Community Engagement · Reflections

Community happens when…

Community happens when the many realize their oneness1 …

  • When the neighbor is loved as the self;2
  • When the suffering that is experienced by the one directly is also suffered by the many indirectly;3
  • When the common good – and especially the good of the poor, the oppressed, the stranger – is cherished as well as the good of the self;4
  • When difference is understood as the root of wholeness;5 and
  • When liberative dialogue grounded in love, humility, faith, mutual trust, hope, and critical thinking progressively speaks a new, more just reality into existence;6

… so that everyone – human and more-than-human7 – has the capability to fully flourish8.

The goal of engagement and social change projects is to, in allyship with the oppressed9, counter the coercive ideology of the elite and the common sense hegemony of our social institutions10 so as to dismantle the systems of oppression that stand in the way of community. The means of engagement and social change projects must, whenever possible, advance the knowledge power with and within11 the many and the one so as to avoid replacing one form of power over with another form of power over12. To this ends, engagement and social change are not side projects, but a lens and process that infuse all that we do and are as we dedicate ourselves to building community.


[1] We are always mutually interdependent but often act as if we are independent. Community starts when we come to appreciate and act intentionally on our oneness.
[2] Many of the major religions and the non-religious all champion some form of this golden rule. However, in her book Becoming an Ally, Anne Bishop highlights the importance of working to heal our own oppression if we are to better serve as an ally for others — that is, love our neighbors as ourselves. Unhealed, loving our neighbor as ourselves may instead serve as a mirror for the unhealthy ways we love ourselves.
[3] Many have noted this mutuality, but in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., stated this point particularly well:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

[4] Calls towards a common good have been made periodically throughout our history. A good review of the problems with the concept, but also the value of it, has been developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer. An example of a recent dialog regarding the common good can be seen in this article by Jim Wallis and a followup caution by Onlielove Alston as part of Huffington Post’s ‘Common Good’ series.
[5] Two recommended resources exploring the value and necessity of difference are Iris Marion Young’s chapter “Difference as a Resource for Democratic Communication” in Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics, and Cricket Keating’s article “Building Coalitional Consciousness” in the NWSA Journal, 17(2), 86-103.
[6] Both John Dewey in Experience and Education and Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed highlight the need to bring action together with reflection in community as part of an educational process and also a social change process. We work together — community inquiry — to envision and bring about an alternate reality in what Dewey stresses is a true participatory democracy. Freire especially emphasizes the dialogic aspects and a process of liberative conscientization while Dewey helpfully constructs a theory of experience that grounds a progressive form of inquiry-based, problem-posing education.
[7] Many indigenous people deeply value the more-than-human as in community with the human. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” in her wonderful book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants was very helpful in bringing me to a new awareness of this. I also highly recommend Aldo Leopold’s concluding chapter “The Land Ethic” in his book A Sand County Almanac.
[8] The human development and capability approach has been developed as a more expansive alternative to the narrowly defined economic development models for individual and societal flourishing. It champions an approach to development that works to assure people have the capabilities to live lives they value and enabling them to become actors in their own destinies. An excellent introduction to this alternative to neoliberal market economics can be freely downloaded.
[9] Randy Stoecker introduced me to the idea of allyship as a primary method for how we do engagement. Anne Bishop’s Becoming an Ally is an important work describing the necessary work to assure we use this method in a respectful and helpful way.
[10] I highly recommend Mark Stoddart’s article “Ideology, Hegemony, Discourse: A Critical Review of Theories of Knowledge and Power” in Social Thought & Research, Vol. 28, Social “Movements for an introduction to important concepts like ideology and hegemony, and theories of knowledge and power that deeply underly our human interactions.
[11] InBecoming an Ally Anne Bishop helpfully clarifies distinctions in power, differentiating power with others and power within from power over others. She also notes that one person who brings forward power over can completely disrupt even the strongest power with community unless clearly recognized and carefully addressed, sometimes even resorting to power over briefly.
[12] In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Friere notes that even as the oppressed take ownership of their own liberation, they need to be intentional to assure that they also work to liberate their oppressor instead of becoming themselves an oppressor.

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