Right Livelihood and Economic Empowerment

This weekend I was sitting at Joma and working my way through a dense book on engaged Buddhism and ecology.  Sipping my latte on a lazy Saturday morning, I granted Joanna Macy all the time she needed to weave a fabulous plea for compassion, mindfulness and engagement.  Over my first cup, she guided me from the foundations of Hinduism and Buddhism through the concepts interconnectedness.  As my refill arrived, Macy invited me to take a deeper look at the concept of right livelihood.  She articulated a point I have been revolving around, but not landing on, since I started working with Hagar and Joma:

“…the work a person performs not only expresses his character, but modifies it in turn.  High value, therefore, must be placed on the nature of this work.  Instead of being considered as a necessary evil to which one is condemned, or ‘disutility’ as in classical economics, work is a vehicle for the creation and expression of our deepest valuesby linking the person to her fellow beings in reciprocal relationship, and enhancing her self-respect, the value of her work is beyond monetary measure.” – World as Lover, World as Self by Joanna Macy

For Hagar and Joma, it’s not just about giving someone a job or a stable living income.  It’s not just about training someone in mopping a floor, creating latte art, or making bread dough.  That’s the most basic form of soil from which the seed can start to germinate.

For us, it’s something a lot deeper.

Business, whether you define yourself as social or otherwise, is about dignity.  It’s about individuals having the opportunity to take control of their futures, build their confidence, express themselves, and form meaningful relationships with a wider community.  In other words, we don’t serve coffee, we give individuals (team members, customers and suppliers alike) a space to build social capital.

Taking the metaphor of the soil and seed a bit further:

“To me poor people are like bonsai trees.  When you plant the best seed of the tallest tree in a flower-pot, you get a replica of the tallest tree, only inches tall.  There is nothing wrong with the seed you planted, only the soil-base that is too inadequate.  Poor people are bonsai people.  There is nothing wrong in their seeds.  Simply, society never gave them the base to grow on.  All it needs to get the poor people out of poverty for us to create an enabling environment for them.  Once the poor can unleash their energy and creativity, poverty will disappear very quickly.” – Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Speech

While our methodologies and clients (Hagar term for beneficiaries) are different, Yunus and Hagar/Joma share a common theme: empowerment.

I remember one employee that was struggling as a server.  She had a venomous attitude and was dragging the whole cafe down.   Because of her repeated incidents in the cafe, she was rapidly moving toward “manager-assisted job suicide” (being fired).  Our Retail Manager sat down with her to try to work out the core issues, which actually amounted to boredom.  A creative person by nature, she simply didn’t feel she was contributing as a server and felt stuck in her role.  After a bit of open conversation, basic goal-setting and cross-training, we discovered that she was a perfect fit for barista – a position where she can form close customer relationships and, most importantly, express her bustling creativity.

This concept of social capital and right livelihood isn’t different from what we’ve been doing for over a decade.  Sometimes we, as leaders, just need to take a deeper, more philosophical look at what we’re doing and why.  If we can’t articulate it ourselves, how can we expect to lead others toward a shared vision?


~ by responsiblenomad on November 8, 2011.

One Response to “Right Livelihood and Economic Empowerment”

  1. Reblogged this on Tim Rann's Blog and commented:

    Have been reflecting on this quote a lot this week during our Hagar leadership meetings with various government agencies and international development organizations in DC.

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