The power of your voice

Image: blog author Nicole Masters, age 5.

For those of you that know me, you know I wasn’t always so confident or blessed with the close loving relationship that I have today with my Mum. Growing up wasn’t easy with a mother who battled with depression and her own generational abuse, and I’m constantly amazed by how she has confronted her demons and totally regenerated herself. 

As a child I spent a lot of time alone, being told to “shut up!” locked in a room with books and with packets of raisins. As a result, I became an avid reader (and dealt with some major dental issues!) I spent my early years dealing with my own depression, keeping separate to conceal a deep self-loathing. I vividly recall in my University days, being terrified to speak in front of small groups of people, with palms sweaty and sleepless nights, I failed many oral exams. Then I signed up for an adult education course led by Penny Brown-Lee at Wintec. Her philosophy about teaching was based on the ethos of Love, for without self-love, we cannot teach others — why would anyone listen to someone who didn’t believe in themselves? There were so many turning points for me during that program, insights which lead me to leave the family farm and start afresh as an educator in Hawkes Bay in 2005.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because the most powerful change agent in the world and in Ag communities is our voices. We all know the influence of “what would the neighbours think?” And many of us have faced ostracization and deep pain when stepping away from rural social expectations.

Recently I read a book called “The Longest Echo” a true story based on the Monte Sole massacre, where Nazi soldiers killed hundreds of Italian women, children and elderly, in retaliation for their support of partisan rebels. What struck me was the concluding chapter which spoke of imagining being in the shoes of those SS agents.  Were they just monsters, or perhaps the punishment of not fulfilling their orders was so dire that they had no other choice? After the war, soldiers and officers went on to raise their families and live peaceful normal lives. In the 100’s of legal cases which followed, no defense attorney could show that any were offered a punishment that was equal to what they were ordered to do. Their punishments ranged from slop duty or at worse castigation. The impactful message from this book was this simple truth “It takes an unimaginable strength to be different. To break away from what your peers are doing is one of the hardest things for anyone.” Peer pressure played a critical underlying role in these shameful horrors.

In the science of behaviour change, social pressures are a well-known factor, however reading this has hit me at a more profound level. Social norms can foster evil or empower positivity. The speed at which we are witnessing the changes in rural communities today is a demonstration of how social norms can produce beneficial outcomes for all.

This true transformative change comes from leadership within rural communities- not top-down approaches, experts, legislation or more data or science. We humans are deeply social beings and want to fit in. We see it everyday, through the vehicles driven, the shoes, the hats, the language and accents, that all become the water we swim in. These visual cues help to identify us as belonging to a community. Collectively we have the power to shift these norms. I remember the Patoka dairy farmer Neil Armitage (sadly now-deceased) commenting on how he would go down to the pub and rave about his success, with diverse pastures, milk production and his soil health program. At the time of his passing, he had 16 other farmers on his road following his program. I’ve watched with joy the speed and success of farmer organizations like Vic No-Til and NZ’s Quorum Sense and individuals like the Indrelands in Montana, who are reaching deep into their communities to drive soil health initiatives.

There are two interconnected take-home messages from these stories…

First: healing the landscapes around us, starts with healing our wounded selves.

Secondly: the world needs our voices today more than ever. Like Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of  thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”  The power of the collective is the most impactful thing in the world, and all it takes is for us to be willing to speak up.

I’d like to sincerely thank you for your strength and braveness in the face of no agreement, and thank you for the pivotal role you play in shifting the world around you.