We recently came across an illuminating talk by Nicaraguan psychologist Martha Cabrera- Living and Surviving in a Multiply Wounded Country.
In her talk, she describes the uniquely holistic approach to societal healing that she and her team developed over a decade of experimental work in Nicaragua. The Citizens Movement for Social Change and other groups in South Africa have been looking at her team’s experience for clues to healing South Africa’s post-apartheid wounds.
Their approach, which she refers to as the “personal reconstruction of communities,” is quite unique in that it tackles change from a personal, organizational, and social development perspective simultaneously.
Interestingly, the starting point for their healing work is the people spearheading social change projects, rather than the general population of Nicaragua. Here are a few excerpts from her talk that explore the links between personal, organizational and societal woundedness and healing:
We urge community leaders to review their lifestyle because we’ve discovered that, despite all the self-esteem workshops, people plod on without taking care of themselves. We’ve gone to communities where the heat is unbearable, yet when we ask people if they’re drinking a lot of water they say no. They don’t even take on board something as simple as this basic care for oneself. Where does development begin if it doesn’t begin within oneself? Where does leadership begin, if one doesn’t take responsibility for oneself and provide the example? Leadership of others abounds, but it’s a leadership that no longer functions. What we need is leadership that starts with the personal, leaders who lead from their own values, their own life, but that’s a lot more complicated than the do as I say, not as I do syndrome.
In one workshop in Costa Rica with a group of 25 Nicaraguan migrants, we uncovered 60 psychosomatic illnesses. Having emigrated to Costa Rica, Nicaraguans add the pain of being a migrant to the many wounds they brought with them from Nicaragua…We talked a lot about being uprooted and told them that if they want to build solid organizations as migrants, the first root they have to put down is inside themselves. If they want to build these organizations, they have to deal with reflecting on Nicaragua’s history, which could appear to be an irrelevant past but is in fact present within them. This is because pain doesn’t run on chronological time, which is only one way of measuring time. It runs on psychological time, which moves to a different beat…
It is essential to understand that all painful experiences that are not worked through are expressed not only in the person, but also in the organizations. The frequently offered advice that one should leave one’s own problems behind when one goes to work is erroneous, if only because it is impossible. People take their baggage with them everywhere they go. It is also essential not to see wounds and traumas just in their negative sense. They are a source of experience and wisdom. In fact, working through personal trauma is nothing other than transforming it into wisdom for oneself and for others.
She also explores how the woundedness that people carry with them into their work hinders their ability lead collaboratively.
In Nicaragua, a great many organizations want to do “open heart surgery with a machete,” as one observer quipped. They want to “change the world,” but do nothing to change an old-fashioned model within the organization itself and thus reproduce a leadership style that blocks any real change. Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán are far from the only caudillos in this country. That political boss syndrome is reproduced in social organizations, in NGOs, in all sectors of our society. The question is not whether we have democratic organizations, but whether we can have them. We’ve discovered that it’s very difficult to build democracy when a country’s personal history still hurts…
Most of those promoting development processes all over the country today are themselves affected by traumatic situations. Our task has been to convince those very people that they have to deal with this problem, but their typical response is: Why get caught up in all that when a self-esteem workshop would do? But it’s not enough. Experience has shown us that when we ask community leaders to talk about their life, many are taken aback at first, but afterwards they all thank us for it because it helps them understand and move forward.
…So many projects have the stated goal of “reconstructing the social fabric,” but who reconstructs a society’s fabric? People do. So first we have to reconstruct people. This recognition should lead us to analyze the development model we are proposing in our projects. Are they really people-centered projects?
In 1997, when Cabrera and her team started out, they were only working with a few organizations. By the time she gave this talk, they had expanded to 25. Their strategy is to think big and work small. Instead of attempting to transform one organization at a time single-handedly, they are focused on developing a critical mass- a small collection of transformed leaders and organizations who feel called to bring a similar experience of transformation to the larger society.