Monday, November 10, 2008

The challenge of prevention

Recently at the William Penn House, we held a workcamp for two Quaker schools - one is a prep/boarding school, the other an alternative high school. One of our reasons for this work is to promote the idea that when we can identify common threads among us we can build community partnerships and friendships to help make the world a better, more peaceful place while working together for the common good. With these two groups, "Quakerism" was the common thread, but what emerged was another common thread which really is a common challenge to our society, perhaps even our species, as we face challenging times. Briefly, what emerged after the groups participated in three very different kinds of service work, was that when the work had no immediate gratification, the students not only did not enjoy the work, but even questioned the validity of the work. In this case, it was pulling invasive plants from the banks of a water tributary (note that there is a difference between weeds and invasive plants; weeds can be natural to an environment whereas invasive plants are brought in by humans, and often can completely kill the eco-system by choking everything else out). Despite the fact that environmentalists everywhere are calling for this kind of work, the kids were skeptical. I have seen the same mechanism in operation with HIV/AIDS work. People are more than kind, caring and generous when someone is suffering, but often when you ask these same people to get tested for HIV, the answer is "no", despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control is encouraging this, and the fact that the only we will really stop the spread of HIV is when everyone is diagnosed - not as having HIV, but as confirming their own status as "positive" or "negative" (plus, doing this helps to change the stigma of who "should" get tested, and becomes an opportunity for education). I have often talked about this work as "transformative" vs. "transactional", and perhaps another way to look at it is when we get the immediate gratification of our work, both giver and receiver may be better at least in the short term, but when the gratification is not so clear, we are all better off in the long term. And here's the real kicker: often with immediate gratification, we need someone to be suffering, only a few can respond and it often takes resources. With the other kind of actions, all people can do things (get tested, pick up litter, remove invasive plants), we are trying to prevent harm and suffering, and it costs little to nothing. How can we learn to really value this and transform our society?

1 comment:

anothermotherforpeace said...

You pose a very good question.

I work with students of all ages and have raised 4 children of my own. I can see how the important project you describe could have resulted in the creation of a 'community of the negative'; a commonality of disinterest and rejection that was no doubt painful, and no doubt because of, the cause you already identified - no immediate, visible, gratification. This is indeed an unfortunate situation that begs a solution. And having been in similar situations myself many times over the years I can imagine how this in turn might have led to an 'us against them' (them=the work and the people asking us to do the work) feeling. Exactly the opposite of what was hoped for. If this was the case Im sure it led to frustration and disappointment on all fronts.

The reason for this is: Young people especially, but really most people today are accustomed to the expectation that 'instant gratification' is not only possible, it is whats most desirable. This comes from the inherent nature of human 'desire' coupled with the fast-past of a technologically sophisticated society (which includes 'scientific' verifiability).
Because of these two combined factors society as we know it (today in USA) is headed pell-mell in the WRONG direction. This accounts for why it is so difficult to convey to a group the value of what they are doing when the evidence is inherently illusive.

I can empathize having been in your position myself. I dont see any easy answers, but I do have an idea. Perhaps employing technology to aid in understanding might be helpful. One way to offer 'proof' that their efforts would be efficacious might be to show the group a video of the ecological progression of an area similar to the one in which they will be working.
If environmentalists 'know' this type work is important, they must have studied it. Perhaps footage exists documenting their research.
Since the concept of long-term benefits is foreign, esp to youth, this might help bring them up to speed in a format with which they feel comfortable because its familiar; watching it on a screen.
The same concept could be applied to the transformation of a neighborhood or even a single home, building or yard. It is offering 'before-after' evidence of a similar type project that would help today's average group visualize the value of the work proposed.
Its the best idea I can come up with at this point in time. Perhaps further discussion will foment answers that I too could apply to my work with children and youth.
Anyone else have an idea!?