Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Believing in the People We Help

 This blog entry is reposted from our Leaders for Communities website.

By Sara Varela 
NeighborWorks America
Community Building and Organizing
communications specialist

The other day I told my nine-year-old he was in charge of preparing lunch for the family, since we were all very busy and hungry. I told him to prepare tuna sandwiches, and gave him all the ingredients he needed. He was more than thrilled to take on a major responsibility like that one. He has seen his dad, his older sister and I take turns at preparing and serving meals all his life, but he seldom gets to do it. I told him to prepare the sandwiches, serve them, set the table and call us when lunch was ready. He did a fantastic job; yes, the sandwiches weren’t as perfect as they’d been if I had done them, but my son accomplished the main goal of feeding us himself.

Trusting others to perform important tasks themselves is a critical part of helping them grow, and this concept is highly applicable in the nonprofit world.

Compost Cadet at work
My employer, NeighborWorks America, is a grant-maker which means we rely on our grantees to use our funds responsibly on projects that help the community directly and also inspire residents to help themselves.  Recently, I saw pictures from a NeighborWorks project with affiliate Chinatown Community Development Center (Chinatown CDC) in San Francisco. The photos give a visual example of how Chinatown CDC has used a $10,000 Deep Green Community Building and Organizing (CB&O) Impact grant to empower resident leaders and youth to educate the community on waste reduction through proper composting and recycling.

One of Chinatown CDC's main goals was to focus on leadership and ownership by residents for a more sustainable green community. The approach Chinatown CDC took creating this ownership and leadership among residents was comprehensive and ultimately quite successful. Some activities supported by the grant were:
  • Lunch Program: Twenty-four youth volunteers educated other youth (and even some parents) to properly sort items into compost, recycling, and trash bins. The 12 volunteers alternated shifts each day, making sure that there were three people teaching the kids at all times. By the end of summer, the volunteers were just a presence because the kids were automatically doing it correctly.
  • Arts & Crafts: Led by a resident volunteer, a group of five youth made wind chimes entirely from recycled items and learned about the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling.
  • Compost Cadets: Eleven youth eagerly volunteered to be Compost Cadets (or Compost Cops, as they called themselves). These young leaders were trained to monitor residents at community events to make sure they were properly sorting their garbage. The Compost Cadets created their own badges and ticket booklets. They rewarded good behavior with environmentally-friendly stickers and they educated people they caught throwing food items or recyclables into the wrong bins.
Compost Cadet at work
The pride that my son felt at being handed an important responsibility and trusting him to getting it done well is the same pride I see in the photos of the children who were given the role of Compost Cadet. As I see the pictures of these young leaders, and the pride, ownership and responsibility that is reflected in them, I realized they embody what CB&O is all about: providing opportunities for skill building, giving residents leadership roles they might not have considered before and ultimately supporting resident-led improvements in their own communities.

There is nothing worse than setting up the stage for leadership development, and then not allowing space, or not trusting the people to take charge. Had I told my son he was responsible for lunch, and then taken over and made the sandwiches myself, or helped him because I didn’t trust he could do a good job, it wouldn’t have been the same. As practitioners I think it is important to walk our talk and really believe the people we want to help have the answers to their own problems. Our role is to enable them to find those answers, and then trust that their decisions were the best ones.