The promise of the mundane
  • When I first began doing community development work, I was attracted to the ideas and experiences that were the most creative and radical in my eyes.  I dreamed of worker cooperatives and local currencies. I dreamed of green buildings and urban agriculture. I dreamed of free schools. I dreamed of boundary-shattering dialogues on poverty and violence and race. I dreamed of asset-based, appreciative projects that wouldn’t just develop neighborhoods but transform them. I dreamed of a living, daily democracy in which people engaged with their neighbors to steer and sustain their own communities. I still dream of these things.

    But I have become increasingly intrigued by our more mundane spaces and encounters. I’ve been most excited over the last few years not by the innovative new programs that I see (though these can be great), but by the transformative power of investing ordinary moments with extraordinary life. Over and over, I see the expressive practices we are talking about in this blog come to life as people engage in traditional, straightforward work like counseling, teaching, feeding, health care, or public advocacy. And the practices occur not primarily during special moments like team-building retreats, but during routine moments like staff and board meetings, phone calls, emails, evaluations, preparation of grants or financial documents, and everyday encounters with clients, members or neighbors.

    Fifteen years ago, I would have chafed to discover myself spending so much time thinking about such ordinary things. But now I am convinced that these ordinary things represent the most powerful leverage points for change available to us. That might sound exaggerated. How can a staff meeting offer more hope for change than a session of parliament or an international gathering or a revolutionary social movement? Well, the world is thick with staff meetings, and the relationship patterns we create and re-create in those meetings radiate wide for good or ill. Even our parliaments and international gatherings and social movements are made up of familiar routines. Policy changes don’t just happen miraculously by themselves. They are given life through the same kinds of conversations, and meetings, and research, and report writing that we all practice daily in our smaller organizations.

    So nothing is more promising to me than the revolutionary potential of seeking to make those familiar routines become strange and lovely to us again. Max Weber long ago wrote about the disenchantment of the modern, systemized world. Organizations that invest even trivial encounters with value, care, and authenticity, turn those encounters into adventures. There is a kind of re-enchantment of the world going on in such places, and I never tire of seeing it.

    June 13th, 2010 | Warren Nilsson | 2 Comments

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WarrenNilsson

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