Challenged to change
A message from Thousand Currents’ co-founder, Paul Strasburg
Over the last month, calls for courage have been sounded every day: Courage to resist acts of bullying and hatred. Courage to speak up against racism, sexism and xenophobia. Courage to defend humanistic and democratic values that are under assault.
Courage to act on many fronts is more important now than ever. But I have yet to hear the call for a different kind of courage—the courage to see the truth and change accordingly. It is anything but easy. I know—my whole life I have been challenged to change as an increasingly complex reality has emerged around me.
I was born 74 years ago, a straight white American male, gifted with good health, an intact, caring family, plenty of educational and economic opportunity, and lots of people willing to help me along the way. That was my reality, and I pretty much took it for granted until, in my early 20s, I joined the Peace Corps.
Though I enjoyed the privileged status of a teacher in Thailand, for the first time in my life, scarcity was the prevailing economic condition around me. I encountered disease, malnutrition and preventable death—not every day but often enough—and this experience opened new urges in me. Concepts of unfairness and injustice became less abstract and more compelling. I wanted to do something but had no idea what that might be. Then I stumbled into a project that produced some tangible results, an experience that shaped my life and eventually led me to Thousand Currents.
I was committed to the direct project-assistance model that drove Thousand Currents in its early days. The completion of a school, rice mill, or water supply system brought wonderful feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction, and partnership. I resisted when, a few years along, we began to get requests not for projects but to support local community organizations. To me, this kind of work seemed amorphous, impervious to evaluation, and subject to corruption. Only because Thousand Currents staff and volunteers insisted that a shift in this direction was essential to having any real impact did I agree to go along. In time, witnessing the success and effectiveness of some of our collaborators, I began to understand the wisdom and power of this kind of solidarity.
That was the real beginning of my education. I met more and more people on the front lines of the struggle for social change under widely varying conditions. Then I met people who were adept at analyzing the effects of these efforts. And then people who looked even deeper into the underlying causes of conditions that needed changing. Each contact, each new experience took me further from my original premises. Not that my experience was wrong or invalid, but it was limited.
While all this was going on, my own social environment was also undergoing radical alteration. Starting with the civil rights movement of the early 1960s through the chaos of the Vietnam era, the so-called sexual revolution, gay liberation, and reproductive rights and marriage equality movements, the advent of the drug culture—it all confronted the status quo of my childhood and youth with changes I could not ignore. On all these fronts, my unconscious belief structure was exposed and challenged.
The entire context of the work I had chosen to do was ever-expanding. I began to understand more deeply the role played by colonial history, concentration of economic power, and the decisions of governments and institutions in the suffering of poor communities at home and around the world. The overwhelming complexity made it tempting to surrender to resignation, or at least to retreat to a simpler vision of how the world works. (How I wished a few good projects would tip the balance!) But I couldn’t ignore what I had learned.
Without being aware of it at the time, I was being confronted with a choice: to cling to my own beliefs or to stretch my framework of understanding to accept the authenticity of others’ experiences. Eventually, I came to understand that I needed to see through someone else’s eyes and yet not abandon my own experience, to hold two truths at once until the unity within them emerged. It was often painful, awkward, and confusing. It is one of the hardest things I ever had to do, but I was not alone.
Thousand Currents is and has always been about two things: supporting communities to determine their own destinies, and learning. In the years since I left its Board of Directors, Thousand Currents has become even more deeply engaged in addressing the most basic issues affecting us all, both overseas and in the US, such as the fight to protect water in North Dakota.
Thousand Currents continues to have the courage to learn—so it expands, and so can we.
“Life shrinks or expands
in proportion to