Friday, July 08, 2011

Systems vs. Community

Working among and with low-income people over the past two decades has taught me a lot about the importance of terminology, assumptions and how we understand what it is that we are about.  I noticed early on that a very common way of managing the challenges of poverty involves systematizing responses and work product so that poverty is somehow "professionalized."  In such systems poverty can be subjected to various processes and responses to it can be bench marked against agreed upon methods, best practices and predetermined protocols. 

At the same time, and very early on, I noted the amazing impact of genuine community to transform people, environments and collective self-understandings far beyond the reach of professional approaches or standard processes. 

In looking through some old files I found this passage from Mary O'Connell's The Gift of Hospitality.  Clearly, she understands the distinction that I've noticed across the years.

In a social service system people are known by what's wrong:  by their condition or label
In a community people are known as individuals

In a system people are incomplete and need to be changed or "fixed"
In a community people are as they are, with opportunities to follow their dreams

In a system relationships are unequal; service workers do things "for" clients and don't look for any contribution in return
In a community relationships are reciprocal, give and take; and the diverse gifts of many people are recognized

In a system people are broken into parts and separated into groups
In a community people have a chance to be accepted as whole persons, and viewed as part of the whole society

In a system problems are solved by consulting authorities, policies, procedures
In a community people seek answers from their own experience and the wisdom of others

In a system there is no room to acknowledge mistakes and uncertainty; information is communicated in professional jargon that distances individuals from others
In a community people can make honest efforts and acknowledge honest mistakes and fears

In a system all problems have rational solutions
In a community there is room for confusion, and mystery, and a recognition that some things are beyond human control