Whenever I teach, I hear myself, saying, ‘if I could get this phrase tattooed, I would!’ I am obsessed with words. I am hooked on discovering teachings that connect all the dots and turn my thinking upside down. I love finding words that break open new possibilities I didn’t even know existed. Aside from my very low pain threshold, I would run out of space to get all of the words that have transformed me tattooed. So in lieu of finding a parlour that could do the miraculous, I’m going to share some of my favourite words and sentences that have blown me away. Knowing that the Internet is a type of memorial, given the impossibility of erasing anything that is ‘out there’ digitally, I hope that these words start conversations of critical thinking and connection.
Prints by R.Robyn. Please ask permission or cite the author/artist if you are quoting any words or re-producing the art. Ta!
We all need friends who send books, articles, sentences, phrases over because they are so excited by them they need to be share them with you. Rabbi Kath Vardi is one such friend and introduced me to the work of Peter Block a few years ago. And another is Gary Copitch who has met with me for years and has transformed by understanding of community work towards the work of co-production.
PART TWO - TATTOO WORTHY TEXTS
I'm All In, How About You?
Now, honestly, I really would love to inscribe this whole book permanently EVERYWHERE. This book ('Community: The Structure of Belonging) by Block is EVERYTHING. I have taken a while to pick just a few words which encapsulate his work and which I try to apply to all community building work I take part in. He writes:
The role of leaders is not to be better role models or to drive change; their role is to create the structures and experiences that bring citizens together to identity and solve their own issues....Every gathering, in its composition and in its structure, has to be an example of the future we want to create...'The primary questions for community transformation are "how did we choose to be together?" and "what do we want to create together?" (pp.74 and 75)
Breathe it in. It. Is. So. Good.
Block's work is not about maintaining charismatic leaders as 'sages on the stage' but as leaders who understand their role in co-creating spaces where everyone understands their own responsibility and is enabled to feel ownership and be owners in transforming community. He provides a framework from moving away from a parenting model to a partnership model. And he means business. This is not tokenistic platitudinal talk. Block looks at the rooms we meet in and the messages they give about the gathering and what is being built. Where are the chairs? Is there enough food/nourishment? Is the temperature right? Is the hearing loop turned on? When you enter the room you should know you have been thought of and, consequently, that you are needed. The room should not direct you towards the person in authority but should orient you to each other.
Block provides examples of questions to open up deep, rich, meaningful conversations. These spaces are non-hierarchal. They do not expect the leader to provide and the community members to receive. Instead, much is demanded from everyone - each person is tasked with understanding themselves - their light and dark. How did we/I choose to be together? What are you bringing to the space? What is your part in keeping the conversation or community stuck? How are you contributing?
These spaces, Block teaches, need to encourage dissent. In a world which values power over, 'dissent is considered disloyalty' (p.131). In this world of power with - 'hospitality is the welcoming not only of strangers, but also of the strange ideas and beliefs they bring with them.' Dissent is therefore necessary for community transformation. As Rabbi Kath also teaches - we do not invite people in so they can learn what to believe and how to behave, so that they can belong BUT we encounter others so that we are changed as a result of knowing them and we learn how to belong together. We embrace the risk of invitation, the radical act of hospitality.
Imagine how this might change our religious spaces - would the bimah need to move? Would we just have one service leader on high? Would we continue to structure AGMs as q&as or towards daring conversation? Would we just expect new members to sign an application form and do as they wish or would they join with intention, commit to time spent meeting people and to co-building? How would we welcome people and encourage dissent? Would decision making move away from committees secreted behind closed doors towards open and vulnerable conversations between members? Would the way we spend money change? And who would spend that money?
Block also demands that in every space we gather, both structurally/architecturally, linguistically and otherwise, we ask this stellar question:
How will the world be different tomorrow as a result of our meeting today? (p.23)
In each gathering, Block reminds us that we are creating a glimpse of the future we want to create. We are not meeting for meeting sake but because we know things can be better. Imagine asking in each space - a council meeting, a supervision - how am I/we creating the future we want to create? How would our agendas be re-shaped? How would we listen differently? Would our attention and presence shift from the lure of our phone tucked out of sight of the zoom screen? Would we realise we have a stake in this game? Would we stop settling for passive spaces where only a couple of people are in charge and the rest nod and take notes? Would we turn into curiosity rather than defensiveness?
Why is this work so important? It means we are looking forward, not back. We become unstuck from the nostalgic idol of the past and tradition. We care more about what we are creating and who we could become rather than what we were. These types of gatherings, re-structuring and intentions also mean that we remain hopeful rather than despairing. We are constantly working towards the potential of What Could Be. And rather than waiting for a miraculous moment of revolution or renewal we commit ourselves to, in every single gathering, doing a tiny bit in bringing the World To Be into our world now. Committing to this work of co-production and structuring belonging we also act with intention and purpose. We take control rather than stumble through. We move with compassion, recognising the worthiness of each person. It is powerful work and it is threatening to those currently in power and the institutions we guard so fiercely and prop up as they begin to crumble.
All I can say is that I know where we are now is not working. I am only interested in who we could become and how we can get there together. Block's work is a roadmap and HINENI - I am ready - I am all in. How about you?