should we show tolerance to our neighbours

“We see people and things not as they are, but as we are” Anthony De Mello

These last few
weeks of revisiting previous musings and re writing them in a reflective way
has helped to refine some thoughts, but also to stimulate new ideas and
directions.  A colleague has offered some
critique of my views, that I tend towards pessimism, the glass half empty.  Rightly or wrongly it’s a perspective.  She also offered some new avenues for
exploration which I have added to the fb page and which I can also explore as
time comes to me. 

Two elements of my thinking are becoming clearer about my
community.  That the ideas, initiatives, projects
being discussed are disconnected from each other and as such are just reactions
to opportunities, rather than a specific direction, or a clearly defined
strategy.  Also that to engage with all
in the community may be a struggle, as there is so much new blood, so many
different lifestyles, so many different perspectives on life, community, work
and play.

How do we encourage and engage with those new people.  Do we?

Some time back, while still studying I introduced a word
into a workshop on defining community that once it was out of my mouth I felt
it was like a snake in the room.  The
word was tolerance.  Tolerance is a word
that has been going around in my head a long time.  In speaking it out that night it was a
revelation to me.  Not the discussion, or
reactions or perspectives on the word but my own reflections on the word.  It offered an opportunity to reflect on my
own community and the tolerance shown to new comers or blow ins. 

This notion of speaking out is a concept I learned many
years ago, the value of speaking your mind in a safe place and even the hearing
of the words allows us to rephrase it, reshape it or clear it out of our
system. So tolerance.  not really a nice phrase.  consider – I show tolerance to my children, or I tolerate them, I tolerate my neighbours, I tolerate my friends.  Tolerance is a word often used by politicians or religious leaders etc to reflect an attitude to others opinions or beliefes.  But at the back of it in my opinion is a view that I/we are right, but we acknowledge your right to another view.

I have had a big problem with new comers to my small traditional
fishing community.  I have stereotypes
that pop into my head; labelling people as yuppies, SUV drivers, smart dressers,
posh talkers, new money or “mortgaged to the hilt”.  I realise now that my images are determined
by the experience of living where I do. 
I don’t have issues with emigrants, refugees or asylum seekers for example.  They will never have access to my
village.  The property prices are too
high, the rent to exorbitant.  My
connection with these will be secondary, through media, through services,
through work as a community worker.

I come in contact with my new neighbours at the school, in
the shop or church, walking on the road or at parties where we are invited by
mutual friends or at our kids birthdays. 
But the opportunities are rare and sometimes awkward.  For example the evening we christened our
nephew over seven years ago.  Another
child was being christened at the same time. 
He was of a new family, developers and business people originally from
Dublin.  We were at opposite sides of the
church, or side was full, loud with children and casually dressed.  There’s was a small crowd, no children save
the baby and as memory serves (though perhaps a value laden reflection!) all
well groomed, men in collar, and if not tie, at least jackets.  But it was the priest that poured oil on the
flames.  From the moment he started to
speak the stereotypes abounded.  They
were aimed at our family however, how he had christened so many (as if we bred
like rabbits) or how the village could be called Dohertyland there were so many
of us.

Perhaps the worst feeling towards the newcomers is that they
are not locals.  The locals that I grew
up with but who hadn’t land to build on or who weren’t lucky enough to inherit
as I was are now living in Waterford city or elsewhere, generally because they
can’t afford a site or a house in their own village.  The market has ruled, and it has ruled in
favour of the well off.  This will be the
reality for my children in years to come. 
Where will they live, where will my grandchildren (if any) be raised?

 The reality is however, that locals have refused to sell to
locals.  They have opted for the big
money, they have held onto land in the hope of a big earner.  The new arrivals are not to blame, but it is
easier to blame them than look at the reality of the housing market, government
policy, how developers operate or the changes that are impacting on farmers.

 Another reality is that there have always been new people
coming into the village.  My great, great
grand father Bill Malone rowed to the village during the famine (1847) in his
boat in the hope of finding food.  My
fathers side came to Waterford as sail makers during the ship building period sometime
during the early 18th Century.  People
have married in also, including my wife, brother in law, sister in law.  So what is my problem.

Whats the difference now to the past, whats the difference
to my wife and those building from outside. 
I guess my wife is invited in, the other invites themselves.  Or is it that my wife has an
introduction.  She is with a local, she
fits in to an instant family, has sisters in law to talk to, visit or socialise
with.  A thought for me is that what has
changed in Ireland particularly in my generation is the opportunities for new
comers to integrate.  In the past people
who moved here, most usually worked here also, as farm labourers or as fishermen.  The kids went to school, they all went to
church together, the pub was the central point. 
Transport was poor, people had to get on with each other there was no

Essentially one of the biggest problems is that the changes
that affected the country through the modernisation period we have experienced
are having a significant impact on the ability of people to enter into
community.  Not all children attend the
local school, church attendance is low, despite the downturn people still work
long hours outside the village (or abroad) and we now socialise more in our own
homes than in the local pub.

The net effect of all that is that it is easier to sneer or
ignore the new comers rather than as locals seeing ways to welcome them
in.  It’s not that it would be too
easy.  We are surrounded by messages
about keeping to ourselves.  But in
essence humans are social beings, we want to be part of, we want to get along,
it’s important for us to be included. 
What is a community if it is not united in some ways, comfortable with
each other, mindful of our neighbours needs and at least open to understanding
each other and respecting each other.

As a community worker I feel I should be looking at ways of
welcoming people, providing opportunities to hear each other, to get to know
each other to begin a process of building trust.  In essence its about breaking down barriers,
starting with my own, my immediate family and beyond.  I don’t underestimate this however. 

I think there is a strong tendency in all of us to yearn for
a gilded past, whether Tonnies Gemeinschaft,
or a rural idyll, or Thomas Hardys “Tess
of the D’Urbervilles”
an innocent thrown to the mercy of the industrial
age.  I have a strong urge towards both.

Yet if I am to have any clarity around what this community
can be, how it will look in 100 years time, what direction it needs to go in,
it will be a vision clarified, planned and driven by a mixture of old and new

Why is empowerment so hard?

 “Community work is concerned . or should be concerned – with empowerment.
By empowerment I mean empowerment through consciousness raising to active
analysis rather than keeping the people happy where they are, or finding ways
to keep them happy where they are. I think empowerment, rather than .capacity
building., is particularly important at the moment. Don’t fool yourself, they
are not the same. Capacity building is about stretching the elastic as far as
it can go. Consciousness raising is about kicking the ball out into the next
field and getting out yourself as well after it”

 Stasia Crickley: Head
of Applied Social Studies,NUI Maynooth

 I’ve been
stretching the elastic I feel.  This is
what we have been given, now how can we make it work.  In work, structures, funding, deadlines,
communication difficulties etc all combine to make thinking creatively or
radically difficult.  Time for
reflection, criticism, clarifying purpose or direction is limited.  Yet to be an agent of empowerment of oneself
or a resource of others is what I set out on this life path for. 

 Even in my own
community I struggle.  Work time,
personal time, family time, educational time for the children, crisis time with
family, voluntary work, relationship time. 
Where to make the time?  How to
create the space? Where to find the courage?

 Although I have
practiced and experienced both capacity building and empowerment in my life and
work, I know that empowerment leads to lasting change. But it’s the most
difficult, to experience or to support. 
It comes at a price. 

For me it can be
broken down into two particular areas conscientisation and participation. 

 Conscientisation is the term used by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.  Through it local communities become aware of
the impacts on them.  Via his
action/reflection cycle community participants:

  • Think about their problem
  • Plan what steps to take
  • Act on their plan
  • Reflect on the outcomes and think
    and plan the next steps.

Participation is the other key element to empowerment.  Bakers ladder of participation defines the
difference between what he terms on the lowest rung of the ladder pseudo
participation, to the top which he calls community participation.   Information provision is what he determines
as pseudo participation.  In this
information is centrally decided on what is relevant, centrally generated and
then dispersed with little or no mechanism for active feedback.

The next rung is
community consultation.  Here the
information is circulated in a controlling manner, the community or
participants are asked for their opinion but have no real control on how their
feedback is used.

The third rung is
community representation.  Here members
of the community get to sit on the respective decision making bodies and have a
say. There are numerous issues with this representation from deficits in resources,
capacity, skills, experience and the access to power brokers.

Finally community
participation. This builds on the previous three rungs but here the local
community is centrally involved in the decisions and are there for the
implementation and evaluation of such decisions also. 

Empowerment for me
is about both these elements working with people where they are at, reducing or
removing the barriers to a minimum and essentially actioning the issues most
relevant to a community as defined by the community.  But it comes at a cost.  Time. Commitment.  Energy. 
Gradual change which flies in the face of many people’s yearning for
instant results.  Ultimately it challenges
the existing power holders in a community or society.  Who wants to lose control?  It’s a scary place for anyone.  Thus effective empowerment is a struggle, a
hard slog, potentially frightening and difficult to deliver.   

Whats equality?

Equality is seen as a fundamental right in a liberal economy such as Irelands. Equality of opportunity allows that all may have equal access to the opportunities to get on in life whatever their station, to get on and achieve. A term synonymous with equality of opportunity is the “trickle down effect”.

This economic notion (I think it was the Chicago School of Economics, as favoured by Reaganomics and Thatcher ism) that increasing economic opportunity and money in a society is dispersed throughout the economy and that everyone will feel the benefit. In Ireland it was described by such political luminaries as Bertram Ahern and Charles McCreevy as the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Community workers had, in my circle at least, long held the belief that the rising tide certainly doesn’t lift all boats and that the trickle down effect had little or no benefits at all for those on the margins of society. That the boats that even did rise, caught a different wave to our political and business elites, and are now left in negative equity, broke, redundant, or run ragged by hawkish banks. Equality of opportunity obviously has different rules according to status!

The notion that equality of opportunity, or participation for that matter, has any benefit, is laughable surely, if you lack the resources to participate. For example what is the point in a course being organised if you haven’t the transport to access it. Where is the sense of inviting citizens to a meeting, if the time don’t suit, if the venue is inaccessible to a wheelchair. How can the illiterate read a poster. What if you can’t afford the price?

According to Kathleen Lynch of University College Dublin’s Equality Dept “Substantive equality depends not simply on having the formal right to participate but on having the actual ability and resources to exercise that right…”

Speaking at the Community Workers Conference some years back in Kilkenny, Lynch defined fours core equality issues in Irish society- economic, political, socio-cultural and affective. She stated that “The perpetuation of inequality would not be so politically acceptable however, without a legitimating ideology, a set of ideas that continues to justify current practice and make it seem plausible…the legitimating ideology of Irish education policy is that of neo-liberalism. The focus has been on equalising opportunities rather than equalising resources. Consequently, what has been achieved in education is a minimalist type of equality of access, but not equality of participation, and certainly not equality of outcome. At best, the goal has been to increase the proportionate representation of marginalised groups in the more privileged areas of education.”

For Lynch then the inequalities inherent in the Irish political system are so embedded that the only recourse is for equality of outcome or success. By this she means that all groups within a society marginalised or not would have “…equality between these groups in terms of access to, and the distribution of, educational, economic, cultural, political and other benefits.”

I realise that people laughed at these notions during the boom times in Ireland, but perhaps now their would be some greater insight and appreciation. There are certainly plenty of examples as to where the system has failed and continues to fail.

As a local community how is equality of outcome to be achieved. How could we ensure that all benefit equally, bearing in mind that many are starting with more than others. Is it easier if we look at it in terms of what as individuals we need. Some require jobs, some require esteem, some require friendship, some may just want to give something back.

Does it start then with trying to understand and appreciate what are each persons personal needs. Or is it something more collective, a statement perhaps. As a community we aspire to…, as a community we want… we will have succeeded when we have…

Who cares what the locals think

How do we begin to move a community towards sustainability? What role can locals play in shaping their own futures? Surely the lead role. Surely the vast majority of control. Surely their voice, words and actions are preeminent. Local solutions to locally defined problems, in words that are locally not just understood, but acted upon.

But how well do we understand the issues. How prominent are issues of global warming, peak oil, sustainable agriculture and fishing or food miles etc. As individuals perhaps, but a collective perspective?

What are the benefits to reaching outside, harvesting the expertise of others, whether resources, concepts or skills. Experts. I’ve noticed a willingness of others to place their trust in the expertise of officials, guru’s, paid workers or lofty titled individuals, even over their own common sense.

I remember a discussion some time back about the founding “fathers” of sociology. Comte, Durkenhiem, Marx and Weber were the four mentioned. All these Men! contributed to the present understanding of what sociology is. Their ideas and concepts are the foundations that we use to understand modern society. I could see the relevance of their ideas and the need to understand them but I kept returning to a point in my head that its not just the theory that is important but equally relevant is how it is used (or abused) thereafter.

Even a working class man creating theories and/or developing methods of working to allow for social change can only control what is developed in as far as they have some power over it. The reality is that these methods will almost certainly be employed by others for their purposes.

People from different social class – experiences, values, expectations, would use and interpret any sociological research method in relation to their own experiences. They have this notion of being neutral or that they can stand aside from the research but can they?

Ok so apparently this is where research ethics comes charging in to the rescue. The idea being that you put it all out there on the page, where you are coming from, opinions, limits, expectations etc so that the reader can make a considered opinion on your perspective and thus be in a greater position to interpret your research. I have real issues with this though. I mean we can claim anything, pretend to be as honest as we like, but we all carry baggage, issues we are not even aware of, prejudices that we have been reared with. These just don’t get swept aside with an ability to write down a statement of ethics. These emotions /feelings so inherent within these prejudices can take years of working through.

I like the idea though that researchers can be active participants in the project and that they can be promoters and encouragers of solutions. But I have a hang up about say an American coming to Ireland and living amongst a community for a few years and defining the communities problems. I have problems about my own ability to do this elsewhere.

If people want to seriously do social or community research then why not enable local communities to do it themselves, interpret it themselves and define their own solutions, put them into practice and evaluate the outcomes, redefining solutions in light of achievements and difficulties.

Local research of locally defined problems generating local solutions.

I like this notion. I like it for my own concept of what effective community research could be and do. Outsiders do have a role. I acknowledge the ability, experience and knowledge of outside expertise. I can see the need for technical advice, possibly funding, certainly the need to sell outcomes that would require county council approval, govt departments buy in etc. But this outside influence should not create a dependant relationship. It should be at least equal, mutually respectful and recognise the strengths and abilities on both sides. At best it should be firmly rooted in the community being researched and controlled therein too.

Wonderful weeds

What can weeds tell us about community?

My Nan was a wonderful gardener.  She would spend her days bent over picking,
thinning, admiring and chatting away to her flowers, shrubs and veg.  She would curse the weeds.  Ripping them out of the ground or later when
arthritis had taken over her hips whack them back with her “sticks”.

She never used weed killers. 
Frowned on them.  I never remember
asking her why, so I don’t know if she had concerns about damaging the earth,
its water sources, or bugs and such.  As
a child I was just aware that she just didn’t appear to like them.  Much later when I took over her garden, I
discovered I had much to learn from her practice and from books.  The notion of a weed being a flower in the
wrong place.  The importance to
butterflies of having nettles around. The role that dandelions played in herbal
medicine.  The fun of learning their
names and their uses. 

Why was it that I could find this information relevant and
worthwhile, when others merrily sprayed and poured poisons with a gay and wilful
abandon?  What creates the openness in
some and blocks another.   How does this
translate into living communities of people?

Who in community are the weeds and pests we want rid
of.  In this country we have a proud
tradition of sending away – Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, mental
hospitals.  We send people to prison
rather than try to understand their issues. 
That the largest prison in the state is peopled with men from a handful
of working class neighbourhoods in Dublin is so obviously an indicator of a
social/housing issue as to be practically obvious.  But we prefer to look for other reasons?  Or do we think this deeply at all?

Recently I had the occasion to speak with a child
psychologist about a particular child. 
She has been troubled, going through a difficult time.  He listened more than spoke.  Exceptional ability kept coming up as a
potential area of exploration.  I was
confused for isn’t this rare.  Not to
him, of the hundreds of children he sees most are just that – exceptional,
gifted, and bright.  So bright that they
can process a situation and react in the time that their parents/guardians/key
workers  take to get the opening lines of
their thinking out of their mouths.

These children are powerless however.  They live in an adult controlled world.  Their giftedness therefore becomes a curse.
Because even though they need adult support, the assistance they most regularly
receive is to be told, ordered, and quietened. 
They get labelled as difficult or troubled.  They get medicated.  I know these techniques in other areas of my
life.  Paulo Freire called it the banking
method of education.  Kathleen Lynch of
UCD’s equality Studies dept calls it the deficit model of education.  In community work we call it
disempowerment.  In gardening terms, I
guess we call it control!

Nils Christie, a Norwegian academic, has opined that to be
part of any community is a privilege. 
Now that’s a very different perspective. 
An example from his writing, which spoke to me on many levels, was that
even a criminal in a community, is more than just a criminal, he has a history,
a past, present and hopefully a future. 
Community suggests caring, suggests interest in, suggests guidance.  A person may do wrong, may go wayward, may
slip, may just be plain fed up with us all, but they are still part of us. 

It is perhaps easier to dismiss and to label such a person
when they are not from among us.  A
criminal is to be mistrusted, shunned, not given a chance.  But when we know a criminal, when we know the
story, when we remember him as a boy, remember what he has endured, he becomes
more than just an action.  He has an
identity, a name and a place in our reality, a context.

Being in the midst of those who make us uncomfortable, who
we disagree with, who we mistrust, and who perhaps we don’t think we want or
need, is part of living in a community. 
They don’t have to be criminals; they can be the person next door, the
priest, teacher, and our family.  We are
forced on some level to come to terms with such people.  We cannot escape.  We pass them on the road, queue with them at
the shop, and maybe pray with them at church. 
This facing of, this coming to terms with, this acceptance at some level
is good for us.   

I f my garden can tell me anything about my community, it’s
that everyone needs to be respected and to have a voice.  Each person has a part of the solution in
them.  It’s only by creating the space
for this piece of solution to be offered, that a person can take a next step.

Just like our garden, maybe I need to try creating spaces
that are less controlled, managed or planned.