Alicia Korten
 April 12, 2003: Stories & Values
Smithsonian Associates 2003

A. Childhood Encounters with Diversity
B. Costa Rica
C. My First Visit to Panama
D. Panama: Building Trust
E. Enhancing Local Participation
F. National & International Collaboration
G. Timeless Leadership Strategies

I have always been interested in how narratives house the values in diverse cultures and create the communities that enable collaborative action. 
     I remember lying at the foot of my Grandfather’s chair listening to his stories of extraordinary adventures in many different places – how he stowed away on a boat when he was only nineteen; how he arrived in Europe feigning experience as a tour guide to get a job; and how he returned to my home country - the United States - to found a real estate company that developed many houses 

along the Monterey Peninsula in California. I remember my parents telling me stories of far away places - of riding camels along the pyramids of Egypt and of how my Grandpa was chased by a rhino while visiting my parents in Ethiopia.
     These stories became my story.  They shaped my being.  You see, I grew up in many places.  I was born in Nicaragua.  By the time I was 16 I had lived not only in Nicaragua, but also in the United States, the Philippines and Indonesia.  Four profoundly different countries – each with their own norms, their own history, their own traditions.  I learned to become highly attuned to subtle cues – to listen for what was spoken and what remained unspoken, to open my ears to those soft whispers that reveal the fabric of a culture – that could guide me as I moved between cultures, moved between lands. 
    I did not know then that this skill would prove rich training ground for my later work developing leaders and helping to transform organizations – the work in which I am currently engaged.  I did not know then that learning how to identify cultural norms would be instrumental to my later ability to help people to build multicultural teams and communities and develop initiatives to help transform organizational cultures.
    Of the places I had lived as a child, Latin America was my love.  I majored in Latin American Studies at Brown University and worked on the staff of an organization that sends volunteers to
work on health-care projects in Latin America.  I spent my summers in Ecuador and Mexico, training volunteers on how to work effectively within Latin cultures and to implement their projects effectively.
    After graduating, I went to Costa Rica with a Fulbright Scholarship and wrote a book. At Brown I had written my thesis on how Costa Rica’s transition toward a global economy was affecting different sectors of society. The thesis was filled with charts and economic numbers.  I knew what I needed to bring these figures to life were people’s stories.
    So I set out to find the faces behind the statistics.  I spoke with many people including high-level officials in the Costa Rica government and representatives of USAID, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.  I also spoke with regular people -- people in the middle-class, farmers, the urban poor.  By weaving together these stories with the economic indicators my book began to lay out a national story.
As part of this picture, I sought to demonstrate in the microcosm how national policies promoting agricultural export plantations over small farming were affecting people’s lives in the microcosm.  I found an old man living in a shack surrounded by orange plantations – the last of a community of small farmers that had sold their land to the Ticofruit Company.  I recorded his testimony and then found and interviewed other members from that same community.  Each had created a new life in different parts of the country - some on banana plantations, others in city centers and yet others in new small farming communities. I found in my later work as an organization 
development consultant that the process of weaving this data into a national story was very similar to helping clients use qualitative and quantitative data to discern an organizational story that could inform policy recommendations and implementation.

   In keeping with my family heritage, while in Costa Rica, I was also seeking adventures.  To satiate this urge, I traveled with an indigenous leader I had met at a conference to a seminar being held in a village in eastern Panama’s Darien Gap, a regionally internationally known for its beautiful rainforests and indigenous cultures. The leader was from the Embera-Wounaan General Congress, a traditional indigenous governing body that collectively owned 4,000 square kilometers of land and was legally recognized as the representative body for the Embera and Wounaan peoples in Panama. What I realized when I arrived was that I was bearing witness to the birth of a nation. 
    Here under the thatch roof of a communal hut, Embera and Wounaan peoples were gathering to discuss and document the traditional practices that sustained their communities – from what kind of governance structures they wanted, to how to settle issues of conflict in the communities, to how to manage their lands.   In a document they called the Organic Charter, that was later approved by Panama’s Legislative Assembly as national law, they were outlining a set of principles that would guide them in all their decision-making.
    As I sat in that meeting I felt that I had a glimpse into what it might have felt like to have witnessed the founding fathers of my country writing what has been the foundation of my homeland for over 200 years – the constitution.

   The leadership invited me back to Panama and I became the Associate Director of the Indigenous Program of the Center for Popular Legal Assistance (CEALP), a legal aide organization that had helped guide the development of the Organic Charter.
   I lived in Panama for three intense years, working as the only Caucasian in a multiethnic organization and in a movement of indigenous peoples that was not always amenable to outsiders.  I learned through my work with them how to build relationships in difficult environments, and to establish trust with people whose instinct is often to be suspicious – particularly of foreigners. 
   And as this trust grew, we were able to learn from each other.  I learned about indigenous ways of knowing and decision-making.  I developed a deep appreciation for the power of storytelling as a way of coming to decisions that were grounded in values and a shared understanding of what is important to a community, an organization, or a nation.

And they also learned from me.  I worked with indigenous leaders and other CEALP staff to define new strategies for influencing major projects affecting their lands, including how to negotiate effectively with the multilateral development bank institutions.  I helped to open many doors for them in the United States – including in the not-for-profit  and foundation worlds, in U.S. government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Treasury Department and the US Agency for International Development and in international lending institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank.
   As trust expanded, new synergies formed that ultimately had national and international impacts. None of us could have foreseen this when we first embarked on this journey of mutual understanding. 
   My work with indigenous peoples centered on securing their participation in plans to construct major infrastructure projects through their lands.  Such initiatives had historically excluded them from the planning process. 
   Over time, we developed and implemented models of organizing that were instrumental in transforming the national standard in Panama with respect to local people’s right to participate in projects that affect them.  Our work aimed to build international initiatives that would respect indigenous practices and their ways of making decisions, while also harnessing the power of international institutions that could support their claims.
   As part of our work, indigenous leaders developed a declaration of principles outlining requirements that they wanted met before infrastructure projects were built in their lands.  They also established a coalition body of indigenous peoples to provide follow up on this issue.  The commission fell under the jurisdiction of the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples (COONAPIP), which represents over 200,000 indigenous peoples.  I supported them in developing this platform and became an international liaison traveling between Panama and the United States to link their concerns to allies in the United States. 
   The development of a clear indigenous vision, combined with the establishment of an institutional structure to support it – paved the way for indigenous leadership to catapult themselves into the international dialogue regarding infrastructure projects being planned for their lands.

    The work set the stage for many national and international precedents, and created opportunities for more synergistic partnerships between the indigenous congresses, the government of Panama, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank.

One success set a national precedent by temporarily stopping the paving of a dirt road, which would constitute part of the Pan-American Highway System, being funded by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.  The road project did not include measures to ensure the preservation of indigenous lands and the surrounding rainforests once the road was completed. The temporary halting of this project represented the first time in the country’s history that citizens had successfully stopped the construction of a highway project already underway for environmental and social concerns. 
Before continuing with the paving, the World Bank then supported indigenous leaders in writing and implementing an Indigenous People’s Development Plan (IPDP) that one World Bank official described as the most participatory and thorough IPDP ever carried out as part of a Bank-funded project.  Once completed the then President of Panama flew to the Darien region to promise indigenous leaders government support in implementing the plan.
   The national and international attention surrounding these events in turn helped to catalyze an unprecedented IDB-funded initiative for the region that the IDB showcased as representing a new era of civil participation in project development for the bank. Spearheaded by IDB-President Enrique Iglesias, the Darien Sustainable Development Program included an advisory board to 
guide project planning and implementation that included representatives of not-for-profit organizations, indigenous congresses, the Smithsonian Institution and the Catholic Church. These successes reverberated through out the country.   Local organizations throughout Panama began claiming in new ways their right to participate in the planning of projects that affect them.  These successes in turn informed the writing of Panama’s recently passed Environmental Law, which included important stipulations with respect to citizen’s rights. Through my work in Panama, I learned how to develop change initiatives that last beyond the individuals who help to catalyze them.
   In 1996, I returned to the United States and opened a U.S. office for the Center for Popular Legal Assistance (CEALP) to consolidate our successes.  This included helping them to create and fund a new Ecology and Development Program.  I also wrote a magazine-style publication outlining the organizing models we had developed called Changing the Power Equation: Case Studies of Indigenous Leadership in Panama’s Darien Gap. 
   In addition, the piece I had written in Costa Rica was published as a development brief in English by the Institute for Food and Development Policy and as a book in Spanish by a prestigious Latin American publisher.
   And I found a new calling. I discovered that these diverse experiences in many different cultures had application not only for the contexts in which I had been working, but also for the management challenges facing all modern organizations.  I began to help clients develop themselves as leaders as well as to build stronger institutions and initiatives through facilitation, training, research and interviewing.
    I established Korten Consulting, enrolled in several training programs to hone my own skills, and began my work supporting team building, strategic planning and diversity management with a diverse range of clients including Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the International Monetary Fund, Christ Episcopal Church and the Share Foundation. 
   In my work, I have found that I have been able to draw on the wisdom of indigenous leadership styles. Inspired by their style of running meetings through storytelling, I discovered that eliciting personal and work stories from people with whom I am working could help them connect to their place of authentic power.  By taking an appreciative stance, I have also been able to help clients draw on the collective wisdom within their organizations to help them build on what is already working. 
ALICIA KORTEN is head of Korten Consulting, which provides facilitation, training, research and interviewing services in the areas of leadership, organization development and citizen participation.  She has over ten years of experience working with organizations to build inclusive and productive working environments and to help them navigate change.  Having lived for sixteen years in Asia and Latin America, she brings a unique intercultural perspective to her work. Alicia was a  Fulbright Scholar to Costa Rica and is fluent in Spanish.  She is the author of Ajuste Estructural en Costa Rica (Structural Adjustment in Costa Rica) and serves on the Board of Directors for the Mid-Atlantic Facilitators' Network.  Her clients include Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the International Monetary Fund, Christ Episcopal Church - The Share Foundation and InterAction, the World Resources Institute and the Center for Excellence in Facilitation.
Go to 
Alicia Korten's session 
Storytelling and Values 
at the 
Smithsonian Associates' event: 
April 12, 2003
Tel 301 371-7100 :; www.Pelerei.Com
Steve Denning
Tel. 966 9392
 Tel  301 585-3610
Seth Kahan 
Tel 301 229-2221; Email:
Rob Creekmore
Tel. 301 891-3029; Email:

Tel.  202 364-5369;

To buy:
The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Steve Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston, USA

          Paperback - 192 pages. ISBN: 0750673559 
To read 
of :
The Squirrel: The Seven Highest Value Forms of Organizational Storytelling
          by Steve Denning  
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