Anyone who’s a parent can probably concur with me. You’ll do anything for your kid to get good grades in school. In a perfect world it would be straight “A’s.” If you have the resources, you’ll pay for tutors or whatever other leg up it’ll give your little genius. Straight “A’s” means getting into a good college – and for many that’s everything? And don’t get me going on the recent “pay to play” college scandal.
Mitra, my ex-wife, and I split up when our daughter, Alex, was 14 months. She spent time between us and both Mitra and I cared a lot about Alex’s school performance. My GPA in high school was about 3.9 (back when 4.0 was all you could get). While I don’t remember what Mitra said her’s was, I know she got a 4.0 in college. Grade point average was obviously a big deal us.
That said, Alex was her own person and had her own scholastic agenda. She rebelled within the excepted norms … for the most part: and she didn’t necessarily hold our views of GPA. If she didn’t connect with a subject – she didn’t see any real reason to work extra hard to get that “A.” Instead she concentrated on the classes that resonated with her. Instead of being satisfied with an “A” – she wanted to do even better. Instead of competing against the grade scale – she competed against herself. Personally I grew to accept and embrace her philosophy. Mitra … not so much: “GPA should be the goal.” In the end Alex did what she wanted (no surprise there) and focused on writing and Mr. Marx’s classes (government and economics); leaving math and whatever else was left to whatever little time and cerebral energy was left.
Alex played to her strengths rather than just hone up her weaknesses.
“Discoverables,” Not Deliverables
Recently I’ve had the privilege of previewing Cormac’s Russel’s new book, Rekindling Community: Democracy Redefined. Cormac is the Managing Director of Nurture Development in Dublin Ireland, as well as a faculty member of the ABCD Institute. Cormac’s work spans the continent of Europe. I look at Cormac as a visionary in the thought space of local empowerment and decentralized civic engagement. His views transcend the normal soundbites and rhetoric, instead diving deep into the nuances and unintended consequences of policy.
Cormac’s vision of society is a collection of unique communities rooted in principles of self-sufficiency and citizen empowerment. At the core of Cormac’s vision is the concept of “playing to the strengths.” He coined the phrase “Discoverables,” Not Deliverables. Cormac believes communities have the resources they need, they just have to “discover” them, nurture them and put them to the most effective use for the collective good.
“Communities are all around us, close at hand, awaiting the community building that will make the invisible assets within them visible in all their abundance.” – Cormac Russell
It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at society as a runaway train careening ever close to a fate of Armageddon. Whether it be climate change, increasing income inequality or the threat of authoritarian governments; it’s all doom and gloom. Regardless what end of the political spectrum we reside, we’re looking to the man “on the horse in the white hat” to ride in and take us away from all this. We’ve seen the trends throughout the world; whether it be populism on the right or grand plans such as the Green New Deal on the left. What they both have in common is they both expect someone, whether it be a strong-arm ruler or the omnipresent federal government; we’re to be recipients … not producers of the solution.
On the contrary, as Cormac lays out in his book, “the underlying goal is start with what is strong, not what’s wrong, then to liberate what’s strong to address what’s wrong, and to make what’s strong even stronger.” This is a far cry from the usual institutional way of doing things. The map an outside agency has of a community is never the same as the one that actually exists. And communities do not work in silos with institutional goals primarily in mind. Much of the work of what makes a community healthy and well is being done by those who don’t even know they’re doing it.
Cormac introduces to us to his concept of White Swans and Ugly Ducklings. He contends most communities are the latter, not because they’re in need of repair or a make-over, but because we don’t see them as what they can be, White Swans; made up of relationships where relatedness can flourish – not just of strangers in a common neighborhood. The reason they haven’t transformed is that we haven’t seen their potential and we haven’t nurtured them to realize it.
In United States, before World War II, our neighbors were our support. They were the doctors, the midwives and the handymen. They were where we could go to get food when we needed it. It’s what got America through the Great Depression. But with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the government became America’s support system. The help of your neighbor wasn’t as important. The New Deal was needed at the time, but as a result reliance on the township, the community, the neighborhood and in turn the nurture of our ‘Middle Ring’ of neighborhood relationships began to wane. It wasn’t so evident at first. But the chinks in the armour, so to say, were beginning to show, even back then. Now we’ve seen the full effect of it. We have turned into consumers … consumers of services of most everything. In turn, we’re no longer producers; not of the support we once provided our friends, family and neighbors. And this transformation of producers to consumers wasn’t isolated within the borders of the United States. Unfortunately, like a disease, it’s something we spread.
The Cargo Cult
“The island of Tanna is one of the world’s most remote places. Prior to World War II, its inhabitants had few encounters with the outside world. That all changed with the arrival of American soldiers who set up their military base on the island. They arrived en masse in ships and planes brimming with cargos of medicine, clothes, food and equipment to sustain the troops across the Pacific. They also arrived with their military customs, their uniforms, radios and a myriad of other behaviors and regalia previously unseen by the inhabitants of Tanna.
On Tanna the American soldiers regularly shared items of cargo with the local inhabitants. Then war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, and Japan surrendered to the U.S. on September 2, 1945. While the rest of the world celebrated, the inhabitants of Tanna were bereft. The soldiers systematically left and with them took the “cargo.” Not surprisingly, after the soldiers left, in an effort to invoke similar favor from the gods, many of Tanna’s inhabitants took to imitating the militaristic “rituals” of their visitors – [literally forgetting their traditional ways cooperation, collaboration and self-reliance].
The name “cargo cult” is used to describe those imitations even though it is a pejorative one. The term impugns the motives and intelligence of the island inhabitants and carries little critical comment about the behaviors of those who landed on the island and then abruptly left, having forever altered its culture.” (Cormac Russell from “Rekindling Community: Democracy Redefined”)
Is the cargo cult really a metaphor for the United State as a whole. Has seventy years of a service-oriented entitlement mindset, increasingly more austerity-leaning government policies and corporate bombardment of convenience and solving our every problem; created a society void of community and only of individuals looking to the next “box.”
All is not doom and gloom though. Cormac remedies this community deficit by preaching the “small is beautiful” concept coined by E.F. Schumacher in his work promoting the Global South. This concept of “small” is at the root of community production. Cormac then elaborates on it by giving us a prescription for designing our communities around their residents by focusing on what they inherently bring to the table.
Included in this far-ranging treatise, Cormac delves into building a health system that is citizen centered, using the community as the center, not the institutional healthcare system we’ve become addicted to.
The evidence clearly shows that it is not services and programs, but our community assets that primarily determine our well-being––that is, the extent to which we are well and how quickly we recover when unwell. (Cormac Russell from “Rekindling Community: Democracy Redefined”)
The Science of Deepening Community
Most discussions about community speak on platitudes; instead Cormac dives deep into the sociology of what it takes to actually create community. He introduces us to Connectors, Conductors, Circuit Breakers and Dynamos. For all those familiar with Malcolm Gladwell and his seminal book, The Tipping Point, and his definitions of Mavens, Connectors and Salespeople – Cormac’s philosophy will be easy to grab hold of. Again, aside from Gladwell and Russell, few burrow down into the mechanics of how community actually happens.
Cormac also bring up inspiring examples of connected groups banding together to address community issues. He gives us the citizen-organized Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA). BACA is a worldwide organization that fights child abuse but doesn’t only approach the issue as much from a punitive traditional hierarchical approach as it is does one that stresses “taking ownership” while providing support in conjunction to local authorities and NGOs. This is using the strength of a common connection to be there for one another and not just sitting by waiting for the next box to arrive.
Once Cormac outlines how to meticulously rekindle our communities, us takes us through the process of unlearning our habits of acting subservient to the metaphorical Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes fame. This process could almost look like a detoxification or civic rehab.
After we set the stage in our own communities, designing them up to be rekindled – we look beyond our individual borders to how we can collaborate with the state to spread our model nationwide and even further. Cormac gives us instruction here too.
Two things ring true in Cormac’s book. The first is that we are not problems to be solved, waiting to be passively served. We are each opportunities to be realized, both for ourselves and in the context of those around us in our communities. It’s not that our democracy and government needs to be participatory … our society needs to be also.
And second, Cormac continually uses the word “rekindle.” He doesn’t propose revolution or disruption, so often bantered around in reformist communities. Anyone who’s spent time camping knows gathering kindling for the camp fire is the management of resources at hand, a process in itself – and one of continual exploration. It’s using what’s nearby to provide heat, warmth and sustainability. Whether conscious or not, Cormac uses this metaphor in his vision of an inclusive resourceful society.
When Cormac’s book comes out, it isn’t enough to buy it and read it. It has to be read, and reread. It has to become dog-eared and full of notes in the margins. It has to be stained with pizza droppings from late night strategy sessions with fellow community activists. It’ll be the bible you’ll use as your guide for a civic evolution.
Living in a Time of Identity and Entitlement
Here in the United States (and in many other western countries) we live in a society overwhelmed by the victim mentality, fueled by identity politics. Maybe some of it is justified, but only some of it. Political parties have become conduits for this. Candidates on the stump fall over themselves offering up an endless array of “gifts” to different groups of constituents; whether it be African-Americans, Latinos, students, laid-off Rust Belt white males, suburban moms, etc. – all reduced a single demographic or socioeconomic characteristic. Most often these characteristics highlight weaknesses. Collective strengths seldom come into play.
Whether it’s the “identities” liberals target pacifying those in the inner cities, or conservatives rallying MAGA wearing Trumpites in the rural heartland; this country has taken on the role of the victim as its default collective identity. With this alleged victimization (some legitimate, some not so much) comes a feeling of powerlessness that has permeated through our entire psyche. We wait impatiently for someone to save us from all that ails us – real and imagined. And now the political rhetoric and pigeonholing has shifted into high gear with the 2020 presidential election squarely in the media’s cross hairs. There can’t be enough promises, no matter how wild and unrealistic. How we pay for it – we don’t bother with that now. “They” will pay for it … whoever “they” is.
Our obsession with identity and “entitled services” leaves no oxygen left in the room for developing the skills we already have; the skills we need to build our communities so they can shine in their own light (regardless what group we’re put into). Instead we ignore our strengths and focus only on our collective group weaknesses.
We render ourselves functionally impotent.
The Advantage of Empowered Inclusion
“Every member of your community is unique and adds to its fabric. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. It’s up to us to find it and help them see it.” (Cross-pollination and Creating You Own Renaissance)
Wouldn’t it be safe to say that the confidence of excelling at something, making a contribution to yourself or your community (no matter what it may be), has a good chance of spilling over in other areas of life? I would think it does. But if these talents are never uncovered and developed … we’ll never know.
We need to create community ideals that nurtures an environment for everyone to venture out and attempt whatever they choose. This society of permission is made up of residents that don’t just lobby for services, services they feel the government entitles them to – but rather celebrate their capabilities and create nurturing bonds with family and friends building on everyone’s strengths. Our focus must be on managing relationships for synergy, not just maintaining the static status quo, often of dysfunction. Your community should be a workspace of relationships, not a finished relic. It’s a collective journey … not a destination idealized by a select few.
The flow arising from our appreciation for this situational awareness of engagement will be the cornerstone of our community’s inclusive success and the romantic dance with its strengths. Below are the components of this dance.
- Journey of Engagements: It’s about the incremental journey of permission and engagements that specifically benefit the individual and collective health and well-being of the community … not the plan and destination.
- Unique solutions: There are no “best case” solutions (since there is no one context); only engagements specific to one of multiple contexts. The specifics engagements that prove to be most beneficial are the ones most applicable to the parties involved and the situation at the time.
- Stories of engagements provide context: Proper context is best arrived at through stories and anecdotes of our engagements as they depict unique situational alternatives that lay on the matrix of our community’s workspace. It’s with these stories we can manage the relationship that make up our community’s every-changing intermezzo.
Whether it be Cormac’s Nurture Development, Community 3.0 or any of the other internesting projects that have been created worldwide – their success has and will rely on local execution, inclusive participation and most of all a commitment to the idea that solutions are best created by focusing on the unique assets and strengths of the community … not waiting for a Leviathan in an ivory tower far away to bestow you with a litany of services you feel entitled to.