To get to El Carmen from Cartagena, you have to take a bus. Despite my best advice to myself, I ended up sitting right behind the driver a couple of weeks ago. I hate sitting where I can see the road, watching as the van careens past fuel trucks and semis, passing on uphills and blind corners without a thought for incoming traffic. Instead of shrieking, I repeat my mantra to myself- this is the way everyone drives, this is a well orchestrated system; this is the way everyone drives, this is a well orchestrated system- over and over to calm the fear.
When we finally arrived at San Jacinto, with supposedly only fifteen more moments to go, I surprisingly found myself glad to be sitting in the front so I wouldn’t miss the show. There was a traffic jam and our driver, to the competing advice of all four people jammed in beside him in the front seat, did not hesitate to cross the highway to drive in the ditch on the wrong side of the road to avoid the line. Our van was forced to grind to a halt once the line started moving five minutes later because we were now on the wrong side of the road. It was not a problem, however, as the ayudante got out and started directing traffic, creating a space we could ease into and continue down the highway, passing everyone like maniacs once again.
My women friends and I have an annual January women’s retreat on the coast. It’s a chance to lie on the beach, gossip, eat, reflect on the past year and plan for the one ahead. We had a lovely time catching up, eating patacones and watching the Great British Bake Off. Over breakfast one morning, we each picked questions from this list. Most of them were serious, openings to reflect about power, leadership, privilege, honestly and more.
I wasn’t prepared, therefore, for this one: Where did I find the humor, the ridiculous, the silly? It was hard to come up with a list, so I have been obsessing ever since about the question. It should be easy, after all, to remember the fun, right?
Slowly but surely, I have collected a number of moments from 2015: whatsapp conversations, nights out with co-workers, trying to speak Swiss German over apple cake, strange noises in Choco, the great lettuce debate of July 2016, and more. It wasn’t that 2015 was serious, I just forget to pay attention to the ridiculous in the normal of my life.
Life is far too short to be serious all the time, which is what the coast always reminds me of whenever I visit. Driving on the other side of the road in a ditch was normal when I lived there, but now definitely is not, at least for me. While it might not be the most effective solution, we did get where we were going in a creative sort of way. Our driver analysed the situation, probable causes and took action, based on his knowledge of context and the route and then did something I would never have thought of doing.
Paying attention to the funny or the ridiculous is a way of paying attention to creativity, to a new way of understanding the world from a different perspective.
Surprisingly, I find myself wanting to write all of this in response to an email I have been putting off. A while ago, my friend Sophie asked about how my understanding of advocacy had changed or been shaped by working at a regional level. “I am curious to hear what you find most exciting about this position and how it allows for you to be stretched and to stretch those around you. What is your area of focus at this point in relation to “advocacy?”
I read an article recently in the Washington Post about the effectiveness of nonviolence compared to violence in creating positive change. Besides the cool statistics of success, what struck me most about the article was the difficulty of predicting where a nonviolent campaign will occur because “people who organize nonviolent uprisings often overcome adverse conditions in creative ways that defy expectations.” While the chaos of violence is fairly easy to predict, nonviolence is surprising.
Although I still feel like I am just starting out, I think the most important thing I am learning to focus on is the need to pay attention to the creativity, from a local level. What seems ridiculous might just be the spark of change, based on that deep knowledge of a place.
I still, some days more than others, miss my daily interactions, not only with leaders, but with neighbours and friends in a community. Actually ridiculous events like symbolic returns, complete with van loads of snapping turtles, and giant peace marches are no longer a normal part of my life. I am jealous of my friend Larisa’s deep involvement and knowledge of a specific movement in the Montes de Maria. Yet the lessons I learned on the coast about paying attention to what is occurring at a grassroots level continues to resonate as I slowly become more familiar with seven different countries.
The local is still the place where overarching regional issues of urban violence or land loss or migration are lived out and also where the creativity is born that leads to change.
I love hats. The fact that I hardly ever wear them doesn’t stop me from buying them and leaving a hat trail behind me wherever I go. During our retreat, I loudly pledged that this would be the year when I would resist my purchasing impulse. Larisa laughed at me and told me not to bother. Last year, she gave one of my left behind hats to a young man in the Montes de Maria leadership group that formed after the march. He ended up covering it with the distinctive red foil of Sello Rojo coffee bags and wearing it in an alternative beauty pageant for environmental care, as part of one of the most creative and exciting advocacy movements in Colombia that I know about.
I may not be based in one place anymore, but I do have the opportunity to learn about a multiplicity of ways in which people are responding with incredible creativity to the situations around them. Being able to stand back from a situation has allowed me the distance to realize how remarkable things are on a local level and then compare those situations to movements for change in other local communities, in a search for resonance and connections.
Where is the creativity and how can we accompany and support, in a way that allows the local to direct and lead advocacy? Of course, that is premised on principles of paying attention, of listening and a relationship of trust. This is space for questions about context and history: why are people responding in such a way? How does this action shed new light on this particular situation? Why does this seem ridiculous?
It means allowing the community to define their own narrative and priorities, in a way that will probably be complicated, but so is their local situation.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pay attention to all the ridiculous things that have got to be going on in Bogota this afternoon.