The Times They Are A Changin'
• Charlie Wisoff
There seems to be a very common tension when doing work in community. On the one hand, there is what I'll call the newcomer's approach: acknowledgement that things could be better; that change, innovation, and new ideas are needed. On the other hand, there is what I'll call the traditionalist approach: a desire to respect community knowledge, to not recreate the wheel, to draw on the assets of longstanding community members and initiatives.
Both sides of this tension have pretty and not-so-pretty faces. The newcomer's approach comes from a place of wanting to improve community. Many problems in our society are a result of entrenched practices, out-dated ways of doing things that don't work in the modern age. A phone chain is no longer a sufficient way to organize people who have smart phones, internet, and 10 other platforms for communication. Furthermore, the youth are our future. We need to make space for them to lead change and learn what it means to govern ourselves.
At the same, this desire for new ideas often leads to pushing methods of change on communities that don't fit and disrespect the wisdom of people who have lived in communities for a long time. For example, today there is a notion that we should learn from the success of entreprenuers in Silicon Valley and apply their methodology to other sectors, including social change. Yet, rapid iteration of experiments fails to acknowledge that community change takes time and commitment. People with new ideas often fail to listen to the conversations already taking place in communities, to learn from the contextual wisdom of longstanding community members.
On the other side, the traditionalist approach argues that legitimate change can only come deep from within the community. It respects community wisdom above all else and comes from a genuine desire to respect tradition, learn from our history, and create change only if it truly represents the needs of communities.
The ugly side of this position is that it can be used to exclude rather than include, to block change for the sole reason that people don't want to change. I have heard this in refrains such as, "I've been doing this for 30 years, why should I listen to you?" In an increasingly mobile world, we can't all claim to have lived in a place for 16 generations. That does not mean newcomers shouldn't be able to influence the communities they live in. New perspectives are valuable and often help us get past our blindspots.
So, WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN? I am not sure if there is a simple answer or a right side. I think it means that when you're working in community you need to own this tension and regularly check-in with yourself. Are you resisting change for legitimate reasons or simply because of who is proposing the change? When you have an idea for change, do you listen first or talk first? How many community members do you to talk to before you start promoting your vision for change?
A long time ago, I learned that no one is perfect. Most people, I find, generally care and want to do good. Yes, ignorance exists, and yes some people have bad intentions. But, call me naive, I think real change that respects community wisdom and makes space for new people and ideas is possible.
(Disclaimer: I am newcomer in the community I work in, Albuquerque, NM. Although I'm trying to find middle ground, my perspective is biased.)