Here follows a true tale which further opens up the question of leadership for our time. It takes place in a very unique circumstance. But the dynamics are universal. It could be a classroom, a school, a family, a tribe, a nation…any community. This story offers a helpful magnifying glass on a subject that too often leads to polarization and conflict. As with so many things the question of leadership needs to be radically updated inside a new context. Here is a story which prepares the ground beautifully…
To give a little background…
Imagine a village of about 180 people living in the rainforest foothills of the Venezuelan Andes. This village was one of many in a unique region of Venezuela founded by exiled African slaves. The region is called Barlovento. The people living there spoke a beautifully African nuanced Spanish dialect, lived by the rhythms of their drums and call and response songs, danced and sang stories nearly every night in the village center, made their living farming Cacao, played a lot of bocce ball and lived in mud thatch huts.
In the early 1980s the Institute of Cultural Affairs was invited to start a “human development project” in this particular village, called Caño Negro. The projects sponsored by the I.C.A. were comprehensive development endeavors seeking to re-vitalize the socio-economics, infrastructure, technology, health and education of communities around the world who were casualties of 3rd World industrialization. Whole regions were (and continue to be) devastated ecologically, culturally, economically – practically overnight, mostly at the hands of the multinationals pillaging the planet for ‘cheap’ resources. On the heels of this ongoing crisis respond many humanitarian aid organizations. The Institute of Cultural Affairs was one such organization at the time – but with a unique twist…
Yes, it was important to help improve circumstances in these villages – building roads, filtering water, supplying electricity, establishing better health practices, opening schools, modernizing agricultural methods and so forth. But alongside the physical improvements was the need also to re-energize and fortify the spiritual roots of the community. How do you do that respectfully?
The methodology of the I.C.A. was simple and profound: re-enliven the spiritual identity of the village through its trans-generational archetypal songs, stories and symbols. That is – what is the village story? What song or songs most capture the spirit of the community? And – what symbol, what image can every person in the community relate to on a personal level as the village logo?
A challenge? Yes! Imagine the potential chaos, opinions, arguments and division that could erupt attempting such a process. It would need a special kind of leadership. In a way, they were endeavoring to establish a new village constitution. It was an important project. Every person, every voice needed to be heard and included without weighing down the process. Not easy.
Now… add to this an essential ingredient to the story…
A year or so before Caño Negro entered this village constitution process; money had been raised to build a community center facility. It would serve as a meeting place and training facility with a community kitchen, guest dormitories, bathrooms, showers etc. It was built using typical third world concrete block construction with very few windows and corrugated metal roofing. The walls were painted white inside and out. It looked like a white fortress in the middle of the virile Venezuelan jungle.
Before it was even completed the villagers started using the center for everything; for meetings, for music, for dancing, for fiestas, for guests, for school…you name it! They occupied and animated an otherwise sterile structure with the colorful and spontaneous life of the village. It was a total success…until…
…Until the “village leadership” decided to start managing the facility. The community center schedule needed to be organized to facilitate the village constitution process. O.K. sounds simple enough. But no! You see, up to this time there had been a vibrant dialogue and creative explosion regarding the song, story and symbol of the community. It was all taking place in the new center, very successfully. No one had to organize it. It was just happening all by itself! No one wanted to do anything else! Most everyone included themselves in the process in one way or another. There was a natural intelligence and organization to it. The leadership was the process itself!
Now…flash forward a few weeks…
- The spontaneous and kaleidoscopic use of the community center completely died in the wake of somebody’s administrative initiative. The place had become the official meeting place for the village constitution process, organized and scheduled by the village administrators. The children were gone. The music was gone. The theatrical debate and dialogue was gone, gone somewhere else. The community center had become The White Fortress occupied by the trained and educated organizers of the village development project. The rest of the villagers started meeting in their mud thatch homes.
The community was now polarized, divided, but not hopelessly so. And thus began the dynamic tension between the White Fortress and the Mud Thatch Hut!
It was almost as if little Caño Negro was playing out some element in world history. The village had become a micro theater for a much larger human drama. There were certain classic patterns:
For a time the “center and periphery” stopped talking to each other. Mutual resentment, assumption and suspicion prevented them from communicating. The White Fortress people became protective, moralistic, possessive, over controlling, insecure and defensive – always planning meetings to make plans. The Mud Thatch Hut people became ‘the victims’, ‘the oppressed’, ‘the displaced’, full of revolutionary vigor and resentment, irrational, gossipy, insecure and defensive, reminiscing into the wee hours about how good things used to be. Oy!
The White Fortress had the ways and means to get things done; they had the finances and the facilities, the license and the legal structure… but they were seriously short on charisma, creative ingenuity and vision. They were prone to lose sight of the bigger picture.
The Mud Thatch Hut had the creativity, the motivation, the strength and inspiration to get things done. But they were seriously short on facility and infrastructure. These guys were seriously prone to dispersion.
And so on. Sound familiar?
The two needed each other, but could not see it.
The standoff went on, arms folded, backs to each other…until…
…Until a magical thing happened.
- Sometimes people come together over a tragedy that transcends their differences, for a time. Sometimes people come together out of obedience or deference to a ‘higher’ authority. Sometimes what unifies people is a fundamental need shared by everyone – like safety, food or water. But sometimes, something else brings people together; something stronger than common ancestry, family ties or religious fervor. In Caño Negro it was three children.
One evening just outside the community center, three young children started playing the traditional rhythms on three tamboras. No one had played music here for weeks! They beat out those rhythms loud and clear until people started to gather – just a few at first, and then more and more. It wasn’t long before there were over a hundred people gathered there; some who had not seen or spoken to each other in many weeks.
Then two little girls started dancing to the drums. And a little boy shouted out the first verse in a traditional call and response song. One little voice started a whole thunderous chorus of voices. The whole village was singing! It didn’t matter what they were singing. It was the fact that they were singing together! The children brought them together.
As the night progressed, there were many, many songs and joking and laughter. People were dancing like they had never danced before. Caño Negro was together again! It was beautiful. There was no need to talk. Forgiveness and reconciliation were ‘in the air’, in the music, in the spaces between the notes. It was the most profound thing to witness.
The very next day a meeting was called. Nobody cared ‘who’ called it. Everyone knew it had to happen. The village literally jammed into the community center. There was barely room for everyone. It was clear to everyone present, Caño Negro now had its constitutional symbol, song and story.
The symbol was a group of hands embraced together. The song was the call and response song the children started the night before. And the story was – The White Fortress and the Mud Thatch Hut!