What Community Development Can Teach Us About Self-Development

What Community Development Can Teach Us About Self-Development
by Yakov Danishefsky, JCFS Community Services Intern

Leadership, at its best, is fueled by a fervent desire for change and the ardent commitment to a dream. But zealotry, whatever its worth, is not leadership. Leadership consultant, Marty Linsky, writes that “Leadership is disappointing your people at a rate they can absorb.” If the leader expresses too much passion, she loses her people. Too little passion, and she loses herself and her cause. Being passionate enough to dedicate your life to social-change advocacy, and yet patient and even-keeled enough to do so successfully, is not simple.

Over the last year, in my role as a JCFS Community Services intern, I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand how challenging it can be to maintain the careful balance between passion and patience. Community Services offers intervention, education, and prevention for child abuse, substance addictions, domestic violence, and refugee assistance – all are examples of fields where leaders and their communities are sometimes challenged by that balance. Here are five operating principles that help to address those challenges:

  1. Engage the community as your study partner, not your misbehaving student. If you approach those you want to change with the attitude that you have what they need, you lose them. Approach them as a learner. Ask what they do to address the issue. Be curious rather than judgmental or condescending.
  2. Be adaptive to each specific context. There’s no one curriculum or method that needs to be implemented. Determine a reasonable goal and then work with partners to move towards achieving that goal in their own way.
  3. Community change is a marathon not a race. Real change is systemic and it’s not about flashy events that make a big splash. Patience and long-term vision are the building blocks of successful community work. Finding the right partners, planting seeds, and developing relationships will feel less rewarding than a major campaign or awareness month, but in the long-run they go further.
  4. Start with the low-hanging fruit. Don’t try to change the world in one fell swoop. Be strategic about who to approach first. If a school just hired a new principal, give him or her time before jumping on them with all the things their school needs to implement.
  5. Stay away from framing things as either black or white. Don’t assume that the community just doesn’t care. Taking more subtle approaches may feel less satisfying or mean losing a battle here and there.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a Jewish Hassidic teacher, said that just as the Torah teaches a society to appoint leaders, so too every person is to appoint himself a leader over his or her self. We each encapsulate a multifaceted and often bifurcated personality. In a sense, we each constitute our own internal community. If there’s a piece of your internal community that needs changing, try engaging it with the same five principles of communal work. (1) Don’t antagonize your unwanted trait; (2) Be adaptive and explore new modes of change; (3) Slow change is good change. Look to affect the system more than the symptoms; (4) Start with the low hanging fruit not your biggest demon; (5) And remember your challenging trait is also likely contributing something positive.

During my internship I’ve learned that working in community development - whether your external community or internal community – is complicated. Sometimes, there are questions about whether there is enough passion to catalyze “real” change. Other times, efforts are viewed as radical, trying to revamp well-endowed institutions and policies. It’s a skill to be able to know you’ve hit the sweet spot that is thoughtful passion.

The Channukah lights lit in Jewish homes and synagogues are kindled with candles. The Talmud specifies that a torch is not to be used. Perhaps part of the thinking is that our passions for change are not to be fires that burn down, but small steady flames that illuminate spaces for connection and progress. Happy Channukah.