Martin Luther King, Junior said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
In the non-profit world we often like to tell success stories. It is these very success stories that encourage those of us who work in the sector as well as those who support the sector in some way to continue what we are doing. However, we sometimes forget that the successes we share are not simply stories. Rather, these successes are glimpses into the lives of real people. They are insights into the lives of people who face incredible conflict, struggles, sadness and frustration but have continued forward through it all. It is through these day-to-day challenges that we see leaders being formed and emerging in our communities and countries.
In a recent visit to a school that has received a loan from Edify’s microfinance partner, ASPIRE, I had the chance to witness a leader at work in a moment of challenge and controversy. We had sat down in Isabel’s small office where she spends her mornings overseeing 13 teachers and 222 students. School had been dismissed for the day and teachers walked passed us as they headed out the door. Isabel comfortably danced back and forth between our conversation and friendly reminders to teachers about various details and responsibilities for tomorrow. She seemed to prioritize running her school, but made sure to apologize for the interruption with a kind smile and would immediately return her full attention to me. It seemed she had her priorities straight.
We continued in our conversation as I asked her various questions about the school and the next loan she was interested in when the front door suddenly swung open. She recognized the woman as a parent (actually the aunt) of one of the children and asked her how she was.
“Horrible,” the woman replied, “Why did your teacher hit my son?”
“I don’t know anything about this? Please explain more,” Isabel coolly responded.
Now clearly the last thing you want when speaking with the organization that helps provide you financing is for a parent to walk in and claim that their child was physically abused that day. But Isabel’s reaction truly surprised me. Rather than being flustered or quickly becoming defensive she calmly asked the perturbed parent about the details of the situation. The calmness in her voice and the knowing look in her eye told me that she knew with certainty the teachers in her school would NEVER use physical force on a child. She told the parent that what her 7-year old had described was very unlikely because in her words, “Here we do not discipline children by laying even a finger upon them. However, I have no way of clarifying this as the teachers have left, but why don’t you return tomorrow morning for a meeting with your son, the teacher, and me to resolve the situation and learn the details of the story?” The child’s mother avoided the question and murmured something about how she was still upset. She paused for a moment and then said, “A second thing I want to talk to you about, are you offering any scholarships?” A scholarship here means cutting the tuition in half.
It did not take a genius to see the set-up. The woman came in with threatening accusations about the alleged mistreatment of her son only to reveal that the main motivation of the trip was to try and get a discount on the tuition. Isabel spent another five minutes sympathizing with the woman letting her know that scholarships aren’t available right now, but that she hopes to offer them in the coming semester. By the end of their conversation, Isabel had the woman laughing and smiling. She walked out the door with a sense of hope and it was clear she didn’t still feel the need to come back in the morning to clarify what had supposedly happened that morning.
It occurred to me that there are a lot of people who probably have the technical skills to run a school, but it takes an incredible leader to make a low-cost private school thrive in the face of the constant controversy that is face by most of the proprietors Edify works with. Isabel is one of the leaders in her community that is daily confronted with hurdles to overcome, but continues to lead with a calm presence and firm resolution to educate those living in poverty and run her business with excellence. Many people are able to manage others beneath them, but it is leaders like her that can quickly defuse controversy with justice, make friends out of enemies, and stand strong in times of challenge.