education I’ve received, the million of times things went wrong in my family and we had to step out of our comfort zones to keep going, the amount of close people I’ve seen struggling not to live but to survive, the amount of jobs and roles I’ve had since I turned 18, the things I’ve seen, the things I’ve heard, the things I’ve said. You sum all these things up and you understand MY privilege… you sum all these things up and you understand why changing my career path was not brave, it was meant to be. Being able to take action in response to this calling, is a luxury that I am lucky to have, and the gathering just reinforced my commitment to the journey.
· Identity (and our embedded in-bound/out-bound behavior): When my fellowship started (in early 2015), I knew it would imply a lot of questioning, and a lot of learning. I never imagined though the questioning would go as deep as to re-think my identity. Inspired by Amin Maalouf’s ”In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong” being part of this growing community has made me realize the amount of things we do because we affiliate with sub-groups, as well as the amount of harm we cause by having an in-bound/out-bound behavior: this constant need of differentiating our group from others. In fact, the constant need of identifying THE other, the threat. This was definitely a thread of last week’s event and it was everywhere: on one hand, you have people from all over the world, from different races, ethnicities, social classes under the same roof identifying first and foremost with the human race; and on the other hand, you see the same community identifying itself as something special and differentiating itself from everything outside; you see us trying to affiliate ourselves in groups within that same community and hence, spotting out the other (there were several times when I ended sitting with the Colombians, the 2016 cohort, the people that have been in Pakistan, the Latinamericans, the global fellows, the people related to Amal Academy, etc.). We often talk about the Acumen community as a tribe. Steph Speirs even called it a Sanctuary. This implies we are still differentiating from the others and although this is not necessarily bad, it could be dangerous as we may end up preaching to the chorus (thank you Steph Speirs for the warning, yours was one of the most audacious speeches I heard in GG). The Global Gathering was definitely a reminder of how blessed I am for being part of this community and also for being called to step out from it from time to time before we become echo-chambers. It kind of made me justify once more, why the job I took and I’m doing now makes sense.
Closely related to identity, in this community there is this call to start realizing the depth of our connection to each other. This is something that Acumen’s CEO cannot stress enough. We are interconnected. During the gathering, the whole concept took a new impressive turn while talking to Roy Steyner, who has done quite a lot of research about it. He used several arguments (coming from Biology, evolution, gastronomy, fashion, chemistry, etc..) to prove that we have more things in common with one another than the perceived differences. It was fascinating and intriguing, and also such a powerful argument, that it was hard to argue against it. We need one another, and that goes way beyond the Acumen community.
· Justice: I think I’d never had so many conversations about justice as I’ve had since I’ve been part of this community. The interesting part about this one, is that justice, or what is just was something clear cut in my mind before. Now, it is slightly blurry, so instead of gaining clarity in this topic, I am allowing myself to navigate in the grey. I don’t have much more to say here because I am still trying to find where I stand in a lot of the world issues that are preventing us from being what we could become; that are holding us back in our path towards civilization. All I know is that, where in doubt, I usually go back to MLK’s words: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. It’s probably one of the most powerful thoughts stored in my brain, and one that I constantly come back to in my day-to-day. It is one of the principles we hold ourselves accountable in this community.
· On anger and on being broken: This was as well a traversal topic to all the event. And I get it, we see so many things around us that are not working in a way that makes sense, and it is hard not to feel angry about it. I remember vividly growing up, feeling angry about many things in the reality of Colombia and I remember just few months ago, getting really angry and disappointed about the results of the peace treaty referendum. As fellows kept telling their stories on and out of stage you could see injustice and anger in many of them; but also an interesting twist in which that anger becomes a loving force and a call to action; instead of a call to just reaction.
Bryan Stevenson could not have said it better at GG, we do this work because we are also broken, we do it for us, and because (paraphrasing him still) our cuts, and our bruises are not something we want to hide but our medals of honor. We try to understand other human beings because we are flawed as well, and “it is the broken among us” what has the potential to change the world.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
· Power of parenthood: More than a topic, this is a trend. The amount of fellows/guest/partners on-stage telling their stories and mentioning their parents as a crucial driver of how they ended where they are, was overwhelming. If I reflect back on my own story, I cannot say otherwise. My upbringing and my parents are the connecting links to a lot of my dots, and a strong driver of my own moral compass. This is not new. We know it. In fact, in the poem “from the republic of conscience” that we analyzed and read as part of the Good Society Readings session we talked about being grounded (to your ancestors, your history, and traditions) as a first step to introspection and self-awareness. Malcom Gladwell describes this in his book The Outliers. He talks about success as something beyond the “successful” person, and human potential as the combination of everything around them such as their parents, their family, their birthplace, the doors that opened along the way and their birth date. Aligned to what I said about privilege, I hope for the day that I’ll get my parents to understand the value of what I have received from them. It still strucks me to hear them beating themselves up because in a traditional way they will leave “nothing behind”. If they could only see how my potential stands on their shoulders. If they could only see how they are the guiding light behind it all. If they could only see that that having their two only daughters (with such different personalities, skillsets, majors, jobs, and locations) working in the same sector is no coincidence. If they could only see…
· Fear vs Hope: If I would have to use one common thread of my last 4 years this would be definitely it. I’ve had many opportunities to ask myself about the real reasons behind my decisions (and not just the arguments I use to rationalize everything to myself and others) and to fully embrace how, like many authors mention, they always come from either hope or fear.
Rebecca Solnit makes an excellent case for hope in her book “hope in the dark”, showcasing how instead of an unsubstantiated feeling, hope gives us room to act and function at the face of uncertainty. A lot of the guests, speakers and fellows spoke about hope and fear in the Global Gathering, and learning from them, I just hope I get to increase the percentage of decisions I make based out of hope as I move on.
“We have to stay hopeful. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.” — Bryan Stevenson at #Acumengg17
“Moths and other nocturnal insects navigate by the moon and stars. Those heavenly bodies are useful for them to find their way, even though they never get far from the surface of the earth. But light-bulbs and candles send them astray; they fly into the heat or the flame and die. For these creatures, to arrive is a calamity. When activists mistake heaven for some goal at which they must arrive, rather than an idea to navigate earth by, they burn themselves out ,or they set up a totalitarian utopia in which others are burned in the flames. Don’t mistake a lightbulb for the moon, and don’t believe the moon is useless unless we land on it.” — Rebecca Solnit.
What does it all mean to me now?
As I start to reflect on this question, I can’t help but being grateful for the food for the spirit I received this past week. I leave Naivasha inspired and challenged; happy and sad, with more questions than answers and that can only be a sign of the exciting set of new challenges that are coming our way. It is a call to action.
Now, how does this translate into my life moving forward? I don’t know. Last week was transformational and helped me re-anchor but it also made me realize the multiple nuances in human nature and how hard it is to navigate a world where nothing is really black or white. As an example, on that same week I got a large amount of money stolen, just like that, out of nowhere and without the slightest idea of how that might have happened. Interestingly enough, despite it being a week of reflection, and getting closer to the human being I want to become, I still fail to reconcile with this happening: I cannot channel anger in any positive way, I cannot empathize with a person that could do something like that. I don’t know who was responsible (and probably I’ll never know) but I find it hard to find mercy in myself to see the human being behind the action, to still see beauty in everyone. I still want to see an “other” to blame. After I found out, it took a while to get my heart under control, and stop my hands from shaking. I think it will take me even longer to internalize the learning, but I am optimistic.
Today, as I avoid to take unconsciously the blue pill, I feel as if I had just woken up from a very vivid dream. As a Murakami character, I find it hard to differentiate between dream and reality. I look for evidence that it actually happened and I treasure the pictures of those days because they are the ultimate proof that it was not the product of my imagination. Like in The Matrix, I believe I have a choice, but I also think it is irrevocable: once you awaken in the real world there is no turning point.
I am glad I took the leap of faith. And although I am uncertain where or when I’ll be landing, I’ve never felt closer to finding the answer.
“Hold the memories of this place and each other. Our only enemy is fear it is not one another” — Jacqueline Novogratz at the closing remarks of #Acumengg17
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I am a Colombian engineer by training, and a change-maker by birth. I am in the middle of a journey to find a sweet-spot between business and philanthropy; and between my skill-set, my training and my profession. I am an Acumen Global Fellow and currently a Sr. consultant with Agora Partnerships, based in Bogota, developing the organization’s presence in Colombia and consulting companies all over Latin-America. On the third week of march I flew to Kenya for the first global gathering Acumen had ever organized, grouping together more than 400 attendees for a whole week. This post attempts to put together my thoughts as I start my journey back home.
How do I end here? I believe it is a sort of calling. I have worked in both my country and abroad, I was a high performance swimmer for over 15 years, I have traveled to more than 30 countries and lived in 7. I have volunteered for different causes and I have worked in a diverse variety of fields and roles. I grew up mostly surrounded by wealth (without being wealthy) and if it hadn’t been because my parents have a strong social-awareness I could possibly still be blind about our world’s alarming indicators of poverty and what they mean.
I write to keep a written/published track of my journey. I write as an exercise to make sense of things and to evidence change in my own thoughts. I write and ramble as a source of reflection and inner-connection…and because reading this back some day will allow me to keep going.