Catherine Parrish

Catherine Parrish

Featured in the Sun chapter in Agents of Evolution

The Evolutionary Path of the Sun + Evolving Leadership

Catherine Parrish says when she started out as a schoolteacher, what she really learned how to do was to listen. This was her strength. Today, Catherine is a leader’s leader. She has served in leadership roles of several humanitarian organizations, including as CEO of the Hunger Project and as Chair of the Board at Pachamama Alliance, an organization whose mission is “to empower indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest to preserve their lands and culture and. . . to educate and inspire individuals everywhere to bring forth a thriving, just, and sustainable world.”

I’ve known Catherine for over thirty years. My favorite memory of Catherine is seeing her once give a talk to a crowd when a butterfly landed on her shoulder. A visible gasp came over the whole audience. She just smiled and kept speaking as the butterfly stayed with her. The beauty of that moment was perfection—a kind of perfection and poise I associate with undeniable leadership. Undeniable because when animals, babies, or the natural world responds to someone with affection, you know you’re in the presence of something special.

In addition to her leadership work within organizations, Catherine has also been a sought-after consultant to leaders and their organizations for the past twenty years. Working across the globe enabled her to witness emerging patterns in the way we collectively hold leadership.

Given the magnitude of what our world now confronts, I was specifically interested in hearing her talk on sharing leadership and sharing power. When I asked her what exactly was involved in this evolution toward shared leadership, she responded, “One could say that the Pachamama Alliance is working to discover or uncover the tenets of shared leader- ship, and to marry indigenous wisdom with the competence and intelligence of the systems designed in the so-called ‘modern world’ for the benefit, really, of a world that works for everyone.”

Shared Leadership and Leading with Listening

Catherine shared with me that the practice of shared leadership and leading with listening was baked into the Pachamama Alliance’s design since its inception in Ecuador by founders Bill and Lynne Twist. It was apparent to them that only if the indigenous residents and custodians of the rainforest who have safeguarded it were empowered would the greater human family be able to protect this pristine and vital “heart and lungs of the earth,” upon which all human life and health depends. She says, “[Pachamama Alliance was] asked by the indigenous peoples to change the dream of the modern world. And we’re working to do that through programs that awaken, educate, and inspire into action.”

The Pachamama Alliance founders saw that the stewardship of the indigenous residents of the rainforest was succeeding, which was due in part to “their wisdom, their way of life, their way of thinking,” as Catherine puts it. So, it became clear that the success of the mission to protect the rainforest wasn’t going to happen by “teaching” the indigenous people, or bossing them around, or insisting they take up the model of what we in the Western world are doing to carry the day. Instead, it would be about listening and partnership.

The founders were invited to the Amazon by indigenous leaders, and so they went. The indigenous people they met told them from the beginning, “If you’re here to help us, go home. If you’re here because you see your future intertwined with ours, the well-being of your people, and the planet intertwined with ours, then you’re welcome.”

It was in that spirit of partnership that the Pachamama Alliance was born.

Catherine continues:

"In partnership, there was that which we from the modern world could bring them that would empower their gover- nance of the sacred headwaters of the Amazon rainforest, such as ability to communicate with their partner com- munities throughout this vast rain forest. And also, an ability to patrol their vast rain forest from intrusion of oil companies and other loggers and other illegal invaders. So, giving them drones and teaching them how to use [them], giving them financial support too, so that the leaders of the different communities could come together regularly and stay aligned and create a future vision for how to keep this rainforest pristine.

If we are going to have Mother Earth regain her strength and power, we will need to work in this partnership."

The Pachamama Alliance has an enduring commitment to stay true to this partnership. Part of their organization’s official mission is to create an “environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just” world for all.

“That’s a tall order,” I tell Catherine. “How do we do that?”

“It’s a constant inquiry,” she counsels. “And the discipline is to stay in the inquiry.”