Community-Based Work Requires Fearlessness!

Every single day I walk into my work with the fear and dread of my first day of kindergarten, desperately looking around the room for insights on who my friends will be and what the expectations are.
06/03/2012 11:45 am ET Updated Aug 02, 2012

My life's work innocently started out under the banner of "transforming communities." Trained as an educator and an anthropologist, I found that in the beginning, the goals and ideas of this work seemed clear enough. Yet in practice, my career has brought me into very different communities to focus on uniquely defined questions. I have focused on leadership development for youth behind the barbed wire fences of prisons and on the playgrounds of schools. I have delved into economic development programs in communities painfully recovering from natural disasters. I even spent six months in a yurt in Mongolia working to mitigate the negative impacts of tourism.

Most recently, my work has catapulted me to consider policy initiatives to support farmland preservation and advance agricultural viability by working with a broad-based coalition of food systems activists and agricultural producers that together form the Working Lands Alliance. In hindsight, I have built up a resume rooted in new experience rather than critical expertise. It's a resume that has determined that every single day I walk into my work with the fear and dread of my first day of kindergarten, desperately looking around the room for insights on who my friends will be and what the expectations are. In fact, much of my career has been spent trying to escape the nagging feeling of overwhelming concern that the problems we are being asked to solve are much bigger than we are and that the solutions are far too big for one person to handle.

The more I authentically engage in the challenges that face our communities -- advancing agriculture, promoting food access, developing leadership and efficacy skills for youth whether they are in prisons and in schools -- the more it becomes clear that community-based work requires a complex and collaborative approach. For example, most of our food travels some 2,000 miles from field, to harvest, through processing, to distributors, to purchasers and finally to market before it comes to our tables. It quickly becomes apparent that we are trapped in a world of "inescapable mutuality," a term used by Peter Senge and former World Bank President Mieko Nishimizu. The problem with inescapable mutuality is that tugging on one string to affect one area of change inadvertently tends to pull on another sector of our lives. That means that working in agriculture necessarily impacts (and is impacted by) economics, health, justice, and the environment. It also means that even if I gain proficiency in one of those areas, it simply leads to another area that I need to learn.

Every time that I work with a community of colleagues, I hope that I might be able to bring some simple solutions -- a magic bullet of insight learned from more than 20 years in the field. Instead, it turns out, "fixing a broken food system" (fixing any system) requires a fiercely cooperative approach coupled with the empathic flexibility to look beyond our own interests or viewpoints. [1]

Every new meeting reminds me that I am always starting from scratch, muddling through the very basic needs of community-based work -- building relationships, listening to new points of view, seeking a larger frame for understanding the questions, cultivating collaborative capacity, engaging new voices, and facing a very real fear that comes from not having all of the answers. Perhaps the solutions to the complex problems that our communities face are best sought by giving up a search for knowing all of the answers and loving the questions. As Rilke said (and I'm paraphrasing), "Perhaps someday far in the future, we might gradually, without even noticing it, live our way into the answer."

1. Fierce Cooperation is a wonderful slogan adopted by the Working Lands Alliance.

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