By Donella Meadows
–January 29, 1987–
Corazon Aquino’s determined face on Time’s cover as Woman of the Year reminded me of the face of another Filipino woman. Her name is Elsa Escano. To me the tribute to Cory is also a tribute to Elsa, and to the concept of leadership shared by these two women.
Elsa and Cory are both diminutive, calm women, about the same age. They have both picked up the ruins of their lives, ruins created by the Marcos regime, and moved forward, strengthened by a time of refuge in the United States. Cory has become President of her nation. Elsa has gone back to be a trainer and educator.
I met Elsa in 1983 at a conference that brought together outstanding community leaders from all over the world. She had been working with fishermen, Rotarians, Peace Corps volunteers, farmers, to help them organize local self-help projects. She quickly became one of the leaders of the leaders at the conference. I can’t explain how that happened, since she is quiet and self-effacing. But there was something about her, which I can only describe as a loving, uplifting strength, that everyone trusted.
The leaders selected Elsa to read their joint statement on a national television broadcast. Here is part of that statement. I wish I could create for you on paper the precise, firm, slightly-accented voice with which she read it. The best I can do is ask you to imagine the voice of Corazon Aquino:
“Our times are characterized by the awakening of a human force all over the planet, expressing itself in popular movements, grass-roots communities, and local organizations. All over the world, grass-roots movements are often the only ones struggling to staunch the flow of toxic wastes, to halt deforestation, to provide clean water, to adopt appropriate human technologies, to develop cooperative methods of production, to awaken communities to their true potential through the awakening of each member.”
“The new leadership recognizes the extraordinary force that is drawn from different kinds of people: the strength of women, the wisdom of the very old, the energy of the young. We believe that true leadership comes not from individuals but from groups of people working together.”
Two years after the conference Elsa sent me a disturbed letter from the Philippines. After Ninoy Aquino was killed, she had joined anti-Marcos rallies and helped train leaders of the opposition party. She was living in Davao City, where both the corruption of the Marcos police and the ruthlessness of the NPA rebels were at a peak. There was an average of one politically-motivated murder a day. Some of the victims were Elsa’s friends and coworkers. The economy had fallen apart, and she was nearly bankrupt.
She had decided that she had to leave the Philippines for awhile. “We just had another round of price increases much beyond the people’s capacity to shoulder. Today begins a transport strike that is supposed to last five days. It is a painful decision for me to leave my country but I’ve weighed the pros & cons with my children and we agree that I should go.”
Elsa came to the United States on a tourist visa with no money and no job. The Breakthrough Foundation in San Francisco hired her to do training programs in Sri Lanka and India. The training was like that she had been doing in the Philippines — the development of internal, moral strength, the ability to perceive and express the needs of the whole community, the resolution of conflict without violence. I received occasional letters from her and heard glowing reports of her work from others.
Then, a year ago, came the fall of Marcos. As I watched the drama unfold in Manila, I wondered how long it would take Elsa to get back there. It took one month.
She convinced the Breakthrough Foundation to move her grass-roots training program to the Philippines. She’s there now, promoting and enhancing the People Power that brought Cory Aquino to office.
I saw Elsa briefly in San Francisco last summer. She had returned for a few weeks of work in the Foundation’s home office. I spent an evening with her and her Filipino friends, most of whom were preparing to go back home “to help Cory”.
They showed me books just published in the Philippines commemorating the glorious revolution. They played videotapes from Manila, reliving the historic events step by step. When the tape showed the exhausted TV news team weeping as they announced that Marcos had left the Philippines, I wept too. So did Elsa and her friends, though they had seen the tape dozens of times.
They sang for me the songs of the revolution. The chorus of their favorite one says, in rough translation, “We can have peace and justice without violence. That is the gift the Philippines can give the world.”
There are, of course, plenty of Filipinos who thrive on injustice and violence. The story isn’t over. Leadership based on love, truth, and empowerment of the people has not won out for all time over leadership based on greed, lies, and domination of the people.
But the gift that Cory and Elsa and millions of other Filipinos have given us is the demonstration that oppression has not won out for all time either. They have lifted the greatest barrier to People Power, which is, as all dictators know, the belief that it cannot prevail. A recent cartoon shows Corazon Aquino blithely walking on water infested with snarling, bare-toothed sharks. “How does she do it?” one onlooker asks. The other responds, “she believes it’s possible”.