“Candy Mommy, Candy Mommy,” shouted a group of kids as they ran, leaving a billow of dust behind them, toward a woman who seemed to be returning from town. Relatively well-dressed and not carrying a load of grain, grass, or firewood as every other women seemed to at all times, this woman was (as I happened to know) a teacher at a middle school about a mile away at the bottom of the mountain. She had returned from teaching and then shopping for the family.
At first, I thought the children were using the phrase “candy mommy” for teasing the woman. But when she actually took a handful of candies out of her purse and gave them to the children, my curiosity grew. I asked her why they called her with that name. The conversation that I had with Candy Mommy that afternoon blew my mind and it has given me food for thought for the rest of my life.
Views about the World
When I arrived at that remote village in western Nepal where my parents had grown up and lived before our family had moved to India many years ago, I had a different view of the villagers. Growing up in an affluent society and attending good private schools in India, I used to believe that remote villages like that in Nepal were characterized by nothing but poverty, poor public schools, and backward and oppressive sociocultural values and practices. The economic theories, social worldviews, and civic lessons that I had studied in high school and college had all suggested that villages like the one that I was visiting could only be defined in terms of lack: lack of infrastructure and economic development, lack of capital and financial systems to support social growth, lack of democratic institutions protection/promotion of civic rights, lack of freedoms and liberties.
From Candy Mommy, I learned that the kids included one of her own, and the rest were those of her husband’s three brothers. One of her sisters-in-law was called “Shower Mommy” because she gave all the kids in the big, joint family showers. Another one was called “Milk Mommy,” and it made sense because milk was a precious food produced by each family and had to be rationed and therefore seen with excitement by the kids. I forgot the name of the fourth mother in the house, but I remember Candy Mommy telling me that the kids didn’t always know who was their biological mother, or rather, they didn’t care very much.
Candy Mommy performed a unique function in a unique and powerful socio-economic structure of her family and her community—as did the other mommies and the rest of the family members, more or less. I said “socio-economic” because the social and the economic were virtually inseparable. Her signature candies may have been a superficial symbol of her role in the family unit, but by earning a cash income, she was able to buy the entire family what it did not produce locally: clothes and other accessories, salt and cooking oil, tea leaves and sugar (the last two items were used by the more financially capable families). She also served the community by being one of its most literate member, a connection to the world outside, and a role model for a forward-looking society.
However, Candy Mommy’s success heavily relied on the social support provided by the other mommies and the rest of the family. When I first learned that she not only needed others to take care of her children while she goes to work but also couldn’t imagine “buying” all the other needs for her family (if her nuclear unit were to live separately). It was when her monetary earning was used for buying the few essential but locally unavailable commodities that she could perform the enormous economic function that she did. I was surprised to learn that she was no more capable of independence than anyone else. If the social and the economic functions were separated, a powerful machine that had been working efficiently, effectively, and very productively would stop working right away. This blew a hole in my economic worldview, a worldview in which financialization of goods, labor, and relationships was the only way for a society to come out of poverty, to modernize, to be civilized.
I was wrong.
My view of the economic world, which was based on a financialized assessment of everything, was deficient. I had a monochromatic view of the world with regard to economic means, mechanisms, and relationships; this view fed into and arose from a whole host of assumptions about wealth and poverty, progress and problems in life and society. Because I believed that the lack of cash flow made the community poor, I had failed to recognize how it actually was very rich in its own ways. Candy Mommy’s family (as well as her community) was economically quite healthy.
Families did not have debt (the word “debt” and “abomination” were part of an old saying that equated the two); instead, they owned significant amount of property, which they transacted monetarily once in a long while (as when a family sold its land and home and moved to the city). Contrary to my assumptions, women in particular, even in the poorest families, had gold ornaments (those on their bodies but, quite often, additional items saved for times of crisis) as a reliable form of savings. The community generally had enough (though not plenty) to eat, and they enjoyed life to the fullest. They had a robust local market where they bought non-locally produced essentials, even though the trading of local productions was insignificant–which is what had made me think that the villages were nothing but poor. In conventional economic terms, there was not much production, demand, supply, and exchange of monetarily significant goods and services. But as I began to slowly realize, the economy of goods and services that people would never sell and buy was extremely robust. The economy of social support and services was a powerful–well-oiled, well maintained, and self-sustaining–machine that had apparently lasted for millennia.
I have remembered the socio-economic model of Candy Mommy’s family and community on many occasions, for many reasons, since my visit to the village in remote Gulmi district of Nepal. I remember it when my students and I discuss poverty, income inequality, and globalization in the US. I remember it when teachers, scholars, and organizations discuss how to help communities in developing countries around the world catch up to the advanced world. I remember it when I read news reports, policy statements, and outcomes assessment of international or global educational initiatives developed or implemented by socially and/or financially powerful organizations and nations. I remember it when day to day conversations begin to exude the same monochromatic economic worldview that I had been using to judge the villagers before I lived there for a few months between two college degrees (when I was majoring in economics).
Values versus Visions
I remembered the incident of the “candy mommy” and with it the socio-economic model of her community today when I was thinking about values in relation to visions and missions that individuals and organizations develop in their professional and social lives.
Values undergird our visions and visions inform our individual or social missions, just like particular missions shape specific objectives and activities. But among these terms, “value” tends to be not discussed explicitly. Vision, mission, objectives, and activities defined and described much more often.
I initially failed to recognize the local economic model of the remote village in Nepal as a functional and effective system because I was assuming that there is just one system of economic worth, the monetary. I did not value (to use the term as a verb) the social mechanisms that worked in lieu of economic activities as I knew them. For instance, people would sell grains but never sell fruits and vegetables; when I saw that, I first thought that that was a huge waste of economic value and opportunity for economic progress. But if we simply start apply the same value system to other cases, let’s say the hourly wage that Candy Mommy owes to Shower Mommy and Milk Mommy for taking care of her kids, we begin to see how regular economics fails to explain the socioeconomics of communities like that.
Values are more implicit, abstract, and indeed less fashionable to talk about than vision. Visions are what we see, or how we see things; values have to do with “why” we see things the way we do. Indeed, values are why we see some things and don’t see others, or don’t see them as significant. Visions guide us forward, values do too, but they tend to sit quietly underneath the surface of what we see and do, and why we do so. Values manifest as assumptions, perspectives, and motivations, and eventually habits of mind. And since values are harder to describe (or they are not explicitly discussed as often as visions), their lack or absence is also harder to recognize.
These days, when I read about nonprofit organizations expressing the desire to educate poor communities, provide resources to teachers, bring the next generation of young people in developing countries out of poverty, I often wonder whether the thought leaders behind the organizations really think through their value systems. Their assumptions. Their worldviews.
Visions tend to be described in positive terms, whereas many values are also described in negative terms as outdated, hardwired or hard to change, ideologically shaped or controlled, and beyond the control or question of individuals.
So, it is when people skip thinking about value systems, assumptions, and worldviews and jump right into developing and implementing their visions (to solve problems, to help others, to achieve certain good) that they tend to get things fundamentally wrong.
Values are often seen as mushy ideals that we can probably do without if we have clear visions and missions, objectives and activities.
But that is wherein the problem lies. When values are not explicitly discussed and fleshed out, when they are not conveyed and shared, when they are not tested and updated in the laboratory of ideas and actions, it becomes harder to develop strong visions and sustain impactful missions. Values need to be foregrounded.
One of the best ways of putting values front and center is to ask why. Why do we want to what we want to do? If, for example, the answer is because we want to increase access to education for more people, why? If we want to increase access in order to ensure that people have access to the same set of resources, why again? Why not those of us who create and share the resources try to find ways to access the knowledge and understanding of those who don’t seem to have similar resources? Why not look for resources that we don’t yet recognize as meaningful?
Vision, or the ability or approach of seeing something, tends to make us overlook the value system that drives us to see what we see; but the reason that we see or want to see things in a certain way, the why, is the function of our value system.
For example, we value knowledge, and so we want to provide others who we believe lack (a particular type of) knowledge access or resource for that knowledge. But what we consider as “the knowledge”—which we then decide is also lacking among another community, as well as what resources we deem are missing for cultivating that knowledge—is a function of our value system.
The moment we dig beneath our visions and pry open the values that undergird the visions, we begin to realize that we should also discuss our values, that we should also test and question them.
Questioning and testing our values demands a lot more courage than questioning our visions, but question we must. Testing our values can even be uncomfortable, even frightening, but test we must. Updating our value systems can be very challenging, but update we must.
It is when we are ready to get down to the level of values that we can develop visions that don’t create blind spots along the way. It is when we provide leadership of thought, of reflection, and of self-searching that we can begin to serve the world from the villages up, metaphorically speaking. And it is when we are willing to learn from the village up that we can develop meaningful values that will then sustain strong visions, productive missions, and worthy projects toward making positive impacts in the world.