Policy and Community

May 25, 2010 Leave a comment


My recent post on the limits of policy elicited a very good conversation.  One of the things that became evident is that in some settings people are so focused on their personal development and their community life that they pay little attention to the issues of the day.  In other settings people are so focused on the fight for justice through policy change that they pay little attention to their own well being or to the hard work of building community.

While I have no data at my fingertips, I would venture to hypothesize that many of the people that are focused on structural change share an analysis that pays lots of attention to issues of equity, power and inclusion.  I also suspect that many of the people focused on personal development and community life come into their focus from a well meaning but privileged perspective.

The answer seems easy on the surface – we need to focus on both – and it’s absolutely true.  But it is so much easier said than done!  One side might be so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems our society faces and so stumped by the intractability of our political system that an inward and small scale focus might seem like the only possibility.  The structural side might have little patience for it might label as indulgent, it might prefer the measurability of a policy victory and it might keep a historical lens that upholds the forward motion of progressive public policy in our context.

Personally, I have little faith in the capacity of the state to make real change happen – even if it has made significant change possible during some of the most important moments in our history.  However, I do believe we have to pay attention to policy.  I don’t think self-development and a focus on community in the Northeast will do much to affect the policy of apartheid that has been put forward in Arizona.  But I still think the state follows, I think it is most important to actually change the hearts and minds of people in such a way that popular sentiment actually shifts and that it shifts in such a way that the state will not dare to ignore it.

This type of transformation, the social transformation that makes good policy possible and bad policy impossible, is itself rooted in a transformative (as opposed to self-indulgent) experience of community.  Solid human connections among people who dare to have the difficult conversations – the conversations that change us – are at the root of the sort of change that does not ignore the state, but wields it.

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  • Excellent post!

    For some time I’ve been navigating the waters that flow “between” those that who focus on personal development and their immediate community life and those who commit themselves to social justice and transformation. While both seem to share values and aspirations regarding the creation of a better world, their preferred views (or habitual perspectives) appear to be in opposition: change from the inside-out, or change from the outside-in.

    One of the many challenges I struggle with is in getting people to understand why it is so important to focus on both; among other things, recognizing the importance and commitment to both simultaneously would work toward breaking the dominant cultural biases toward dichotomous thinking (either/or) and hierarchical valuing (superior/inferior). After all, the kind of social justice and transformation so many of us want ultimately depends on a deep cultural transformation: the collective adoption of patterns of thought and behavior that produce and reproduce integral human well-being of all persons and sustainable development of life and consciousness on the planet.

    Like you, I believe the place and space in which these transformative values, thoughts and behaviors are practiced, lived and expressed are in community. Perhaps part of the work is to help people reframe and expand their notions of community beyond geographies and self-identities. Among other things…

    Raúl Quiñones-Rosado, Ph.D.
    Founder & Co-Director

  • Gibran says:

    Thanks so much for your comments Raul, it is very helpful to get this “meta” perspective. I’m specially appreciative of your pointing out the “dominant cultural biases toward dichotomous thinking,” I think it’s part of the compartmentalization of life that came with the industrialization of human relationships. This drive to choose between two equally important aspects of change is itself a limitation!

    I am also appreciative of your reminder that our quest for community should include re-framing what it is, expanding “notions of community beyond geographies and self-identities”


  • Linda Guinee says:

    Thanks Gibran. I’m adding more to this in my post tomorrow. Thanks for getting this conversation going again.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Gibran. I think the big challenge is in holding on to both, and having them inform one another, such that policy has more relevance to values and communities and so that personal transformation does not descend into naval gazing. Neuroscience seems to be getting at some of the root of the difficulty we have in embracing both, because this requires shifting between different parts of our brains. How do we honor and live in both our analytical brains and our limbic centers as well?

  • Curtis says:

    Another thought . . . I was heartened the other day in my work with a coalition focused on sustainable development to see that they are moving in the direction of holding a multi-pronged strategy which includes: policy change, place making, and power building.

  • Gibran says:

    Looking forward to your post Linda!

    The cognitive limitations sound very interesting Curtis, I wonder how “set” those limitations are? Could we develop or evolve into the necessary capacity to see the whole?

    Also, glad to hear that more clients are taking this multi-pronged approach.

    I think the part that I find the need to continue to stress is that even when we choose to give our attention to policy we should do so with a clear eyed understanding of the inherent limitations of the system we are working with – from legislative limitations, including the outrageous role of money in our electoral and legislative process as well as the system’s limits when it comes to implementation. Let’s work with it, but let’s be truly aware of how limited it is.

  • Curtis says:

    Gibran, I’m intrigued by your question about whether we can evolve our capacity to see the whole and whether that is ultimately the ability of any single individual or necessarily the function of the collective. Even if the parts in some sense embody the greater whole (a la fractals), individual functioning may best be left to more specialized orientations (which seems to be the direction of complex evolving systems). I wonder if there is a danger in individual efforts to hold the whole, as this might take the form of just another “tribal” power play to determine what reality is. And then again, how do we cut against specialization to also hold the truth of wholeness and interconnection?

  • Kim Simmons says:

    I appreciate this ongoing conversation very much! As a sociologist, I am inclined to look at structural elements and the importance of collective action. As a mother, I am increasingly aware of the quirky uniqueness of individuals and the importance of some inward, slower, “living the change.” I often experience deep value and role conflict as I make the micro choices about how to spend my time. It is definitely easy to become frozen, bitter about the limits of the State and slightly myopic because we live in such a segregated society.

    I would love to hear more ideas about how to create cultural change (as a precurser to policy). The zeitgeist is created/controlled by more than shared individual beliefs. What we think are shared values or truths rarely match with empirical data. What can we learn from the tea-partiers? Is it possible to shape the frame or the cultural realm without corporate backing? Somehow, figuring that out seems crucial, since the State may follow but right now they seem to be following a figment and “Oz” seems to be Glenn Beck.

  • Kim Simmons says:

    This is perhaps too unrelated, but I’d love to hear your thinking… We recently had the honor of hosting Dr. Sandra Steingraber for a talk entitled “The Ecology Of Hope : Reflections on Parenting, Activism and the Environment.” She is a brilliant ecologist and she called on us to see this as the crisis for our generation. In talking about why we are “stuck” she mentioned 3 issues blocking action (see my full blog post for a longer description: http://fspparents.blogspot.com/2010/05/sandra-steingraber-call-to-action-kims.html)

    1) We are fatalistic and have thus written off the possibility of action working, and have normalized incredibly dysfunctional “realities”.

    2) The problems are complex and slightly diffuse and interrelated (kind of like a network 🙂 ) so we have a hard time bearing witness : we don’t tell stories about our health problems through the lens of the environment, for example, so our individual problems remain personal instead of public.

    3) The damage is not visible to our eye, so we have an epistemic problem (we can not “see it to believe it”)

    She does not study social change for a living, but I thought her insights were fascinating and worth taking up, but with who and how?

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