Once upon a time, there was a very curious person living in a beautiful city with a river running through it. This person, though they did not know it, was a hero — a hero who asked a lot of questions.
One day our curious hero — let’s call them CH — noticed that in the river rushing by there was somebody drowning.
“What can I do to help?” CH asked and instinctively jumped into action.
Fully engaged, CH found that there were in fact several people in the river in need of assistance. Furthermore, rescue teams were already in place throwing life jackets, supplies of food, and swimming lessons. CH had discovered Community Service.
So, CH volunteered to help out.
Food drives, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners were organized. Fundraisers in support of the rescue efforts involved hundreds of people. Dozens more were employed in the work.
After some time as a volunteer, CH began thinking about a career in Community Service work. The wages weren’t great — but the work offered great satisfaction. It felt meaningful to help those folks in the river. And it seemed like there were more and more people caught struggling in those waters.
As CH was contemplating this decision, a small voice caught CH’s attention. Looking around, our curious friend spied a squirrel sitting in a tree on a low branch. “I know you’re as busy as a squirrel in the fall,” said the furry creature “but can I ask you a question?”
There was a real need for comradery and self-care. The issue of so many people in the river seemed below the radar of politicians and corporate leaders who were willing to support Community Service work but tended to blame the individuals for falling into the river.
“Of course,” replied our somewhat surprised hero.
“How did so many people end up in the river?” the squirrel asked between nibbles on an acorn, “I thought you humans belonged on dry land.”
“Good question” thought CH with those little black beady squirrel eyes staring at him, head cocked to the side.
Puzzled, CH decided to journey upstream in search of an answer.
Just around the next bend in the river, a group of people were organizing a protest rally. “Join us!” they called to the hero, “We’re outraged that in our wealthy city that there are so many people in the river.”
And so, CH joined the group and became a Community Activist and Advocate.
Workshops were organized to understand the root causes of people struggling in the river. Online petitions to government were distributed. Boycotts, shareholder actions, and public demonstrations to engage media attention were carefully crafted.
CH made many good friends in this often-discouraging work. There was a real need for comradery and self-care. The issue of so many people in the river seemed below the radar of politicians and corporate leaders who were willing to support Community Service work but tended to blame the individuals for falling into the river. When it came to dealing with the underlying policy choices, the political will was just not there to make significant changes. “Further study was needed.”
One day, on the way to a rally and while considering a PhD in political science, CH was abruptly halted by a squawk. Looking around our hero saw a Blue Jay sitting in a tree on a low branch.
“It seems like you’re very busy with your consciousness-raising work,” cried the Jay, “but can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” replied our somewhat surprised hero.
“Why” asked the Jay “aren’t those people you pull from the river involved in your workshops and rallies?”
CH had often invited folks from the river to attend but they would come to one or two gatherings and then disappear again.
In fact, in spite of all the Community Activism, there seemed to be even more people in the river every day.
The Jay asked, “Would you call yourself an ally to folks in the river?”
“I’ve been told that it isn’t possible to call one’s self an ally — you need to earn that title,” responded CH who was a little proud to have not made that mistake.
“So, how might you become an ally?” squawked the Jay with piercing black eyes.
“Good question,” agreed CH.
Curious as ever, our hero decided to journey even further upstream in search of an answer to the Jay’s somewhat probing and uncomfortable question.
Upstream, the river grew narrow and faster flowing. At one point, CH noticed all sorts of people trying to cross the river — elderly people, people with children in tow, people of all races, abilities, and disabilities. CH noticed that the only way across the river was over eleven slippery stones. (Please see appendix below).
CH was dismayed to see people slipping and sliding over the stones. Some were able to regain their footholds, but others fell into the river and were swept away.
On the far bank of the river, our hero saw the folks who had managed to get across, gathered into small groups around campfires. Curious as ever, our hero wanted to approach one of those circles to ask the people, “Why isn’t there a better way to get across the river. Why isn’t there a proper bridge?”
But just as CH approached the slippery bank where the slippery stones began, a small voice was calling. Our hero looked around but there were no trees nearby with low branches.
“Look down here” said the small voice barely loud enough to hear over the sounds of the rapids. Looking down CH saw a turtle looking up.
“I can hear laughter and songs coming from across the river. I can smell the aroma of food cooking. I’m hungry for more than answers you might say.”
“Why are you going to try to cross the river?” asked the turtle.
“I want to help those folks falling into the water and I’m looking for answers,” replied our curious hero.
“Are you sure you want to get those nice shoes wet?” inquired the turtle, “it’s a pretty slippery walk”.
“Oh, I got my feet wet doing Community Service work,” explained our hero. “But, I’m on a quest for answers.”
“Did you try Google?” asked the turtle patiently.
“I got lots of answers from my Community Activist friends,” CH explained. “But, now I’m more interested in what those people across the river have to say. It’s been a long journey. I can hear laughter and songs coming from across the river. I can smell the aroma of food cooking. I’m hungry for more than answers you might say.” Our hero looked around to see if anyone would think it strange that they were talking with a turtle.
“Are you in a hurry?” asked the turtle. “You humans always seem to be in a hurry.”
“I’m too tired to be in a hurry,” explained our hero, not sure why they were justifying themselves to a turtle.
“Are you a good listener?” pried the turtle further.
“I’m listening to you, aren’t I?” replied CH impatiently.
“Can you leave your answers here on this side of the river?” asked the turtle, “and come out of your protective shell?”
“That seems like a lot to ask coming from a turtle.” CH was becoming exasperated by this quiz when all they wanted to do was help.
“I’m only asking,” explained the turtle patiently, “because those circles across the river are doing COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT work. It’s slow work. There are no easy answers — even though the solutions seem simple. There are only small acts with small lessons to learn. Everyone is welcome but only those willing to listen, to learn, to change their own hearts and minds before trying to change anyone else’s are going to stay with it.”
“But couldn’t we simply get politicians, consultants, architects, engineers, and bankers to build a proper bridge,” exclaimed our hero. “Politicians have connections with all the right people. They know how to get things done. They know how to work the system. It could be a case study for academics. They can show them the way!”
“Very impressive,” said the turtle stifling a yawn. “There are people like that across the river in those circles.”
“Then why isn’t there a bridge here instead of these slippery stones?” asked our now more exasperated than curious hero.
“Good question,” said the turtle. “If you’re ready to leave your solutions here on this side, if you’re ready to listen and learn, then your journey has just begun.”
“Ohhhh shhhhit!” said CH plopping down beside the turtle on the muddy riverbank. “Community Service was so simple. The needs were clear, and it was easy to get involved and feel good about it.”
“Felt good didn’t it?” nodded the turtle.
“And Community Activism is good and important work. Educating people and raising awareness about the issues made me feel like things could change!” CH added
“Got to know a bunch of like-minded people, didn’t you?” encouraged the turtle.
“But now you’re suggesting I cross that river and start by getting to know a whole different way of looking at things. Not fixing the problem but becoming a part of a circle journeying together to discover something very old and very simple”
“So?” asked the turtle.
“So, I don’t think there’s any grants for this.
Just then a person wearing a wetsuit came across the slippery stones and seeing CH sitting on the bank, invited them to join a campfire right over the hill on that side of the river.
“We’re doing what we can with what we’ve got. A few of us were rescued downriver and have come back to try to figure out how to keep folks from falling in. Some of us have been educated by Activists and have come up-river to try to make a difference right here and right now. Mostly we tell stories, learn from one another, and share our connections,” said the wet-suited one.
“We know change happens slowly. And some of us are just sick of trying to cross that river alone every day. We’re working together in teams on strategies that we can do now, using the few resources we have — not waiting for the politicians and professionals to figure it out for us.”
“Now that you mention it — I see several campfire teams along the bank here,” said our curious hero. “Why don’t you all get together?”
“We believe there’s enough room for everyone in a local economy. It’s simply our lack of imagination, our failure to create ways to distribute resources and opportunities, and our fears of ‘not enough to go round’ that have hampered our relationships with folks on those eleven slippery stones.”
The wet-suited one replied, “We choose not to because, by keeping each team small, we find that we can stay focussed on the members of each team. We do get together regularly to share our SOCIAL INNOVATIONS, but we prefer to stay small and stay focussed.”
This made CH even more curious. “If I keep going upstream — what will I find?”
“We send team members up there regularly. It’s the head waters where many rivers and streams and creeks all come together. It’s where we connect our downstream work with the SOCIAL MOVEMENT that’s happening, changing the conversations, and changing ways of working.
“CHANGING THE CONVERSATION?” asked CH.
“Yes, instead of trying to fix poverty and the people caught in it — we’re asking how to utilize the skills, problem-solving, and tenacity of people who — for one reason or another — find themselves on the margins of our local economies,” said the wet-suited one. “We believe there’s enough room for everyone in a local economy. It’s simply our lack of imagination, our failure to create ways to distribute resources and opportunities, and our fears of ‘not enough to go round’ that have hampered our relationships with folks on those eleven slippery stones.”
“Seems like a lot to change.” observed CH.
“One relationship at a time,” smiled the wet-suited one.
CH still had one more question. By this time the light was gone from the sky. The campfires had dwindled, people drifted off to sleep, and the stars shone bright. Our hero was alone, with no one but the stars to ask, “Where do I belong?”
Is my heart in COMMUNITY SERVICE work?
Is my heart in COMMUNITY ACTIVISM?
Is my heart in COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT and SOCIAL INNOVATION work?
Or, is my heart in the SOCIAL MOVEMENT?
At each bend in the river, there was good and important work being done. There were hard-working people making a difference in their own ways according to the gifts they have to share. Each bend in the river seemed to inform what’s happening at the next. At each bend our hero had learned new lessons. At each bend our hero’s worldviews had been changed. Our hero was not the same person who first asked that question “What can I do to help?”
One thing that hadn’t changed was our hero’s curiosity. Our hero knew that wherever they decided to pitch in, the questions would keep coming and the learning would continue. They knew that when they returned home and told their friends and family and neighbours about the journey, the story would end with the same question…
“Where will you find your heart’s calling in this work?”
Glossary of Terms
COMMUNITY SERVICE: Includes all kinds of professional and volunteer hands-on activities. Service work assists people living in poverty to cope with their situation. This work involves treating the many symptoms that arise when people live in poverty. It has become an industry employing many, many, workers and volunteers.
COMMUNITY ACTIVISM: Involves education and awareness building around the root causes of poverty. This work seeks to focus attention and public opinion on the political policy issues that keep people dependent on Community Service workers.
ELEVEN SLIPPERY STONES: or “Eleven Essential Resources” (see also Seven Indicators of Health). We all need a balance of resources to keep our lives stable and healthy. The Bridges Out Of Poverty workshop outlines these resources as well as the “Hidden Rules of Class” that are often missed within Community Service work. People without a healthy balance of resources often find themselves struggling in the “Tyranny of the Moment” — needing to focus on day-to-day challenges to just survive. Planning ahead becomes next to impossible. (For more detail see Eleven Essential Resources below.)
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT: Because Community Service and Community Activism comprise urgent needs of people who are often in crises, there are few resources, or energy, left for practical innovations that can make life more stable for folks living in poverty. Social and Economic Innovations are led by people with the lived-experience of poverty. They innovate with what’s at hand, not waiting for political change or resources beyond their grasp to change things. “Whatever the problem — community is the answer” is the motto of this approach.
SOCIAL INNOVATIONS: are led by “Passionate Amateurs” working on the margins of systems. They are people who “care deeply” about complex problems and use their creativity to shine new insights into traditional approaches. They know the barriers posed by the current systems first hand. “Their intentions are unwavering. Their standards are high. They know that slow, incremental change isn’t good enough for the people they love. Their social innovations are the result of repeated failures, of continual attempts to make things better. Their resources are limited, so they know how to stretch a dollar and make the best use of whatever materials are at hand.” (Al Etmanski’s “Impact” 2015.)
SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: Connect the dots of a million small acts. They provide a vehicle for collaborating and cooperating across sectors. “Movements address the most critical yet elusive sets of change variables: culture.” For example, the Permaculture global movement works with 3 principles of Earth-care, People-care, and Sharing the Wealth.
Movements set about creating the beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible. They ignite our imaginations. They are multi-generational. They comprise small acts in order to change big issues. They are self-organizing. They marry Art and Justice to give us experiences of what this new world will look like. (Al Etmanski’s “Impact” 2015.)
CHANGING THE CONVERSATION How much effort has gone into reducing poverty? How is it in a G20 country of advanced technology, bureaucracies, and human rights legislations, that we can’t figure out how to trickle down enough wealth to meet the needs of our neighbours?
1. We blame the victims.
2. We blame the politicians who won’t raise taxes for fear of losing their seat for such an unpopular cause.
3. We blame the system that’s overwhelmed with needs too many to sustain.
But what if we changed the conversation?
• What if we chose to talk instead about our failure to redistribute wealth effectively?
• What if the problem has very little to do with “the poor”?
• What if the problem is actually those of us who enjoy privilege and wealth?
Talking about the problems of the poor is a great way to distract the conversation. From heartwarming success stories of those who’ve escaped poverty’s clutches to heart-breaking stories of those who are drowning in our midst while we shake our heads or throw them a leaky inner tube.
BRIDGES OUT OF POVERTY: A educational framework designed to answer the question “Why don’t middle-class solutions work for people living in poverty?” This framework has brought people togther in over 380 communities across North America and the world. People from all sectors and economic classes come together to improve job retention rates, build resources, improve outcomes, support those who are moving out of poverty and build a more prosperous and sustainable community. (source: BOOP Website Bridges Out of Poverty.)
Eleven Essential Resources:
1. Emotional Health: ability to maintain balance in tough situations.
2. Mental: Ability to learn and capacity to access training/education.
3. Physical Health: Mobility, energy, wellbeing.
4. Spiritual Health: Grounded in a sense of purpose.
5. Financial Health: sufficient funds to purchase necessities every month. Affordable secure housing, food, childcare, healthcare, & transportation.
6. Communication Skills: Asking good questions. Listening & conversation skills. Understanding the formal and informal language registers.
7. Social Network: Family, friends, with access to resources.
8. Role Models: Positive influence of people who consistently behave in nurturing and appropriate ways.
9. Knowledge of Hidden Rules: Understand social cues of different socio-economic classes — or “cultures” — and why they matter.
10. Integrity & Trust: Establishing a reputation with solid references.
11. Motivation & Perseverance: Support to stay focused on the path in spite of the “Tyranny of the Moment”.
HIDDEN RULES OF CLASS: Cultural “norms” of different socio-economic classes often unspoken and misunderstood across the class divides that occur in modern western societies. It is difficult to swim in middle-class waters when one does not know, or follow, the Hidden Rules. (eg. prioritizing daytimers over inter-personal survival-strategies, having a “future story” versus dealing with the “tyranny of the moment.”)
TYRANNY OF THE MOMENT: Being stuck in the immediate moment, the now, not being able to see past today due to a lack of essential resources.
BRIDGING TEAMS: a group of individuals who develop relationships across economic lines to learn from one another, inspire, support, and build skills towards maintaining stable and fulfilling lives.
BEDFORD HOUSE: serves as a community catalyst for social and spiritual innovations. www.bedfordhouse.ca
This letter has been curated with Allan’s permission and has been adapted from its original form as it appears on Allan’s Facebook page.
Poverty is Not the Problem with Allan Smith-Reeve.
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