Stop the Empty Lip Services
It may seem like a strange time to talk about Strength Based Community Change (SBCC) given the devastation we are facing. Yet I see that strength all around me in the communities SBCC partners with. I see it in the generosity of folks who have lost their job and struggle every day to make ends meet. Yet despite their multiple challenges they want to make a contribution to their neighbors and their community. They show up time and time again to distribute food, advocate for legislation they care about, and organize to insure full participation in the Census.
They refuse to lose hope. Their strength comes from their families and neighborhood relationships, from fellowship and generosity. SBCC has been FEARLESS in response to this terrible time and so have our resident partners. SBCC has been innovative, creative and demonstrated a capacity to turn every challenge into an opportunity for growth. Our resident and community partners have led the way by never giving in to pity and despair.
“I have observed many well-funded social service non-profits close their doors and work from home”
Ironically, many of them are the beneficiaries of multiple LA County contracts. In fact millions of dollars from the LA County Departments. These non-profits are agencies that diagnose and treat folks. They employ well paid professionals yet you won’t see them in the neighborhood. You can find them on ZOOM, Google Hangouts, Teams or other remote platforms. They can give out gift cards remotely but they can’t deliver food, diapers, clothes, soap, face masks, or an encouraging word of support.
These non-profits can provide therapy via tele therapy but they can’t help folks with their rent or utilities? They can send you a flyer about the importance of the Census but they are not innovative enough to implement a census caravan to travel to neighborhoods with the lowest enrollment. They are not setting up tables to help folks fill out the Census forms or provide a reassuring conversation that filling out the Census will not bring ICE to your door.
Yet even though these professionals do not leave their house they will continue to be paid by the county for all the services they provide from the safety of their home. I don’t think that family and community healing is coming from professionals who provide tele-therapy or consultants who sometimes don’t even live in LA. This crisis is an income boom for folks who work from home and deliver their scope of work virtually. In fact these folks are prospering. How can any of us in the field rely on their expertise? They thrive on abstract theories because they have no direct experience with family’s daily situations. They have charts, books, and power points, but they have no experience with the challenges real families face.
Who has stepped into this void to take the lead in real family and community healing, in providing the connections that help families sustain hope and fellowship? When social connection and support are vital? Neighbors have stepped forward to create the circle of family, friends and neighbors that provide relief from isolation, resources, and the courage to endure. The heroes are ordinary folks taking the time to comfort a friend in the hospital, taking time to pray with them, offering to shop for the homebound, sharing what little they have (soap, shampoo, family games, favorite poems and books, advice and humor) with each other. Ordinary folks are taking the lead in driving home the importance of participating in the census, in encouraging civic engagement, in devising safe, innovative strategies to reinforce community connection through activities that bring neighbors together to celebrate their resiliency.
Why should we care about the huge discrepancies between country and foundation investment in professional expertise instead of resident lived experience and community wisdom? Professional expertise is very expensive and these folks often don’t live in the communities they serve. Their credentials are earned through an academic exercise that validates their competence with a degree in the subject matter they chose. There is no assessment of their capacity for empathy, creativity, innovation or their capacity to form social connections.
It turns out in this national crisis empathy, creativity, innovation, and the capacity to form and maintain social connections are much more important than professional expertise. It is also true that to fight back against all the challenges families’ face you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. You have to be willing to take risks. Residents in partnership with small grass roots community based non-profits are much better at this fight than large corporate non-profits who have multiple layers of bureaucratic decision makers.
For years, County and foundation leaders have been talking about the value of community wisdom and resident lived experience. However, they do not lead by example or put their money where their mouth is. They do not fund resident led campaigns and small grassroots non-profits have to go into debut to comply with the requirements they have for a fund-able proposal. They prioritize intellectual and communication skills over core values and authentic social connections to the folks the funder wants to invest in. They fund the usual suspects over and over again and they worship at the altar of evidence based best practice. Ironically those interventions labeled as evidence based best practice are the most mundane, conservative and patronizing interventions.
The folks leading the way to resilient strategies for surviving and conquering the massive challenge of COVID19 are the folks in low income low resource communities (many of them essential workers) who get up every day and do their duty. They don’t quit. They will not accept defeat. It is time we gave them the respect and credibility they deserve. It is time to honor resident lived experience and community wisdom. Fund the community building work of folks in the community and the grass roots non-profits they trust.