Playing Well in Ecuador

February 21, 2009

I am always looking for leaders who resourcefully overcome huge challenges and create societal transformation in their wake. Some of our more famous 20th century conflict transformation stars would be Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and of course, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, there are many lesser-known courageous souls around the world who are continuing to play well and changing our landscape.

 Thus, I wanted to pass along a Christian Science Monitor article on Nelsa Curbelo. A former Uruguayan nun and school teacher, Curbelo is successfully tackling widespread poverty and violence in the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Either click on the hyperlink above, or go to 


Curbelo demonstrates the mastery of four critical cross-cultural conflict resolution strategies: 

  1. Gather information – At the beginning of any battle we are best served by paying attention and taking stock of the battlefield upon which we stand. For example, to tackle the problem of Indian independence, Gandhi spent over a year traveling on third-class trains and on foot, asking everyone he could — Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Brahmins, Untouchables and so on — about India and its needs. Similarly, Curbelo spent two years simply walking the crime-ridden streets of Guayaquil, asking and listening to gang members, families and other community members.
  2. Be Flexible – Focus on a goal, but keep the final product open to revision. Notice how Curbelo’s goal of mitigating poverty and suffering allows certain protections of the youth she serves to remain in place. She isn’t there to stamp out gangs or rid the streets of guns, just to effectively help.
  3.  Engage our creativity — The best solutions are both surprising and elegant.  As I wrote in a previous post on employing art, creative ways to express our truth packs extra power. By honoring that gangs are a source of community and identity, Curbelo was able to foster the forming of a united nations of past warring groups, complete with an inaugural celebration!
  4. Act Courageously – It’s one thing to know what is right, but another to do it. A conflict transformation star holds that everyone deserves a chance and basic support. I remember Maria Montessori, who in the early 20th century spent years working with Italian children who had been written off as handicapped or damaged. Montessori’s work went on to transform early childhood education worldwide. Curbelo’s community is now filled with those who now many in society fear or deplore. May her work will have the same wings that Montessori’s enjoyed.

 I hope you find the article of interest and inspiring!

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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