Community Building: Facilitating Connection

How do we build thriving communities? Anke Wessels, the executive director for the Center for Transformation at Cornell University, actively supports transformation in her local community. After years of debate, community opposition, protests and legal wrangling, Wal-Mart opened a store in Ithaca. Members of the Religious Task Force for a Living Wage were outraged by unreturned phone calls and wanted to write an op-ed piece condemning the low wages paid by Wal-Mart. When Anke asked the group to look at what they wanted – to ensure a living wage for workers – they determined that an op-ed piece might not be the best way to achieve their goal. Here’s how Anke describes what they did instead:

We wanted to discuss the high cost of living in Ithaca and propose a living wage. The Ithaca Wal-Mart general manager, Dave Jacobson, agreed to meet with us because he saw some value in reaching out to the community. Instead of condemning their corporate wage policy, I asked Dave what he’s already doing to contribute to worker’s well being. As a single dad, Dave was aware of the stress of single parents, so he goes the extra mile and cares about each employee. During a snowstorm, he gives stranded employees rides to and from work. He knows every worker by name, as well as their spouses and children. He’s proud of the health care offering. Eventually he disclosed that he doesn’t think it’s fair that protest groups are only targeting Wal-Mart, since their pay scale is based on what local retailers pay.

Meeting every couple of months, we got to know each other, and we learned what it was like for Dave to receive horrible letters about the evils of Wal-Mart, deal with a bomb scare, and feel unsafe when so many people in the community respond to him with disdain. Dave also talked about Wal-Mart’s community efforts, but some organizations refused to accept money from Walmart because it would look bad.

When we told him how the living wage of $9.17 an hour was determined, Dave explained why he thought that was far too much to give to someone with no experience. In the next meeting, Dave revealed that it makes him mad when employees work fewer hours just so that they can get government assistance. I responded, “Let’s take $9.17 off the table. If I came into your store, willing to work full time, but had no work experience, do you think I could afford to live in our community if I worked 40 hours a week?” Silence followed. Finally Dave said, “I never heard you say it that way before.” He agreed that people cannot live on that wage. In that pivotal moment, liberal and conservative politics came together because we cared about the same thing – that people could live on what they earned. In that moment of quiet, we were on the same side.

After that, Dave invited other managers from the community to join the next meeting. I was touched by Dave’s words of introduction, where he discussed his initial fear of the task force, how he’d brought in someone from outside for protection, but he’d come to know, respect and trust us. We had started out as enemies, but now we know each other’s families. Dave told the group of managers, “We don’t always see things the same way, but the conversations are meaningful.” At that meeting Dave announced that Wal-Mart was considering a new pay scale system based on the local cost of living. Most of the managers present don’t have a lot of power; the pay scale is determined from above, but they all agreed to explore the options. The process is continuing.

When I tell this story, many people are skeptical. They say, “Yes, but Wal-Mart is evil. You’re collaborating with the enemy. You can’t really trust them.” For us, Wal-Mart is no longer the faceless enemy. We don’t demonize the opposition. Conversations are a slow process which activists find very frustrating. It feels better to write a scathing letter to the editor, but that changes nothing. People need another framework to encourage understanding and explore ways to find common ground. They’re so used to us vs. them, that they have no way to address challenges.

To really champion the rights of the poor or the underprivileged, we need respectful transformative dialogue. That means we talk about what we’re for instead of what we’re against. We use vision as a guiding principle. Instead of thinking about humiliating or ousting someone or making a person see how horrible they are, we look at how we can inspire people. So the transformation occurs internally. I ask myself, what am I really looking for? How do I see the humanity of this person? In that way I can shift out of angry resistance, move toward uncertainty, and liberate myself to look at what we’re working toward collectively.

 Taking on Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world seems daunting, but the persistence of a few people inspires me. They embody a living example of Margaret Mead’s directive, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Instead of choosing hopelessness, they continue to work on the most pressing problems, and their influence stretches way beyond their local community.

In American culture where almost everything is reduced to its commercial value, we assume the economy and the market are beyond our control. We’ve come to expect economic institutions to make decisions for the benefit of the privileged, not for the downtrodden. In a world where the market rules, we start to believe there is no alternative. The most harmful aspect of unfettered capitalism is that we’ve lost our capacity to imagine humane economic and social relationships that benefit all the people. We’ve lost our sense of hope that we’re all in this together. CEO paychecks are on steroids, even when their companies are hemorrhaging from losses. Pay for performance has opened the floodgate of accounting discrepancies, but the beat goes on. Do we watch helplessly as globalization undermines local communities that result in food riots? Passivity and protest are not the only options. But what are the viable alternatives to an unfettered market economy that widens the gap between the rich and the poor?

People who believe that a more humane world is possible are creating alternatives. We’re hungry for new ways of establishing an economy based on reciprocity and cooperation. When people decide to exercise their own economic power they turn abandoned factories into employee-owned factories, run collective farms, reform health care enterprises and create cooperatives. When investors don’t get the huge returns they expect, viable enterprises shut down, but when workers take over, they revitalize their communities by providing jobs, goods and services. Owned and operated collectively by workers and consumers, these enterprises contribute to the economy and meet the human needs of sustainable communities.

Written by Martha Lasley, Originally published in Facilitating with Heart

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