THIS POST IS A PART OF VOLUNTEER TIME OFF SERIES, WHICH GIVES EMPLOYEES A CHANCE TO REFLECT ON THEIR TRIPS, ASK CRITICAL QUESTIONS, AND SHARE WHAT THEY’VE BEEN LEARNING. TO LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR VTO PROGRAM, CHECK OUT DAVID FOUSE’S POST.
Our world is in a constant state of change. It’s one of the things that makes life so interesting and invigorating. But, sometimes, you find yourself in a place where it feels like nothing ever truly changes. It could be something as small your grandmother’s closet or your sleepy hometown in the deep South. Or something as large as an entire nation, like Cuba.
Cuba is a spectacular country. Surrounded by water and blessed with year-round temperate weather and consistent rain, Cuba’s natural resources like sugar, rice and tobacco are some of the finest in the world. On top of that, the people are kind, sociable, ingenuitive and hardworking in ways that are astonishing to most Americans.
By all accounts, Cuba should be prospering and growing mightily in this day in age. But it’s not.
Instead, it’s a country that’s trapped in the past, broken by corruption and, in its current state, slowly decaying away. It’s a country that has squashed the dreams of its inhabitants, silenced leaders fighting for change, and from TV programs to billboards, dictates the national story that inhabitants see every single day.
The Cuban government and tourist organizations frame the country’s inability to advance past the year 1960 as an endearing quality and, in places like Havana where the local economy is driven by tourism, this guise is relatively effective.
But what I found, as I rattled through the countryside in a 1971 Chevrolet/GMC van that leaked diesel fumes through holes in the floor, was that the “endearing”, old-timiness of the country is all a facade. Like makeup on a corpse, it simply hides the decay the country is really experiencing.
I was astounded to discover that almost no one actually owns a car, old-fashioned or otherwise. At a cost of $50,000+, those privileged enough to own one, according to the locals, spend about as much time under the hood making repairs as they do actually driving the vehicle. Most people travel by taxi, bus, horse and cart, electric scooter, bike or on foot.
Political tensions between the Cuban government and the United States, combined with expensive visas and an abysmal monthly income (around $20/month for a full-time job) leaves many people feeling as if they will never escape the country that has held them back for so long.
It was difficult to talk to young men, about my age, and listen to them explain that the chances of them leaving Cuba and starting a new, prosperous life somewhere else were next to impossible. They want to hope and dream, but as year stacks upon year, that hope begins to flicker out until they finally realize that, like their parents, scraping by in Cuba is all they’ll ever have.
I considered my own life and how I’ve grown up believing that I can be whatever I want. We tell our young people to dream big, to shoot for the stars, the Oval Office, the CEO’s chair, the professional football field -- whatever their hearts’ desire. Contrast that with a child in Cuba whose greatest aspiration is to grow up and somehow find a way to the United States so they can actually have a chance at a real, prosperous life.
In these conversations, I felt the painful reality that dreaming is dead in Cuba. Years of oppression, propaganda, censorship and poverty has destroyed it and people who cannot hope, who cannot dream are truly the poorest people in the world.
As I watched this radically different world go on around me, I questioned - how does a country, like Cuba, change? Is it even possible? Is there hope?
It’s a tall order, to say the least, but history shows that it can happen. America wasn’t always the place people wanted or desired to live. On the contrary, it was a place where countries sent their criminals, their outcasts and their sickly.
But over the years, something incredible happened. America found its story.
When it all boils down, I believe a story is at the heart of every nation-changing movement. A narrative that people can believe in and put their hope behind. A well-communicated idea that captures the hearts of people and gives them the strength to stand up against opposition until the dream becomes a reality.
Think about it. People want to come to America because they believe it’s the place where, with a lot of elbow grease and a little bit of luck, they too can achieve the American dream. It’s the place where a rail splitter became the president of the United States. The place where a poor Scottish immigrant became a billionaire steel tycoon. The place where a preacher from Georgia led a civil rights movement that changed the world. The place where anyone can be anything. The American dream, built through opposition and trial, is what makes the United States such a beacon of hope in the world.
But stories like that don’t just happen. Nations don’t just become leaders in the world because they decide to. If that was the case, things would have changed in Cuba a long time ago.
No, it takes people. People who are willing and able to tell their nation’s story effectively; able to be the face and beating heart of movements that lead to national change. And it takes a compelling story that will change the nation for the better.
Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, King, all-powerful communicators, laid out the dream, the story that shook the foundations of the country and rebuilt them bigger and better than ever before.
The Cuban people are ready for a change. They’re ready for the next chapter in their nation’s story, but like America in the 1800s, they need a person willing to stand up and tell it. A story that will reignite a nation of dreamers, that will push the economy into the 21st century and make them a leader in the world.
As I returned back to work, I began to realize that, in the same way, we who are in the business of storytelling have an incredible and unique opportunity to change the world around us. We are the people who can help communicators discover their story and start a movement. We, in a sense, have the power to change the world.
It’s an enormous responsibility, but an equally incredible honor.
From the mundane to the nation-changing, my time in Cuba taught me to see the need and incredible potential of a well-crafted, well-communicated idea. It also encouraged and inspired me to tell my client’s stories as well as I can to help them bring change and positive growth to their industry. It may not be the story that changes Cuba, but from education to technology, healthcare to advocacy, there’s no telling where a good story will take you.