Posted tagged ‘thinking about community’

What they really need

September 13, 2010

A Kenyan bloke I studied with was telling me about some women who had recently arrived from Somalia, and now lived in and around Yokine in the northern suburbs of Perth. A local council was keen to be involved with them, and some community workers got together to cook up some strategies to help these ladies who were still settling in to a new place, far away from home, and having had some dreadful experiences along the way.

They decided a walking group for the women would be good – it would help everyone keep healthy, and help them get to know the places that were around their community. And it would help people form new networks and relationships, with each other and hopefully others. Plans were made, funding sought, and brochures and posters done. Nobody came though. Even with a bigger promotional push, interest was very low.

A number of conversations later, the reasons became much clearer. These women were refugees – they had been walking all their lives. After years of trauma and travelling to escape violence, the last thing they needed or wanted was to walk some more.

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Good intentions

September 8, 2010

“Couldn’t we get involved with those people you visit in the compound on the edge of town – the people with HIV?”

That was my question to Paul, the Zambian man we stayed with for four months. After all, we had come as volunteers to help and to experience. Wouldn’t that be a good use of time, an experience more ‘on the edge’? Among the many tasks Paul did, he visited and organised practical help for some of the many folks living with and dying of AIDS in the compounds, the very poorest communities on the fringes of Kitwe, the northern Zambian city he lived in. No, we were to teach some English in the local school and maybe help with some first-aid. And we were take our time and listen, and see where we might fit in. Sometimes we were good at that, sometimes we weren’t.

There are many notions tangled up in my question, few of which I could recognise myself at the time. What were my thoughts about other people’s poverty, and maybe about my own? Did I think I could do better, or just as well at least, as a local person? What role does international volunteering have in addressing complex issues? Who really benefits in the end?

It was 12 years ago and half a world away, our time as volunteers in Zambia, but some reading I did the other night reminded me of my conversations with Paul. I got stuck into reading a number of blogs about international aid and development – a couple of them I regularly read, but as happens with online  reading, a link to a link to a link takes me all sorts of places I never expected. Very often it’s worth it though. It’s worth examining why orphanages are a bad idea most of the time, or the way grinding poverty gets mistaken for authenticity. It’s worth asking questions about well-intended schemes to free people from human slavery or send a million shirts to ‘Africa’, or even about the way we characterise communities that are only ever seen as poor, and never anything else. All these bear further thinking about – so often good intentions are gravely misguided, and the errors gets hidden away beneath the goodwill, seldom exposed for their ignorance.

None of this is new – debate about the best ways to address pressing issues is ongoing. There is a natural counterpoint to this too. We could get paralysed with fear that we might do something wrong. Surely good intentions should be applauded? Surely passion for alleviating poverty and harnessing the vast resources of those who have them is a key part of working for justice and compassion. With too much complexity and too much criticism, won’t we kill the passion and creativity? Creativity and passion are powerful forces – for good and evil, but they are never enough.

In this vein, the importance of self-examination and critical thinking cannot be under-estimated, especially on actions that affect others so much. As one writer argued, we don’t let anyone do brain surgery on our relatives just because they’re keen and they have a creative idea. In our thinking about contributing to overseas aid and development, often we are not as thorough. The feel-good factor of offering help in times of need can often cancel out the important task of thinking about further ramifications of our actions.

There are so many others can write with clarity about these matters with much more maturity and expertise than me, but in a sense it helps me crystalise my own thoughts, and to encourage others to go on a similar journey. I would recommend a read of some of the material on Blood and Milk, Good intentions are not enough, Aid watchers and many of the writers they link to. And I think  Staying for tea writes a beaut post about competence and passion and humility, that makes good sense of some of the competing ideas. It’s a bit like a chain that never ends.

And I make these comments here with trepidation, because who am I, having rarely travelled beyond my own comfort zone compared to so many others? However, in a world that always seems to be in strife, where a million causes and ideas to face them stare out at us, our own seeming good intentions and the intentions of others need serious consideration. Ignorance can so often be laziness.

The road to hell is paved.

Sorry

May 28, 2010

It was Sorry Day on Wednesday – the day in Australia we remember the sorry business that was the forcible removal of Indigenous children over many generations. We had a festival here in Perth to mark the moment.

Despite its roots being in sadness, it was a wonderful day – beaut music, some storytelling and speeches by some Nyungar elders, a smoking ceremony, and lots of activities for school kids to join in on too. There was a fantastic turn out of schools, which was a real positive of the day – a young generation that is hearing lots of honest talk about some of Australia’s darker history, learning some Indigenous culture – both old and new, and sharing ideas about walking along together and healing hurts from the past. I was struck by the gentleness of many of the people who spoke, people who have felt much pain in the past, but who show an enormous capacity for forgiveness and wisdom.

I was reminded though, that for many Indigenous people in Australia, life continues to be a struggle for all sorts of reasons, and that the ongoing feeling of being shafted, of being treated second best, is still ever-present for many. There is still a long road ahead, and days like Wednesday can be an enormous force for good. These public occasions have their limits though. The everyday actions and words exchanged between us and our neighbours, and whether government policy can be genuinely fair, will determine how well we can walk along together as a society too.

A while ago, I visited a friend in Alice Springs who has a close up view of life in a number of Northern Territory communities, and what impacts the 2008 Federal Government ‘Intervention’ has had on the life of people it was designed to help – from where she sits and especially for many of the Indigenous ladies she knows and works with, it’s been negative.

Like a lot of knee-jerk, politically motivated major policy changes, it just alienated more people, peddled misinformation about the nature of many Indigenous people and did little to provide any help for the many deep rooted problems that these people face. There were lots of new blue signs though, on many of the roads leading in and out of town, detailing the perils of bringing in alcohol and pornography – pity most of the writing was so small you couldn’t read it from the car, and that many of the folks from the communities wouldn’t be able to read most of it anyway.

Long-term, patient projects that are based on listening and respect are sometimes hard to find, and don’t get talked about all that much anyway. A comforting thing is that there are many people, Indigenous and not, who do great work in communities to bring about positive change. If only they were given more support.

Still, Wednesday was one of those special days – a background of sadness, but an inkling of hope. Worth holding on to.

Part-time work

May 24, 2010

 

watching the waves

 

Recently I found a poem that my then eight year old daughter had written to me for Father’s Day a couple of years ago. Most of it was heart warming and predictable – “he tickles me, I love him, he fixes things.” I remember though, it was the last line that caught my attention the most – “my Dad works part-time and I love him”.

I know people who regularly work at least 60 hours a week, often on Saturdays and Sundays and only ever see their children on occasional days off or for a quick sleepy cuddle at night if they’re lucky.

They are not alone. According to Australian researcher Hugh Mackay, more than one fifth of Australian workers work more than 50 hours a week, and about a third work regularly on the weekend. Australia is second highest on a list of industrialised countries who’s citizens work consistently long hours.

I remember another piece of research, from the Australia Institute a few years ago, which interviewed children about family life and parent’s work hours. They seemed to understand that parents need some paid work, but also expressed a longing for more time together, rather than to be compensated with having money spent on them. The wonderings of a young bloke called Eddie, aged 12, said it best:

 He misses out on seeing us. He wants to see us heaps and heaps and to make up for it … he buys stuff and he can see you feel sad”

 A cycle of pressure to earn and spend, to provide bigger houses, more up to date gadgets and fancier holidays could well play a role in the sad end result. As wealth and income increase across a society, the ability of people to derive satisfaction from their economic gain is reduced – a bit like the way a $100 is worth much more to someone who only owns $100, rather than to someone who’s income is much higher. Therefore, those seeking satisfaction from material wealth need to accumulate more in order to be satisfied – feeding a cycle of acquisition as well as dissatisfaction. In a society such as ours where material acquisition is a major goal and pastime, this rings particularly true, and makes the need to find ways to scale back consumption more urgent.

Just this week, the Australian Institute of Family Studies released a study about the time children spend with their parents. This included research about time fathers spend alone with their children, and it showed that Australian fathers spend on average less than hour a day with their children, and often as little as half an hour. Even on the weekend, the time alone with a father was still fairly low – on average about an hour and half.

There are complications of course, like family structures and changing work demands. However, it is also true that many children are spending less and less time with their fathers, and in many cases they’re unhappy about it.

Not everyone can work part-time. Not everyone can share parenting and household duties. Not all children can have a dad at home. However, there is wisdom in a little girl’s observation that something good is going on when a dad chooses time with them over other pressing demands, and keeps on doing it.

Your own idea

March 30, 2010

Talk about ‘community development’ is often littered with buzz-words. Terms like empowerment; grass-roots; community-based; participation – they seemingly get tacked on to any new policy or project to give it a bit of legitimacy or power. Sometimes true meaning gets lost.

I like this from a George Davies interview I was listening to, talking about a project he was part of:

“it is a network, it is a creating place where you can have a go at your ideas … rather than seniors in the church running an op shop and collecting money and making up food parcels to give to the poor, we made the space for people to have a go at their own idea.”

Now there’s a good thought to hang onto – making space for people, especially folks who are usually not listened to or don’t have much power, to have a go at their own ideas instead of getting told what they need to do.

Rusty brown dog?

March 26, 2010

I do have a dog. He is rusty brown and his name is Arthur. And he is a good companion on our late night walks together.

My rusty brown dog is reliable and friendly. He listens in to me, seemingly without his own agenda in mind, and he is easy to please. One thing about dogs is how content they are. They make a big deal about small things – a stick, a biscuit, a trace of a smell they sense in a prickly bush. They don’t worry about what other dogs think of their body shape – they don’t mind being fat or skinny or not having curves in the right places. They don’t watch television, they don’t ask for lollies. They don’t gossip about other dogs and they don’t have hip clothes. They don’t check the price of their shares, plan for retirement, or search for friends on facebook. They are glad to see us when we get home.

I read a book once which listed all these things we could learn from dogs, like being loyal and never pretending to be something you’re not, like not passing up the chance to go for a joy ride, and that when someone’s having a bad day you should just sit quietly by, and nuzzle them gently.

I was also reading another book about dogs and humans, and how we ended up forming such an alliance. Who needed who first? It may well have been that the dog-human relationship was based on mutual survival. In early human times, we needed each other. They needed us for protection. We needed them to help us hunt. And having some closer affiliation with another member of the animal kingdom was comforting, and the alliance with the dog became relational as well as practical.

In a more modern world, maybe we still need each other just as much, but for survival in a different way. From where I sit, much of the modern world endures what some call a ‘social recession’ – broken relationships, outrageous consumption, financial stress, greed, depression, fear of strangers. 

A fascination with wealth and continual gathering of possessions is a central part of our culture, and it makes me terribly uneasy. The uneasiness is compounded by the knowledge of a world in which so many people suffer from not having enough of the basics for survival – food, water, shelter and medicines. It is an uneasiness that surfaces at children’s birthday parties, on reluctant trips to suburban shopping complexes and not surprisingly, emerges a lot at Christmas. There is a nagging inside that searches for a simpler but better life that might have been lost somewhere and a wariness of an overriding greed that is seldom recognised. I suspect that not only is too much consumption unfair, it erodes many of the good things about human life and living in community. In a way, we all miss out.

The apparent contentedness of the dog reminds me of that inner struggle, and how it might be different. Can we take a dog for a walk and learn from his contentment – he smells the air and plants. He wags his tale and gives a doggy smile to his family, and then he does the same for strangers too. When he comes home and sleeps, he needs no hi-tech entertainment or alcohol, just some companions and a home.

And rusty brown? Brown does not belong only to my dog Arthur. Brown is the colour of long dusty roads, the earth, of skin, and brown paper bags. It is the colour of rust, of chocolate and bread and brewed tea, of old bottles and tree trunks, of worn out and old things. And it’s the colour of recycling and nature. It is a good companion for green in the symbolism of sustainability.

We are different species’, but the simplicity of my rusty brown dog reminds me of what life could be. The people I know who aim to live as simply as they can – to use less resources, to focus more on relationships and justice and compassion than on material acquisition, contribute more to a saner world than they could ever imagine. Often they have more time to be with neighbours and families, and to help out at local schools and community projects. They use less resources and create less waste. And they give things away – money and time, to projects that alleviate poverty close by and far away. Often they seem more satisfied too, more content, more aware, even as they live honestly with the limitations of their own actions and the knowledge of a world in strife.

It makes sense really, that simple living has a lot to offer our current times. Our world is faced by an environmental crisis requiring massive change to the way we consume resources, and poverty and inequality are a persistent reality. If we are critical enough, most modern western societies are diminished by genuine concerns about health, well-being and community. That social recession just won’t go away. The actions circling around simple living bring some genuine alternatives on a number of fronts  – less resource use, generous sharing, more time and intent for rebuilding often fragmented neighbourhoods. No doubt these actions and attitudes also involve struggles and dilemmas, and it seems, an amount of courage. It sounds like a movement suited to our times.

My rusty brown dog reminds me of these ideas and actions and hopes. Perhaps they are just what we need, not only for survival, but for a life worth living.