Trust: Clean Air or Sweat?

Do you know the movie Pina? It is the inspiring film on the life of renowned dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch (1940 – 2009). One of the images that stays in my mind’s eye is that of two dancers where the female dancer lets herself fall, over and over again, in total trust that her dance partner will catch her. This scene moves me. Because ask yourself: how often do we dare to fall? And really trust that someone will be there to catch us? That life itself will catch us? Speaking for myself: my confidence to let myself freefall is rather changeable. For one, it requires me to relax. Which, particularly when I am about to do something exciting, is not a given thing. But when I relax, I breathe more deeply, I stand more firmly. I observe and respond with more clarity. And in case I fall, I am better equiped to catch myself.

Trust is needed under unpredictable circumstances. Trust demands from us to be prepared to be vulnerable, to run the risk of being disappointed even. Pauline Voortman uses the following metaphor:”Trust is like clean air. You only become aware of it when it is no longer there”. Off late, I have experienced this awareness in and around me. My trust in humankind was severely tested after 1.100 Bengali lost their lives whilst simply doing their jobs. They trusted their employers to provide for a safe working environment. Wrongly so, as it turned out. The pursuit of profit prevailed over human safety. An excess of neoliberalism in its most aggresive form.

At our dinner table the conversation focusses on the question if the garment industry will take its responsibility and do better. And to what extent do social change organisations such as Clean Clothes Campaign have a real impact on this reality? Whether or not the recently established Bangladesh Convenant will work in practice? The world savior believes it will work, the cultural pessimist does not. A classic catch-22 with a glass half full and another half empty. Which most of the time results in long and heated debate with fruitless attempts to convince one another, each adamant about his own right in the matter.

But what it all boils down to is this: are the pious paper promisses transformed into tangible actions leading to a real improvement in peoples’ lives? And if you as a leader are put to the test, how will you act? Many consultants will advise you and your organisation to reflect on your ‘core values’. That sounds wonderful, but what does it actually mean? Let’s frame this wih a practical example. I become wary when an organisation’s leader is unwilling to go out and personally raise money and awareness for his cause. I have come across too many CEO’s and trustees who respond:”that’s not my job, we’ve got fundraisers to do that”. Fortunately there are also many inspired leaders who know how essential it is to place the first gift at the launch of a capital campaign, thus setting the standard. They make  the first substantial gift and are not afraid to tell. They inspire others to follow their steps.

So for me, essentially, it is about translating what you believe in, your personal values into action. Doing it in a way in which you are responsible for your actions. Thát is how trust is rewarded from the saviors of this world and – eventually – trust is earned from the cultural pessimists. Not as a given, like Voortman believes, but by hard work and honest communication. By walking the talk. That goes for the multinational garment distributors and producers and it goes just as well for each of us as a consumer, when we are at the meat department of our local supermarket or in front of a rack of cool clothes at a hip boutique. And it certainly goes for every social and commercial organisation that takes itself and its stakeholders and clients seriously.

Ergo: are you as a leader and as an individual living what you say? Do you take into account the direct and indirect consequences of your actions? Where does it feel sore because it is a little tricky? Where are the blanks you evade because they are ‘unrealistic’? Zoom in, explore, draw out debate. Internally, from your supporters, from your critics. Change and tell. Because these sore and blank spots are the lithmus test to which your constituency, the public and the media are about to test their trust, humming ‘are you for real?’


This is the first in a series of monthly blogs in which Corine Aartman freely explores the concept of trust and its relevance to social organisations.

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