That Little Ball

Hey LC.

A few years back, I contemplated us and our work. I sat with a blank sheet of paper and a pen. I started to write. I started to draw. I drew a machine. It had a giant opening in the top. I put in you. I put in me. I put in Chilo and Francis. I put in our clients. I put in all of our energy, effort, and enthusiasm. I put in all of our time, money, and resources. I put in all of our strategizing, planning and program designing. I put in all of our trips to Honduras, bonfires and summer retreats at the Econ House. And, I put in our endless existential crises. This exercise was another one of them.

“What do we do?” I asked.

We give out small loans at a lower interest rate and on better terms than some very well-respected local microfinance institutions. We host a business plan competition on occasion. Well, we have twice. And, we teach financial literacy classes. Well, we do whenever we get to go to Honduras. And, when I asked “What have we accomplished?”, a little ball dribbled out of the narrow opening in the machine’s side and took two bounces. It was our impact. It was small.

We were not moving our clients out of poverty. We were only making their financial lives marginally better. And, with only 70 to 80 active clients at the height of our lending program, we were not ending poverty in Honduras. We were not changing the microfinance industry for the better. We lacked scale, credibility, and proof of concept.

I was dispirited.

Looking at everything going into the top of that machine, I asked “Is all of that worth that little ball?”

I had no answer. Well, I did. I was just not willing to speak it.

The answer was “No”.

So, here we are.

We are closing. And, I am struggling to write this letter of goodbye.

At the time, I was dismissive of that little ball. But, now that we are ending and I am freed from having to justify our existence in traditional terms, let me tell you what we were doing.

I think it is fair to say that none of us were especially enamored with microfinance. It was a means to an end. It gave us a reason to gather with our clients. And, once gathered, we tried to find a way to connect, seek common ground, and overcome all the human designed divides that separate us from one another – language, culture, nationality, politics, power and privilege.

We were chasing moments.

Moments of authenticity. Moments of truth. Moments of equality with our clients.

These moments were magical.

These moments were few.

I only experienced two of them in ten years: one was a handshake and the other was when Norma silently sidled up and intertwined her wrinkled fingers with mine.

These moments were fleeting. But, we learned that they exist. We learned that we can be a part of them. And, we learned that they do not just happen. They have to be earned.

We worked tirelessly to prepare ourselves for them.

We relentlessly analyzed our motivations. We constantly asked ourselves: Why are we here? What are we looking for? What do we want? Why do we think our clients can help us find it? What do we think we can offer them in return? Why do we think we have something to offer?

We scrutinized every bit of unbridled enthusiasm. We tore off our hero’s cape. We stripped away our power, position and privilege. It was all inherited. We had not earned any of it. We were not special. We were just a bunch of humans subsumed in our system of expectations, buffeted about by fear and desire. We were craving connection, community and conversation. Because, during out time together, we learned that through dialog with one another we could get a glimpse of a better version of ourselves.

Not all of us got to experience these moments.

They only materialize after a lengthy series of authentic interactions.

They were usually reserved for our Program Directors.

We were envious of them. But, that was all right. Because, we had a hand in preparing them, making those moments a possibility for them. We all sat around those two big wooden tables together and asked them the questions that had to be asked. We probed their motivations. We made sure that they were ready. They were our voice in Honduras. They were La Ceiba. Our relationships with our clients were at stake. So, we made sure to prepare them right. And, in the process of preparing them, we prepared ourselves for those moments with each other.

We experienced those moments with each other.

I found them with you. You found them with me. You found them with each other.

We were our better selves when we are together.

That is why we gravitated to each other.

That little ball…it was love.

I thought love would be enough. I believed that if we staked a flag, stood our ground, and upheld our values that the resources would come and others would see what we were building and want to be a part of it. I was idealistic. I was naive. I was wrong. Love was not enough. Well, it was not enough to keep a microfinance institution in Honduras running.

Now, here I am, once again, looking at everything going into the top of that machine and asking “Was all of that worth that little ball?

Yes.

We met Chilo, Francis, Ana, Norma, Selma, Carmen, Josepha and all of the others.

We met each other.

And, when that little ball lands, it will shatter.

Its contents.

Me and you.

We will scatter.

We will crave that feeling we felt once before with each other. It will inspire us to risk extending an invitation to those around us to gather. Some will accept. And, when they do, we will sit in circles with them and get to building our own communities dedicated to chasing moments of authenticity.  And, when those moments arise, and they will, you will look them in the eyes and say “See what I mean.”

Thank you for everything you gave.

I am sorry it had to end.

Love. – dr H

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Last Friday, my students and I informed our clients that we will be closing down La Ceiba – our microfinance institution in El Progreso, Honduras – on December 29, 2017. Here’s the letter of goodbye I wrote to the 70-plus students and alumni I had the joy of working with over the past ten years.

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