Salsa, Soul, and Spirit 2nd Edition

Leadership for a Multicultural Age

Juana Bordas (Author)

Publication date: 03/26/2012

Bestseller over 30,000+ copies sold

Salsa, Soul, and Spirit
NEW EDITION, REVISED AND UPDATED A much-needed revised edition of the only book that presents a multicultural leadership model integrating eight practices from African-American, American Indian, and Latino communities—an alternative to the heavily or exclusively Anglo-American based concepts of leadership presented by most leadership books. The first edition has sold 20,000 copies, was the winner of the International Latino Book Award, Best Business Book, and was on the Rocky Mountain News Bestseller list.NEW EDITION, REVISED AND UPDATED One of America’s historic strengths is the ability to incorporate aspects from many different cultures to create a stronger whole. Our music, literature, sports, architecture, food, and fashion have all benefitted. But current leadership approaches are overwhelmingly written by White males and remain distressingly Eurocentric. Juana Bordas has set out to change this. In this influential book, she shows how incorporating Latino, Black, and American Indian approaches can enrich leadership and offers a more viable model for our expanding multicultural society.
  • Identifies nine core leadership principles common to Latino, African American, and American Indian cultures

  • Incorporates these principles into a multicultural leadership model that is uniquely suited to our changing demographics

  • Combines personal reflections, interviews with community leaders, historical background, and contemporary case examples

One of America's historic strengths has been our ability to incorporate aspects from many different cultures to create a stronger whole. Our music, literature, language, architecture, food, fashion, and more have all benefitted. But leadership approaches have remained distressingly Eurocentric.

Juana Bordas set out to change this in the first edition of this influential book. She showed that incorporating Latino, African American, and American Indian approaches to leadership into the mainstream can strengthen leadership practices and better inspire today's ethnically rich workforce.

This message has only become more urgent. The 2010 census revealed that in four decades minorities will constitute over 50 percent of the populationand in one decade a majority of Americans under age eighteen will be nonwhite. More than ever we need a leadership model htat resonates with our country's growing diversity. Bordas incorporates this latest census data into this second edition, which now identifies ninerather than the previous edition's eightcore leadership principles common to all three cultures. The new principle deals with intergenerational leadership, of vital importance now that many organiziations will have four generations working side by side.

Using a lively blend of personal reflections, interviews with leaders from each community, historical background, and insightful analysis, Bordas illustrates the creative ways these principles have been put into practice in communities of color. The multicultural leadership model developed in this book offers a more flexible and inclusive way to lead and a new vision of the role of the leader in organizations and in our increasingly multicultural world.

Read more and meet author below

Read An Excerpt

Paperback:
9781609941178

$22.95
(member price: $20.66)
Free shipping on all orders from the BK Publishers store.
Or find a local bookseller with Indiebound.

Other Available Formats and Editions

9781609941185

$22.95
(member price: $16.07)

9781609941192

$22.95
(member price: $16.07)
Bulk Discounts
Rights Information


Featured Books



More About This Product

Overview

NEW EDITION, REVISED AND UPDATED A much-needed revised edition of the only book that presents a multicultural leadership model integrating eight practices from African-American, American Indian, and Latino communities—an alternative to the heavily or exclusively Anglo-American based concepts of leadership presented by most leadership books. The first edition has sold 20,000 copies, was the winner of the International Latino Book Award, Best Business Book, and was on the Rocky Mountain News Bestseller list.NEW EDITION, REVISED AND UPDATED One of America’s historic strengths is the ability to incorporate aspects from many different cultures to create a stronger whole. Our music, literature, sports, architecture, food, and fashion have all benefitted. But current leadership approaches are overwhelmingly written by White males and remain distressingly Eurocentric. Juana Bordas has set out to change this. In this influential book, she shows how incorporating Latino, Black, and American Indian approaches can enrich leadership and offers a more viable model for our expanding multicultural society.

  • Identifies nine core leadership principles common to Latino, African American, and American Indian cultures

  • Incorporates these principles into a multicultural leadership model that is uniquely suited to our changing demographics

  • Combines personal reflections, interviews with community leaders, historical background, and contemporary case examples

One of America's historic strengths has been our ability to incorporate aspects from many different cultures to create a stronger whole. Our music, literature, language, architecture, food, fashion, and more have all benefitted. But leadership approaches have remained distressingly Eurocentric.

Juana Bordas set out to change this in the first edition of this influential book. She showed that incorporating Latino, African American, and American Indian approaches to leadership into the mainstream can strengthen leadership practices and better inspire today's ethnically rich workforce.

This message has only become more urgent. The 2010 census revealed that in four decades minorities will constitute over 50 percent of the populationand in one decade a majority of Americans under age eighteen will be nonwhite. More than ever we need a leadership model htat resonates with our country's growing diversity. Bordas incorporates this latest census data into this second edition, which now identifies ninerather than the previous edition's eightcore leadership principles common to all three cultures. The new principle deals with intergenerational leadership, of vital importance now that many organiziations will have four generations working side by side.

Using a lively blend of personal reflections, interviews with leaders from each community, historical background, and insightful analysis, Bordas illustrates the creative ways these principles have been put into practice in communities of color. The multicultural leadership model developed in this book offers a more flexible and inclusive way to lead and a new vision of the role of the leader in organizations and in our increasingly multicultural world.

Back to Top ↑

Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Juana Bordas

Juana Bordas learned leadership from her immigrant parents especially her mother, Maria, who cooked food and scrubbed floors in the school lunch room so Juana could get a scholarship to a Catholic school. “Their vision for the future, determination, and sacrifice taught me the very essence of Servant Leadership."

The first in her family to go to college, she joined the Peace Corps and worked in the barrios of Santiago, Chile. Juana later received the U.S. Peace Corps’ Franklin Williams Award for her life-long commitment to advancing communities of color.

Juana was a founder and executive director of Denver’s Mi Casa Resource Center recognized today as a national empowerment model. She was founding President of the National Hispana Leadership Institute, the only program in America that prepares Latinas for national leadership. In 2001, she launched the Circle of Latina Leadership in Colorado “to prepare the next generation of Latina leaders.” For her extensive work with Latinas, she was commended by Latina Style Magazine for creating “a Nation of Latina Leaders.”

A former faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership—the most highly utilized executive program in the world—Juana served as advisor to Harvard’s Hispanic Journal on Public Policy and the Kellogg National Fellows Program. She was vice-chair of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership’s board and a trustee of the International Leadership Association.

Her best-selling book Salsa, Soul and Spirit—Leadership for a Multicultural Age was awarded the 2008 International Latino Book Award for leadership. The Power of Latino Leadership was released in 2013 and was awarded the Nautilus Prize for est Multicultural Book and also the 2013 International Latino Book Award for leadeship. Juana received Denver’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Social Responsibility and the Wise Woman Award from the National Center for Women’s Policy Studies. She is in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2009 the Denver Post and the Colorado Women’s Foundation named her the Colorado Unique Woman of the Year.

Today, Juana is President of Mestiza Leadership International (MLI)—a company that focuses on leadership, diversity, and organizational change. MLI’S mission is to prepare collaborative and inclusive leaders for our multicultural and global age.

To learn more and to exchange ideas with Juana, contact JuanaBordas.com.  Friend Me on Facebook   Follow Me on Twitter

Back to Top ↑


Excerpt

Salsa, Soul, and Spirit

PRINCIPLE 1

images

Sankofa—Learn from the Past

FILLING OUT MY FIRST U.S. Census form in 1970, I searched for a category that acknowledged my Latino roots. I felt a loud thud in my heart as I finally checked the Caucasian box. Latinos were not recognized as a group by the U.S. government until the 1980 Census. We all have a deep need to be accepted for who we are, but this is particularly so in communities of color, whose members have been relegated to a minority status and measured by a White ideal. As I filled out the form, I heard my grandmother’s sweet voice, “Aye mi jita, nunca olvides quien eres y de donde venistes” (“Oh, my dearest little daughter, never forget who you are and where you came from”).

This notion of remembering your roots and staying connected to your ancestry is of biblical import in Black, Latino, and Indian communities. Forgetting where you came from is known as selling out, becoming an Uncle Tom or an Oreo or a coconut (Black or Brown on the outside, but White on the inside). Staying connected to one’s roots includes being in tune with the history and struggles of one’s people. Communities of color relate to the past as the “wisdom teacher,” the source from which culture flows.

Sankofa, the mythical bird who looks backward, symbolizes African Americans’ respect for insight and knowledge acquired from the past. A legacy of their West African ancestors, Sankofa reminds us that our roots ground and nourish us, hold us firm when the winds of change howl, and offer perspective about what is lasting and significant. Although Sankofa rests on the foundation of the past, its feet face forward. This ancient symbol counsels us that the past is a pathway to understanding the present and creating a strong future. Sankofa invites us to bring forward the meaningful and useful—including the values and spiritual traditions passed from previous generations—to learn from experience and to avoid the dead ends and pitfalls of history. The song that is considered the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” proclaims: “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.”1 The song also inspires hope, because despite past trials and tribulations, people survived and are now thriving.

Latinos connect to the past during El Dia de los Muertos by recognizing the gifts inherited from their antepasados (those who came before) and the wisdom their ancestors have passed on. On this day, many Latinos compose an altar with pictures of their family members who have passed on. Surrounded by marigold flowers, flickering candles, and perhaps a mantle embroidered by their grandmother, they play old songs and tell stories about these relatives. Fried plantains, arroz y frijoles, rice pudding, or other special foods are made. Brandy, chocolate, strong coffee, and other treats are left on altars so that those who came before know they are welcome, loved, and remembered. Latinos also take flowers and food to family burial plots, and thus the roots of the past are affirmed and strengthened.


images Sankofa is a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward and its head turned to look backward. Sankofa means return, go back, seek, and retrieve. Sankofa urges us to reflect on and learn from the past.


American Indians believe their ancestors, the venerable ones, walk right alongside them and are accessible even though they have passed on to the spirit world. They pray to the grandfathers and grandmothers, asking for their blessings and good counsel. The Navajos honor this connection each time they introduce themselves: “I am the grandson of … and the great grandson of … ” Indian history, culture, morals, and values are passed on through the oral tradition in stories and fables that often enumerate the feats of ancestors. “Learn from the past,” a former slogan for the Native American College Fund, encapsulates the belief that by understanding history people will not repeat past mistakes and will create a better future.

Thus, these cultures keep the past alive and accessible so it feeds the present. Because their history is a tale of conquest, cultural oppression, and racism, reclaiming and remedying the past is crucial to recovering power and wholeness. For many, this is not about times gone by but about their recent family history. Ana Escobedo Cabral, former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, grew up in a migrant family in the Santa Clara Valley, listening to the stories of her grandparents and great grandparents. She says, “I feel very fortunate that I lived with several generations. I learned about the struggles they endured—losing children to disease and hunger, coming across the Rio Grande, and walking all the way from Texas to California with no money and then working in the fields.” Cabral believes this motivates her to improve the lives of others. “One thing that will always be culturally important is the connection to your own family history. Through that you’ll understand people’s pain, suffering, and struggle.”

Healing the Past

MANY PEOPLE MAY HAVE difficulty understanding why we need to reconcile the past in order to build a pluralistic society and fashion multicultural leadership. Yet the vestiges of the past and the inequities that existed for centuries continue to impede inclusiveness and equity. For example, embedded racism, which has its roots in slavery, is evident in school systems that “push out” Black students, graduating fewer than 70 percent in some urban areas.2 Inequality has lingered long after emancipation. Similarly, five hundred years after the conquistadores slashed their way through this hemisphere, Latinos still struggle with the legacy of being colonized people. Latino wages are actually falling even as their labor participation increases; they are working more and earning less.3 Latino high school dropout rates hover at 40 percent, which is attributed to inadequate and poorly funded schools in high-density Latino neighborhoods.4 By understanding the historical systems that entrenched this type of discrimination, Latinos can remain resolute and stay the course.

Indian lands were snatched from them way back during pioneer times. After the Indians were rounded up and confined to reservations, Christian ministers baptized them and banned many of their religious practices. Children were sent to boarding schools to learn the White man’s ways. Stripped of their spirituality and land, they could have had their heritage wiped out like the bison that once grazed the open range. The movement to reinstate tribal lands took shape only in the 1960s when the first Indian lawyers examined the old treaties. The Indians’ battle for tribal sovereignty and cultural preservation persists today.

These examples shed light on how history continues to affect people of color and how reconciliation is needed to create a truly inclusive future. Understanding and healing the past can move people beyond the vestiges of oppression and old transgressions. The South Africa reconciliation movement illuminates the past as a force for new beginnings. Leaders urged people who had suffered under apartheid to come forward and publicly acknowledge their grievances and transgressions so that the past could be healed and a new country could be born.

In practicing Sankofa, our starting point will be the genesis of America. The convergence of certain European philosophies drove the exodus across the Atlantic and made the settling of the western hemisphere a de facto conquest based on the oppression of indigenous people. This set in motion an exclusionary leadership form that denied the history and contributions of diverse people. For mainstream leaders, understanding the history that gave rise to ethnocentricity is perhaps the most difficult step in transforming leadership to an inclusive, multicultural form.


images The convergence of certain European philosophies drove the exodus across the Atlantic and made the settling of the western hemisphere a de facto conquest based on the oppression of indigenous people.


History recounts the events of the past, but not from an objective frame of reference. Depending on the particular view of the author, a certain perspective is espoused. Women in the last century, for example, realized that history was written by men, which affected women’s current self-concept and collective empowerment. His-story and not her-story revealed a past in which men were the great heroes and women’s contributions were lost like etchings in the sand. Likewise, people of color know the prevailing history also is not our-story but instead reflects an Anglo and European philosophy and worldview; they see history in a different light. Sharing these perspectives can level the historical playing field. Constructing a future that integrates the perspectives of all Americans must start with an inclusive historical foundation.

Sankofa beckons us to look at the past courageously and to learn from history, and it assures us that this will give us the clarity and power to construct a better future.

Whitewashing the Settling of America

OKAY, I’LL ADMIT IT. I am “old school.” I was raised in the 1950s, when the settling of America was presented as a romantic adventure. “In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two,” my classmates chorused, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” I envisioned the first Pilgrims in their crisp white collars stepping off their boats, amazed at this vast and beautiful land, unspoiled and untamed. The first Thanksgiving was a wondrous feast, with helpful Indians serving up hearty portions of squash and corn. In my vivid child’s imagination I saw covered wagons forging across the rugged plains to settle the wild, wild West. American history at that time was written of, by, and for the people who conquered this land; it described what happened from their viewpoint. And I believed every word of it.

What kind of trauma do persons of color undergo when the reality of what really happened to their ancestors unfolds like a jarring nightmare in the dark night? I remember my grandmother admonishing me, “Don’t wear your skirts too short, like I did.” As a Central American Indian she blamed herself, and did not understand that the ravishing of young native girls was a tradition carried over from the conquistadores, who took what they wanted. In fact, the mestizo or mixed race throughout Central and South America is the offspring of the forced integration between Indians and Spaniards. For Indian women, it didn’t matter how long or short their skirts were.

The traditional story of the settling of America is a cultural construct. What really happened after Christopher Columbus set foot on the coast of San Salvador and the Pilgrims eagerly followed, landing at Plymouth Rock? Was the land free or stolen? The sugar-coating of history is a hard pill to swallow if it was your grandmother who was abused or your native soil that was lost. To build a multicultural nation, we must peer through a different glass. Are we going to refer to this as the discovery and settling of America or are we going to call it a conquest, colonization, attempted genocide?

Looking at the past from this frame of reference may be disturbing and seen as irrelevant, or, worse, may create resistance. Contemporary American culture lives in the ahora—the present. Getting things done now is imperative! The past is tucked away, mythologized, and certainly not seen as the backdrop for the present. Some may complain, “Do we have to revisit the antecedents of racism again? Haven’t we done enough of this? Besides, it wasn’t me!” The individualist nature of American culture makes it difficult to assume a collective understanding of—or responsibility for—how the past structures our current reality and affects us today. Cultural amnesia results, so people have no memory of the trials and tribulation of the past or how inequality and exclusion continue.

Can we go down a different road? Is it possible that, by getting right up in the face of historical whitewashing, we can heal the social disease that finds justifications for why one group is better than another? Can we uproot the mind-set that proclaimed that this hemisphere was here for the taking and its inhabitants were savages? When the past is reconstructed in the bright light of honesty—or at least when everyone’s story is told—we can begin restructuring leadership from a Eurocentric form to one that reflects and respects the history and culture of all Americans.

Bueno; to do this, our story must start before the Pilgrims and conquistadores. Estimates of the native population in the Americas in pre-Columbian times range from twelve and a half million to twenty-five million. Central Mexico alone, it is conjectured, contained almost ten times the number of people in England at that time.5

So why did Columbus sail the ocean blue in 1492, why did the inhabitants of this hemisphere stay home? The cultures of the western hemisphere, as we will explore, were rooted to their homelands, whereas Columbus’s landing in America spurred an exodus that would become one of the greatest in history.

The European Exodus

BEGINNING IN THE SIXTEENTH century, religion, politics, and economics converged in Europe, spawning a new worldview. It defined man’s nature as acquisitive and competitive, supported the advent of capitalism, and provided a strong rationale—even a religious mandate—for conquering the Americas. When Martin Luther, a devout Catholic priest and a purist, nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, man’s very relationship to God was turned upside down. The Protestant reformation took hold, and a central tenet of Protestantism was that the individual did not need an intermediary—a priest, a saint, or even Santa Maria, the Holy Mother of God—to communicate directly with God. This was heresy to the Catholic Church, which for centuries had controlled the pipeline to the deity through their black-clad priests and holy saints.

Fueled by Calvinism in Germany, the Protestant ethic promulgated industriousness, duty, hard work, progress, and the accumulation of wealth. This was a 180-degree turn from the partnership-oriented early cultures that had stressed sharing and living in harmony with nature. Furthermore, Protestantism ran a pretty tight ship. Rules, formal regulations, self-control, rationalism, and subduing of the “pleasures of life” reigned. A diligent person would be working too hard to have time for such frivolities.

It was the entrée of economist Adam Smith’s idea of capitalism in 1776, however, that spelled doom for the mutually assisting early cultures. Capitalism compelled individuals to go in search of personal wealth. As the free-market economy proliferated, the belief in self-interest superseded public welfare or social good. The individual no longer had to consider the effects of his actions on the collective.6 The free market economy, competition, and “survival of the fittest” replaced early communalism. Now the operating words were looking out for numero uno—every man for himself.

Political theorist and influential thinker Thomas Hobbes capped this off by espousing that the fundamental motivation of human nature was selfishness—a perpetual struggle for individual advantage, power, and gain. Hobbes argued that society was simply a group of selfish individuals united to maximize safety and protect themselves from one another. His social contract was based on human beings wanting a moral authority to safeguard them from their own selfish nature.7 This is evidenced today in the mushrooming number of laws intended to contain and police human behavior.


images The free market economy, competition, and “survival of the fittest” replaced early communalism. Now the operating words were looking out for numero uno —every man for himself.


One shift that altered humanity’s entire cosmology was the Newtonian concept of the natural world as a machine to be engineered for humankind’s benefit—a far cry from early societies’ belief that the earth was a living being and humans one part of the intricate web of life. Hobbes and Newton provided a platform on which rugged individualism and materialism formed the matrix of the individualist culture. Changing man’s relationship to the earth from steward to subjugator also set the stage for an economic system that allowed the using up and abusing of natural and human resources.

Writing in the 1950s, historian Max Weber accurately described the Protestant ethic as the seedbed for the capitalist economy. Its proponents reason that making money is an expression of virtue and one’s purpose in life; thus, becoming wealthy is an end in itself—and even a moral imperative!8

Yet while Adam Smith was writing about the benefits of free market politics, approximately twenty-six million peasants in Europe were unemployed and starving. In France, the widespread famine led to peasant revolts and the destruction of feudalism. People became more autonomous and separate, as the Industrial Revolution lured them to factories in urban areas. There people became, of necessity, more self-reliant. In addition, the means of production were consolidated into fewer hands. Factories were organized hierarchically, with owners at the top, then bosses, managers, supervisors, and workers. This replaced the age-old, more collaborative orientation of agrarian communities, intensified inequality, and laid the foundation of today’s social class structure.9

This Land Is My Land

The European exodus spanned almost four centuries. The conquest and colonization of the western hemisphere was fueled by overpopulation and the broken promise of the Industrial Revolution, which left many people in Europe earning meager wages and living in squalor. Armed with a strong Protestant work ethic, a competitive drive, and an individualist spirit, thousands crossed the Atlantic seeking land, wealth, and prosperity. In the expanse of the American frontier and its wealth of natural resources, the Europeans saw a bonanza that fulfilled and sanctioned their thirst for material gain, ordained by the Protestant God.

While their northern European counterparts came to homestead and profit, the Spanish conquest was couched as a holy crusade. The Catholic Church sent priests to save the souls of the heathen savages—which didn’t preclude enslaving them and profiting from their forced labor. Unlike North America—which, despite the extensive inhabitation by thousands of native tribes, was essentially still a natural wilderness—the city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) was larger than any city in Europe, with more inhabitants than London or Seville. Hernán Cortez found a radiant island metropolis laced with canals, beautiful palaces, and accumulated treasure.10 A different kind of exploitation followed: mass quantities of gold and silver were plundered and sent to the Spanish crown.

In The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez proposes that the conquest was from the outset a series of raids and irresponsible and criminal behavior, a spree whose end was never envisioned. Timber, land, gold, precious ores, as well as indigenous people, were bountiful and there for the taking. He notes that the conquerors’ belief in their imperial and unquestionable right, conferred by God, was supported by a belief in racial and cultural supremacy. Sanctioned by the state and the militia, and fueled by the Protestant ethic, the assumption that one is due wealth became justification for exploiting the land, water, and people.11 This acquisitive mentality meant there would never be a time when one would say Basta! (“This is enough”). The new frontier was seen as boundless.

The indigenous cultures in America could not understand or withstand this avaricious and acquisitive behavior. They had no frame of reference for dealing with a world-view so divergent from their own. Pre-Columbian cultures were tightly interwoven. The group took precedence over the individual. People shared what they had and cared for one another. Cooperation, not competition, nurtured the collective and group harmony. Many tribes had creation myths in which their homeland was bestowed by the Creator. Everyday life was punctuated with rituals and celebrations to mark the passing of the seasons. People strove to live in harmony with nature, which they regarded as sacred. These cultures honored the wisdom of their ancestors. The idea of getting on boats and crossing to another continent to find more land or resources was as foreign to them as the conquistadores on their large, swift, and powerful animals. The native peoples felt blessed to live in a place that was both beautiful and rich in the resources needed to sustain life. Why would anyone leave one’s family, tribe, the comfort of community, and the sacred land that contained the bones and stories of one’s ancestors?

The clash between these two worldviews is illustrated by the story of the Aztec emperor Montezuma. Knowing the Spanish wanted gold, Montezuma took Hernándo Cortez to his palace, where mounds of the precious substance were kept. He told Cortez, “Take what you want,” thinking Cortez would be satisfied. The emperor did not realize that the lust for gold was endless and this would only whet the Spanish appetite. Similarly, the Indians who taught the Pilgrims to survive their first winter and shared Thanksgiving dinner with them could not fathom that their new neighbors would soon declare them savages, devastate them with war and diseases, and gradually herd them onto reservations.

Out of over a thousand distinct pre-Columbian cultures in the western hemisphere, only three can be described as acquisitive—the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas. Although these cultures built empires that might be considered akin to the European model of expansion, they were also decentralized and, historical studies suggest, often preserved the cultures and languages of subjugated people. It is safe to suggest, then, that the cultures in the western hemisphere were overwhelmingly collective, lived in harmony with nature, and valued cooperation.

Perhaps it is fitting that this hemisphere bears the name of Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine explorer, because he saw the western hemisphere as a utopian world: “The people live in agreement with nature. They have no property; instead all things are held in common.” Without the concept of private property, there was no need for the strong tethers of the individualist culture. “They live without a king and without any form of authority. Each one is his own master.”12

Work and Individualism Become an American Ethos

WHEN I SHARE the preceding perspective on the “settling” of America with young students of all races, they are usually captivated by the fact that although they learned about the discovery of America and may have studied Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and the Protestant Reformation, they never connected these to current issues of racism or exclusion in America. Other readers may be discomfited by these revelations. Yet the recent designation of months to honor women’s contributions, Black history, Hispanic heritage, Asian American and Pacific Islanders culture, American Indian traditions, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pride underscore the need to broaden the ethnocentric funnel of American history.

Looking at history from different cultural perspectives is quite relevant for young people as they prepare to craft the future. How can they ensure that the past is not repeated without understanding how history frames the present? How can they partake of the cultural gifts of the myriad peoples that built America if they are ignorant of their history and contributions?

Another incentive for examining the past is “fast forwarding” to today and taking into account how unfettered individualism, the Protestant work ethic, and capitalism may be impairing our quality of life. One benefit of multicultural perspectives is that they allow us to tap a wider range of choices and potential benefits. The next section, Principle 2, looks at the societal downsides of the Protestant ethic and individualist values and discusses the benefits of balancing these values with more communal ones from communities of color.

The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, in his astute observations of our young country in 1835, noted that the characteristic he most admired was our individualism. He clearly warned, however, that if not continually balanced by other habits that would reinforce the social context and fabric of community, it would inevitably lead to separation and division.13 Sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues, in their book Habits of the Heart, argue that the time warned of by de Tocqueville has come—unchecked individualism has led to emotional isolation and fragmentation.14

In his acclaimed book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard professor Robert Putnam identifies the phenomenon of withdrawal from community as both the cause and the result of larger social changes. The title reflects his research showing that although the number of people bowling increased in the last twenty years, bowling leagues have declined. As Americans become more isolated, civic engagement, social involvement, and volunteerism are declining. Even entertaining at home has dropped 45 percent since the mid-1970s.


images Alexis de Tocqueville clearly warned that if individualism was not continuously balanced by other habits that would reinforce the social context and fabric of community, it would inevitably lead to separation and division.


Putnam ascertains that mobility has also contributed: nearly one in five Americans moves each year. It’s been demonstrated that these new arrivals are less likely to vote, join civic organizations, or build lasting ties with neighbors. He surmises, “For people as for plants, frequent repotting disrupts roots systems.” Putnam also notes the increase in commuter time, estimating that every ten minutes spent in the car cuts civic engagement by 10 percent.15

As suburban sprawl widens the distances between people, we are losing familiar community meeting grounds and a sense of place. Community connection points have been replaced by festively decorated shopping malls and bustling airports where our lives intersect in transit. People buzz around, shopping, drinking lattés, but the crowd is made up of strangers. These mass commercial spaces are designed not to connect us but to move us from place to place or from store to store. We are among others, but the sense of belonging, community, and relatedness that was once the core of human identity is not being nurtured.

Researchers skeptical of Putnam’s conclusions conducted a major national survey, only to find that although people are networking on MySpace, text messaging on cell phones, and blogging at all hours, they are less up close and personal than they used to be. One-quarter of those responding indicated that they have no one with whom to discuss the most important personal issues of their lives. The researchers reported that in the past two decades, based on comparison data from national surveys conducted in 1985, the average number of close friends of an individual has dropped from three to two. This powerful evidence supports Putnam’s research, indicating that we are becoming increasingly isolated even as cell phones, the Internet, and technology make us more interconnected.16

The good news is that the trend toward community disintegration and social isolation is being reversed by younger generations who use technology to build community, act collectively, and stay connected (almost constantly).

Balancing Individualism with community Good

THE PROTESTANT ETHIC, which equated wealth with virtue coupled with capitalist economics, forged a country with once-unimaginable wealth. Through their industriousness, Americans became some of the richest people on the planet, boasting the ninth highest per-capita income in the world. However, has the drive for materialism mutated into obsessive consumerism? The drive for more and more material consumption is apparent when we note that in 2009 the world’s average per-capita income was $8,73217—and the average credit-card debt in the United States was $8,329.18

The emphasis on industriousness also instilled a propensity for overworking. Americans are the most workaholic people in the industrial world, working 30 percent more hours each year than their European counterparts. In 2007 43 percent didn’t even take a week of vacation, while the British enjoyed six and a half weeks of holidays and the French topped out at almost twelve weeks. The United States, unlike 127 other countries, has no law specifying that workers must have vacations. It is difficult to enjoy the fruits of one’s labors when working without respite; this also jeopardizes family life, community involvement, and health. Imagine how fulfilling life could be with a stretch of weeks of vacation each year to enjoy family and travel, to read and learn, and to take up a hobby, exercise, or engage in community service!19

Does focusing on ourselves and our material acquisitions at least make us happy? Isn’t materialism a fulfilling trip to nirvana? In their book From Me to We: Turning Self-Help on Its Head, Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger, two Millennial brothers who are Canadian altruists, dispute the assumption that “mo money equals mo happiness.” Citing a Roper Organization poll of 1,500 Americans, they concluded that unless you are desperately poor and do not have basic necessities, money has little bearing on how happy you are. Seventy-four percent of those earning less than $25,000 a year reported that they were somewhat or very happy with their lives. Interestingly, among those with incomes of $50,000 or more, this dropped to 10 percent.20


images The emphasis on industriousness instilled a propensity for overworking. Americans are the most workaholic people in the industrial world, working 30 percent more hours each year than their European counterparts.


How does the “American happy quotient” compare to the rest of the world? According to the 2009 Happy Planet Index, the country with the highest number of happy citizens was Costa Rica, followed by the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Guatemala. America ranked 114!21 Even worse, happiness levels have been declining in the U.S. for decades, having peaked in 1957. Even though Americans consume twice as much as we did in the 1950s, it has not made us happier.22 Apparently, we were happier when we had less stuff to worry about.

Obsessive U.S. consumption is well documented in The Story of Stuff, a book that inspires people to change their keep-on-buying-and-accumulating pattern. Author Annie Leonard laments that the U.S. makes up 5 percent of the world’s people but consumes 30 percent of the world’s resources and generates 30 percent of the world’s waste. Meanwhile, almost half the world lives on less than two dollars a day. Unchecked and rampant expansion of production, consumption, and disposal is jeopardizing our happiness, health, and communities, and the very survival of our planet and upcoming generations.23

Returning to a We Culture

The next section, Principle 2, continues in the tradition of Sankofa by reviewing the change from first cultures that centered on We to the individualist or I culture. Sankofa reminds us that for most of human history, people lived in We or collective cultures, in which the collective superseded individual gain. The strong hold of the I culture in America has weakened the support systems and relationships that once existed in extended families and communities. It’s telling that more than one out of four Americans now lives alone.

Author M. Scott Peck, after searching for the keys to human fulfillment in his classic best seller The Road Less Traveled, turned his attention to the role community plays in people’s well-being. Peck found that people thirst for a sense of place and belonging. He envisioned a world in which a “soft individualism” acknowledges our interdependence. Rugged individualism demands that we always put our best foot forward, hide our weaknesses and insecurities, and don a mask of self-sufficiency. This leaves people feeling inadequate, exhausted, and alone. Peck believed that humanity stands on the brink of annihilation if community and interdependence are not rewoven, stating, “In and through community lies the salvation of the world.”24

This longing for community reflects the collectivism of early We cultures, which remains the essence of African American, Latino, and Indian people. We satisfies our need to belong and have meaning in our lives. We values generosity and taking care of one another. As collective cultures were the cradles of humankind, We is an intersection and connecting point that can bring people together. We means remembering that our mutuality ensured our survival, and it holds the promise to our future existence.

Developing a collective We orientation can heal much of the social malaise that unbridled individualism, overwork, and materialism have spawned. Thus, in the spirit of Sankofa in which we learn from the past, we can heed the good counsel given by de Tocqueville almost 175 years ago: balancing individualism with the collective good will reinforce the social context and fabric of community.25

Back to Top ↑