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ode to the author

2016-07-28 Comments Off on ode to the author

14 years ago Michael Sheridan was assigned to me.

I was working in the southern Philippines (Mindanao) for CRS, and Michael came in as a Fellow. He’s called that a “lucky break“, and it was for me. We had this odd organizational hierarchy, where I was his “mentor”, but not his supervisor, while he seemed to report to everyone else. At least on paper. In fact, Michael spent the good part of that year writing papers. Brilliant papers. As CRS’ field team was doing fabulous work to foster peace between Muslim and Christian communities in conflict zones of Mindanao, Michael asked fundamental questions: what is this conflict about? What he realized was that very few people were asking the hard, deep questions about the roots of the conflicts, and perhaps by understanding them better, we could be better at resolving them. With audacity and discipline, Michael sought out experts in the country to analyze Mindanao’s multiple, multi-layered, conflicts, from many angles. The first paper he produced was cleverly called “the Four I’s”, or something like that, which looked at Identity, Institutions, and other themes I no longer remember.

The Fellow I was supposed to mentor spent the good part of 2002 schooling me about how to do my homework.

It was a sort of hybrid of journalism and advocacy.

Here’s one theme I wanted to highlight from conversations in 2002.

Michael and I both shared a visceral reaction to typical NGO media that follows the narrative: “Little John was poor and helpless with no future, until our NGO came along with our project, and now everything is wonder and light. Please donate.” I complained. But Michael had a vision, which was probably rooted in his two unfulfilled vocations: being a journalist and being a Jesuit. His vision was for CRS to use its resources, expertise, and incredible reach in the most remote places around the globe to educate and illuminate people about what’s happening in these places. He said something like, “When people read our literature or visit our website, they should come away informed, inspired, and challenged.” It was a sort of hybrid of journalism and advocacy.

Fast forward to 2015 when I met a representative from a major donor that funds coffee programs around the world. When I said I worked for CRS, he said, “When I started this job, I knew nothing about the coffee sector, so my boss suggested that if I spent a few weeks reading back-posts of Coffeelands I’d be all caught up.”

For over 5 years, Michael has relentlessly created and cultivated Coffeelands into CRS’ most popular site. And he’s done it by shedding light on complex issues around poverty, inequality, markets, and modern slavery. It’s been his platform for provoking the coffee industry and others  to play a proactive and responsible role in Origin. Coffeelands has made Michael popular in the coffee world, but he has also often taken unpopular positions on uncomfortable topics – provocative, but always based on serious homework and expert opinion.

I’m writing this ode, of course, because sometime very soon Michael leaves Coffeelands and CRS, to pursue his vocation at Intelligentsia (which I assume is an investigative magazine run by Jesuits in Chicago).  About 18 months ago, Michael invited a few of us to contribute to Coffeelands, to diversify content and voices. Now, as he migrates north, Coffeelands will evolve even more. My hope and my commitment is that we keep the same vision and discipline Michael pursued with this blog.

Thanks for all the mentoring, Hermano. Bendiciones en la nueva aventura.

–Paul Hicks