June 13, 2008

The Community Builder's Pledge

I was in Greenwood, South Carolina recently, working with a group of neighborhood leaders who are being very intentional about expanding their awareness of the many assets within their neighborhoods and doing their work in a way that invites people and organizations to contribute.

I began my part of the conversation by asking everyone to stand and join me in a community builder's pledge (crafted on the spot) that went something like this:

I believe, deep down in my heart, that everyone in our community is gifted - and that in spite of our flaws, failings, and disappointments, there is a world of possibilities in our gifts. I believe that sharing our gifts - our wisdom, know-how, talent, knowledge, passion, and care - is how we become more connected to each other and our community and how we create the type of community that nurtures us. I pledge to look at our community and all of the people who live here - including the strangers among us - with new eyes that help me see the richness within our community and everyday opportunities to connect people to each other and our community through their gifts.

I thought that this would be a friendly way to set the tone for the day of work together. What surprised me were the requests that I received for the pledge. I recently learned that one group is now using the pledge to open their neighborhood meetings.

So here’s a challenge for funders and others who are supporting residents and resident-led organizations as the community-builders, agenda-setters, change-makers and envisioners of the future for their neighborhoods:

  • What would happen if you too opened your meetings with this pledge?
  • How would the grants that you make and the technical assistance that you provide mesh with the values that are embedded in this pledge?
  • What signals are you sending – intentional and unintentional – that may not be consistent with the belief that everyone is gifted and that an essential element of healthy communities is the connectedness that comes when gifts are shared?
  • And (this is the trickiest of all), how do you, an outsider, support residents in maintaining their commitment to the pledge when resources are introduced from the outside or when the resident leaders are at the table with others (especially others who bring “gifts” such as credentials, titles, clout, money, and authority) who may not be ready or willing to take the pledge themselves?

My hunch is that many funders - like many neighborhood residents - find it easier to embrace the ideals of the pledge than to figure out how to translate those ideals into action. Certainly there will always be people, both inside and outside of the neighborhood, who don't buy the idea that everyone is gifted - or that the gifts that residents bring are the right gifts - for the big work of community building and change. But there are lots of people who are sincere in their commitment to the ideals of this pledge but then get sabotaged by established practices and policies that send them down the a path that is littered with unintentional messages and consequences. Messages such as:

  • We trust our other grantees with money, but we don't trust you.
  • We trust organizations with paid staff to deliver, but we're not sure about you.
  • We trust trainers to train, but we can't find anyone in your neighborhood with experience that is worth sharing.
  • We trust people in the business world to make good decisions, but we don't trust you to help us think about how money should be spent in your neighborhood.
I'm curious to learn more about how you do with the pledge - and how you might use it to help you spot opportunities to bring your actions more in line with your values.

Anyone ready to take the pledge?

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