By Frank J. Rich
Ever thought that nothing you could do would make a difference? We go to polls to vote, talk with our children’s teachers, drop a note in the suggestion box at work, but none of it seems to make a difference. Change is hard to achieve, isn’t it?
Allow me to introduce you to Anderson Sa. His credentials are a solid recommendation for a life of crime. Born in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, and raised in the drug culture that dominates them, Anderson Sa was a poster boy for local drug cartels in the fiercest and most violent of Rio’s slums – Vigário Geral.
Handsome, gregarious, fun loving, and narrowly focused on growing the drug trade in Rio’s favelas (squatter settlements), Anderson was destined for infamy in a world defined by abject poverty and the co-dependence that it produces. But for one thing! The violence that attended his chosen work had a horrifying effect on his birthplace, threatening to change both the people and the culture he loved.
Increasingly, he found himself at odds with the purpose and practices of the drug culture in which he had invested his life. But what could he do; he was just one man in a society bent on self-destruction in the grip of fear and hopelessness. The desperation in such solitude is often the breeding ground of hope, the seed of resourcefulness most fertile when the human spirit is rising.
He knew music and the integral part it played in the culture of the favelas. While the drug wars of ’99 might have been impetus to begin anew in Vigário Geral, the AfroReggae cultural movement (a musical foundation for social projects) had already gained a foothold in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. He began by doing what came naturally. He gathered friends in the plaza and began to play the music in his soul, the music of his people. And the words just followed. They were words of renewal, of encouragement, and a call to consider an alternative to the life he was living.
Anderson Sa began to make a difference. He played in the plaza of Vigário Geral and elsewhere daily. And when not joining with others in the visceral drumbeat of AfroReggae, he was out talking with the youth of the favelas, challenging the very practice he had worn so well before as a “tough” for the drug lords. Soon after, he found a following and the movement grew to more than 2,000 throughout the hillside communities around Rio known as favelas.
Anderson Sa was making a difference, for himself and for a world he knew and loved. It was the world he knew best, one he believed held more value in its people and culture than their collective fear might reveal. It is said that the math of achievement is passion plus commitment. In our search for meaning and purpose, we need to commit to something bigger and more important than ourselves. We want to know that our life counts for something. It’s often referred to as a “legacy ideal,” that something which measures the contribution we make to others.
I came to the showing of this extraordinary film of the life of Anderson Sa and his work in the favelas of Rio by the invitation of my daughter Ashleigh, whom I was visiting at college. Not coincidentally, Ashleigh is another young person deeply committed to making a difference. She’s a quiet sort, with a great heart for others. In her own way, she’s already begun to do great things. I’m proud of her for that inclination, for the desire to make a difference.
In the same week, I began a re-reading of the book Maximum Achievement, by Brian Tracy. Brian is well known in my line of work as one who values human capital and the potential for achievement that is the birthright of individuals. Brian spends most of his time encouraging business people to greater success, personally and professionally.
Maybe he’s so good at it because he came from meager roots. Like Anderson Sa, he held a burning question as he bounced from pillar to post during the first 25 years of his life. He was fascinated by what made people successful and what caused them to feel defeat in similar circumstances. He wrote, “I used to think that people were an important part of any business. Then I learned a great truth: people are the business.”
I’m drawn to anyone who can simplify things, who can crystallize the essence of the matter. Brian has hit on something fundamental to the human condition – relationship. Behaviorists agree that we are most productive when in a climate of optimism, enthusiasm, harmony, happiness, and morality. The ego in our approach may be the difference between success and defeat, the difference Brian Tracy sought for so much of his youth. Indeed, the difference Anderson Sa discovered in that moment of truth when he confronted what C.S. Lewis described as the final horror – to horrify oneself.
The director of the film describes it as follows: “Favela Rising celebrates the strength of the human spirit to assert itself in the face of human rights violations, social injustice, and unexpected adversity. Chronicling the rise to greatness of the AfroReggae movement, the film shows how the music and culture of Brazil’s underclass transform into a catalyst for grassroots social-change. But most of all, Favela Rising is the story of a community that works.”
As I approach projects for each company client, I wonder about one thing more than any other: how well prepared is the culture to embrace the selfless nature of great organizations. How willing are individuals to put the success of others ahead of their own, indeed the success of the organization? In other words, is this a community that works?
It is evident to me that great organizations are built on this fundamental human spirit more than anything else. We have learned that every individual and organization puts its faith in something. And that faith (belief) produces reality.
Put another way, thought becomes behavior. Kahlil Gibran said, “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.”
Sometimes, we must learn to grow in spite of our surroundings. If we are to influence the world around us, our work environment, our schools, the political process, our communities, we must step out in faith. Anderson Sa knew this in his moment of truth. Ashleigh too.