Transformation –> Relationships. Or, stitching together our wounded world

Originally posted on Facebook on 26 May 2013.



I was asked to give a short talk yesterday for an event honoring volunteers working with Hands on Manila. I wasn’t even supposed to be there, but a friend had recommended me to her friend who happened to be one of the organizers and well, that was that. The talk and the slides were hastily assembled about two hours before the whole shebang and it was mostly pulled out of my ass (and the deepening conversations with friends just before that), so this is an attempt to get it out of my head and write it down in a more coherent form.

Transformation –> Relationships. Or, stitching together our wounded world.

Hi, my name is Ica. I won’t talk about the work I do, because I wear a lot of hats, and most importantly, because everyone here is a carrier or volunteer of some kind of awesome initiative anyway, and I don’t think my initiatives are more important than those of you kindness revolutionaries here. (I salute all of you.)

What I do want to talk about tonight though is something that I believe is at the core of any kind of work that aims towards “social transformation”–may it be classical development work, volunteerism, charity, whatever you want to call it. Everyone in this room knows this, on some level, but let me put it out there: at the end of the day, change making is all about relationships. Let me say it again. Relationships. And that entails the relationships we have with ourselves, with each other, and with our world/s.

Now, this sense of relationship and connection is diametrically opposed to the kinds of conflict and disconnection we see in the world. My current day job is working in the peace process–I work on government development programs for conflict-affected areas–and something that most Filipinos don’t know is that almost the entire Philippines experiences armed conflict. Take a look at this: right now, the government deals with roughly five peace tables: one with the NDF, one with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and three closure processes in the Cordilleras, in the Visayas, and with the Moro National Liberation Front. Every single island group covered.

But these armed conflicts are just more dramatic reflections of the kind of disconnections we deal with on a day-to-day basis–why our current systems in education, health, business, culture, and yes, politics, don’t seem to reflect our most fundamental needs and realities. In Tagalog, the term for conflict is “hidwaan”. Separation. And I’d like to think that for all you change makers and social entrepreneurs out there, it is precisely this hidwaan, separation, that you are all trying to address in each and every one of your initiatives.

The thing about this sense of separation is that it’s not just an external phenomenon, but is something painful that we have all experienced in our daily lives. Take a look at these four people in front of us, and the stories they tell. Why is it that Quest makes the kind of music he does. Why Shaina is running mobile science schools in Sarangani and Capiz, and Rendy is doing CSR back home in Subic. Why Anna is now working for better education for the deaf in the Philippines. It’s because we’ve felt some kind of intense sense of separation, or disconnection, in some aspect of the world, and there’s something inside of us that drives us to work towards healing that relational disconnection. Or in the words of Z Don Beck, this is what change making is all about–trying to stitch together our wounded world.

Let’s go to the macro-level. Nation-building. Institutions. When I was still volunteering as a youth facilitator for a civil society group focusing on sustainable development, my mentor Nicanor Perlas taught me that institutions are nothing but people. Institutions are people. And people make agreements that live on beyond one person’s lifespan—take for example, why the Philippine nation state as an agreement lives on beyond Bonifacio and his comrades—but at the end of the day, institutions = people.

What does this imply? As one of the many young people serving in the Aquino Administration, I’m pretty stoked when cabinet secretaries such as Finance Minister Cesar Purisima and even the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo mention the fact that there are lots of kids in government—and thanks to the fact that we know each other, agency-to-agency transactions move at a much faster pace. And it’s true. Thanks to the wonders of BBM, WhatsApp, Facebook and yes, being able to hang out over beers and videoke outside work hours, the relationships we have makes problem-solving so much easier.

Let me show you another photograph, a copy of which I was only given yesterday. I had no idea that this was being taken by a co-worker at the time, but this is an image taken onfield in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao—exchanging a hug and kiss of greeting with Bainon Karon, who is currently ARMM Regional Vice Governor and a woman MNLF leader that I have always respected and idolized, even before entering government. Now I am not an executive—I’m lowly technical staff—and not even Bangsamoro myself. But having that kind of relationship on a real, interpersonal level has implications on how I can help my institution interface with her institution. Especially if the work your respective institutions aim for is large-scale governance reform, which again is not something outside of you and me, but is all about the relationships and agreements we make with ourselves, and with each other.

This leads me to my second point, which is that relationships are both a means and an end to transformation.

Take a look at this picture—this is one of President Aquino standing shoulder-to-shoulder, smiling, with MILF Chairperson Al-Haj Murad Ibrahim. This was taken during their historic meeting in Japan a while back, which was criticized heavily on many sides. But one thing we have to understand is that the only reason that the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed, why they no longer want secession but a Bangsamoro identity within the Filipino family, is because of the deep trust and respect between the leadership of the MILF and our government. This would not have been possible at another time, with the other administrations and their leaderships—for reasons that I am sure you can imagine and I won’t go into now.

The second picture was taken during the launch of Sajahatra Bangsamoro (have any of you heard about this?), a development program being undertaken by the government in partnership with the MILF. You may recognize the gentleman on the rightmost corner, wearing yellow—that’s Maguindanao governor Toto Mangudadatu. Beside him is Tucao Mastura, mayor of Sultan Kudarat. They recently went head-to-head for the governor’s seat of Maguindanao, and it might be interesting to know that you normally would not have been able to get them to sit together this quietly, side by side, without divine intervention. But here they are, sitting side by side, because Chair Murad and President Aquino had facilitated a situation which made them have to. (Again, divine intervention.)

This leads me to my third and final point—in many ways, the work of changemaking, wherever you do it, may it be in governance, culture or business, is a spiritual act. I hearken back to the root work of religion, re-ligiere, which means reconnection. Spiritual work is not about dogma, about right or wrong. It’s about bringing together what has been severed.

My orientation in this sphere has always been the lens of integral sustainable development—the belief that true development must not only entail economic development, but must pursue the human, social, cultural, economic, political, ecological and spiritual dimensions co-equally. Together. And when I look at all of you in this room, all of us, I don’t see separate individuals, but all of those many efforts and hopes and dreams we’re all striving for—and I know that we have to be able to do this together. I don’t even like the classical definitions of “volunteerism” and “charity” because that entails “helping” beneficiaries, people external to us. Not when any kind of development has to be co-created, because we see a need in the world that everybody involved wants to address together. I particularly like the southern African term “ubuntu”, which yes, also is a name of an open source operating system. Has anyone heard of this? Ubuntu means, “I am–because we are”. And that’s what I think we’re doing here now. Ubuntu. Together.

And so here we are working together, in different but the same directions, bringing in our own unique gifts, in our own chosen fields. Which as I mentioned earlier, will often have to do with what pains us the most, what we feel is most broken inside of us. Hence the need to heal our relationships, and being able to stitch together our wounded world.

I’ll end this with a quote from my favorite Austrian philosopher and changemaker, Rudolf Steiner:

“The thing itself is one; the images are many. What leads to a perceptive understanding of the thing is not the focus on one image, but the viewing of many images together.”

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