My Learning Journey into the Human Spirit

Posted on August 11, 2013


By Ron Irvine

  • To ignite the fire and the potential of the human spirit, individuals must believe in themselves enough to take a stand, take charge, and fight for the right to be a contributing citizen of their community.
  • Micro enterprise development became a new way of seeing and valuing; a shift in my perspective leading to concerted efforts to develop leadership, advocacy, mentoring, and community within an often disempowering system.
  • Check out some of the stories by award winning journalist Tom Rademacher here:
  • A response to the DVD Series PovertyCure as I integrated it into my learning journey

Five years ago, I was looking for a job and found one that was a surprising “fit”; Micro Enterprise Facilitator at Hope Network working with people with developmental disabilities. I have a Master of Management Degree from Aquinas College. I was the local coordinator for a statewide grant to improve outcomes for youth with disabilities and at risk youth based on solid research by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy identifying 16 activities that have shown to improve outcomes. I surveyed the schools in Kent County to narrow our focus to three activities. They were entrepreneurship, leadership development, and mentoring. Even though the grant was cut short leaving me looking for a job, little did I know that these three activities would carry into the next phase of my career. As I learned, the people that I worked with became my teachers as I listened carefully to their needs and aspirations, interests and abilities, and watched as the human spirit began to flourish.

What is it that seems to distinguish self employment from competitive employment? What is it that was bringing about such tremendous transformation in all other areas of their lives? What is generating such energy and life? As I listened and learned, I began to see a parallel path to my personal journey at that time. I began this job in the fall of 2008 after experiencing a series of life crashes. That spring was a culmination of what felt like my life coming apart; divorce, foreclosure, lay off, clinical depression… and I turned 50! I was at a point where the foundations of my life had been destroyed and I had to begin again. I had to go deeper within and ask questions that were foundational and rock solid.

  • Who am I? (my Identity)
  • Why am I here? (my Purpose)
  • What am I going to do about it? (my Mission)

As I listened to life and learned from the people in my life every day, I saw that through micro business development they were finding their voice, as of yet unheard. They were experiencing a sense of success, after being dubbed failure all of their lives. They were advocating for themselves and their friends. They were leaning forward into life and taking charge. They were becoming leaders within their spheres of influence. They were identifying their gifts and using them in a context where they were accepted and appreciated. Their lives were becoming more and more meaningful. As I have been absorbed into this amazing learning journey into the human spirit, the outside world began tapping me on the shoulder with curiosity. What is it that you are learning? What have you learned? How can we do similar things? Humbled because I know who my teachers are, I had the opportunity to share my learning with 6 counties in Michigan, 4 states in the United States, and 5 countries in our world (United Stated, Canada, Ireland, England, and Kenya).

As I went deeper into our collective journey into the human spirit, the three questions above emerged. I also began to see that micro enterprise was not so much the answer as it was the vehicle that created a vision for their lives and drew people into that vision.

As I have connected with other micro enterprise development organizations around the world through Partners Worldwide in Grand Rapids (Rudy Carrasco in particular), International Christian Ministries in Kenya (Renita Reed and Pastor Leonard Ashivaga in particular), and Poverty Cure (Anielka Munkel), I am seeing that a similar journey has been taking place across nations globally. What is this human spirit? And what does it take for it to flourish??? At the core of these questions and their answers is a paradigm shift, an uprooting of assumptions about human beings; a shift from the impoverishment of institutionalized answers to answers rooted in the abundance of community, family, and the potential of the human being created in God’s image.

Micro Enterprise started in pockets of poverty around the world in the late 70s by creating micro loans that would bring the resources necessary for people to create their own businesses, shifting from foreign aid and dependency to creating their own solutions.

Parallel Worlds

The disability world, over the last 50 years, has been shifting from institutionalization to community integration and participation, from dependence on professionals to creating meaningful lives of their own with family and friends, with professionals learning to fill the gaps and assist rather to provide all the answers in a demeaning sort of way. The old paradigm of seeing disability can be called the Medical Model Definition of disability where the person is labeled as the problem that needs to be fixed, the sickness that needs to be cured, where the professionals have all the answers and families and community become disempowered and irrelevant.

The new paradigm says that disability is a natural part of human diversity.

Human beings are not a problem to be fixed; they are a mystery to be embraced.

They are not the problem; they are the solution.

It is only individuals within a strong community setting that can create a meaningful life for people. And it is only from this paradigm that we can live in abundance. The problem has been the perception of the problem. From people thinking that the problem lies within the individual that needs fixing to a new way of seeing and doing work; the problem lies in the barriers that society have created that prevent human flourishing. It is in removing the self-created (self-inflicted) societal barriers that our work needs to be focused.

The global poverty world, over the last 50 years, has been shifting from professional answers of institutionalized charity, foreign aid, multi-national corporations creating dependency… to an empowerment model of micro enterprise. The question we have been asking is What Creates Poverty? When the real question is What Creates Wealth, Abundance, and Human Flourishing? What are the barriers to those in poverty becoming successful entrepreneurs? Often surpluses of merchandise are dumped in countries putting small businesses out of business, when what is needed is that we work with those local economies to provide what helps them to become successful and to flourish. Other barriers are financing and education, hence the micro loans and business training that comes with them. Access to foreign markets is another barrier that has been invisible to national policies and large corporations that lobby for trade regulations that exclude micro entrepreneurs. Again, the problem has been the perception of the problem. It is people thinking that the problem lies within the people in poverty themselves and that “we that know” must eliminate poverty with our foreign agenda and foreign answers (or professional agenda and professional answers). The new understanding is that the problem lies in the barriers that society has created that prevent human flourishing. It is in removing the self created societal barriers that our work needs to be focused.

Beyond Welfare started with a group of women in Iowa that decided it is time to get off poverty and live the lives they desire. They did not turn to the system, the professionals to do this. They turned to each other and neighbors for the answer by having a weekly potluck. They took charge of their lives, created circles of friends and allies, and just did it through person centered planning. They determined that poverty comes in three forms: money, meaning, and relationships. The question is NOT “what creates poverty.” The question we need to ask is what generates life, what generates meaning, what generates life-giving relationships? We must learn to stop “helping” and “doing FOR” others and start “listening” and “doing WITH” them. For a newsletter describing this paradigm shift using Beyond Welfare as the example, click here:

The common problem is how we see the problem. The human being is not the problem to be fixed. The problem is the barriers that society has created that get in the way of human flourishing… of generating wealth… of living in abundance.

I need to grow my vision from generating income to generating wealth and job creation.

I feel that my learning journey has greatly deepened my understanding of the human spirit. But I need to learn from this work around the world what is needed to support micro businesses to grow and access the resources needed like loans, global markets, business mentors, etc.

Nurturing Innovation Through Inclusion

There is an IT company in Denmark that only hires people with autism and asperger’s syndrome. When Harvard University did some research on that company, it concluded that the company is outperforming other “normal” IT companies. Then they made this statement: “The really serious innovation comes not from the middle of the mainstream but from the outliers” (Harvard Business Journal). These are the people that micro enterprise focuses on at home in America and throughout the world. Yet it is the outliers, the marginalized, the disenfranchised that do not have access to the resources of the mainstream, the very resources that are needed for innovation to flourish in communities in American and throughout the world. The job of micro enterprise is identifying and removing the barriers to resources so that innovation from the margins can have the access necessary to benefit our communities.

A community and excludes even one person is no community at all.

So why is it that “the really serious innovation comes not from the middle of the mainstream but from the outliers?”[i] Because, according to Einstein, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The problems of each society are often created by the collective thinking and imagination of its mainstream citizens. Innovative ideas require a fresh and often outside perspective. It is by including all, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the disenfranchised… the outliers… that we will become abundant communities.

Remember though that these very groups have been made invisible by our society (by our own thinking… the thinking of the mainstream). We must be intentional about removing invisibility and making the unseen seen… the unheard heard… the excluded included and removing barriers to resources by providing access to education, mentoring,  and micro loans. Even more, we must begin to see the gifts and assets of all people and create community; circles of support for all with equality and empowerment as the foundation.

[i]  Specialisterne (The Specialists) is a Danish social innovator company using the characteristics of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as competitive advantages in the business market.

Specialisterne provide services such as software testing, quality control and data conversion for business leading companies in Denmark. In addition Specialisterne assess and train people with ASD to meet the requirements of the business sector.

The company provides a working environment where it is ‘normal’ to have ASD and where the role of the management and staff is to create the best possible working environment for the employees with ASD.

“We are a case study at Harvard not because we do software testing but because we manage people that they call ‘the outliers’, says Sonne. “Those on the edges of normality.” …Hiring people on the autistic spectrum also opens up corporations to new ways of thinking. The Harvard Business School agrees.”

“According to Harvard, the really serious innovation comes not from the middle of the mainstream but from the outliers.”

(Harnessing the special skills of the ‘outliers’. The Irish Times – Thursday, April 12, 2012)