She was furious. I was flustered. I gathered my belongings, my papers, folders, pen, and phone, briskly shoved them into my backpack, bid a hasty and nervous farewell to my hosts and bolted for the door. Outside, she was already 30 yards away. “Norma!” No answer, no slowing down, no acknowledgment of my yell for her. Unsure of myself, I walked after her. She walked towards her house. The closer she got, the more I yelled. No answer.
I had a queasy feeling in my gut. I was uncomfortable. It was like knocking something over in the dark, you know you did it but you don’t know what it was. I retraced my steps, my words and my gestures, anything that could have caused an offense. But, to no avail, I was too busy trying to keep up.
She reached her house and fiercely shut the front door. As I stood outside I was embarrassed to discover Maria Yaneth’s daughter, Jocelyn, whose house I had just left, was at my side asking what happened. Of further embarrassment, the neighbors across from, and next door to Norma’s house were all standing outside or looking through their windows, watching the scene unfold.
“Norma? Would you like to talk?”
Nothing of the sort had ever happened to me before. I was beloved in Villa Soleada, or so I thought. Residents routinely invited me into their homes, fed me and spoke kindly to me. I couldn’t understand why Norma was upset.
A man answered the door: Norma’s husband. With complete indifference, he opened the door, looked at me, looked at Norma standing across the room with her arms crossed, and said “would you like to come in?”
I didn’t know what to say or do. Norma certainly didn’t want me to come in. I was frozen. The man didn’t wait for a response. He left the door open, turned and sauntered back to his room.
“Norma?” She turned her head away and stood idly.
Jocelyn stepped inside. “Let him talk to you Norma.”
I couldn’t bring myself to step inside. I was unsure of my footing and didn’t want to disrespect Norma any further. A long silence passed. Norma was still, statuesque, magnificent and dignified. I felt small and pitiful.
“He only buys from people who are young and skilled and who have help from their family. I’m old and have no help! Why do you always buy from them and buy so little from me?”
My thoughts raced as I scrambled to piece together a coherent answer. With each passing second, it became increasingly clear that any response I gave would only disappoint Norma further. I told Norma that the products we buy from artisans have to be of a certain quality otherwise they wont sell. Indeed, it meant her products did not sell and didn’t meet the standard. As I spoke I could see Norma’s demeanor change. The rage in her eyes and voice were replaced by melancholy and despair. Her arms weren’t crossed; instead they were drooped by her side. Her shoulders were slouched and her head was lowered. My words seemed to suck the life out of her. “I’m not sure what I am supposed to do Santiago.”
It was a debilitating moment. I was powerless. There was nothing I could do or say that could make Norma feel better. I had nothing to offer her.
“Its ok Santi. I’ll walk you out.”
Her demeanor changed again. She seemed to regain her confidence. She walked with her usual pep. As we walked out together she put her hand on my back is if to console me. Norma asked about La Ceiba, my plans for the future, and about my family. I answered feeling no less confused than before.
“I’m sorry for reacting the way I did Santi.” She apologized to me? I thought I was the guilty one!
Norma was excluded from the program in part due to circumstances that were out of her control. She was missing out on an opportunity. It speaks to a larger question: how do we implement policies in a fair and just manner without compromising (too much) our ability to fund operations?
My interaction with Norma was one of the first honest exchanges I had with any client or artisan. It was refreshing. If honesty is necessary to build trust, Norma’s reaction was an indication of her faith in me not to dismiss her and move on. Today, Norma and I incorporate this trust into our working relationship. Norma isn’t shy about telling me where our policies fall short.
I recognize that my organization is imperfect and can be unfair for those we work with. If we are to address our imperfections, we must do so together. The process of fixing injustices, especially the ones we perpetrate, starts with honest communication. By listening to those who are directly affected by our actions, and working together to adjust our practices, we are sure to stay on the path of understanding. It can be messy and time consuming, inefficient and uncomfortable, but it’s non-negotiable and essential. It might not be the best business practice, but it’s the cost of doing business if we are to adhere to our convictions.
Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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More of my blog posts at: laceibamfi.org
(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on January 20th, 2014)