Community engagement ?

I’ve written several posts about community visits taken on our WIL-India trip – now I’m going to look more critically at these and offer some reflections. Thankfully we also had the opportunity to discuss our thoughts with the group also, so this is informed as well by my learning from other participants. 

It was awkward going into communities that need development solutions and not offering anything. It was also awkward to think critically about that village when it’s a place that people genuinely live their lives, despite challenges. Without having deep connections or understanding of context, there is nothing I can offer besides a kind face and a listening ear. I really was a tourist on these visits. 

The other awkward part was that the trips were meant to be experiential learning. I was experiencing something, true, but it was more voyeuristic than hands on. I didn’t live with them, cook with them, work in the fields with them. 

This learning was supposed to lead to understanding of problems in order to propose solutions to complex problems. So it was going back to my time in international development (I was in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders in 2008 – for more on that see the equally originally named blog sylvieinmalawi.blogspot.com). How do I really know anything as an outsider (I don’t)? And is it even useful at all to take foreigners around to tour village life, just for the sake of their personal learning? Could I learn this in another way? Could I have the same understanding and compassion if I read a really good article about it? 

What I learned from the facilitators of WIL-India is that practicing your intention can make an impact on communities visited. The first step is to “look with an appreciative gaze”. Seeing abundance and beauty , instead of problems and solutions, allows for a faster and more open relationship to develop. People are happy to share their lives and what they are proud of. 

The appreciative gaze practice can be criticized for its lack of critcism. Isn’t this just glossing over and ignoring problems? The reason it’s a first step for newcomers is that we have been there too short a time to understand the social and cultural dynamics at play. And for us who are on tours, we are also not there long enough to do anything about the problem. If you can’t spend time to understand and work on the issue, you shouldn’t bring it up, because really that’s just rude! 

So the appreciative gaze is a perfect first step for brief visits, and means that a short tour can be a learning journey for me and a chance to teach and brag for a community. 

Doing anything deeper though requires strong facilitation. Our trip facilitators are also involved in warriors without weapons – a non profit that uses facilitation processes to determine and realize the collective dreams of a community. 

All in all, I learned new things about how development could be done, and practiced techniques for community engagement on a small scale. It felt beautiful. 

My community visits were summarized in yhes blog posts :

Lessons from a Fishing Village

Making salt in the desert
Tribal village visits in Rajasthan

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