“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” (Yogi Berra)

Innovatria

Growth is a tricky business. While we start with some clear destination fixed in mind like steadfast Polaris, we surely navigate the most circuitous of routes on way to El Dorado or Shangri-La or some other lost horizon. As the journey progresses hidden perils rise up while illusive fortunes descend and we are inevitably turned the other way around. We are in motion as is our world that now calls us out to correct course or settle some other place. This is the pressure point where vision and courage and freedom are required. We must decide in the moments where there is little data on the horizon to guide us and we secretly fear that our provisions and ingenuity will not last the night. Opportunity turns quickly to sour milk or sweet cream. Even celebrated Magellan and da Gama might have opted for a hammock and hot meal if given a second chance. Sextant, compass and map in hand, we maneuver and navigate the furrowed shores of Innovatria – the places where we grow.

It has become common to hear pundits proclaim that now is the greatest period of change in human history. We are to believe that somehow the contemporary life is simply an anomaly in the course of events. Imagine a famer in twelfth century Lyon. His father and his father before were all farmers and so on as far back as anyone can remember. One day, while returning from the Holy Lands unsuspecting crusaders bring the Black Death to his village and every third person perishes within a week. Alternatively, picture the Roman Legion or the Huns or the Ottoman Turks at the city gates and the pending drama. Consider any other dislocating event from antiquity to the line of text currently scrolling along the bottom of a screen and it becomes clear that every age is the greatest age of change. While the rate may increase so do the tools and techniques we now have to capitalize on this naturally occurring generative energy.  We can fear it, avoid it or use it in the employ of our good purpose. While we did not singularly invent this world, we do live here and have good use of it as opportunity provides the prepared.

Jeff DeGraff

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“To truly know the world, look deeply within your own being; to truly know yourself, take real interest in the world.” (Rudolf Steiner)

Not all that long ago, we thought that Man was the only sentient animal that walked among the curious amalgam of creatures that share this earth. By virtue of our brain or consciousness or soul we disenfranchised all others and placed ourselves outside of the wild kingdom. Somewhere along the way that same feeling of being safely above it all left us largely isolated from the very communities that bore us out and the long fingered forces that our superstitious ancestors knew entangled our lives. What was left was little old us the superior individual without context or communion – the nutriments of growth.

This is not the simple “us and them” of bias or prejudice nor the “I and thou” of supplicant and Creator but rather our thankless exclusion from the operating system all together. The dominant logic is that we enter and leave this world alone and extends to the belief that we triumph or fail as a function of our personal will and sense of destiny. This assumes that the one has dominion and mastery over the many. But we are not born into this world from our own actions. Even in the most retched and dire of circumstances we are all made of two and carry forward the history of our line in our genes and our means. We are all raised up in a community with its idiosyncrasies and peculiar customs. We are all participants in the bounty of the harvest and the tragedy of the flood. We are made with the faces and forces of others.

While we may be existential gardeners free and responsible for our growth, we may not secede from the human field or free ourselves from the unseen wellspring. Our nature is entwined in the common dynamics and systems of creation. The depth of the dirt and the drive of the seed give a character to the vine so distinct that its terrior can be tasted in the wine. We are raised up in families which are part of communities that are subject to the laws of the landscape. Though grounded, our harvest is preceded by rejuvenating water and air and completed with restorative fire. We harness the four competing forces of growth to pull our plow forward. Season by season skill emerges and flowers. Efficiency springs from diversity and we grow what we know until we tire the land. We use the calendar to plant in season but follow the ripening rhythms to fend off foe and fill our burgeoning baskets. We bring in our bounty with labor and neighbor and sing and sup in celebration.  We all live off the land where nothing stands autonomous.

These interconnected structures and dynamics at work in the natural world provide us with the same revitalizing energies and opportunities for growth. What is essential is that we first understand our part in the greater system. We are the industrious and synchronizing hand that scatters the seed and works the land. But we are not the good earth or her lover the radiant sun. Though we may dither and dather away, nothing grows green without this sublime symbiosis. To enlist these energizing forces in our aid we must first operationalize the wholonics of our situation.

Understanding growth as an operational framework and system allows us to use these structures and dynamics in our own development. By acknowledging the activist role of our environment we may enlist it as a helpful partner. However, we may not transcend our situation all together. Like goldfish we grow in proportion to our bowl. In the next section, we will put all the pieces together to build an integrated program that incorporates the first principles and structures and dynamics of growth with the tools and techniques necessary to put them to work.

Jeff DeGraff

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The causes of poverty have long vexed scholar and practitioner alike. Whether the result of political indifference and incompetence or the brutality of famine and war or just the seven deadly sins in action, sustainable solutions have eluded all from village chieftain to the General Assembly of the United Nations. The central challenge of poverty is that it is context specific but falls across multiple boundaries such as regions and cultures. What is a deficiency of necessary means may be quite different depending upon expectations and customs. This makes it difficult to coordinate activities that redress personal, communal and situational barriers to prosperity. There is little evidence that a single silver bullet or shotgun approach can resolve such a significant yet intractable issue. A viable approach would need to synchronize a comprehensive pool of resources and expertise while localizing their distribution to meet specific needs. Before the advent of the World Wide Web and the global economy this would have been an impossibility. After its inception it became an inevitability.

In the mid 1970s, economics professor and future Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus noticed that the women in the village near the university where he taught in Bangladesh were borrowing cash from local moneylenders at usury rates to buy materials for the inexpensive bamboo furniture that they made. Because banks would not consider these viable businesses and considered the transaction costs to loan such small amounts infeasible, these women were trapped in a cycle of poverty and remained part of the permanent underclass. Yunus began to loan is own money to many of these woman at an interest rate comparable to the legitimate financial institutions in the region. What he found was that access to capital transformed many of these destitute women into entrepreneurs and greatly improved their economic conditions. Yumus initiated a research project to explore the potential of a banking system to provide access to credit for the working poor.

By the early 1980s, with the aid of government and private support, Yunus and others established the Grameen Bank which is Bengali for “village.” This community based financial organization made very small loans to individuals with no collateral or credit history that could demonstrate that a small investment would greatly improve the viability of their “business.” Grameen gave microloans to a wide array of the self-employed including furniture makers, farmers, fishermen and food processors. Most of the initial loans were less than twenty US dollars. As these borrowers became reliable credit risks conventional banks began to see them as a tremendous pool of potential customers. Over time, many commercial and government institutions copied the Grameen model and used it as a development system for future growth.

The New Millennium brought billions of people worldwide into the Net and made it easier to connect lenders and borrowers. This enabled people in industrialized countries to go beyond traditional charitable giving to making targeted investments in developing locations, industries and social groups. They could see their money at work. Soon standards and systems of accountability were established for both world and local markets. An entirely new field of economics called microfinance emerged from the Grameen experience. Not only did these loans help pave a road out of poverty but often proved to be worthy investments.

What started as a small experiment changed some fundamental assumptions about poverty and the untapped potential of the working poor. By repositioning banks from a risk avoidance to a growth orientated approach Yunus and others created a hybrid solution with benefits for individuals, communities and beyond. Perhaps there is now a new variation of the old expression – God helps those who help themselves…and help others along the way.

Jeff DeGraff

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