COMM-ORG Papers 2005

Rabinovitch--Transforming Community Practice


Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Notes & References | Appendices

Chapter 7 - Envisioning Transformation: Where To From Here?

 Transformative community practice is one piece of a much larger picture. Throughout this dissertation I have shared specific tools as well as a glimpse of a larger vision of change that I see emerging all around me. I’m not alone in believing that a transformation is underway. Globally people are beginning to envision a world where children are safe and treasured, where the interconnectedness of all things is recognized and where priority is given to the value of the earth and all its creatures.

This transformation can be hard to recognize, especially if one’s daily struggle is focussed on finding enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, getting money to purchase the next hit of drugs to which one is addicted or fighting against an oppressive government that is rolling back hard-won gains. It is difficult to see through the haze of one’s own obsessions and catch a glimpse of the larger picture.     

We expect change to be sudden and dramatic. Historically, dramatic change has often involved revolution, usually bloody ones. Hence, many are blinded to the slow change of transformation. Others are able to look beyond the smokescreen maintained by the status quo and see dramatic positive change.

The complexity of our times cannot be underestimated. Conditions are getting better and worse simultaneously. The dominant political and economic systems in North America are characterized by speed, greed, violence and fear. The notion that humans are primarily workers and consumers is widespread, and too often one’s worth is based on appearance and ownership. This has led to gross economic inequality, violence and the consolidation of power in the hands of a few.

But I believe that humans are capable of living very differently. I believe we have an innate capacity and yearning for peace, community, connection, creativity and generosity. The current dominant ideological structure gives priority to corporate values not human values. For the sake of the planet and all that inhabit it, transformation must take place.

The work of transforming our communities can be pursued from inside any institution and by all community practitioners working with, and for, experiential communities. I suggest that there is no choice but to pursue new methods, if the collective goal of people in the helping professions is to make a positive difference in the lives of the people with whom they work. Faced with less funding for health and social services, a  decreasing political will to support such services, and increasing numbers of people suffering the consequences, new and different ways are required. In this climate, there is both obligation and opportunity to do effective work that can make a noticeable difference. In my experience such work demonstrates that transformative community practice is both effective and economically sensible.

An essential pre-condition for successful transformative community practice is to have support and financial resources available. These are necessary to build the individual and collective capacity of the community so that it can help itself. As well, the change agent must  be respectful, culturally sensitive, and personally supportive. (See Appendix E for A Map of Qualities of the Change Agent in Transformative Community Practice.) Every outcome must emerge from a dialogue that asks “in whose interest?” When resources currently dedicated to addressing marginalization in Canada and the United States are made available to projects that incorporate transformative community practice as their methodology, effective and creative solutions will emerge to problems that seem unsolvable.

It is impossible to address the full range of issues that arise when we look closely at community practice and what needs to be transformed in one dissertation. Further work for scholars and practitioners includes a close look at particpatory methodologies with a spectrum of marginalized populations, reviewing what specific activities work well and which are problematic. Much work needs to be done to include experiential people in the development of the best ways to address social concerns in our communities. Research into how, and where, such processes are taking place will help us more clearly understand  how to incorporate aspects of transformative community practice into our daily work in  hospitals, schools, legal clinics, city halls or police departments.

In these pages I have described my own adaptation of transformative community practice in order to offer community practitioners an effective framework. There continues to be room for others to further develop the theory of transformative community practice. In time, and with experience, practitioners may choose to focus on how to support indigenous leadership; an entire volume is needed on that single topic. Other valuable areas for research and development include governance structures: what works and what doesn’t when experiential people are involved? Training and capacity building are other areas: what skills and training methods support experiential people to take on meaningful roles in the development and delivery of services? Another area of future work could focus on how we, as change agents, sustain ourselves and our energy, so that we can continue to engage in the important but exhausting work of positive community transformation.

Spiritual Activism

One of the ways I have been able to sustain my commitment for many years is by  consciously considering my activism as spiritual practice. It is impossible for me to separate my spirituality from my activism. Anzaldua describes her development of spiritual activism thus:

This work of spiritual activism and the contract of holistic alliances allows conflict to dissolve through reflective dialogue. It permits an expansive awareness that finds the best instead of the worst in the other, enabling you to think of la otra in a compassionate way. Accepting the other as an equal in a joint endeavor, you respect and are fully present for her. You form an intimate connection that fosters the empowerment of both (nos/ostras) to transform conflict into an opportunity to resolve an issue, to change negativities into strengths, and to heal traumas of racism and other systemic deconocimientos. You look beyond the illusion of separate interests to a shared interest—you’re in this together, no one’s an isolated unit. You dedicate yourself, not to surface solutions that benefit only one group, but to a more informed service to humanity (Anzaldua and Keating 572).

O’Donnell and Karanja state that the term transformation “best encapsulates the process by which people come to understand their internal spirit and strength in order to develop alternative visions of themselves and of their communities” (75). Sharing a belief in the possibility of change is both a spiritual act and an important aspect of the work of the change agent. Many of the historically oppressed people with whom change agents work have lost hope and a vision of possibility.

The change agent has to trust the process, believe that the community knows what they need, and as they begin to get their needs met, know everything and everyone will be different. As Keating says in This Bridge We Call Home, “spiritual activism begins with the personal yet moves outward, acknowledging our radical interconnectedness” (18). We must heed the wisdom of those among us who have the courage to speak out. In the words of Anzaldua, “For positive social change to occur we must imagine a reality that is different from what already exists...Activism is the courage to act consciously on our ideas...Empowerment comes from ideas—our revolution is fought with concepts, not with guns, and it is fuelled by vision” (5). I am sustained by the words of Arundati Roy:

The Corporate Revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling—their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing (16).

Signs of the Transformation 

Once one begins to look, signs of the transformation abound. Some are obvious: the shift in collective tolerance of child abuse (even within institutions as sacrosanct as the Roman Catholic Church), and the Vagina Monologues world tour including performances in China, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Other signs are more complex: a recognition that gender is not quite the simple binary it was once thought to be. In a poem I recently heard at a public performance, the author points out that for every act of war, religious outrage and environmental devastation, there are a thousand counterbalancing acts of staggering generosity, and of art and beauty taking place all over the world, right now.

Found Poem

Stop thinking this is all there is. Realize that for every ongoing war and religious outrage and environmental devastation and bogus Iraqi attack plan, there are a thousand counterbalancing acts of  staggering generosity and art and beauty happening all over the world, right now, from flower boxes to cathedrals.

Resist the urge toward nihilism.

Seek out nuance and counter argument and subtle irony and balance and perspective. Realize the divine is not quite what you think it might be, that old methods of imploring, say, a cantankerous bearded patriarchal figure to please please please let you win the lottery and help you have better orgasms and oh yes smite your enemies might be a bit antiquated. Realize that this is the perfect moment to change the energy of the world, to step right up and crank your personal volume right when it all seems dark and bitter and offensive and acrimonious and bilious, there's your opening.

Remember magic.

And finally, believe you are part of a groundswell, a resistance, a seemingly small but actually very, very large impending karmic overhaul, a great shift, the beginning of something important and unstoppable. The world needs your help. This is a time of war mongering and bitterness. You are being implored. You can do something. Now is your chance. (Mintz)

Other similar sentiments come into my computer mail regularly. I recently received a four page poem by Rob Brezsny that repeats the refrain, “We are waking up.” The lessons may be awful, the teachings painful, but maybe “we” are waking up. There is no question that the kind of transformation that I am talking about is complex and requires countless innovative and untried ways of addressing enormous problems world-wide. But humans are uniquely intelligent and capable of great ingenuity. Once we decide to commit our energy and collective resources to addressing the dangers that threaten the planet and our communities, we will be able to do it. Most of us have good intentions, but too often we do not know what to do. Our responsibility, as change agents, is to help make actions congruent with intentions.

A new award winning Canadian documentary film by Jennifer Abbot, Mark Achbar and Joel Bakan, The Corporation, offers a multitude of examples of human ingenuity both in the development of the current system of global capitalism and in the many victories around the world that make a sustainable future seem possible. In the film Ray Anderson, the chief executive officer of Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer, describes his environmental epiphany and the subsequent reorganization of his 1.4 billion dollar company.  In 1997, Ray described his vision for his company––then nearly a quarter-century old––this way:

If we’re successful, we’ll spend the rest of our days harvesting yester year’s carpets and other petrochemically derived products, and recycling them into new materials; and converting sunlight into energy; with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. And we’ll be doing well …… very well …… by doing good. That’s the vision. (The Corporation website)

In the film, Vandana Shiva, ecologist and feminist, describes a victory over corporate patents when a community successfully sues for the rights to the herb Neem which they have been using for centuries. Oscar Olivera, an activist from the Coalition in Defence of Water and Life, describes his successful anti-water privatization work in Bolivia, where the collective will of the people defeated the interests of global capitalism.

Transformative community practice is an effective tool to address problems which seem impossible to solve with conventional methods. Such tools help us move society toward a critical juncture, a tipping point, for the balance of change to move toward positive transformation. This dissertation focuses on the marginalized because that is where I have put my energy. It is from my work with some of the most oppressed in my community that I have learned what is possible. It will take a dramatic shift in social values and the allocation of resources in order to embrace the practices described in these pages. The transformation that I believe is taking place is a process of change which will include everyone. It is slow and although it will ultimately result in a significant redistribution of resources, it does not have to be perceptible as it happens. North Americans will have no choice but to change our way of living. The planet cannot sustain the lifestyle of the privileged, nor can those billions who are forced to endure war, refugee camps, the destruction of their histories and communities, poverty and despair. Disease, hunger, and environmental devastation are not just sound bites on CNN. They are lived realities that cannot be sustained.

Living in a Time of Crisis and Opportunity

I will repeat myself: there is no choice and I am not alone in saying so. Moyer describes this time as one of “crisis and opportunity.” In the final chapter of Doing Democracy, he outlines his guidelines for social activism in the twenty-first century. He points out that “we have the opportunity to achieve a momentous leap forward to a new era and a new way of being human as part of our historical, evolutionary developmental process” (191). For the next hundred years, social activists are going to be central in moving into a new era of “human equality and environmental sustainability” (191).

Change is inevitable and desirable. The solutions that emerge from the process of transformation outlined here will cost less than ineffective conventional methods. Prison is the most expensive housing possible. Layers upon layers of bureaucracy and infrastructure do little to address the problems that beset communities, but are costly to maintain. By changing individually and collectively to a more constructive path and addressing underlying causes identified by the people who know, the people who live the experience, everyone’s work will change. It will become more meaningful, more exciting and more effective. Resources will be allocated sensibly, so that when funds are set aside to address homelessness or addictions, the day-to-day reality of homeless people and addicts will be positively impacted. Whole communities create seemingly insurmountable obstacles together, and they can be resolved together.

Throughout these pages, I have described the role of change agent as a metaphorical bridge between the marginalized and other parts of the community. In this work, I am the bridge between the marginalized and the academy.

Many wealthy people want to contribute to making the world a better place. They want to do so partly because they know it is the right thing to do, and partly because they do not like being surrounded by pain and grief. They do not like having armed guards protecting them when they walk down the street (as even the middle class must in some countries). They do not want to fear for their children whenever they leave the house. However, they want to know that the contribution they make is going to matter. They want to be able to see that they are not, as my mother would say, “throwing good money after bad.” They want to make a sound investment.

Transformative community practice offers a blueprint for action that works. With the help of trained change agents, the resources will be there to implement the strategies needed. The founder of the Three Guineas Fund in Britain, Catherine Muther, believes that the best way to attack social problems is in teams, drawing people together from different spheres, with different perspectives and expertise. She is right. As argued in these pages, to effectively address someone’s concerns, they have to play the central role. Teams need to be guided by experiential community members. People with no experience of homelessness or prison do not decide how to address these issues alone. What it does mean is that if one goal of the homeless is housing, then people with experience in developing and managing housing will join the team and offer their expertise on how to economically develop the housing. This will undoubtably be radically different from any housing they have developed. It will have to be. Otherwise nothing will change.

Transformative community practice is both a personal process and a collective one. As Keating suggests, now is a time for “taking risks and transforming walls into thresholds” (529). In her writing, Keating lays out her own process of moving from here—a world of “rigid boundaries between the self and other”—to there—“El Mundo Zurdo, a visionary place where people of diverse backgrounds with diverse needs and concerns co-exist and work together to bring about revolutionary change” (520).

This framework can be applied to any issue, in any circumstance. Work needs to be done everywhere. My examples come from my own experience, but I see potential for application wherever I look. If youth (those who do well and those who do not) in the current educational system played a significant role in its redesign, we would have schools that offered what they need. They might not choose to remain contained inside four walls all day. Many youth might prefer to have a role working in the community, rather than learn in traditional settings. This would require more guides and managers but our communities overflow with people who would enjoy working with youth. Using the educational system as an example, people who do not thrive within its existing constraints are experts on what it does not provide. Their voice is essential to the development of successful outcomes. Many of them would become “teachers” and mentors, not because of their scholarly expertise, but because they could connect with the students that our current system will lose to the dangers of the streets.

Whatever the passion or interest of the reader, the application of transformative community practice as described in these pages, overlaid with a commitment to the time to genuinely engage in the process of transformation will achieve positive results. A shift is taking place toward a commitment to community, and with it comes a collective sense of responsibility. Change agents must believe that a positive vision of change is realistic and they must share that vision with everyone.

A radical consciousness is not required to want to make one’s community safer for everyone. When I look at my own community, I see that there are resources enough to meet the needs of everyone. No one needs to be sleeping in dumpsters where they can be accidentally murdered by the cardboard compacter (as happened in Victoria in the fall of 2003). No one needs to continue using drugs when they want treatment. No one needs to turn tricks when they want to go to school. These things happen because the road map through our collectively created jungle is not clear enough to read. I offer my version of transformative community practice as a map through one corner of this quagmire. It takes a whole community, though, to sustain the gains made through transformative community practice. It requires a serious commitment to a new way of living and working together. I have experienced its effectiveness. I know it works.