(Part III in a series from a forthcoming book, Transforming the Healer)
As we accept the reality of our own pain and struggle, and begin to recognize their universality, we open ourselves to the voice of the soul. We hear and feel things we never heard or felt before about our gifts and our strengths. There is energy within, a nudge to speak out, move, or act in new or different ways.
We also notice things in the world that we never noticed before. Eventually the inner stirring is confirmed by an opportunity or request from without.
In the interplay of the inner and outer comes a message: “You possess the right capabilities to address a particular problem in the world. You are the one able to offer that which is needed.”
This is Call, a deeply felt motivation to mobilize our own unique blend of interests and abilities to address a particular need in the world. As the next story shows, transformation is not only about hearing our own Call, but about relating to others in ways that help them hear theirs.
Inevitably, the transformative journey calls us into action on behalf of others, for at our highest potential, we care as much about others as ourselves. If we understand transformation, our response will be different than “helping others” or “fixing their problems.” We have to help others experience their own sense of Call.
In the 1970s, Macler Shepherd was an African American businessman who ran a furniture repair business in St. Louis. Hubert Schwartzentruber was a pastor - recently arrived from Ontario - with a sense of call to serve the city. Determined to mobilize the community for better housing, schools, and services, Schwartzentruber recognized enormous leadership ability in Shepherd. “When are you going to help your people, Macler?” he would ask when he dropped in to visit.
Shepherd began assisting in organizing community campaigns. He enjoyed this so much and was so effective that he left his business to assistants and began spending his time in community work. Eventually he sold the business and became full-time director of the largest community development agency in the city, managing projects bringing millions of dollars of investment and development funds into the community.
In the interaction between Shepherd and Schwartzentruber we see transformation at work in several ways. Responding to the transformational nudgings of his friend, Shepherd allowed himself to move beyond the safe routines of a successful business. He began to use his ability to plan and lead in ways he had never done before, and from this emerged a powerful Call. From this emerged a new career in community developed that changed the lives of tens of thousands of people.
For his part, Schwartzentruber understood the role of being a transformative presence to others. Rather than burn himself out trying to be the heroic leader of a struggle for justice in a community in which he would always be an outsider, he recognized that he could give more by empowering others to lead in that struggle. Working quietly, selflessly, and persistently in the relational web of the community he served, Schwartzentruber found a way to be the early voice of the transformative Call that stirred Shepherd.
Schwartzentruber’s contribution was being a catalyst of transformation in others. He did this in relationship to an individual, but he impacted a whole community, as the individual whom he interacted with became a leader of many. Perhaps equally important, he modeled a way of being that lives on in the memory of those who knew him. The transformative values that guided him linger long after his departure.
It took me twenty years of full-time work as a facilitator and trainer of peacebuilding before I could state clearly why I felt uncomfortable with a great deal of what takes place in the field of peacebuilding. Throughout this time I had close association with – and for nine years, employment by – the Mennonite Central Committee. Alongside relief work and advocacy for justice and peace, MCC does community development, so for a quarter century I had the privilege and challenge of looking at human beings through the eyes of seasoned development practitioners.
Development is a major industry in our world. For decades, wealthy nations have sent people, money, and technology to “the South” for “development assistance”. But the sad truth is that development is a failed industry. The billions spent on development in the last fifty years have largely been wasted and almost certainly benefited donors more than recipients. Communities that planners once imagined would prosper remain poor. Rusting equipment and vacant buildings litter the globe like monuments to the empty dreams of a generation of “development experts”.
Why? The reasons are complex, but largely they have to do with a preoccupation with products rather than people. Development has been understood in material terms, with a goal to build clinics or roads or manufacturing facilities. The factor key to any sustainable change process, the people affected, have mostly been ignored. Absent transformative strategies, money poured into roads and buildings and new technology is wasted. Unrecognized, uninformed, uninvolved, and unempowered, the people whom development is intended to assist lose connection to development projects. When money runs out and the outsiders leave, projects die.
To be transformative, development must give first priority to strengthening the ability of communities to take control of their own future, with strategies like listening to local community people about what they see as needs, working closely with local decision-making processes, setting up accountability of projects to local communities, identifying and working with the best of local traditions and resources rather than rushing to import from the outside.
The truth is that development as widely practiced is mostly driven by the needs and agendas of development organizations and their funders. The assumption is that outsiders know better than locals the problems that must be addressed and how to address them. It is taken for granted that development workers make decisions for rather than with those who will live with the consequences of those decisions.
Keenly aware of the failures of most development work, my colleagues at Mennonite Central Committee evolved a different model. “Your goal should always be to work yourself out of a job,” said John A. Lapp, chief executive of the organization, in his first conversation with me. Over and over I heard about the “listening/learning stance”, “acknowledging local resources”, “context appropriate technology”, “sustainability”, a “long-term timeframe”.
Those phrases may sound like jargon, but they point to a way of being present to others rarely practiced in our world. A transformative presence helps others, not by giving them things or making decisions for them, but by building their capacities to address their own problems. Perhaps most important of all, it strengthens people’s confidence in their own capacity.
This development-oriented approach has pervaded Mennonite peacebuilding approaches in situations of conflict. In the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University, we wrote and regularly revised a one-page summary of principles that guide in designing transformative peacebuilding practice. In essence, these principles are the application of the best development insights to the design and implementation of peace work. You will find a current version in the sidebar on this page (or at the end of the chapter).
Underlying these principles is the awareness – much of it arising from the experience of generations of community development work that influenced us - that the key questions determining whether we work transformatively are not whether we are good at planning, persuasive in negotiation, or organized in administration. These skills assist the creation of peace and other good outcomes, to be sure. But something else determines whether our work is transformative: Is our first commitment to honoring and expanding the existing capacities of those we serve?
More than half of the principles are about relationships, the only context in which transformation can possibly take place. Many involve some form of bracketing of self, reducing preoccupation with our agendas as outsiders and focusing instead on the needs and resources of those we serve. Reflecting the wisdom of sustainable community development work throughout the world, the principles take it as given that decision-making power must be shared.
Applying these principles of transformation demands much of world healers. On one hand we bring a vision for change to every place that we go: the creation of a just and peaceful world to replace the unjust and violent one we live in. We have an agenda!
But change doesn’t stick unless it is deeply rooted in the people involved. This means that the alternatives we advocate cannot be ours. They must emerge from and be carried by the people and communities we seek to serve. People must “own” the ideas and skills they are learning. No amount of zeal, hard work, and dedication on our part can substitute for the commitment of others. For our healing intentions to have impact and survive, we have no choice but to work in ways that empower others to carry on without depending on us.
For thought and discussion
The post describes transformative leadership as helping others to recognize and expand their own capacity for solving the problems important to them. Do you know people or institutions in your own profession who are not transformative in the way they operate? If you wanted to teach someone how to operate in this non-transformative way, what would you advise them to do?
Now name someone or some organization you know of that operates transformatively. What does this look like in practice? What attitudes, values, skills, and resources are required to achieve this?
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