Former Nebraska State Senator Finds Purpose in Kenya

Former Nebraska state senator David Bernard-Stevens poses during his first meeting with a women's group in Kenya. (Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens)
Poverty in Kenya is widespread. David Bernard-Stevens described those living there as "perfectly wonderful, intelligent people doing the best they can to survive." (Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens)
David Bernard-Stevens encourages Kenyan women attending a leadership training session to "just take the next step." (Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens)
David Bernard-Stevens and Ruth hold a ceremonial calabash. One year later, the two would marry. (Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens)
A new magnate secondary school in a Kenyan village. (Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens)
A child sits near a kitchen (jikoni) stove in a Kenyan village. (Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens)
Take the animals away and Kenya looks like Nebraska's Sandhills, according to David Bernard-Stevens. (Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens)
David Bernard-Stevens talks with Kenyan women at a leadership session he said "started it all... and changed everything." (Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens)
David Bernard-Stevens said the Kenyans he has worked with are happy people who always have time for singing and dancing. (Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens)
David Bernard-Stevens and his wife Ruth share a light-hearted moment on their wedding day. (Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens)
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May 2, 2013 - 6:30am

A former Nebraska teacher, state senator and business person is now living in the poverty-stricken country of Kenya.  David Bernard-Stevens is teaching leadership skills to Kenyans looking for ways to improve their lives.

David Bernard-Stevens served in the Nebraska State Legislature for nine years. He was the 1982 Nebraska Teacher of the Year and named one of the top five teachers in America by the National School Boards Association.  He has served as the president of the North Platte Area Chamber of Commerce and is currently the president of his own company, Leader Development Group.  NET News Director Dennis Kellogg spoke with Bernard-Stevens recently about his decision to leave Nebraska and move to Kenya to develop his leadership training company.  What follows are the highlights of that conversation.

On moving to Kenya to start his leadership training company: 

DAVID BERNARD-STEVENS:  I sat down and asked myself, “What do I want to do?”  You know, I always did things that came easier.  The Legislature was an appointed position.  I started that way.  You know, what did I want to do?  ... I love teaching, but I also liked helping people learn a different way of leading.  Leading from within.  Leading from core values and purpose, but also creating a different leadership paradigm.  I love that.  And so I started my own business and decided not to play small anymore.  I was tired of playing small. So I said, anywhere in the world that wants me to come and help them learn a little different way of leading, I’ll consider going.  And Kenya came calling. 

The (non-governmental organization) in Nairobi wanted me to come and train 80 women in the slum of Cabrera who they determined really didn’t believe they could change their lives.  They really didn’t believe what they did mattered and they thought maybe the program we developed, or I developed, over time might work.  And so that’s how we went over and that’s how it started.

Photo Courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens

Watch a CCTV News documentary on David Bernard-Stevens and his wife Ruth in Kenya called "Faces of Africa:  Ruth Changes Her Life."

On the difference in teaching in Kenya vs. teaching in Nebraska:

BERNARD-STEVENS:  I used to teach these same things in North Platte and other places in Nebraska, a little bit here in Lincoln before I left, and I’m using the same concepts.  I use the same approach, so it really doesn’t matter the level of poverty.  What does matter sometimes is the level of education ... because most of the women have not gone to school because the parents didn’t pay money for them to go to school.  So their education level is different.  The language barrier, because each one of them in the rural areas will speak their tribal language but they won’t necessarily speak Swahili or English, so there’s interpretation that has to take (place), using interpreters.   But the technique it really is the same.  Engage people.  Let them come to the conclusions.  Let them finally figure out their choices really do matter.   And then once they realize they have the power to create who they are and where they want to go, they really can make a difference in their lives.

On what he has taken away from his experience in Kenya:

BERNARD-STEVENS:  I think I’ve learned more from them than I can possibly give them.  You know, I learned that you can have nothing, Dennis, I mean nothing, and you can be happy.  'Cause I go in the rural areas and I think, awe.  If I walked in thinking, “Oh, these poor people. They don’t have this, and I feel so sorry.”  No, no, no, no.  I learned very quickly they don’t need anyone’s pity.  They don’t need anyone to feel sorry for them.   They are perfectly wonderful, intelligent people doing the best they can to survive. 

On the similarities between Kenya and Nebraska:

BERNARD-STEVENS:  You know, really when I’m in the rural areas, sometimes I forget that I’m not in rural Nebraska.  It’s very agricultural ...  When you’re in Maasai Mara, where the lions and tigers are, and all the elephants and giraffes, if you took the animals out, you’d think you were in the Sandhills.  It really is a picture of Nebraska.

Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens

Children in a small Kenyan village greet former Nebraska state senator David Bernard-Stevens.

Photo courtesy of David Bernard-Stevens

David Bernard-Stevens works with parents of the children attending a new magnate school in Kenya.

On what he would do differently if he returned now to the Nebraska Legislature:

BERNARD-STEVENS:  Before you do anything, we get so caught up in the “what” and “how”: “What do we need to do?” “What do I want to do?”  “How do I do that?” ”What’s going on now?”  We get so caught up in that that we forget the most important question of all:  “Why are we even spending our energy?  Why are we doing it? Why am I getting up in the morning?  Why am I working this way and behaving this way?”  And I would get back and I would say, everyone needs to take time to figure out “why,” or their purpose, if you wish.  Why do I want to get up today?  ... Why do I want to feel joy?  What is it that makes me feel joy?  What is it that when I do it I get energy and I get great passion and why is that so important to me?  Now, once we figure out “why,” you know, we want to live every day and do everything every day, now we can say, “How do I bring that into my life today?” and “What do I need to do to make that happen?” 

On his specific advice for state senators in the Legislature: 

BERNARD-STEVENS:  Focus on “why.”  Politicians need to ask why are they there.  Besides they think it’s cool because I’m going to give back to my community.  I can make a difference.  No, no, no.  Why deep down in their core values do they believe that being there is where they need to be for where they need to go in their life for what they’re meant to create?  And if being there is a part of their “why,” then when you get there, you’ll know exactly what you need to do.  You’ll know how you need to perform, how you need to behave, what you need to do and what you need to accomplish because you’re doing it for your “why.”  Our politicians, and me too when I was there, we go in because we want the position.  And then we want to keep the position.  And that’s “what.” We want this, but we don’t go with the “why.”  So there’s no focus. There’s very little value and purpose-driven things; it’s all external, not internal.  Not the inside-out. 

On whether he ever sees himself returning to live in Nebraska:

BERNARD-STEVENS:  We’re forming a business with Kenyans in Nairobi and our vision is to take this worldwide.  So we can certainly come back to Nebraska.  We’ll go anywhere in the world to help people.  We just happen to be in Kenya right now, but can we be back in this country?  Absolutely.  Can we be in China? Absolutely. Can we be anywhere in the world?  Yes, because there’s a message and a type of leadership training the world needs to know.



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