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It's Just Our Turn To Help The World
Forward to Living System: Making Sense of Globalisation by Bruce Nixon
Margaret J. Wheatley, Ed.D. ©2006

Several years ago, I read of a Buddhist teacher who offered his encouragement to a group that was filled with despair over the state of the world.  His advice was simple, profound and placed things in historical context: “It’s just our turn to help the world.”  What I love about this statement is that it reminds us of other times and other people who stepped forward to help create the changes that were necessary.  We do live in an extraordinary era when, for the first time, humans have altered the planet’s ecology and created consequences which are just beginning to materialize in frightening ways.  But throughout human existence, there have always been people willing to step forward to struggle valiantly in the hope that they might reverse the downward course of events.  Some succeeded, some did not.  But as we face our own time, we need to remember that we stand on very firm and solid shoulders.

In my own work with local communities around the planet, I’ve learned to define leadership quite differently than the norm.  A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation.  It might be a parent who intervenes in her child’s school; or a group in a rural village in Africa who decides to put in a well for fresh water; or a worker who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in his workplace; or an individual who rallies his or her neighbors to stop local polluters.  Everywhere in the world, no matter the economic or social circumstances, I see people stepping forward to make a small difference.  They are impelled to act in spite of themselves; they often describe their actions as “I couldn’t not do it.”  Others see what they do and label them as courageous, but those who step forward never feel courageous.  They just did what felt like the right thing to do.

Because a leader is anyone willing to help, we can celebrate the fact that the world has an abundance of leaders.  Some people ask, “where have all the good leaders gone?”  But when we worry that there’s a deficit of leaders, we’re just looking in the wrong place.  We need to look locally.  And we need to look at ourselves.  Where have we been willing to step forward for the issues that we care about?

Every great change initiative in the world begins with the actions of just a few people.  Even those that win the Nobel Peace Prize. I’ve looked at the history of several of these prize-winning efforts, and one phrase always pops up as the founders describe how they began.  Their laudable efforts began not with plans and official permissioin, but when “some friends and I started talking.”  I recently listened to Wangari Matai, winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in planting over 30 million trees in Kenya and east Africa.  Her first efforts were with a few local women, and they planted seven trees, five of which died.  But they learned from that experience, spread the learning to their villages, then to other networks, and ten years later, 30 million trees flourish.  Villages now have clean water and local firewood, creating improved health and community vitality.  And it all began “when some friends and I started talking.”

This is how the world changes. Individuals have an idea, or experience a tragedy, or want to resolve an injustice, and they step forward to help.   Instead of being overwhelmed and withdrawing, as many of us do these days, here are people who decided to act locally. They didn’t know at the beginning where it would end up.  They didn’t spend a great deal of time planning and getting official support.  They began, they learned from their mistakes, they kept going. They followed the energy of yes rather than accepting defeat.  This is how the world always changes.  And this is how we must act now to respond to the frightening issues of these times, to reverse our direction, to restore hope to the future.

I carry with me a vision of what would be possible if more and more of us were willing to help, if we simply said “no” to what disturbs us, if we took a stand, if we refused to be cowed or silenced.  My heroes are the Ukrainians.  They set a standard in their ‘Orange Revolution” in late 2004 that has now inspired citizens to protest for what they need in many different countries as dispersed as Ecuador and Nepal.  They refused to give in or to stop protesting until they got what they needed.  Why couldn’t we do the same?  What will be our response to the destructive behaviors, the injustices and the suicidal decisions that characterize this time? Are we willing to help?


I Want to Be a Ukrainian
Meg Wheatley ©2005

When I come of age,
When I get over being a teen-ager
When I take my life seriously
When I grow up

I want to be a Ukrainian.

When I come of age
I want to stand happily in the cold
for days beyond number,
no longer numb to what I need.

I want to hear my voice
rise loud and clear above
the icy fog, claiming myself.

It was day fifteen of the protest, and a woman standing next to her car was being interviewed.  Her car had a rooster sitting on top of it.  She said  “We’ve woken up and we’re not leaving till this rotten government is out.” It is not recorded if the rooster crowed.

When I get over being a teen-ager
when I no longer complain or accuse
when I stop blaming everybody else
when I take responsibility

I will have become a Ukrainian

The Yushchenko supporters carried bright orange banners which they waved vigorously on slim poles. Soon after the protests began, the government sent in thugs hoping to create violence.  They also carried banners, but theirs were hung on heavy clubs that could double as weapons. 

When I take my life seriously
when I look directly at what’s going on
when I know that the future doesn’t change itself
that I must act

I will be a Ukrainian.

"Protest that endures," Wendell Berry said, "is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.

When I grow up and am known as a Ukrainian
I will move easily onto the streets
confident, insistent, happy to preserve the qualities
of my own heart and spirit.

In my maturity, l will be glad to teach you
the cost of acquiescence
the price of silence
the peril of retreat.

“Hope,” said Vaclev Havel, “is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

I will teach you all that I have learned
the strength of fearlessness
the peace of conviction
the strange source of hope

and I will die well, having been a Ukrainian.

Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment (www.berkana.org). Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She's been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at http://margaretwheatley.com/bio.html, and may download any of her many articles (free) at http://margaretwheatley.com/writing.html.

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