“So let us look for beauty and grace, for love and friendship, for that which is creative and birth-giving and soul-stretching. Let us dare to laugh at ourselves, healthy, affirmative laughter. Only when we take ourselves lightly can we take ourselves seriously, so that we are given the courage to say, “Yes! I dare disturb the universe.” –Madeline L’Engle
I wasn’t expecting anything when I climbed into a cab on my way home from a reception at the Canadian Ambassador’s residence in Bogota. It had been a long evening of forcing small talk with embassy staff from around the world. I was never sure how to interact well in that space and I was done with chitchat. I would dip into the Embassy world occasionally to remind myself of state level diplomacy, with the hope of good snacks, yet it was always a challenge to connect this space with my everyday work. As I got into the car, my only goal was to get home and take off my makeup.
Despite my mental exhaustion, I quickly fell into small talk with the young cab driver as we left the mansions of the north to head south. He said that he was relatively new to Bogota and had moved from rural Cauca to the big city in search of work. When I asked him how his transition to the capital was going, the conversation shifted. He recently started participating in a group with other Indigenous young people in support of peace and victims’ rights, lead by community leaders already in Bogota. When he mentioned his uncle Didier, I sat up straight in the back seat. That Wednesday, our team had interviewed a Caucan community leader in Bogota, Didier Chirimuscay, for the radio show on peacebuilders I produced. Could it be…?
Together, we marvelled at the fact that in a city of almost 9 million, I had just this week walked down the street with his uncle as we headed downtown, too eager to keep talking to stop the conversation after the show was over.
I echoed my cab driver’s hope with my own wonder, asking the questions I had sometimes hesitated to speak in embassy spaces: what did he think about peace? Where did he see a role for himself and his communities? Instead of only foreigner and Colombian or client and driver, we were colleagues sharing stories about our work for possibilities. Outside of the embassy and all the official government buildings, networks of alternatives suddenly illuminated the city streets and echoed through our conversation.
Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez moved into official spaces of power this summer, as president and vice president of Colombia. All of a sudden, it is my acquaintances and colleagues from the peacebuilding world who will be joining the receptions and official events as hosts and honoured guests. The planning and imagining in taxis and under mango trees, the marches and vigils, the organizing and the reorganizing, has resulted in concrete access to the Canadian embassy snacks in a way that makes me want to weep over the possibilities. For the first time in 200 years, significant political change happened in Colombia without death or violence. Colombia has not arrived, but something is different. Petro and Francia may very well end up being terrible leaders. At the very least, any change they attempt to move forward will face strong opposition. This is a moment both to celebrate and to reflect on possibilities.
For a long time, I was unwilling to say that I had any part in the changes happening in Colombia, no matter how small. I always said I was witness, never participant. It wasn’t my work that lead to this moment because it was everyone’s work, all together, but I can finally allow myself to say that I had a role. I made connections, I dreamt out loud in taxis, I went to the embassy, I walked down the street with community leaders. Somedays we laughed, somedays we cried, but we walked together and told each other stories of who we were and what we could do. Nothing I did directly created change and many of the things I did contributed. I paid attention to possibility and I told all of you, my dear readers, all about it, all along the way.
I turned forty this summer. As part of this new decade, I’m practicing naming my gifts and wants out loud. I’m often surprised by how hard it is. I feel vulnerable and exposed when I state a desire and an ability. What if I fail? What if the change I’ve worked towards turns out to be horrific? How do I respond when I find out I’m not so great after all? It would be so much easier to only see myself as a channel, as a witness, as an accidental participant than an actor with agency. After all, if I claim a part, that means I am also responsible for the failure. Yet isn’t that what it means to be human: to be powerful and powerless, right and wrong, succeeding and failing, gifted and broken, all at the same time?
Hope is seeing the possible, John Paul Lederach says. To see what is possible, we have to open the window; step outside; change our glasses; listen deeply; imagine hard; talk to taxi drivers; laugh often and cry easily. To see the possible we must be willing to open ourselves up to both success and failure.
The day after my taxi ride home from the Embassy, I went to office. Everything was the same, but I was different. The possibility I saw was different. I may have contributed to change in Colombia, but every encounter also changed me in a way that made that possible. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was through listening deeply to the spaces for change and telling about it, that my own vision of what was possible and what I contribute, what we could do, took shape.
Could I be wrong? Of course! That is part of the joy of being open to transformation.
I caught a taxi home from the airport from a week in Winnipeg recently. I was tired after days of meetings filled with presentations and networking. I’m still trying to figure out who I am in official spaces and I was exhausted from the effort. My cab driver turned down the radio, telling me that he was listening to the news from back home. I asked where and he told me about Ethiopia and paying attention to the conflict. All of a sudden, we were deep in a conversation about destiny and agency. We talked about knowing that the end point in our lives is completely out of our control, but that we still get to choose how we respond in the in-between spaces. We swapped stories of culture and conflict. He told me how, as he was leaving home as a teenager with almost nothing, his mother had gifted him the family motto, telling him that their family was blessed with generosity. Even when very little could be given, generosity would always be repaid. When he was a young man he worked in an administrative staff role with the UN Peacekeepers camp in Darfour. One day he broke all the rules to give a starving woman and her children food. Since then, he told me, he has been blessed over and over with good conversation, interesting work, a family, and a sense of possibility and belonging to something greater than himself.
We both sat for a moment when he pulled in front of my house, not ready for the conversation to end. I thanked him for his generosity in sharing his story and walked inside. There was no instant connection with a community leader but I had the same feeling as when I walked into my office the next day in Bogota. Nothing had changed, yet an entire world of possibilities, understandings of agency, and alternatives was suddenly present. I was different.
The world is both what it is and what we make it. The gift of change is less the ability to do great things, but the openness to see possibility everywhere, in strangers and in yourself, and to tell about it. So, my dear friends, this is where you will find me in my fortieth year, attempting generous stories of bravery, of failure, and of possibility. I only ask for your stories in return.