Walk Out Walk On:
A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now
By Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze
Review by John E. Wade II
The book is a well-written and insightful journey to Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, Greece and the United States. Although that sounds quite big, the focus is on particular locales in each of these countries. The book shows how communities in “. . . the face of hunger, poverty, ill health, environmental degradation, and economic injustice . . . [can] . . . respond, adapt, invent.” That’s what makes them healthy and resilient. Members of these communities take their fate into their own hands, rather than waiting for “heroes”—experts, foreign aid and ineffective bureaucracies.
The people who “walk out” are those who become disillusioned with how they are living their life and “walk on” to help in an altruistic and mindful manner. Generally, they are not “experts;” they gain helpful skills by doing, all the while deferring in large part to the local people in the communities where they serve. This whole concept of working from the bottom up—or Thomas Friedman’s “The Earth is Flat”—seems to me to illustrate self-reliance on the community level; in other words, seven billion “loose cannons” aiming for the good of all, community by community globally.
I am writing this review while in Mumbai; and as I look out my hotel window I see a lot of dilapidated huts that symbolize to me the 1.2 billion people in abject poverty worldwide. The authors of this engaging book, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, and the “walk ons” described in this book, show how ordinary people can make a joyful difference.
The authors reference Margaret Mead’s brilliant comment that the world changes by the committed actions of small groups of dedicated people. I believe this pertains to the authors, walk ons and those of us—myself included—who are seeking to be pathfinders toward a Heaven on Earth. Below I will give you some of the high points of the authors’ interesting and worthwhile journeys.
Unitierra, Mexico: From Scaling Up to Scaling Across
A wonderful statement is made that summarizes the authors’ attitude, “Learning is not about getting it right or becoming an expert; it is about creating an environment of conviviality, discovery, and joyfulness.”
Frieze states they are not opposed to globalization because it is the only way large-scale change can be accomplished. However, she writes, “. . . we believed that for an idea or innovation to be meaningful and lasting, it needed to arise from the unique conditions of people and place.” For instance, no one knows as much about Unitierra, Mexico, as the people who live there.
Using discarded bicycles, local people invented a manually powered cycle-mixie, washing machine. Of course this type of invention could theoretically be patented and “scaled up” into a business. Instead, this “bicimaquinas” is working its way globally without a patent or a manual. The authors write, “Scaling across happens when people create something locally and inspire others who carry the idea home and develop it in their own unique way.”
Elos Institute, Brazil
Frieze was invited by the Elos Institute to participate in a “game.” The purpose of this game was not to help, save, or fix anyone else, but rather to “discover how play unleashes everyone’s creativity, how it invites us to see what’s possible rather than what’s so.”
The Elos Institute works with “. . . people from high-risk urban and traditional communities in the Sao Paulo area” and with youth and social entrepreneurs from four continents. Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, with the fifth largest population and the eighth largest economy. Its economy exceeds Canada and Russia. Their economy is five times the size of South America’s next largest economy, Argentina.
Frieze was told that “. . . the purpose of this game . . . is to play at changing the world.” The project allowed two days to change a site of urban blight into a new, positive creation. The approach was not to accept the following (as quoted from the book):
· The answers are out there—and the experts have them.
· To get things done, you need people of power and influence to champion your cause.
· Plan ahead and stick to your plan.
· Nothing gets done right unless you’re in control.
· Don’t ask for other people’s opinions.
· We don’t have time to experiment and tinker around.
· We mustn’t fail! (And when we do, find someone to blame.)
Instead, the approach in the urban blight project was to use play where “. . . people are invited to break rules, experiment, innovate, and be original.” This fits right into my belief that we are in the Innovation Age. If we can innovate in the field of technology, then we can do so to solve poverty–globally and concurrently.
The authors state, “Play returns us to a state in which we can see what’s possible—not what’s so.” My vision of a Heaven on Earth, cultivated since the year 2000, is based on this same sort of thinking. Why not eliminate the poverty of 1.2 billion people on schedule with the millennium goal? The principles in this book could drive such a revolution.
The project was a success and another concept was identified—“up cycling.” This is described as “…the practice of inventing beautiful, useful, and surprising products out of waste materials—such as water pumps from salvaged bicycles . . . solar cookers made from discarded suitcases and car windshields . . and jewelry crafted out of soda cans and plastic bags.” This is the stuff of the Innovation Age in unlikely places. The authors explain how in 2006, Google searches for “up cycling” produced only ten resources, but that in 2010, that result jumped to 217,000.
The authors explain the helplessness that many feel when they believe that a strong leader is necessary to progress. Instead, the authors believe, as I do, that self-reliance and self-discipline are the keys “. . . if anything is going to get done.”
The authors present a revealing statistic, that by 1998, “. . . psychological journals had published more than forty-five thousand articles on depression” and only four hundred on joy. I think our work must be our play and our play must include our work.
Joubert Park, South Africa: From Problem to Place
Here the authors tell the sad story of the terrible wrongs of Apartheid—the suffering—and then the bright spot of the rise of Nelson Mandela, who forgave the Whites. They go on to describe the degradation of the South African economy, and of the crumbling of infrastructures, including Joubert Park, an old park in the heart of Johannesburg.
The project was to “start anywhere [in Joubert Park], follow it everywhere.” The authors write that “No one planned this process.” According to Frieze, “They aren’t trying to solve the problem of homelessness; they’re figuring out how to support homeless people in Joubert Park. They aren’t trying to eliminate illiteracy; they’re teaching their neighbors to read.” Later, the authors write, “. . . the power of acting locally to heal one place—to bring it into wholeness—has the potential to sweep through a far larger system in ways that we may neither seek nor predict.” Learning by doing, starting anywhere, going everywhere, may be just the formula for that journey to Heaven on Earth.
The authors explain that, “Anytime experts emerge from the deep tunnel of specialization, many good things bloom in the light of day. We discover more is possible with curiosity than with certainty.” Concentrating on one location, Joubert Park, was a successful community-based venture. I invite you to read the book and marvel at the before and after photographs of this and other projects throughout its pages.
Kufunda Learning Village, Zimbabwe: From Efficiency to Resilience
Zimbabwe was experiencing hyperinflation at the time of Frieze’s visit. It had taken fewer than ten years to go “. . . from being the breadbasket of Africa—a modernized nation funded by tourism, diamonds and agriculture—to a nation in which over half the population is facing severe food shortages; more than 80 percent are unemployed, 3,500 people die each week of HIV/AIDS, and everyone is subjugated to a government that long ago substituted corruption, cronyism, and cruelty for serving its people.” Robert Mugabe’s reprehensible government is far beyond any foreign aid/macro type solution to its awesome ills.
The Green Revolution was a disaster for Zimbabwe, which had been a net exporter of maize, beef, sugarcane, cotton and tobacco. The lack of diversity in the efficient Green Revolution destroyed the less efficient, yet resilient multiple crops previously planted and harvested.
In response, resourceful citizens in Kufunda Learning Village turned to the elders of the village to relearn the proven agricultural practices of the past. And for the village, it worked. As the authors stated, “A resilient system that has the capacity to rebound from disturbance does this by increasing its diversity and redundancy, by foregoing growth and speed in favor of sustainability, and by engaging in a wide range of small local actions that connect to one another.” This approach is being adopted all over the world according to the authors.
Shikshantsar, India: From Transacting to Gifting
In this chapter I have to voice my disagreement with some of the statements. One quote by Arundhati Roy is, “The structure of capitalism is flawed. The motor that powers it cannot but vastly increase the disparity between the poor and the rich globally and within countries as well.” I believe that free enterprise tempered by democracy with free, fair trade is the engine of prosperity if regulations, taxes, and laws allow it to do its job.
Cows are sacred in India, so they wander around in cities and the countryside. The authors state, “. . . of today’s 840 million Indians who live in rural villages, nearly half of their domestic fuel requirements are met by India’s 280 million cows.” Making fuel from cow dung is widespread.
The authors write, “We desperately need a global ethic that is richer than our mere concern about ourselves as consumers.” I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. We must adopt the positive, wisdom-associated values of Copthorne Macdonald’s “The Centrality of Wisdom,” an essay included in my book, How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth, while shunning the negative values of selfishness, envy, hate, greed and revenge.
The authors write about a gift culture, but state, “Of course, we can’t live in a gift culture all the time.” Gandhi had a concept of trusteeship. I won’t explain his ideas, but it is important that individuals have the financial incentives to take care of themselves and their family. If they prosper, the goal is to avoid greed and to be generous in wise ways, sometimes passing wealth from generation to generation until a worthy use for such funds are enacted. Some may give as wealth is accumulated. Others, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, may amass their fortune and then give it away in a very purposeful and meaningful manner.
The authors state, “We can consider how we want to feel at the end of our lives, what achievements will have enduring value.” I want my life to count. I also want my descendants’ lives to count.
Axladitsa – Avatakia, Greece: From Intervention to Friendship
This chapter focuses on a group of forty-six people who gathered for ten days on one of the Berkana Exchange’s own member’s land to help decide how this property should be used. Frieze wrote, “There were no experts, no panels, no workshops, and no teachers—just us, turning to one another to explore our differences and our similarities, our triumphs and our challenges.”
I found that Frieze wrote something quite noteworthy—both as a description of what went on in this Greek meeting and something that is certainly applicable elsewhere:
“I’m learning how to control my heroic urges. When I’m in meetings or with a group, sometimes I literally sit on my hands, reminding myself to refrain from offering a solution. I’ve learned that when I listen rather than tell, when I wait for the community’s wisdom to surface rather than impulsively offer my own, then so much more is possible. We are smarter together than we are apart – an assumption that lies at the root of democracy. Perhaps Greece, the birthplace of democracy, was the perfect place for us to be together after all.”
Another aspect of this chapter quotes Moyo as writing, “One of the most depressing aspects of this whole sad fiasco is that donors, policymakers, governments, academicians, economists and development specialists know, in their heart of hearts, that aid doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and won’t work.” The authors state, “It is time to walk out of the interventionist mindset of outside experts.”
Microloans are a good alternative to aid—one of which is described in an essay in my book, How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth—as invented by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunas and his Grameen Bank. An amazing 96.7 recovery rate has been experienced, mostly by groups of women. A full 68 percent of the bank’s eight million borrowers have crossed the poverty line. The Grameen Bank has ascribed ownership of its equity—95 percent—to the borrowers themselves. This imagination by Muhammad Yunas and the borrowers shows what free enterprise can do.
The success in Greece is reflected in a magical photograph of the face and body language of one of the authors and others gathered around her.
Columbus, Ohio: From Hero to Host
Regarding Columbus, the authors write, “Leaders in some of America’s largest institutions—health care, academia, government—are changing how they lead. They’ve given up take-charge, heroic leadership, choosing instead to engage members of their communities in difficult social issues that other communities still find intractable.” The system of “hosting” is described as this crucial difference. It’s the art of listening with attention and speaking with intention. Hosting allows personal responsibility at all levels and provides a voice for all levels.
The authors say that in Western cultures, power is held closely and people are told what they can and cannot do. I believe that top-down system is being eliminated to a large degree, partly due to cultural changes and technological advances.
What is the purpose of health care? In an interview with Toke Muller, he states that, “We want optimal health.” A physician states, “Producing wellness becomes a personal responsibility. It’s not how I am/going to make you well. It’s how you are going to make you well.” Obviously, diet, nutrition, exercise, not smoking, moderate alcohol use, no harmful drug use, are all part of this self-help toward optimal health.
The authors write, “We make our path by walking it.” I believe that learning by doing is very powerful. I want my life to count as I’m convinced my calling is calling for a Heaven on Earth. We all have our calling(s). The authors write something else in which I fully concur, “We have what we need. Our creativity produces infinite wealth.” We shouldn’t wait for the experts or the heroes or the government.
Key concepts are, “Connecting is finding others who share our purpose . . . Nourishing is turning to one another for ideas, knowledge, practices, and dreams . . . Illuminating is sharing our stories so many more people can know we’re out there and join in.”
This book is a wonderful journey full of wisdom and encouragement to solve the world’s problems and, in my words, create Heaven on Earth—community by community, with imagination and joy. God’s enduring, steadfast love will be vital in that ultimate journey. For more information about the authors and the book, see:http://www.walkoutwalkon.net/.