Every year on April 1st, a group of senior managers from my office circulate two prank emails to all the staff via the President’s email account. They are so good that I always fall for them. Here is my personal favorite from 2012:
[Copyright of WRI]
Quiet, only tiny ripples.
A fallen leaf drifts,
Following the wind-driven water.
A dragon-fly slowly settles
On the barely moving leaf.
Dragon-fly-skipper on a ship of leaf
You sail calmly straight by.
As if the soul were that calm,
Weakly surrendering to this world
Without a protesting motion, not fighting its loneliness,
As if satisfied-and with just this.
And everything will always be just this way,
Only the muddy soil sinking invisibly deeper.
There are times when you’re fortunate enough to sit with someone and have a conversation. A real conversation. A conversation where you are completely focused, immersed in the moment and enjoying every second of it. You don’t stop to check your phone, you don’t stop to glance left and right, you don’t notice others who are also in the cafe with you and your conversation partner. You don’t even check the time. This rare amount of focus happens because when a conversation reaches a certain level of engagement, time simply does not exist. In a world of instant gratification and short attention spans, a real conversation is truly precious.
I had the pleasure of such a treasure this evening, something I did not expect given the circumstances. There is a certain amount of guilt, regret and sadness when you’re faced with someone you have hurt. To see a soul you have been unkind with is to be reminded of your ability to be unkind. To see a person you have wronged is to be reminded of your ability to wrong someone. To see a life that you have disappointed is to be reminded of your own faults and disappointments. Sometimes, all of that together in one package is to be reminded of the worst version of you. That version who can hurt, be unkind and disappoint others.
But this evening’s real conversation brought to light a different story: instead of shaming myself for the past, I was humbled by the positiveness of a kind heart. One that forgives, one that doesn’t hold a grudge. I was struck by the simple grace of a smile so sincere. By eyes so unyielding. I was impressed with the dignity of a someone who have been hurt but chose to move on, forgive and bear no hard feelings. Although his world had been turned upside down once, twice, three times. Although his days have been punished with disappointments. Although his heart has experienced betrayal.
Tonight’s real conversation has taught me an important lesson from my conversation partner. You need to rise above your grief, go beyond your limits and choose to forgive. Forgive, although no apology has been said. Forgive, although its easier to condemn. Forgive, even though its difficult.
Tonight’s real conversation has brought a face to the word “grace”.
That was well worth not checking my phone for three hours.
Washington, DC. Thomas Sweet.
Good morning everyone, it’s been months since my last post even though there were multiple issues I’ve promised myself to write about. That includes my summer Indonesia trip, fall in New Haven, New York and Washington DC as well as several interesting topics such as US and Indonesian politics. Things were hectic and I simply never sat down to do it. Now it’s October and many of the issues have passed.
Today, however, I stumbled upon an article that immediately made me jump to my keyboard. This is an article like so many other, a nice little biography of an accomplished scholar. It struck me in a way that is very personal, so I am going to write from a very personal point of view. The article talked about an Indonesian gentleman who has made it in his field. He seemed like a distinguished intellectual, and my problem was not with that side of the article.
It was the part about his wife. The article mentioned her in one sentence in the very back, saying that she supported him loyally all through his career. And then it stopped. No mention whatsoever on her own occupation and accomplishments.
For those of you familiar with Indonesian news articles, this sounds very familiar. I have seen this type of writing countless times. But today it’s different. I was affected by it; I cared and wanted to write about it.
Now, a little bit of disclaimer: I am not attempting to attack anyone here, not the couple in the article, nor the journalist or the publisher. Those are just placeholders and is beside the point. I aim to stir discussion among readers about the traditional gender roles in Indonesian society, as sparked by the language of the article I just read.
Growing up in urban Indonesia, I have been asked several times here in the States the question of “What’s it like being a girl in Indonesia?” “How are women treated in your country?” “How much does Islam dictate the gender roles in Indonesian society?” My answers for those are nuanced version of the following: If a woman is part of the urban educated 1%, she has a great probability to be able to accomplish anything. But for the rest of the country, women are brought up with the expectation that she will accomplish less than her male peers. Of course, the Indonesian context is less extreme than many other nations. But that does not mean it should acceptable.
I am infinitely grateful to be brought up by progressive parents with a long history of gender equality in my family. 90% of women in my family had their own careers, 60% of them are considered more successful than their spouses and all of them went through some form of tertiary education. In my family, the message was clear: you can accomplish anything a man can do, perhaps even more.
I find it truly unfortunate that such a message is still a minority in Indonesia.
This was immediately apparent throughout my school years in Bandung. We were taught to be obedient, not talk back, and not think too critically. Lots of conversations begin with the condescending “Anak perempuan itu harusnya …” (Young girls are supposed to …) or “Anak perempuan kok kayak begitu!” (Young girls shouldn’t behave like that). The boys receive equal scolding, but never exclusively due to their gender. In my medium-conservative high school, conversations like “There are too many girls in this world. It must be near kiamat (apocalypse)” or “Men should always lead women. Choose Ahmad for student body president!” were completely acceptable.
A particularly scarring conversation happened when I was in TMII in sixth grade when our school was doing a tour. Me and a friend sat next to two grown up men in beards who dress like the FPI (it was 2002). Being very innocent, we engaged in a simple conversation. Out of curiosity, I somehow asked, “Sir, if you are a Muslim preacher, can you tell me why girls wear hijab?” One man replied matter-of-factly, “Women are like vegetables. When you shop for some, do you want one that is clean and wrapped in plastic like the ones in the supermarket? Or one that you see dirty without plastic in the traditional market?” “So, kid, hijab is like that plastic wrapper. Go wear one when you’re of age”
12-year old me thought that it was an interesting analogy. If most uneducated conservative men think that women are vegetables, then I vow to never wear the hijab.
On to college, although the women in my high school are far from unambitious, it was clear that sometimes their gender restricted them to pursue the higher education they wanted. At least 5 friends said that “I really wanted to attend XXX University in Jakarta/ XXX University in Australia / XXX University in Singapore, but my parents said no because I’m a girl and they don’t want me to live far away from them.”
Those were anecdotes, but the problem arises when you’ve been hardwired to behave a certain way, to expect that gender boundaries limit what you can do, and to have less confidence in yourself because you’re a woman. That can be a negative cycle that feeds itself, depriving women of their potential due to diminishing ambition and drive.
Connecting this to the article that sparked this post, I would like to start a discussion on why most Indonesian women are expected to conform to the traditional gender roles of wife and mother without the push for a meaningful career? Why is it acceptable for the article to not mention anything about the wife other than she was loyal? Why are women viewed as potential housewives instead of an opportunity? Can’t we start encouraging women to reach their full potential? Can we start using adjectives such as “brilliant, smart, capable and competent” instead of “beautiful, sweet, ladylike and hot”?
I am well aware that I live in a liberal bubble, if you can read English most likely you belong there as well. I think there needs to be more public dialogues around this, plus much much more Sri Mulyani-like role models. Indonesia can achieve its economic potential if and only if all of its women flourish.
All opinions are my own
October 8, 2012
A few weeks ago, I found myself listening to about half a dozen speeches from Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg on Youtube. It ranges from her very popular TED Talk on women in leadership positions to her excellent commencement speeches. Somewhere in those videos, she said something that I thought was interesting. Paraphrasing here, she mentioned something along the lines of, “The higher up you are in a leadership position, the harder it is for those around you to provide honest, constructive criticism.” She provided the example of a hiring policy she established at Facebook. She wanted to personally interview every candidate for a certain type of position. Turns out, the policy had its benefits, but it was marginal compared to the time needed to complete it since often times they must wait for her schedule to be open. She was a bottleneck to the hiring process and it was very inefficient and unpopular, yet no one was willing to criticize Sheryl over it.
She then decided to reconsider this policy after realizing herself how inefficient it was. When she announced that she was going to do this, her colleagues showed signs of relief. Phew! No more bottlenecks to the hiring process by Sheryl! But she didn’t understand why they didn’t say anything to her before this. Had they criticized this policy sooner, this decision would have been taken earlier. What if she never did so herself? The inefficient policy would have still been in place.
Apparently, the higher up you are in a leadership position, the harder it to get honest criticism. This can be due to respect, to maintain a good relationship and perhaps a good working atmosphere. Sometimes this is essential, yet sometimes it becomes superficial. I think the danger is when the urge not to offend is so great that we are unable to do what is truly necessary.
I think that’s what happened here in Rio+20. More than 120 Heads of State along with their Cabinet are present for the high level summit. Many have come while facing outstandingly difficult domestic and regional problems at home. In the negotiation rooms some have showed signs of ‘multilateral fatigue,’ some would like to exert their negotiating politics, others simply refuse to cooperate.
Yet all the high level speeches did not seem to reflect the fact that we have not made the needed progress. Everyone talked about the need for a green economy and sustainable development, but not on how crucial promises have been broken, how the only text to have passed the negotiations is ‘watered down’ and how difficult it seems to go beyond politics and work together for ‘the future we want.’
I felt the same atmosphere during the High Level side event organized by the Indonesian government. It had an incredible list of A-listers (Three Heads of State, half of Indonesia’s Cabinet, the Head of UNEP, Heads of at least 10 major international organizations, etc). The event focused on Indonesia’s sustainable development policies and commitments. Every single person who spoke that night praised how far the country has gone and how it has become a leader in the field.
Indonesia has indeed gone a long way from our policies in the past, but unfortunately it hasn’t gone as far with implementing them. Nearly everyone in that room knows Indonesia is not doing so well on the ground. Yet no one voiced this, no one gave the constructive criticism that it should focus on delivering existing promises instead of making new ones. The talks ended up a little bit too sugarcoated for my tastes. (Click here for the text version of the speech).
I think the event was a great initiative to communicate Indonesia’s efforts and by no means am I trying to discredit that. But I was just wondering why everyone seemed too careful, too afraid to offend the President. I can’t help but think that Sheryl was right after all.
Every time I participate in international environmental conferences, there’s always a time when I felt particularly inspired and fascinated by those around me. I usually call this the “conference revelation.” This is a sudden sensation of immense happiness, perhaps coupled with exhaustion and light hallucination that makes me feel incredibly happy I’m attending the event. At the UNFCCC COP 16 in Cancun, for example, the sheer excitement of meeting the Indonesian delegation and other environmental professionals triggered my “revelation” of the event: I was going to fully launch myself in the environmental world after graduating from college, certain that it was the right path to take.
Fast forward two years to the present, my “revelation” moment for the Rio+20 came yesterday at CIFOR’s Forest Roundtable 8, during the last plenary session on forests, governance and institutions. CIFOR’s parting Director General, Frances Seymour, closed the session with these words:
“This is the last time I am speaking in front of a microphone as the Director General of CIFOR. To the young women in the room […] it’s your turn to step up!”
A very simple, yet very powerful statement. I did not expect her to say that as her parting words. Frances is one of my top role models, for those who are not familiar with her I’d say she is ‘the non-profit version’ of Sheryl Sandberg. (She won me over this excellent piece).
Frances founded the Institutions and Governance Program while at WRI, put the spotlight on CIFOR as the best forest research institution in the world, and many others. But above all, she showed that being a woman does not mean that she cannot achieve things that have traditionally gone to men. She shines brilliantly in a predominantly male world, just like my other role models Christine Lagarde and Sri Mulyani Indrawati.
Frances’ words yesterday afternoon was very special because I felt like she was talking directly to me and others like me in the room. I look up to both women and men in leadership positions, especially those who undertook a difficult journey to get there.
My take away message from this Rio+20 revelation is exactly Frances’ words, to ‘step up’ in this world, especially for the environment. I have seen many disappointments voiced by the youth in the Rio+20 outcome text. Many complexities surround it and I shall analyze it later, but I believe if the current generation is unable to take necessary actions, the future generation will.
“Hello everyone! Rearrange yourself into a big circle, get up and let’s put our hands up in the air and shake them!”
That was the opening of the Major Group for Youth daily meeting. The group then went on to do clapping exercises, hands shaking motions and after that they started the meeting. It was headed by a very hippie looking girl, but the others look more or less normal. Yet I was quick to judge them as your typical ‘Greenpeace youth.’
That daily meeting for our Major Group marks the end of each day of here in Riocentro. In each meeting we discuss what has been going on, the negotiations we track, what lobbying we’re about to do, and most importantly, what ‘actions’ we will be doing that night after “fossil day.”
I happened to participate in some interesting side events and the Rio Sustainable Development Dialogue during that day. The Sustainable Development Dialogues are forums for “representatives from civil society, including private sector, NGOs, scientific community, among other major groups, will convene at the same venue of the Rio+20 Conference. They are expected to engage in an open and action‐oriented debate on key topics related to sustainable development. There will be no participation of Governments or UN agencies. The recommendations emanating from the Dialogues will be conveyed directly to the Heads of State and Government present at the Summit.”
Pretty interesting concept and I attended the one for “Forests.” We had speakers ranging from the President of the WWF, the timber manager of IKEA, a Brazilian forestry professor, a forest carbon investor, the president of an indigenous people advocacy organization, etc. I thought they had a good mix of people in the forest sector and their 3-minute presentations were actually interesting, yet nothing new was said. Unfortunately I didn’t stay until the end since I was starving, so I didn’t get to see the three recommendations passed to the Heads of State. However, I would vote for recommendations (1) and (4), concentrating on forest restoration and increasing tenure security for communities.
After the dialog I went to a side event learning about climate change adaptation and migration in Middle East. It was hosted by a Middle Eastern (I think it might be specifically Arab) NGO network. It was surprising since that region is not known for its vibrant civil society. Yet their presentations were not bad. They work on climate-forced or climate-influenced migration of Arab people, both within a country and overseas. The main takeaway is that the Arab world will be hit hard by climate change, especially by water-related droughts. Yet their infrastructure is not prepared enough for the consequences.
Coming back to the Major Group for Youth meeting, the atmosphere was filled with unstructured energy. So many people are excited about so many different things, they are planning new initiatives, new actions and new lobbying points. They are working hard, but there seems to be a lack of organization in everything they do. I am not fond of the way the way they work, but it is amusing to see them tape their mouth and hang their posters. I am not convinced that this sort of “action” is particularly effective. I believe the only way you get people to adopt your ideas is to convince them they are good. This is easier to do when you are regarded as an equal human being. These kids are far away from that. Perhaps explains their bravery, but if I were a negotiator there is zero chance I’m taking them seriously.