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Lily Eskelsen's picture

I went to Honduras this summer with fifteen new best friends. Some time ago, NEA was contacted by the Heifer International foundation. I laughed when I heard their name. I thought it sounded like the cow.

It is the cow.

Heifer’s been around since the Depression Era (the last one, not this one.) Their founder was in charge of a project to feed the hungry in post-war Europe. While distributing powdered milk to starving children, it occurred to him that after his church group completed its mission to feed the hungry, they would have left behind absolutely nothing that could sustain these communities.

He thought, “Instead of a cup of milk, we should have given them a cow.

And Heifer was born. For decades they have developed projects in the poorest communities in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia… wherever there is poverty and hungry people. They do good work. But a lot of people do good work in poverty, health and social justice.

NEA and our members care about all those things, but I wondered what Heifer could possibly mean to our work here in the states when we are facing a crisis of confidence in our public schools, what it means to teach and what it means to learn, the fiscal meltdown of school budgets, teachers and support staff being laid off and jeopardizing the very futures of our students – especially those in communities most challenged by poverty, unemployment and crime.

And I was selfish. I have my hands full of work and I was being asked to spend 9 days of what I at times ironically call my “life” visiting some of the poorest villages on the planet to study – not their school systems – but their communities. It seemed a far cry from my day job.

It has profoundly changed the way I look at my day job. It has profoundly changed my thinking. It has profoundly changed my life.

Our group taught nothing to our hosts in Honduras. We were not there to teach. We were there to learn. And without knowing anything about us, the villagers we spoke with (mostly through interpreters) consistently taught us lessons that will, I believe, impact the coming debate on how to transform our schools; what works; what has never worked; how to find and implement answers; everything.

What Heifer found in its work decades ago is this: Dropping in an Expert to solve a Problem within a system is doomed. No matter how many poverty experts were available to consult on how to build economies, train workers, or “fix” families so that they held the proper work ethics and values, it failed. It didn’t even matter if they were right. It failed. It failed because the assumption was that the community itself was the problem. That the community had to be saved from itself.

And no community – whether it is a dirt-poor pueblo in Honduras or a business community or church community – is going to welcome and embrace and take to heart that it is failing because its people are bad, lazy, backward, or uncaring.

I thought about the school communities with the highest dropout rates; highest crime rates; where parents don’t show up; where teachers are uninspired; schools that are failing on any measurement to achieve what kids will need to see them through their lives and make their dreams possible. I thought how often well-meaning, entrepreneurial, data-driven Expert Reformers parachute in with a research-based manual on who’s to blame and what’s to be done TO the teachers and parents and kids to FIX them and turn them into a high performance machine that will kick Finland’s butt in some Race to the Moon testing competition.

Usually, it’s a new reading program.

But in a soft Spanish accent I am hearing a proud villager tell me how he and his pueblo decided who would get the cow and what would happen to the calf when it was old enough to leave its mother.

I’m getting my shoes all muddy trudging through the coffee and corn fields that he’s planted with his neighbor using a terracing technique that increases the yield. He owns the field that he used to be a laborer on.

He’s teaching his children how to use cow manure to create the gas that is piped into their kitchen. His wife tells me about the chickens and how they feed the children and produce enough now to sell.

These villagers were not the problem. The solutions didn’t come from The Experts. Their lives are being transformed, not by the modest resources provided, but by empowering them to see their situation with new eyes and look within themselves for the solutions.


The fourteen educators who are with me here in Honduras have just piled back into the rickety bus carrying us from village project to village project. Their students would laugh to see them. We are a noisy and irreverent group.

Hundreds of school staff applied for this week of mosquito repellent and sleeping in bunk beds in dorm rooms built for church retreats. We get up when we’re told. We wait patiently for our turn under the cold shower. We eat what’s put in front of us.

They were chosen because of their interest in international issues, poverty, sustainable development, and higher level thinking skills of problem-solving and teamwork. I am in awe of them.

One minute they’re talking about the most current research about working with families in poverty and the next minute we’re hearing how one’s husband ordered her a birthday present of a professional home massage.

But I digress.

These folks were soaking in everything. They wanted what they were learning to translate to other teachers and their students. They found what they were looking for in the cornerstones.

The foundation of each project is respect for the community. This, basically, means a rejection of “The Expert” coming in to “fix” the “problem”. It means embracing the community as a fragile and precious mystery to be discovered that holds the keys to something wonderful.

This was still sinking is for us. Although our hosts were talking about their work in poverty ridden farming communities, we understood, too well, what such an approach would mean for a school community. No Expert? Oh my. No strategic plan implementation memos from a bureaucrat who’s never seen our kids? Impossible. No time spent determining blame? Now that’s just crazy talk.

We learned about the cornerstones placed on this foundation: Careful monitoring, training and education, nutrition and income.

There is a strong cornerstone on gender equity. Why would they make gender equity part of sustainable farming communities? Because experience showed that when a family hit a rough patch, there were too many times when a desperate father would say, “I have to sell the cow.”

When they started putting the cow (or the goat or the camel or the chickens) in the wife’s name, selling became less of a problem because to a mother, that cow is going to feed her children in the morning. When communities began to include women as leaders, owners and decision-makers, better decisions were made.

There is a cornerstone on improving the environment and recycling. Waste is not tolerated. If a cow can be milked for food, cow pies can be harnessed for energy and soil fertilization. Chemical pollution is not sustainable. Watershed must be protected.

There is a cornerstone to prioritize giving greatest support to those with the greatest need. There is a cornerstone to build leadership within the group – especially among the most marginalized who would never, on any traditional planet, be considered potential leaders. On a transformed planet, talent cannot be wasted anymore than milk.

That is not to say that people are being taught to give and expect a hand-out. All projects are temporary, and the resources given are important, but minimal. Each community and each individual must become self-reliant. Gifts are not for charity’s sake. They are in service to a sustainable and self-reliant community.

Paying it Forward

The projects in sustainable development we visited in Honduras had a common factor I’ve never seen in any other organized project in any other context in reversing a cycle of failure.

They called it “Passing on the Gift”. A more common term here might be “Paying it Forward”. There’s a movie of that name that didn’t get much attention. A little boy decides that he would do a favor for someone who hadn’t done anything for him. He would show some kindness to a stranger who would repay that kindness – not to the boy – but to another stranger, who would repay that kindness to another stranger.

Our hosts, the Heifer folks, come into a community challenged by chronic, generational poverty, and they bring a gift. A cow. A few chickens. A goat. They organize the community through conversations – not about their failures, but about their strengths: We love our children; we are strong and can work hard; we have a faith that gives us hope.

Without blaming or shaming or naming or numbering, they start talking about what their community would look like if they could make their dreams come true: Our children would never go hungry; we would buy a little house; we would have clean water; we would build a school.

Then there is a decision to make. Heifer’s gift is usually a farm animal. Who will get the first gifts?

Heifer explains that the gift must go to those in greatest need. They ask, “Who is the poorest?” The answer is always, “We are all poor.” And it’s true. They all live in cramped little hovels. So they ask who owns their own cramped little hovel. A few hands go up. So they ask who rents the cramped little hovel. More hands go up. So they ask who has no little hovel and has to live wherever they can find shelter. Other hands go up.

So, there are different levels of poor. As I listened to this explanation of how villagers were brought into a conversation about the needs within the community, I thought of how Experts were advising school districts on how to turn around test scores.

They look at a class and see the broad range of test-taking abilities of children. They advise us to ignore the top and ignore the bottom and focus on the “bubble kids”. These are the kids hovering at the test cut score. Their conventional wisdom leads them to advise teachers to attend to the bubble kids (with drill and practice) because they are more likely than the very low-scoring kids to jump the cut score and move into the “Look, Ma, I’m Proficient” category.

In other words, bubble kids are the low-hanging fruit. Heifer works a different philosophy. They believe if you don’t begin with those most in need, you will never get to them and if you don’t get to them, you will not transform the community.

The community decides those with greater need, and the gift is given. If it’s a cow, it’s either a pregnant cow or “arrangements” are made for a calf. Here are the rules: When the calf is born, the family is to raise the calf with love and care until it is old enough to leave its mother. The calf is then the gift that is passed on to the next family identified by the community.

All our hands went up to ask what we saw as the obvious plot flaw in this story. What if they don’t give the calf up? Do you ever have to repossess the cow? How can you expect a family to invest all the time and money in feeding and caring for a calf that they know they don’t get to keep?

Our hosts were quick to admit that at times things didn’t work out the way planned. But they were just as quick to proudly explain that the vast majority of times, it did. It wasn’t fear of repossession or litigation. The family who receives the gift is part of the community that made the decision. The family knows the other families. The community wants the family to succeed for both altruistic reasons and for very practical reasons. The family is going to pass on the gift. The community is going to help that family be successful.

And the family has a powerful incentive to pass on the gift. Once the first calf is passed on, then, and only then, does the cow belong to them. All future calves belong to them. The milk, cheese, meat, everything.

The values of caring and sharing in communities are taught in passing on the gift. But passing on the gift also means you are achieving your own individual self-sufficiency.

Our group began to think about the school climate today which has become so politicized. We thought of racing around for education dollars that produced winners and losers. We thought of the corrupting influence of ranking and labeling to reward and punish.

We thought of an environment where vicious competition for scarce resources was the rule and where losers resented winners and winners were terrified of being the next losers.

Our small traveling community of educators winding down the mountain was profoundly moved by this experience. We will pay it forward. We will accept the gift of knowledge of a proven approach to transforming communities in crisis. We will respect those communities and find the answers they hold within.

There is a great need for Experts in high places to understand.

We will pass on the gift of what we have learned to those trapped within the poverty of their failed ideas.

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