The Power of One Cooperator

The Power of One Cooperator

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Last week, I heard a story about Creative Courage at a luncheon for our local chapter of Girls, Inc.. Their mission is to help girls become strong, smart and bold. And, if the young speakers were any indication, they are succeeding. Ayiana and Evelyn presided over the luncheon with confidence and enthusiasm. Isabel spoke so eloquently about what Girls, Inc. had meant in her life that the audience rose to give her a standing ovation.

It was a tough act to follow, but keynote speaker, Lisa Shannon, had an equally compelling story to tell about The Power of One. It all started with something very simple. While watching Oprah several years ago when Oprah was still a fixture on TV, LIsa found herself drawn into a report by Lisa Ling about war in Congo. Despite its ferocity, the conflict had received minimal attention from the international community, and Lisa was especially shocked by the atrocities suffered by women in the region.

The Congo Connection

That day, sitting on her sofa, she decided she had to do something for the women in Congo, even though as she now puts it, her primary credential was watching TV. She’d never run a race before but she got friends and family to back her with pledges and set off on a solitary run through the forests near her home in Portland. That first run raised enough money for her to support two women in Congo through Women to Women International.

And it made her wonder what would happen if she could get other women to join her. She expanded the scope of the race to include an event in New York City. On a miserable autumn day, she and only one other woman showed up to run beside the Hudson. But they did run. And she didn’t give up. And a few years later, the Race for Congo had grown large enough to be featured in Runner’s World Magazine.

Eventually Lisa visited Congo and began to understand how the conflict was rooted in the resources of the region. Many of the rare minerals used in technology were found there, and war lords sold them to finance their brutal campaigns. Lisa crunched the numbers and figured out that the use of “conflict minerals” added a penny to the cost of popular devices. She stood outside tech meetings with hand painted signs and delievered huge bags of pennies representing the lives lost in the war to Intel and other companies. Her efforts shamed tech executives into dropping their resistance to the Conflict Minerals Trade Act which curtailed trade confict minerals, cutting off resources for the war.

For Lisa, these stories exemplify the Power of One. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the immensity of problems in an inter-connected world, she believes individuals must step up and make a commitment to do whatever they can, even when their efforts seem insignificant. To me, Lisa’s story also illuminates the power of Cooperative Wisdom. Each small step Lisa took created partnerships with other people, and that cooperation is where the real power emerges.

Lisa’s very first decision to sponsor two “sisters” in Congo made her want to know more about their lives. “It felt very personal,” she says. “My empathy was awakened.”  What she learned about violence against women eventually led her to write A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman.  Today, she is co-founder of Everywoman, Everywhere, an organization that envisions a world in which “every woman and girl, everywhere can realize her human right to a life free from violence.” By building a cooperative coalition of grassroots organizations around the world, the organization is able to support local effforts to challenge social environments that create vulnerability for girls and women.

Exercising Response Ability

In 2010, Lisa’s efforts attracted the attention of New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristoff who wrote “In a land where so many ‘responsible’ leaders eschew responsibility, Lisa has gone out of her way to assume responsibility and try to make a difference.” In Cooperative Wisdom, a key practice for Creative Courage is “response ability”–taking action whenever we have the ability to respond. No quibbles about how someone else is responsible for the problem. No excuses about how our efforts won’t matter because they are on a small scale.

Lisa’s story is inspiring because it starts with something so routine. She could have switched off the TV and gone back to work on her deadlines at her graphics company. But she didn’t. Instead she decided she was able to respond, albeit in a limited way, to vulnerable women in the Congo. Each of us has that power. We may not be able to remedy every problem but there is always something we can do in response to the vulnerability of other people. As we wrote in Cooperative Wisdom, “We practice creative courage by staying committed to the role of the consistent, reliable cooperator… We accept the risk of doing whatever we can do, exercising response-ability wherever we can, hoping but never certain that our efforts will contribute to an environment in which everyone can thrive.”

For me, the most memorable part of Lisa’s message wasn’t her accomplishments, though they are impressive. Instead, it was her willingness to persist even when it seemed that no one was listening. She doesn’t give in to apathy, despair or cynicism. She just gets up every day and does what she can to make the world a safer, less violent place. The staff and volunteers at Girls, Inc. do the same thing–consistently exercising response ability in ways that allow a new generation of girls to thrive on every level. That steady determination to strengthen cooperation even in small ways doesn’t always get a lot of fanfare but it’s a crucial component of Cooperative Wisdom. And it deserves to be celebrated whenever it is on display.

Carolyn Jabs



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