Do You See What I See? (May 04)

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I was on the commuter ferry in Boston Harbor the other day and as it moved away from the dock a little 4 year old girl who had installed herself half beside and half on top of me pointed excitedly back at Boston and piped, “Look! The city is moving!”

As with this child, many of our assumptions are embedded in our points of view; this colors the way we perceive something in a particular moment.

I had the privilege this month to view some interviews with residents of communities where a community-building project was sited. The residents, all articulate and thoughtful, were grateful for the resources provided to their communities and for some of the skills they had attained as a result, but they were confused and disappointed about why the foundation that underwrote the project never asked them to become trusted decision-makers either in the overall project or in governance of the individual community settings. In other words, why had the institutions backing the project wished to influence others without themselves being affected?

This impermeable stance reminded me of an article I read this past month called “Do You See What I See? Nonprofit and Resident Perceptions of Urban Neighborhood Problems” printed in the June issue of the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, it contains the findings of a study of three low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia. The study found that the leaders of 29 community-based organizations sited in those neighborhoods shared virtually no common perceptions with the residents of those communities. This was true even in situations where rhetoric about community empowerment was part of the agencies’ self-image. To make things a bit worse, the more highly educated the nonprofit leader, the bigger the gap between what they “knew” about the community and what the community knew about itself. I found it quite a frightening read and highly recommend it to each of you. No matter what kind of nonprofit you are a part of, it brings up useful questions about how we know the stuff of our work.

There’s an old rule of systems thinking — “It’s not what you don’t know that’ll hurt you its what you do know that ain’t so.”

This article should send a shot across the bow of the nonprofit sector to get humble and make sure you are actually connected.

In the last issue,  an article entitled “Participatory Evaluation: How It Can Enhance Effectiveness and Credibility of Nonprofit Work” raised the need for organizations to help surface the collective “wishes for change” of the communities that they serve. This article, although drawn from the experience of evaluating community-based organizations, is broadly applicable. I recommend you read it for its practical ideas about how to engage constituents more closely in planning and evaluative processes.

By the way, when the little girl’s mother came over to offer a rescue, I saw that she was in a head scarf. It turned out that the family was from Iraq and she was a long time activist for women’s participation in public life and was headed back home within weeks. I think about that little girl and her mother a lot and am grateful that they inhabit my world.