By Maddie Maltese
There are some conventions that you attend out of duty or some with brilliant speakers that enchant an audience. Then there are exceptional gatherings that might not draw large numbers or be widely advertised but change your way of thinking and acting. The agenda of such an inspirational gathering would be founded in real life stories and reflections and clearly link social justice with business endeavors.
I attended one such gathering June 9-12 at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and experienced that change is possible. Not only is it possible, but positive change is desired by many; by billionaires as much as by academics, by a priest heading an entrepreneurial university, and by students that have left their country for an internship in businesses animated by economic principles founded in communion.
Among the participants at the 2016 North American Economy of Communion (EoC) gathering were a group of academics from the Catholic University Institute di Buea (CUIB) in Cameroon. This university, which was founded in 2010 to foster entrepreneurship inspired by the principles of the EoC, already counts 2000 students. You might expect at such a university to see classrooms, offices, laboratories, and big screen displays. Instead, this university is made up of seven round ‘villages’. The round villages are simple tin roofed structures supported simply by a set of pillars resting on cement platforms. Each of the seven villages hosts students from across the schools of engineering, organic agriculture, economics, and computer science.
Father George, president of CUIB, explains, ” The poor in developing countries are not objects in need of aid but subjects of change. We have wasted time accusing industrialized countries or in judging ourselves. Instead, our energies should be channeled into a true development of our communities, where the environment, business, spirituality and culture coexist side by side and develop businesses, schools, and community services. No student of the CUIB graduates without spending weekends over the course of a year volunteering and launching an entrepreneurial endeavor in their home community. The secret of CUIB’s success lies in the 30 minutes a day dedicated to Mass for Christians, in the prayer for Muslims, and in a time of spiritual reflection for the others. Without values you cannot provide direction to change.”
Poverty, Inc., a documentary presented at the EoC meeting by its director Michael Matheson Miller, challenged the work of humanitarian organizations that operate with paternalistic assistance in poor countries and that do not produce desired development outcomes. Examples include indiscriminate shipments of food in parts of Asia and Africa that cripple local agricultural production and alter the diet of entire villages. Other examples might be clothing donations that lead to a crisis in local textile industries. Miller commented on such aid, “There have been two possible ways to act in humanitarian interventions: give people fish or teach people how to fish. Today, the developmental model must be one of ‘fishing together’. In other words, ‘fish with the other’ and listen to the real needs of the people, without out-of-context interventions that can cause unintended damage.” Miller encouraged the adoption of the EoC paradigm to ensure just such positive development projects.
EoC demands a new form of leadership, one that is capable of combining market expertise, innovation and care for others. A workshop led by Jim Funk, management consultant, included role playing on how to solve complex conflicts within business organizations. Funk uses a method of applying the ethics of communion for conflict resolution. These ethics of communion allow both management and employees to be fully appreciated for their talents, intuitions, and ideas. Practicing business with this vision of mutual respect can help both the business and the person grow in a logic of shared social justice.
The experiences of various entrepreneurs and managers, who opened up and shared both successes and failures, were key to demonstrating that change is a door through which mistakes can lead to progress. In the entrepreneurial logic of the EoC, successes and failures become opportunities for innovation and change.
This was demonstrated by the experiences of Anne Godbout, travel agency founder that specializes in pilgrimages and spiritual journeys; of Emery Koenig, a high level executive for a mulltinational corporation; of John Mundell, owner and CEO of an environmental services company who has succeeded in combining expert business practices, employee well-being, and the care of the environment. Topics addressed by the recent papal encyclical Laudato sì, were explored extensively at the EoC conference. Candid discussions aimed at identifying successful business practices that are also environmentally conscious. These dicussions helped highlight concrete actions that can individually and collectively address environmental concerns and safeguard creation.
The story of Robert Ouimet, a successful Canadian entrepreneur in charge of a global food company, was particularly moving. When Ouimet met Mother Theresa in 1983, he offered to give away all of his goods for a social cause. The saint of Calcutta responded that Quimet did not possess anything. Rather, everything was lent to him. His life needed to be at the service of his family, of his employees, and of the environment following the life style proposed by the Gospel. His human and financial capital were gifts received by God to be shared and put to good use. The choice to follow her words has not been without pain as his children and his financial backers did not always understand his decisions. Ouimet’s journey gave birth to a set of nine core business principles that guide his entrepreneurial actions. One principle is – “Meet with terminated employees twice within six months following the termination.” Putting this particular principle into practice requires courage and readiness for emotional interactions. Ouimet stated, “I had to do it, because I wanted the persons to feel that, despite the reasons that led to the termination, I continued to value them and that I would help them find a path or occupation more suited to their talents. In all these years, only two persons refused to meet with me.”
Prof. Michael Naughton, director of the Center of Catholic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas, and Prof. John Gallagher, who teaches management at Maryville College, analyzed the cultural underpinnings of economic actions driven by communion. Naughton underlined that the principle of subsidiarity embodies the logic of gift; that every member of a business brings his or her gifts to the productive process and thereby produces not only products but also builds community and hope. Gallagher confirmed the need for a new anthropology and for prophetic voices in the economic arena that can take risks in the name of hope and responsibility to future generations.
The economy of communion and its 25 years of practice show that Chiara Lubich’s vision on the role business in connecting with people in need and in encouraging a global life of communion now has solid roots in North America. Profit at all cost need not be the sole motivator for business activity. Many entrepreneurs, such as those involved with the EoC, are chasing a bigger vision. This vision honors the gifts of each person and puts hope for a better tomorrow into action.