I learned very early in my work in community development how important relationships with people are. A major focus in my community development talks — before I came to Swaziland and since — have been focused on helping people avoid doing things “to” people or doing things “for” people, but more on doing “with” or, better yet: empowering, encouraging, and helping only when asked.
As usual, I’m always a little behind in reading my magazines (they come in spurts as visitors bring them as they build up in the USA). I was finishing up a Fast Company from a few months ago when I came across this essay from Rob Walker: “The Heart of Hale County”.
It’s a long essay (a newish feature in Fast Company. The one before it I read was always fascinating about snagging high-quality finds on Craigslist). It tells the story of some good-hearted people trying to help alleviate poverty in rural Alabama.
Some are trying to adapt to the culture and become neighbors first. Others are just dropping in and creating something quick. Some think they have all the answers. Others know they don’t know the answers, but are willing to take the time to find them by working with people.
We had this same discussion after watching a video on doing “better missions” in our staff meeting the next morning after reading this.
As Walker’s essay comes to an end, he notes the purpose of trying to see if any impact has been made:
I asked dozens of designers and architects who have worked (or still work) there and in other social-design contexts how they judge success. Most replies acknowledged how frustrating it can be to try to answer such questions definitively. But in Hale County, at least, the irrefutable responses involved personal stories: This person got a house; that person got a job. On an individual level, for sure, design and architecture have changed lives in this place–definitively, and for the better.
Pull back, and it gets harder to gauge the impact… [Another researcher], too, found that the effects of [organizations’ working there]–related projects tended to be on an individual level: “The surprising result of this research was that these design organizations have produced very little measurable impact on the community as a whole. . . . The quality of life for the majority of the community has remained relatively the same.”
It’s hard to measure success — which is why identifying what needs to be measured is so important. Otherwise, we begin to see the one helped here and the one helped there as success and making a great difference. I call this the “starfish strategy” and it doesn’t usually yield good long-term results. Nor does it really make a positive difference for the community or against the problems. BUT, it does help that one.
Helping the one is good and important. Yet we also need strategies, ideas, and works that make a bigger difference than in the life of one person. That’s the do-gooder dilemma.
A dilemma that comes to me almost daily as we see many people around us in desperate situations, but we also must realize that we cannot save everyone (in a spiritual or physical way). Instead, we must make decisions about how to best follow God each day.
May God help me and you to live like Jesus today.