Friday, July 12, 2013

When will those kids ever learn? Now!

So, we want to get the young people of a poor, violence-prone community to start organizing to get their own community center to bring in wholesome activities, sports, crafts, computers, cooking/nutrition classes, multiracial dialog groups, and nonviolent de-escalation and conflict resolution services and trainings.

Community is not a constant, of course; every community has its own characteristics and can be organized most effectively only after the first Gandhian step, an assessment. What are the 'informal relationships, avenues of communication, support networks, personal and political allegiances, and sources of conflict" (Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009, p. 131). If the community is multiracial and there is tension or a growing history of destructive conflict, we have a greater challenge. Some communities so afflicted may have drug or even human trafficking activities to embed the difficulties more deeply. Certainly this is applicable from the local to the international.

The youth are the future; the youth of any particular community are often a target constituency of community organizers. Most often, youth have little formal civic process knowledge--why should they? Their civic process is informal, in their school and neighborhood societies, where other knowledge is valued. They know music, fashion, social media communication vectors, and who hangs with whom. They have their own leaders and those leaders have various purviews and constituencies, some in negative arenas and, we hope, at least a handful in a positive sense.

If a community organizer succeeds in bringing some youth more into the formal civic structure, those youth will quickly learn the mores and particulars of the construction of that civic structure, and they will learn who holds the levers of formal power--suddenly, this knowledge is relevant to them and they absorb it fast (Shiller, 2013).

Getting youth to seek such power is a dialectical process involving getting those adults who hold all the formal power to see possibilities and hope in such power-sharing; this always involves 'baking a bigger pie,' or expanding the resources available to those in power now with those who seek some power. In every case, those resources are a combination of resources new to everyone in the community and a conservation of existing resources.

Can you convince those in power that more of their resources will be conserved if youth crime decreases? Can you engage in a successful search for external support for either or both the youth or the current adult power-holders? If that external support predicates providing new resources upon a stronger relationship between youth and adults in power, you have the possible incentives for baking that bigger pie. If you can limit the strings and predicates on importing new resources you can facilitate a more productive dialog, a more authentic community process.
As always, you the community organizer are not the leader; you are the one who helps assess internal and external resources. You are the one who launches assessments and conversations. You can do your best work by avoiding the grand label of leader. As in all intercultural work, the first and greatest asset we have is our willingness to check our egos and engineer help for the existing indigenous capacity-holders. Sometimes we find them where others have overlooked them. This is our role and when we can take some of the negative energy away from existing destructive conflict we can say it's not the heat, it's the humility.

Ohmer, Mary L. & DeMasi, Karen (2009). Consensus organizing: A community development workbook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Shiller, J. T. (2013). Preparing for Democracy: How Community-Based Organizations Build Civic Engagement Among Urban Youth. Urban Education, 48(1), 69-91. doi:10.1177/0042085912436761

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