Catherine Parrish served as the CEO of the Hunger Project US and as the international executive director of PRASAD (Philanthropic Relief, Altruistic Service and Development) for over two decades. She has provided guidance, training, and consulting to the leaders and staffs of hundreds of companies, universities, not-for-profits, and foundations, as well as the U.N. Development Program.
Catherine’s areas of specialty include conflict resolution, leadership coaching, mediation, and thought-partnership. She serves on the board of the Pachamama Alliance, and on the advisory boards of the Soul of Money Institute and the Turning Tide Coalition.
She holds degrees in history, psychology, and education from the University of California at Berkeley. In addition, Catherine earned her Maitrise at l’Université de Paris.
Excerpts from Catherine Parrish’s interview:
Question: How did the Hunger Project come about?
“The Hunger Project came about through something that Werner Erhard thought about for many years. He studied the subject and discovered that it lived inside of a condition of inevitability, that we human beings held hunger as inevitable. It would always be there. It always has. Isn’t it tragic, isn’t it too bad, and let’s make gestures toward it. A little bit the way that we make gestures toward victims of an earthquake or a tidal wave, which helps in the short-term but allows the condition to persist. Werner Erhard wrote something called The Hunger Project source document, which had all the underpinnings of the philosophy of The Hunger Project: That number one the individual makes a difference, that only an individual can take a stand. Only an individual can lead a committed life. An organization or an entity or an institution can reflect an individual’s commitment, but it itself doesn’t take a stand. So the individual truly is the key to causing global change.”
Question: Why do you think Werner Erhard became so controversial that the media sort of targeted him?
“I think that there are two major things. One, when you are being bold and radical, you are going to get attention. And two, if you have in your background things that people can use, they will. If you are saying that the world can work for everyone with no one left out, and you are not Mother Theresa, you are in trouble, I think almost by definition. His philosophy was always about empowering people to think for themselves, not saying, ‘Think the way I think. Do as I do.’ But I think that it’s because he stood for something so bold, that so insulted the status quo. But his philosophy lives on. He will be the guy in history who did this great innovative thinking that became enormously popular in the 70’s and 80’s and then lived on in the lives of individuals and organizations thereafter.”
Transcript of Catherine Parrish Interview:
Interviewer: Tell us just a little bit about your experience with the Training. How you were involved?
CP: I was a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley and one of my brothers called up and he said he had just done this thing called the est Training. This is in January of 1974. And he said, “It’s just awesome, it just leaves you with an expanded view of the world, and you must do it.” And I thought oh, right, it costs money; it’s a whole two weekends. But I was so persuaded by – he’s never been so committed to something like that. So I did the est Training 30 years ago, and it was a remarkable experience. It shifted the way I saw life from how am I going to survive and do as well as I can to a larger context, a larger possibility. Suddenly it became clear to me that I was related to everyone, that the world was ours, that we were, if you will, global citizens and the opportunity to contribute was huge. At the same time I felt lighter. Although it sounds like it would be a greater burden, I felt lighter about life.
Interviewer: Yes. There’s a misunderstanding that est was just about “me” – from the “me generation” – how is the world going to be better for me, and just about me.
CP: Yes. I found exactly the contrary. That in fact in being able to be reassured in the est Training and with my experience that I was just like everyone else. It’s the good news and the bad news. That I’m not this special genius or something. I’m just like everyone else in my general design, the basic human design. And just like everyone else, I want a life that matters and I want to make a difference, and I want to be loved and I want to give love. In having that taken care of, the experience was one that set me free to contribute to the world. And in fact the whole creation of The Hunger Project came from that premise: that once people had had the experience “I’m okay. I’m in fact related to all other human beings. It’s our life, our planet,” then what you wanted to do with yourself is make a difference, you wanted to contribute, you wanted to find vehicles to contribute. And The Hunger Project is based on that premise, that understanding that human beings do want their lives to matter.
IN: And so how did The Hunger Project come about?
CP: It’s something that Werner Erhard thought about for many years and had a folder called The Hunger Project as a place holder name for the project to end world hunger. And it does seem clear that if in our world we’re allowing our children to die of hunger and hunger-related disease, that is something that should concern us all as human beings. And that definitely concerned him. And as he studied the subject he discovered that it lived inside of a condition of inevitability, that we human beings held hunger as inevitable. It would always be there. It always has. Isn’t it tragic, isn’t it too bad, and let’s make gestures toward it. A little bit the way we make gestures toward victims of an earthquake or a tidal wave, which helps in the short-term but allows the condition to persist. So he wrote something called The Hunger Project source document, which had all the underpinnings of the philosophy of The Hunger Project: That number one, the individual makes a difference. That only an individual can take a stand. Only an individual can lead a committed life. An organization or an entity or an institution can reflect an individual’s commitment, but it itself doesn’t take a stand. So the individual truly is the key to causing global change. Another principle being that we work as an alignment of wholes, rather than we get on a bandwagon or we create a movement, we each generate from our own hearts, and our own commitments.
IN: But what was the action?
CP: The first action of The Hunger Project was a global grassroots educational campaign, to let the world know that hunger did exist: 41,000 people, at the time in 1977 when it was born, were dying of hunger and hunger-related disease every day. And the second educational message was that it need not – that the world for the first time in human history had enough food to feed everyone and feed future generations. So what was missing was not the food. What was missing was – you could call it the political will. And political will, of course, stems from people – the “people will”. We hadn’t generated the will as a globe to bring about the end of the persistence of hunger. So the last message was: “You make the difference.” Take a stand for the end of hunger and begin to integrate into the very fabric of your daily life actions that would help transform hunger and end it.
IN: How? I mean, how can someone in a small town in rural South Dakota end hunger, by just acknowledging that it exists. I mean, I think people knew that hunger was a problem worldwide.
CP: I think people knew something about it. They certainly didn’t know the statistics and they certainly didn’t know that it could be ended, and they certainly weren’t living out of a commitment to end it, obviously. They were maybe sad about it, but definitely not living in a way that they were integrating actions in their daily life to end it, like educational actions. We did things like – I still do – speaking to high school kids, junior high school kids about having a global stand. Thinking globally and acting locally. Looking into hunger in their own community, whether it’s North Dakota or San Francisco, California. There is a lot of hunger in every community and there are organizations working to alleviate it in every community. And especially with young people, it’s such a beautiful thing for young people to take responsibility for the condition of life for those less fortunate. They could begin to work at soup kitchens, they could educate other students, they could have and did have pen pals with whole villages in India, where they would send clothing, books and money to build schools. And you can see if you get a global grassroots commitment, it can generate an enormous accomplishment without any individual having to leave their life. It’s a shift in thinking, and these principles, I think, apply throughout life, obviously. When you take a stand for something, the way you view life changes completely and the correlated actions are different as well. When you are committed to ending AIDS, for example – don’t get me going on my political things, but – if we spend 1/100th of the money that we spend on the persistence of war on ending AIDS, for example, it would make a huge difference. And how can we do that if we don’t educate people about what would make a difference, how they can take action. In a democracy especially it makes an enormous difference to think this way.
IN: With a soup kitchen or helping out there, how does that help solve a problem where starvation is a matter of life and death? Is it just putting pressure on your local Congressman to support international aid?
CP: You see, to me what’s great about The Hunger Project and especially its origin is that as a project, as an organization, it never intended to take all the actions that would be necessary to end the persistence of hunger, which means not just feeding hungry people today, but establishing the whole design, the whole infrastructure so that people can feed themselves and their children well into future generations. What The Hunger Project intended to do was to catalyze the global grass-roots committed movement and action that would put all of that in place. You see, it’s a project of great faith in human beings. Great faith that if hundreds and thousands and millions of individuals took a stand for the end of the persistence of hunger, as an idea whose time has come, that they would then find an action that was appropriate to them. So if they were an engineer or an agricultural specialist, or if they were a politician, or a United Nations delegate, or if they happened to be a scientist or a professor, or the President of the High School Student Body, all of those individuals would have different actions available to them that would have a different impact. The entirety of the impact would be that child in Uganda being fed on a given day, being inoculated so as to survive disease, and being educated – of great importance to end the persistence of hunger – and that ultimately, we the global citizens of the world would be acting for the benefit of our children. And the necessary actions would take place. So you see it was a stand based on faith and the goodness of humanity, that if human beings knew what they needed to know and lived inside of a context of “it can be done” they would take the actions that were theirs to take that would make that difference.
IN: So when Werner first came up with this idea, and he shared with people his idea, was there skepticism? What are we actually going to be doing here, Werner? What was the initial reaction?
CP: Well, as you can imagine, there was great reaction. Meaning here was an individual who had the gall to stand up and say we can end the persistence of hunger without the degrees. He wasn’t a famous agriculturalist or scientist or politician, and here he is rallying people toward that end. And he was already known as a great innovator in the area of human development. So there were reactions. People were saying, “Here is why it can’t be done. And who does he think he is. And what kind of guff is this. And if you give your money to The Hunger Project, all they are doing is talking, so you are giving your money to talking.” So there was that kind of reaction, by some. And by thousands and ultimately by millions – The Hunger Project enrolled over four million individuals who signed a paper saying “I have taken a stand. I will make the end of hunger an idea whose time has come as my personal responsibility.” So millions took it and went with it, and there were many many skeptics, and understandably so. People had been working on this problem from a context of “It can’t be done” for centuries and doing really good work and really well-educated work. So I think it sounded brass and naïve, whereas it was actually deeply deeply thoughtful and faithful.
IN: And how could you measure the results of the campaign of education?
CP: We had several indices of measurement and first of all agreed to measure the end of the persistence of hunger by measuring infant mortality rate, which is the number of deaths in the first year of life of every thousand life births. So that was the measurement, if you will, the barometer that would measure ultimately are we ending the persistence of hunger. And then we measured our own campaigns by the number of people who did take a stand and enrolled in The Hunger Project and signed on. The number of people who then actively participated. Remember this happened in 1977, it was a while ago, we had measurements of people who then educated, people who were trained to lead the “Ending Hunger Briefing”, which was one of our educational programs.
IN: And how successful was it, and for how long?
CP: The Global grass-roots educational campaign went on from 1977 and really through the 80’s. Millions of people enrolled and participated and contributed money and there were many, many groups that broke off from The Hunger Project. “Results” was one that did political action in Washington, DC. Another was “World Runners” where people would do marathons to end world hunger, to get out the news, to alert people that something could be done. In those days, that was really rare, and now you see marathons for everything, which is wonderful. Walks to end breast cancer, and marathons for AIDS awareness, and in those days it was really unusual, it was new. And there was enormous participation through the 80’s and then at the end of the 80’s The Hunger Project made a transformation of its own and began to do very high level strategic work, which it’s currently doing in Africa and India primarily.
IN: So is the persistence of hunger changed? You’re not involved in it now, but was it successful in that hunger was not as big of a problem?
CP: Yes, in several ways.
IN: After all the money spent for educating and implementing and enrolling people, what effect did it have on people who were starving?
CP: I would say in many ways it was successful all the way to the hungry people, in that millions more dollars were given and raised for organizations that were working on the ground doing relief work as well as for The Hunger Project. The Hunger Project raised hundreds of millions of dollars for other organizations as well. Infant Mortality rates did fall in many countries. In some countries, due to war since then, they have again risen, The correlation between war and the infant mortality rate is a direct one. War creates the persistence of hunger and starvation. Also, really tens of thousands, if not more, of people, like me, became lifelong advocates for the end of the persistence of hunger and contribute as volunteers, contribute as donors, contribute as professionals to all kinds of organizations and vehicles and policies to help bring about the end of the persistence of hunger. So the battle still wages, and we are still on the playing field – to mix metaphors.
IN: So you can’t say the battle has not been won, because if you stop doing what you are doing and all the people that did become involved stop what they are doing, hunger would be a bigger problem than it is.
CP: Yes, you see, I think that once one makes a commitment with your heart and soul, I think it takes over your very molecules in a way. It becomes a very part of your personal life’s mission, and then the choices you make will be consistent with that mission. I’ve changed jobs and have participated with projects with many different countries and organizations, all of them consistent with the end of the persistence of hunger, and that will always be the case for me. And I think really for the many thousands of people who made this stand in the 70s and 80s.
IN: How involved was Werner once he – I think a lot of people would be surprised that he started The Hunger Project and that it continues. I don’t think a lot of people know that.
CP: Werner wrote the initial source document that created the principles and abstractions that underlie The Hunger Project: the creating of context, the taking a stand, the individual making a difference, the leading a life of commitment, the alignment of wholes, meaning that each of us generate it thinking for ourselves – all of that was his original creation. Then he served on the Board of Directors. And as a member of the Board of Directors, he brought critical thinking and kept it large in nature, rather than allowing us to devolve down to doing the work that was being so well done by other organizations – the relief work, the actual feeding work, teaching people to do better things with their crops, all of that, which still goes on and must go on – wasn’t the work of The Hunger Project, although it was aligned with the work of The Hunger Project. Werner was very active on the Board, and with the Executives, and it was his thinking that launched it, and it was his thinking from which we worked. And it’s funny to say “his thinking” because it was his thinking that catalyzed our thinking for ourselves, that was the heart and the fabric of The Hunger Project. Werner sincerely and authentically wanted to contribute to a new way of thinking – a new way of thinking that would allow people to create the world of their dreams.
IN: Why do you think he became so controversial that the media sort of targeted him, everything from used car salesman, super salesman, mind salesman, all of the – left his wife and four kids, traveled across the country – and his lifestyle, likes to live the good life – what did you think of all of this? Was it Werner’s doing, or a media totally misinformed, or what were your thoughts about what was going – the negative media?
CP: That’s a really good question. You see, I think that there are two major things. One, when you are being bold and radical, you are going to get attention. And if you have in your background things that people can use, they will. If you are saying that the world can work for everyone with no one left out, and you are not Mother Theresa, you are in trouble, I think almost by definition. He never said that he was a saint. In fact, he said quite the contrary. He said that it’s – that is what is so curious to me. His philosophy always was about empowering people to think for themselves, not empowering people to think as he thinks. And yet, he was scrutinized as if he was saying, “Think the way I think. Do as I do.” And I think that people don’t have a lot of tolerance for someone offering something so altruistic, unless they are holding the poor children in Calcutta, as a lifestyle. And Mother Theresa, even though – not since her death, but before her death, has been investigated, so to speak, and pieces have been done on her. But I think it’s because he stood for something so bold, that so insulted the status quo.
IN: Not because of his style, you know, sort of in your face – not because of his lifestyle, not because of how charismatic he was.
CP: I think all of those things fueled the fire. That gave people in the media something to write about. What an interesting story. So I think that that may have fueled the fire, but personally I don’t think that was the source. I actually think that it was – that it was so damn bold to say in the 1970s and 80s, the world can work for everyone with no one left out, and to say, as he said, “I have the distinctions, the principles and abstractions that can stand up to the persistence of hunger, that can stand up to the persistence of cancer.” You know it’s such a bold thing to say, that I think it did bring up in people, you know, you kind of want to smack the guy who dares say that, unless he can back it up. And I always felt he could back it up, but he got smacked with all these other things instead.
IN: Knocked over.
CP: Yes, knocked over, but his philosophy lives on. You see I actually think that when history is written, when my daughter’s daughter’s daughter – the future generations, are studying, that they will study the principles and abstractions sourced by Werner Erhard and he will just be this guy in history who did this great innovative thinking that became enormously popular in the 70s and 80s and then lived on in the lives of individuals and organizations thereafter. I think history will treat him well.
(End of Interview)