When I was an environmental lobbyist, much of my work involved social justice activities like equipping and empowering low income communities and people of color to protect their families from pollution and irresponsible development.

As the Sierra Club’s Public Lands Director, I often traveled to the western United States to work with Native Americans who wanted to protect their land and water. Whether it was a proposed ski slope on a sacred mountain, water diverted from tribal lands for urban use, or lakes poisoned by uranium mines, there were plenty of challenges.

One of my first trips to tribal lands involved presenting a training on Persuasion Techniques to help the Navajo people influence administrative decision-making that affected their communities. I brought organizational charts and factsheets and how-to tips and talking points.

I knew what to do and all I had to do was teach them, right?

Well, halfway through the first day, my colleagues and I feared we weren’t getting anywhere. We had a schedule and an agenda to get through. We had goals to meet for our funders. But it turns out that the Navajo people run on a somewhat different timetable than do A-type D.C. lobbyists.

Our first clue that we weren’t in the nation’s capitol anymore was when the Navajo opening prayer lasted twenty minutes . . . we had scheduled two. We moved from prayer into introductions, which took forty-five minutes instead of the ten we had scheduled because each person talked about the land they were from and about their ancestors. Every commonality that was discovered necessitated a leisurely comparing of notes, “Do you know Grandfather So and So?” and “To the west of the river or to the east?”

Our training was in trouble and I didn’t have a clue how to proceed. I wanted to be respectful, but I wasn’t sure they even understood the concept of affecting decisions, let alone lobbying. “You know, like when you’re trying to persuade your parents to let you do something?” I suggested, which always connected with our mostly white student groups.

Blank stares.

Finally, a local Sierra Club guy who frequently worked with the Navajos asked the group, “What is the Navajo word for persuasion?”

Mumbled conversations and shaking of heads.

Then a young man spoke up. “We have no such word in Diné Bizaad (the Navajo language). We do not do that. We just ask our elders what is best. We would never argue with them or try to change their minds.”

In all my wisdom, I had designed a training around a concept that did not even exist in their culture. I looked at the local activist who had asked the insightful question and he started to laugh and then I laughed and pretty soon we were all hugging and laughing.

“Respect! What a beautiful thing!” I said. “So different from the way I grew up.”

Two elders sat at the side of the room. When the mirth died down, everyone looked at them. One of the men nodded and said, “This persuasion must be a job for our young people. It is new to learn and they must lead us.”

Humility is not a word often associated with lobbyists – or environmentalists, if I may poke fun at my fellow green-hearts. I got a massive dose of it that day as I watched the wisdom of the ages continue to guide this ancient people through the complexities of the modern day.

navajo

This post is in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge called Student, Teacher: Sometimes teachers learn the most from their students. Have you ever had the tables turned on you when you thought you were teaching, but underwent the largest change yourself?

 

 

 

Advertisements