Bruce Friesen-Pankratz writes about his experience as an MCC service-worker in Zacango, Mexico, utilizing a biological metaphor to describe the process. Bruce, Jaime, and their three children recently returned to Manitoba after living for three years in Zacango.
As an MCC er when I filled out forms which requested my current occupation I often hesitated to write in “community development worker.” But then I looked at my business card and saw that this was the position title that MCC had given me. I am reluctant to use the term community development because of the connotations associated with the term “development.”
For instance, if you are developing “something” then it is assumed that the current state of that “thing” is not fully developed. Yet it seems very arrogant to enter a community that I have not grown up in and assume that it is not fully developed.
Another problem I have with the term “community development” is that development assumes a set end goal. While having a pre-specified end goal may be important in the area of physical construction (e.g. a house) it can be very limiting when working in a living community.
So instead of “community development,” I prefer the term “community evolvement.” Evolvement, unlike development, does not have a static predetermined end goal; instead it encompasses an infinite number of fluid constantly changing states.
Factors that influence how a community evolves include natural (e.g. climatic) and social factors (e.g. political party in power,) as well as, chance. Here I explore the principles of community evolvement from my perspective as a biologist that had a “chance” encounter with a rural Mexican community.
Being an Agent of Introduction
Mutations play an important role in the evolution of living things as they introduce change in a species gene pool. If mutations prove advantageous to survival they will be selected for and their frequency in the gene pool increases; and eventually they may become a common characteristic of the species.
The introduction of change (i.e. different ideas) is also important in the evolution of communities. I see my role in the process of community evolvement as an agent of introduction of ideas (or to continue with the evolution analogy, a mutagenic agent). The community then decides which, if any, of these introduced ideas it wishes to incorporate. The community’s selection of what it incorporates is not just made in formal meetings but in whether or not the ideas work in the community’s everyday life.
Traditional approaches to community development could be described with an analogy of artificial selection (in which certain characteristics are selected for by a breeder). Dog breeders, for example, have used artificial selection to produce comical breeds that would never have resulted in nature (e.g. the Bulldog). These artificially selected breeds would soon die out if left to survive in the natural world as their characteristics would prove to be detrimental (e.g. the Bulldogs’ low fecundity rate due to its hip anatomy).
The same is true in community development. An organization can force its ideas (some of which may be comical) on a community in a process similar to artificial selection. These ideas will be incorporated to some extent by the community as long as there is some pressure from the outside organization. However, once the outside organization leaves, the incorporation of their ideas by the community fails to continue.
Living in the community where you work
Living in the community one works in is critical to being a more efficient agent of introduction. Not only will it allow for a better understanding of what ideas have already been tried, but it will present significant opportunities for community members to see different ideas in practice on a daily basis.
For instance, in Zacango, the kitchen is the domain of women. Men will not wash dishes or prepare food. I could have talked about sharing household chores at a community meeting, but this would not have had nearly the effect that actually seeing me in the kitchen did on people. I will never forget the look of our neighbor girl (7 years old) when she saw me cooking for the first time and asked desperately “Don Bruce, what are you doing?”
Seeing that different ideas can be practiced in rural Mexico just like in other places is also important. I recall a neighbor man seeing me washing the dishes and remarking: “Just like in the U.S.” I responded with: “It works here too.”
I will always find it challenging to simply be an agent of introduction especially in areas that I am passionate about. (e.g. Why can’t you pursue a fish farm when you already have much of the necessary infrastructure?). I will always struggle with whether or not there are times when experience and expertise come into play and it is appropriate to dictate how a community project should be carried out.
However, if I reflect on MCC’s mandate to “serve in the name of Christ” I should seek to emulate Christ’s approach to working with communities. Jesus did not force his ideas on people (except maybe with the money changers in the temple). He introduced people to ideas and allowed them to decide for themselves.