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Collaboration: A Forgotten Word?

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As the candidates ramped into high gear for their last surge of campaigning this last month, I was bothered by the thought that we as a nation have lost the meaning of the word collaboration. We are supposed to be the United, not the Divided, States of America. Patrick Henry used the phrase, "united we stand, divided we fall," in his last public speech in 1799. Clasping his hands, he said, "Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs."

On November 6th, we will vote for the next president of this great country. The polls say the nation's voters are split evenly on who they will vote for. Together, Obama and Romney are spending close to a billion dollars on advertising, not to bring the nation together, but to pit us against each other. Terms like liberal and conservative have become insults instead of ideological preferences. Congress cannot work together. Competition is the word of the day. It's us versus them. The middle ground, where people unite and collaborate for a greater cause, seems to have disappeared.

Just as I was losing hope that collaboration might be a word forever lost, I arrived in Ixtapa, Mexico as a Cordes Fellow to attend a Poverty Alleviation Unconference. This non-traditional meeting was a retreat for nonprofit leaders, for-profit social entrepreneurs, grant-makers and social investors. It was a gathering to break down unproductive competition between groups and think beyond the boundaries of conventional poverty alleviation. It encouraged us to leverage resources, share innovations, enlist allies, and builds coalitions.

There were no suits, no slide presentations, no experts telling us what the best strategies were to reach our goals. The unconference allowed us to relax and focus on a goal we all shared, ridding the world of poverty. It allowed us to get to know one another and learn from each other in trusted and non-judgmental ways. It was the only meeting where I woke up every morning and did yoga near the beach, and sat in my bathing suit talking to investors.

During those four days, it was not unusual to find the founder and CEO of an investment company playing his guitar and singing in several different languages. Two men who work with orphans in different parts of the world exchanged t-shirts on the dance floor in a sign of support for each other. A bearded American pronounced his love for an Afghan woman covered head to toe.

Everyone's opinion mattered, regardless of their race, color, background or educational level. One colleague described how fundraising was like going to a gynecologist. An investor broke into tears while describing the regret of not being able to support every organization that was in need.

During the unconference, collaboration was the key. People met and talked with the ocean roaring nearby and beautiful sunsets and sunrises gracing every day. We had nothing on our minds but to make the world a better place.

When I returned home, I felt refreshed. I realized how well collaboration had worked at the conference as well as for my own organization, The Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project. In a rural village in Uganda, our project brought together people of different political, tribal and religious backgrounds to support the thousands of orphans in the district and life up the entire community.

Has collaboration been forgotten in America? I don't think so. It's just that, competition, which has propelled our country forward for over two hundred years, has taken the front seat. If we are to overcome the financial collapse that weighs heavily on all of us, we must create an unconference of our own. We need to sing in a different language. We need to exchange t-shirts. We need to work together despite our differences. We need to collaborate as the United States of America.