Walls or Bridges, What Makes Us Stronger?

As our fifth class of US-Brazil Connect Fellows prepares for travel to Brazil in late June, I am thinking about their return to the U.S. and how this experience can create ripples of change that last for years.

In 1976, I returned from a year as a Rotary exchange student in Brazil to a mood of fear in the United States.  The country was focused on soaring energy prices, repercussions from our withdrawal from Vietnam, regime shifts in the Middle East, and a U.S. manufacturing sector in distress.

The rules seemed to be changing and it was unclear who or what was in charge.  I watched a family friend lose his flower-growing business in the face of foreign competition and my own father search for a new career after budget cuts at the university eliminated his job.  For me, the signs were mixed: unemployment was high, yet I also saw doors cracking open for young women that I knew had been sealed shut to the generations before me.  It was a confused and uncertain time.

Today, as forty years ago, seismic shifts across the globe are shaking our foundations:  terrorism strikes innocent people on nearly a daily basis, the price of oil has plummeted, China’s economy is slowing, and the largest refugee migration since World War II pressures the European Union.

In response to the shift, we hear the call for walls to protect the United States. I reflect on my experience forty years ago.   In the face of seismic change, I have learned that walls are appealing, but they don’t bring protection.  Sadly, they collapse and bury those who huddle on the inside.

As foundations shift, we need clarity about what really matters and the capacity to connect with the energy of change- not walls to resist it. We need the freedom to rise to new places and see the shifts from a variety of perspectives. Connecting with change is only possible when we let go of what feels certain.

I realize today that my time as a young person in Brazil gave me this gift.  It took me away from what I knew and changed how I view and experience turbulence.  Returning home, I didn’t just see challenges from the perspective of Littleton, Colorado;   I entered college seeing the world also from the perspective of having lived in Brazil under its dictatorship in the 1970s and in an economy with an enormous gap between the rich and poor.   I also had experienced new rhythms and responses to challenges:    I had deep friendships with Brazilian teenagers and saw them in conditions more challenging than anything I knew in the United States.

Today, as forty years ago, the problems we face are too serious for Americans to hide behind walls and insisting that the shaking stop.

I founded US-Brazil Connect because I wanted young people to have the opportunity I had so many years ago: to step away from what feels certain and see the world with new eyes, feel the rumblings,  and to gain a new understanding of the power to create in the midst of change.   It is my hope that the US-Brazil Connect Fellows of 2016 not only see Brazil, but that they see a new place for themselves in a world that needs them as leaders who bring a fresh vision for connection, creativity, respect… and ultimately for peace on our planet.


By Mary Gershwin