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Lessons from Cambodia

I recently returned from a trip to Cambodia through an economic empowerment program hosted by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at The University of Montana.   Congress created this international exchange in 1961, the same year the Berlin Wall was built.  The Cold War was entering the deep freeze and the Vietnam conflict was ramping up.  Montana’s great statesman Mike Mansfield hoped that an economic and cultural exchange program would build bridges between the U.S. and Southeast Asia.

A half-century later, it’s clear that the program is working in Cambodia.  I've only been back in Missoula a few days, and I'm still processing my Cambodia experience.  I'm sleep deprived by the 13-hour time difference -- so I have no lofty pronouncements about my trip.  But here's what I’m thinking after seeing the country, and after seeing OUR country through the eyes of Cambodians.

Today, Cambodia is still rebuilding from the unspeakable horrors of Pol Pot, who, less than 40 years ago, oversaw the massacre of one quarter of the population and demolished the country's infrastructure.  As the result of civil war and later genocide, more than 90% of Cambodians are under age 55.  Half are younger than 24. 

This youthful energy is in abundance everywhere, along with an unparalleled entrepreneurial spirit, and plenty of imagination.  Every Cambodian I met, from high-school and college students and administrators, to nonprofit leaders, to business executives, not only talked about building a better Cambodia, they are actively engaged in doing so.  

Whether promoting tourism around the ancient temples in Siem Reap -- by the way, I challenge you to find a better business name than "Angkor Walkers" -- to teaching local farmers to farm organically, to defending the rights of imprisoned children, to battling human trafficking, to improving the leadership and management skills of employees at organizations large and small, the Cambodians I met are a determined force for good.  United by a tragic past, they have an unshakeable resolve to move forward positively.

And they're doing all this in a country without OUR country's communitarian history, legacy of charitable giving, strong democracy and robust free press.  While I was there, the prime minister -- in office for nearly 30 years -- delivered a speech in which he granted some long-demanded concessions to his opponents, but also warned anyone planning to demonstrate against him to quote "be careful of death."  

In part, that made me realize anew that, despite everything, we Montanans have an amazing ability to get things done for our community, state and country.  Granted, I didn't need to travel halfway around the world to come up with that little high-school civics gem, but bear with me.  Here, when we fail to accomplish things, personally, professionally or politically; when we get mired in defeatism; when we focus on blaming others for problems, it's not because we lack the ability or resources to solve problems.  And it's not because we have no right to speak up and speak out.

The conventional wisdom is that what stalls us is a lack of political will. Political will IS important, and we all need to do more to marshal it, but it's not a panacea for everything.  Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had political will, but so did Hitler -- and so did Pol Pot.

I think what keeps us stuck is worse than a lack of will.  I think we lack imagination.

Too often we bemoan our broken democracy, instead of actively reclaiming it, which we still have the power to do.  We have a long way to go toward providing equal rights, justice and opportunity for all, especially when limitless political contributions pollute the system -- but, when we don't vote, when we point fingers instead of lifting our hands to help, when we stay silent in the face of injustice, when we fail to imagine a brighter future…well, life – and politics -- have a way of giving us exactly what we expect.

We can learn from the Cambodians who are rebuilding their country from utter desolation.  We can do a better job of remembering that OUR country was built on a belief that trying something is better than doing nothing.  It's not our leaders or a lack of resources that trip us up; we get in our OWN way.

What I came away with from Cambodia was not just great memories of amazing sights, wonderful opportunities -- and yes, eating my first tarantula and riding my first elephant -- I came away inspired by Cambodians' imaginative vision of a strong future.  We need to focus more of OUR energy on fixing problems, rather than fixing blame.  Because OUR votes DO count, we need to elect leaders willing to prevent and solve problems, rather than politicians who simply manage them.  Because we CAN speak up and speak out, in the media, in the statehouse or in the streets, we are obligated to do so.

In Cambodia, I was proud to talk about how we do things in Montana; about how – when we identify a problem and muster the will and imagination to solve it -- there’s no stopping us.   

Mike Mansfield knew we could be that great example, to ourselves and to the world.  Let’s keep at it.

I’m Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County.  Thanks for listening.

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