Every once in a while I manage to touch the lives of people in a big way, most of the time it is not intended that way, though my desire is probably working undercover, guiding me towards new horizons.
A few years ago I was working at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a division of the United Nations Organization headquartered in Vienna, Austria. The office has about 4000 employees coming from almost every country of the world, on the surface the culture is very diverse and colorful, with six official languages spoken and many more unofficial ones and any racial differences that are driving so much conflict around the world are left outside the office complex when we came to work every day.
But as we are all (still) human there was also some clamoring for positions, blaming others for one’s own personal gain and a widespread “me first” attitude which bothered me the longer I worked there.
Going into my fifth year with the IAEA I decided to do something about this.
I assumed I would not get permission for the Ethics Campaign I had in mind, so I went ahead and and did it undercover. I designed about 16 large posters (3 x 5 foot) with challengingly simple messages and strong visual appeal. The design concept was layered, to pull the reader in, layer by layer, from the large headline text, visible from afar, to small captions underneath the pictures you had to get very close to read. My intent was to make people stop, read, ponder, reflect, react — and then go to a companion Website to express their opinion about all that.
I only informed my immediate supervisors about my plan when I was almost finished with my preparations. After a moment of consideration I got full support and a wave of excitement started spreading.
One night three of us conspirators put up hundreds of posters throughout the hallways and meeting areas of our vast office buildings, not really sure about the reactions we might get the next morning.
Below are a few examples:
To my great relief most colleagues reacted very positive, with comments like “finally someone is doing something about it”, “what a great idea!”, “why didn’t we do something like this much earlier?” Some people hated the posters, “what a waste of money and resources”, “this is offensive”, “I will file a complaint”.
Here are a few pictures from that morning:
The buzz was building up! Who was behind all this? The impact was too big to assume that this could have been done by an individual.
Very soon the consensus was that this must have come from the very top, from the Director General’s office. After two weeks the Director General’s office actually issued a statement that this campaign was indeed sanctioned by the Director General.
I was as happy as can be! I did not mind at all that my colleagues gave credit for this campaign to someone else. What really mattered was the conversation had started in a big way and the forum on the companion Website was getting heavy traffic, people were discussing the topics wherever I went.
Then in 2006 I left the IAEA.
I assumed my posters would be taken down as the wave of excitement subsided and my initiative would fade into history. It was nice as long as it lasted.
But just a week ago I spoke with a colleague who still works at the IAEA and he told me that some of my posters are still around! How extraordinarily amazing is that?
I knew then that I had made a lasting impact on a large number of people by touching something very deep in them, something that binds us all together as humans, no matter what culture or belief we come from.
There are things that matter to all of us.
PS: In 2005 all employees of the IAEA together with its Director General Mohamed ElBaradei were awarded the Nobel Peace Price, very cool!