During the first years of my PhD I did a lot of research on my topic.
I spent endless hours at the library reading books, materials and documents while my friends were partying in Ibiza and enjoying lazy days on the beach. I worked really hard.
At one point I thought I knew almost everything about my subject. I’m not kidding – even my supervisor was surprised at how much I’d accomplished in my first years. I was full of myself.
That year I started teaching indigenous leaders about international law and human rights. In my head they were victims of the system and I was the hero lawyer who was going to help them use international law to defend themselves from governments and evil corporations.
I was an important person, a good person, and a very knowledgeable one.
One day we were working in class on a case study related to a corporation that was illegally cutting trees on indigenous territory. We were discussing how this case was a violation of the indigenous people’s right to the land when Samuel, a member of the Shipibo community from Peru told me “Excuse me, profesora, but this is a violation of the right to life.”
With great confidence I explained to Samuel that under international law this was an example of a violation of the right to land, and went on to describe a couple of cases that illustrated my point in great detail, showing how knowledgeable I was.
He listened to me carefully and patiently, and when I’d finished my academic explanation he said “Profesora, if they kill the forest, they kill us. This is a violation of the right to life.”
There was silence in the room. I didn’t know what to say. It was as if someone had suddenly hit me on the head. Suddenly I could see human rights through their eyes. I was no longer the expert knowledgeable one.
Before that day I had believed that my work as a Western European academic was about saving the world.
But that day I chose another vision: one focused on the value of diversity and difference for a better life for all – a vision committed to helping others unfold their contribution in this world.
That vision got me further in life than I could ever have imagined, because it stopped me wanting to save the world. That’s when I started thinking in stories.
The right vision might take time and courage. It’s important to choose well, because your vision frames the possibilities and opportunities of the impact that you want to make. Take your time, choose wisely and be open to whatever is in front of you that you want to change.