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The Building Blocks of Moral Revolution: Jacqueline Novogratz on the Art of Accompaniment Along the Path to Justice and the Courage to Defy Cynicism in the Face of Staggering Requisite for Change

“Cynics might point to a system of governments, corporations, and technologies so broken that attempts to change it from the edges are futile. But cynics don’t build the future.”

The Building Blocks of Moral Revolution: Jacqueline Novogratz on the Art of Accompaniment Along the Path to Justice and the Courage to Defy Cynicism in the Face of Staggering Requisite for Change

From the hard-earned platform of his revolutionary life, Frederick Douglass looked back on his youth under the “brutalizing power” of slavery, a bodily brutality lashing at the soul as he watched “men and women, … moral and intellectual beings, in open contempt of their humanity, leveled at a blow with horses, sheep, horned cattle and swine.” This grim reality of “manhood lost in chattelhood,” he argued, would take nothing less than a “moral revolution” to overturn.

A century after Douglass’s death, a nun by the name of Felicula Nyiramutarambirwa — one of Rwanda’s first three women parliamentarians — set out to eradicate the country’s epochs-old “bride price” — a practice of reducing women to chattel by having a prospective husband offer his future father-in-law three cows in exchange for the bride-to-be. Her country was not ready — the law banning the practice was rescinded, backlash erupted, and Felicula Nyiramutarambirwa was murdered.

Not long before her death, she had taken under her wing an idealistic young American woman who over the next decades would carry her torch in an unexampled way, irradiating the world with its light on scales neither of them could have predicted or dared dream of. Twenty-five, disillusioned with the hypocrisies of capitalism and a financial world predicated on an erasure of the lives of the poor, she would devote her life to exposing the deep-rooted, centuries-old systemic corruptions of a global economic system in which humanity is lost to chattelhood. She would come to see that because the systemic assault of poverty impoverishes people of much more than wages, the opposite of poverty is not riches but dignity. She would pioneer a new model of flourishing — flourishing of the body as well as the spirit — modeling a world where dignity is the primary stake to be held and each human being, no matter their nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, race, or income level, is a sovereign and inalienable stakeholder.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree, 1962.

In the decades since her formative experience in Rwanda, hardly anyone has made a greater or further-reaching difference in the lives of the world’s poor than microfinance pioneer and Acumen founder Jacqueline Novogratz. In Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World (public library), she looks back on her own life and forward to our shared future to consider the building blocks of robust, lasting change. She writes:

1986. Kigali, Rwanda. I am standing in a field on a blue-sky day, surrounded by tall, yellow sunflowers. I am a twenty-five-year-old former banker dressed in a flowy skirt, wearing flat, mud-speckled white shoes, my head filled with dreams of changing the world. Beside me is an apple-cheeked, bespectacled nun in a brown habit smiling broadly. Her name is Felicula, and I adore her for taking me under her wing. Along with a few other Rwandan women, she and I are planning to build the first microfinance bank in the country. Today, we’re visiting a sunflower oil-pressing business, the kind of tiny venture our bank might one day support. We plan to call the microfinance organization Duterimbere meaning “to go forward with enthusiasm.”

All I see is upside.

2016. Kigali, Rwanda. I am standing at an outdoor reception on a starry night, surrounded by men and women in dark suits. I am the fifty-five-year-old CEO of Acumen, a global nonprofit seeking to change the way the world tackles poverty. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, and his top ministers are at the reception to meet potential investors in a new $70 million impact fund Acumen is building to bring solar electricity to more than ten million low-income people in East Africa.

I have become all too familiar with the risks of making and then trying to deliver on big promises. Yet I’m confident Acumen and its partners can launch and implement this fund, and thus prove the power of innovation to help solve one of the continent’s most intractable problems.

Just before I begin to make a formal presentation to the group, a young Rwandan woman wearing a navy suit and low-heeled pumps approaches me.

“Ms. Novogratz,” she says, “I think you knew my auntie.”

“Really?” I ask. “What was her name?” I haven’t a clue to whom she is referring: too many of my friends were murdered in the genocide.

“Her name was Felicula,” she responds brightly.

My eyes well with tears. “I’m sorry,” I stammer. “Would you remind me who you are again?”

“My name is Monique,” the young woman answers with soft-spoken confidence, her eyes holding mine. “I am the deputy secretary-general of Rwanda’s central bank.”

“The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion,” Henry David Thoreau had written in Frederick Douglass’s day in contemplating the long timescales of social change. On the timescale of our civilization, thirty years is an astonishingly short span for change so profound, especially if this particular lever has been intercepted by one of the grimmest genocides in the history of the world. In a single generation, Rwandan women had gone from being priced as chattel to charging the country’s financial system.

With an eye to Felicula Nyiramutarambirwa and the women who dared to dream on timescales beyond their own lifetimes, with an eye to her own work with people around the world who are transforming their communities in ways they might not live to see, Jacqueline considers the fulcrum of the lever. With echoes of Theodor Roosevelt’s famous “Citizenship in a Republic” speech about the cowardice of cynicism in advancing change, a generation after the British economist E.F. Schumacher called for prioritizing people over products and creativity over consumption in what he called “Buddhist economics, she writes:

Cynics might point to a system of governments, corporations, and technologies so broken that attempts to change it from the edges are futile. But cynics don’t build the future. Instead, they often use their jaundiced views to justify inaction. And never before have we more desperately needed their opposite — thoughtful, empathetic, resilient believers and optimists on a path of moral leadership.

[…]

Those I’ve known who’ve most changed the world exhibit a voracious curiosity about the world and other people, and a willingness to listen and empathize with those unlike them. These people stand apart not because of school degrees or the size of their bank accounts, but because of their character, their willingness to build reservoirs of courage and stand for their beliefs, even if they stand alone.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Along the path of their shared devotion to ending poverty, Jacqueline came to know these outstanding human beings — many of them people radically different from her, inhabiting worlds and shaped by world-forces radically different from those of her own crucible — through what she terms “the practice of accompaniment”:

Accompaniment is a Jesuit idea, meaning to “live and walk” alongside those you serve. It is the willingness to encounter another, to make someone feel valued and seen, bettered for knowing you, never belittled. Guiding another person, organization, or community to build confidence and capabilities requires tenacity, a disciplined resolve to show up repeatedly with no expectation of thanks in return. This kind of accompaniment requires the patience to listen to others’ stories without judgment, to offer skills and solutions without imposition. It is to be a follower as well as a guide, a humble yet aspirational teacher-student focused on coaching another with firm kindness and a steady presence. With those you aim to serve or lead, your job is to be interested, to help make another person shine, not demonstrate how smart or good or capable you yourself are.

Accompaniment is especially important when partnering with those who are from places or families that have been traumatized or marginalized by war, violence, isolation, aggression, or by drugs or generational poverty. Accompaniment recognizes that for many individuals and communities, spiritual poverty is as devastating as material poverty. The simple act of showing up and connecting with another’s humanity can help a person rekindle hope in ways they might not otherwise have dreamed of doing.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

In the remainder of Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, she draws on her three decades of accompanying the world’s poor on a path of dignity, on working with remarkable local entrepreneurs changing the landscape of possibility for their communities, to share hard-earned learnings about listening across lines of seemingly unbridgeable difference, understanding poverty as something larger and more complex than income level, defining success by something larger and more complex than solvency and public acclaim, and inviting constructive conflict — or what the great jazz scholar and writer Albert Murray called “antagonistic cooperation” — within ourselves and among ourselves in order to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community, the need for freedom with the need for belonging, in continually honing and refining the instrument of social change toward a more equitable and dignified world.

Complement with the great French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil on the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities and the young poet Marissa Davis’s stunning love letter to the double courage of facing a broken reality while refusing to cease cherishing this beautiful world in its brokenness, then revisit Zadie Smith on the vital interplay of optimism and despair in what we call progress.

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An Illustrated Love Letter to Gardening

A lush serenade to the patience and fortitude of living with uncertainty and letting life unfold on its own terms.

An Illustrated Love Letter to Gardening

“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process. It was in a garden bed that Virginia Woolf arrived at her exquisite epiphany about what it takes to be an artist. For poet Ross Gay, time spent in the garden is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” Looking back on his life, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks recognized the healing power of gardens as one of only two non-medical interventions that have helped his patients, alongside music. “It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her gorgeous ode to gardening.

I too have healed, have honed my attention, have fine-tuned my artistic voice and purpose, have learned and practiced happiness in the garden, on my tiny patch of Brooklyn soil. I too have knelt on the frost-bitten ground to press into it the first seed of spring, have craned my neck by midsummer to meet the prayerful face of the sunflower, radiant and rueful in its solitary stature. I too have plunged my hands into the moist dirt, cupping the infant root system of a willow tree I know will outlive me, cupping with it the bewildering, consecrating knowledge that seed and sunflower and willow and I all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego, all the while remembering that humility comes from humilis — Latin for low, of the earth.

That — how gardening brings us into intimate contact with the rhythms and relational marvels of nature, with ourselves as humble notes in the rhythm and nodes in the marvel — is what artist Debbie Millman, my longtime former partner and now darling friend, explores in this wondrous illustrated love letter to the garden she started with her then-fiancé, now-wife Roxane Gay, part of a four-part series for TED, narrated in Debbie’s own lush and recognizable voice.

Complement with this illustrated Victorian encyclopedia of poetic lessons from the garden and a lovely contemporary children’s book about how gardening teaches us to work with unselfish purpose, then savor more of Debbie’s splendid visual stories and meditations on her Instagram.

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Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt: Poet Ross Gay’s Subtle, Stunning Meditation on Learning to Live and Learning to Die

In praise of practicing the inevitable through the improbable, the mundane moments when we are “as delicate as we can be in this life.”

Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt: Poet Ross Gay’s Subtle, Stunning Meditation on Learning to Live and Learning to Die

Every act of living is an act of learning to die, of apprenticing ourselves to the loss of this moment, of this collarbone being touched, of this hand doing the touching. If we are thoughtful and tender enough with ourselves, the terror of the loss cusps into transcendence, the grief into gratitude, into a nonspecific gladness enveloping everything that ever was and ever will be, enveloping us in the sense of ourselves as nothing more than particles passing between not yet and no more, nothing less than particular, particulate miracles bewildered and bewildering in their passage.

That is what poet Ross Gay explores with his light and luminous touch in one of the highlights from the fourth annual Universe in Verse, the poem “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirit” from his altogether resuscitating and resucculating 2015 poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (public library) — the conceptual womb out of his which his prose miracle The Book of Delights was born.

ODE TO BUTTONING AND UNBUTTONING MY SHIRT
by Ross Gay

No one knew or at least
I didn’t know
they knew
what the thin disks
threaded here
on my shirt
might give me
in terms of joy
this is not something to be taken lightly
the gift
of buttoning one’s shirt
slowly
top to bottom
or bottom
to top or sometimes
the buttons
will be on the other
side and
I am a woman
that morning
slipping the glass
through its slot
I tread
differently that day
or some of it
anyway
my conversations
are different
and the car bomb slicing the air
and the people in it
for a quarter mile
and the honeybee’s
legs furred with pollen
mean another
thing to me
than on the other days
which too have
been drizzled in this
simplest of joys
in this world
of spaceships and subatomic
this and that
two maybe three
times a day
some days
I have the distinct pleasure
of slowly untethering
the one side
from the other
which is like unbuckling
a stack of vertebrae
with delicacy
for I must only use
the tips
of my fingers
with which I will
one day close
my mother’s eyes
this is as delicate
as we can be
in this life
practicing
like this
giving the raft of our hands
to the clumsy spider
and blowing soft until she
lifts her damp heft and
crawls off
we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth
like this first
in the morning
then at night
we practice
sliding the bones home.

Couple with a gorgeous poem about how to live and how to die, read by the disparticled human miracle who first ignited my love of poetry and inspired the inception of The Universe in Verse, then revisit other highlights from the show: astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death” with original music by Zoë Keating, Pablo Neruda’s prose ode to the forest, Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about transcending our limiting frames of reference, a stunning tribute to Rachel Carson’s ecological legacy by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and the most beloved piece from all four years of the show: an animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s masterpiece “Singularity.”

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D.H. Lawrence on Trees, Solitude, and How We Root Ourselves When Relationships Collapse

“One must possess oneself, and be alone in possession of oneself.”

D.H. Lawrence on Trees, Solitude, and How We Root Ourselves When Relationships Collapse

To walk among trees is to be reminded that although relationships weave the fabric of life, one can only be in relationship — in a forest or a family or a friendship — when firmly planted in the sovereignty of one’s own being, when resolutely reaching for one’s own light.

A century ago, Hermann Hesse contemplated how trees model for us this foundation of integrity in his staggeringly beautiful love letter to trees — how they stand lonesome-looking even in a forest, yet “not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.” Celebrating them as “the most penetrating preachers,” he reverenced the silent fortitude with which “they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.”

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

A supreme challenge of human life is reconciling the longing to fulfill ourselves in union, in partnership, in love, with the urgency of fulfilling ourselves according to our own solitary and sovereign laws. Writing at the same time as Hesse, living in exile in the mountains, having barely survived an attack of the deadly Spanish Flu that claimed tens of millions of lives, the polymathic creative force D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) took up the question of this divergent longing with great subtlety and splendor of insight in his autobiographically tinted novel Aaron’s Rod (free ebook | public library), rooting the plot’s climactic relationship resolution in a stunning passage about trees.

D.H. Lawrence

At a tea-party, the novel’s protagonist meets the Marchesa del Torre — an American woman from the South, married to an Italian man and living with him in Tuscany; a woman of composure with an edge of beckoning aloofness, “sitting there, full-bosomed, rather sad, remote-seeming,” a kind of modern Cleopatra brooding from under her dark, heavy-hanging hair out of an Aubrey Beardsley drawing. She strikes him as “wonderful, and sinister,” affects him “with a touch of horror.” He falls under her spell, drawn to her as we are so often drawn to danger by the magnetic pull of the sublime, with its dipoles of beauty and terror.

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s revolutionary illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. (Available as a print.)

When their affair collapses under the weight of its own impossibility, he finds himself — and finds his self, his sovereignty of soul — among the trees. Lawrence writes:

One must possess oneself, and be alone in possession of oneself.

[…]

He sat for long hours among the cypress trees of Tuscany. And never had any trees seemed so like ghosts, like soft, strange, pregnant presences. He lay and watched tall cypresses breathing and communicating, faintly moving and as it were walking in the small wind. And his soul seemed to leave him and to go far away, far back, perhaps, to where life was all different and time passed otherwise than time passes now. As in clairvoyance he perceived it: that our life is only a fragment of the shell of life. That there has been and will be life, human life such as we do not begin to conceive. Much that is life has passed away from men, leaving us all mere bits. In the dark, mindful silence and inflection of the cypress trees, lost races, lost language, lost human ways of feeling and of knowing. Men have known as we can no more know, have felt as we can no more feel. Great life-realities gone into the darkness. But the cypresses commemorate.

Complement with Robert Macfarlane on how trees illuminate the secret to healthy love, Pablo Neruda’s breathtaking love letter to the forest, and Mary Oliver’s short, shimmering poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” then revisit Lawrence on the antidote to the malady of materialism.

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