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CAUSE & EFFECT: Translating for Change

CAUSE & EFFECT: Translating for Change


As I stood in the massive ticketing lobby of the Mexico City International Airport I was swept up in a wave of unfamiliarity.  I felt disoriented and it took a moment for me to find my bearings and a path to the airline counter to check in.

I found myself standing perfectly still for what seemed like forever and then spinning in a 360-degree circle trying to orient myself to the surroundings.   During my swirl, I eyed a Krispy Kreme doughnut kiosk and a full size 7-11.  These were two things I had never seen in any other airport stateside or abroad but they felt familiar.   I thought if I can’t find my gate at least I can get a hot glazed doughnut and a Slurpee to hold me over.

I had been in Mexico City for a few days attending the inaugural North American Community Foundation Summit that brought community foundations from Mexico, Canada and the United States together to explore how our passion for helping our communities can have an impact locally and globally through the lens of sustainability, which in our work is defined as quality of life in our communities.  This desire transcends borders and creates a common language to create change.

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation had been invited to present our work on creating, mapping and evaluating sustainability. Our director of Social Innovation and Sustainability, Tessa LeSage was asked to present a case study for publication and I had been awarded a scholarship to attend the Summit.

The airport departure was not my only flash of perplexity on the trip.  I am not a Spanish speaker so there were occasions I found myself lost in the expansive Chapultepec Forest and other city landmarks and had a tough time navigating my way back to the hotel.

When I first arrived in Mexico I wondered how leaders from the community foundations would communicate during the conference.  In the opening social receptions, I found myself smiling and nodding to my French and Spanish speaking colleagues, and that was the extent of our dialogue.

But once the formal sessions began I was relieved to find translation earpieces were available to bridge the language divide.   In the plenary, breakout and workshop sessions of the conference all attendees understood the content and were able to communicate with one another. In some of the meetings I would spend a minute or two with the translator off to remind myself how easy it is to tune out someone you don’t understand, and then appreciate the clarity that follows when you are speaking the same language.

Right about the time I eyed the Krispy Kreme I was longing for that voice in my ear to walk me through the airport.

When I arrived home I found myself wishing translators were available in my day to day life.  Just as the language barrier proved to be a challenge in Mexico, the obstacles of dialogue in our everyday existence can prove to be equally vexing.  Whether with my family, team members, donors, nonprofit leaders or residents of our region, I am always trying to find just the right way to listen and speak to create understanding and unity.

At the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, we are dedicated to bringing people together to find solutions and opportunities to our region’s most pressing needs.  But when you set that kind of table, a diverse group of voices and opinions pull up a chair.

Convenings made up of like-minded residents and stakeholders rarely produce the results of groups made up of a varied set of opinions and demographics. But bringing people together has become more difficult in recent days.  Civility and the push and pull of political and social pressures is taking its toll.  Most recently I have seen older ears cringe at the voices of the youth who are advocating fiercely for their safety in the wake of Stoneman Douglas shooting in our neighboring Broward County.  I wonder what could happen if the translator could help bridge a generational gap.

Recently I have had numerous people reach out to me asking if there is some way they can be involved in civil conversations about issues facing our community and our nation.  One colleague harkened back to Rodney King’s plea, “People, I just want to say, can we all get along?”

I think we may need a new type of translator for these challenges, oxcne that helps us explore the reasons behind the breakdown in civil discourse and guides us in a new direction.

In the end, I found my way to the gate, onto the plane and back home to Southwest Florida, and realized sometimes we all have to be our own translators with a willingness to listen even when we don’t understand another person’s language- literally and figuratively.

Note:  If you are looking for tools to help promote more meaningful discourse, join WGCU Public Media and Gulfshore Life Magazine for Civil Discourse in a Polarized Society Discussion on March 13th at 6:30 pm at the Myra Janco Daniels Public Media Center on the FGCU campus.  Bestselling author and scholar Dr. Christopher Phillips will lead the discussion.   Visit for more information.


The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created more than 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, the Foundation invested $5.4 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $115 million, it has provided more than $71 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan. Currently, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s regional headquarters are located off College Parkway in South Fort Myers, with satellite offices located on Sanibel Island, in LaBelle (Hendry County) and downtown Fort Myers. For more information, call 239-274-5900 or visit

For more information about the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, call 239-274-5900 or visit


Sarah Owen
Sarah Owen

Sarah Owen, President & CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, leads a passionate and diverse team dedicated to driving regional change for the common good. The Foundation is committed to engaging the community in conversations and action that creates sustainable positive change and provides the funding to make those changes a reality. More