Transfer skills and abilities

The role of outsiders in helping low-income and culturally diverse people

A condensed version of this article was originally published in Foundation News

Across the kitchen table is Joan, representative of that constellation of attributes and generalizations our society associates with people who are poor.

I consult to The Seattle Foundation, and am involved in a program that gives money and technical assistance to resident groups working in their neighborhoods on various improvement projects.

Joan wants to organize her neighborhood to clean up some vacant lots. She needs some assistance, and it’s more than just money she needs. She’s got an organization that wants to organize a block watch and have a neighborhood party. She needs help in learning how to run meetings and raise money. She complains that the residents in her neighborhood just aren’t motivated, just don’t care. She also needs to make some money herself.

Now I know how to help her with some of these needs. Furthermore, I like this woman a lot, and have spent time getting to know her. But let me acknowledge a big problem. I’m not of her ilk, her kin. I’m from downtown. And no obscuration by dress or language is going to mask this truth.

My cultural distance from her raises some big questions in the minds of many of my peers in the foundation world regarding what my appropriate role should be in helping her. Through my work of the last few years, I’ve run smack into a complex ideological debate within the community of that works with low-income populations regarding our expectations for these people, and our role in general.

How activist can the foundation representative be?

I’m at a conference with representatives of other cities who run similar programs for foundations that give away money and provide forms of management assistance. There’s a large group discussion.

The themes are two-fold. First, there are lots of words about the inherent abilities and skills brought by poor people in their neighborhood. Second, there is a strong, masked disavowal on the part of the foundation representatives that they might bring intentions or beliefs about what is good to the range of interactions with the poor person and her organization.

There’s discomfort in what is implied by using the verb “to help.” Various forms of training and assistance are justified by asserting that “empowerment can only come from within,” and that “our job is only to enable others to do what they already had in them.” Helping is sanctioned if it “is something that individuals already want.”

One person in the room put it perfectly: “When those [poor] people are sitting around their kitchen tables, they know what to do. They don’t need us telling them. Let’s work with them around what they want. That’s all that’s needed.”

All this is accompanied by that idea that crops up these days in a variety of public venues – the counsel that “the people are actually ahead of us, smarter than us, etc.”

Foundations should tap their own values

So I stand and argue that something is being obscured. I say something about my belief that we as foundation representatives must be activist, intentional, and providers of leadership in the community. I state my need to acknowledge that we do have values about the design of community projects and the nature of performance.

People look at me strangely. There is some subtle shaking of heads. I explain myself. “We’ve really stumbled on something important here. Look, of course I agree with all of you in the inherent dignity of these people we’re assisting. But I just can’t argue away the activist, intentional role I play as I try to build – using your terms – the ‘capacity’ of the people and organizations in low-income neighborhoods.”

I go on. “When it gets down to it, I do want new behaviors and attitudes from those I give money and assistance to. It’s just got to be done in the context of a trusting relationship and with a certain integrity. All this hands-off language many of you are using – while useful and motivational at one level – should not obscure some deeper truths regarding what our helping really is about. We can’t lose sight of our deeper responsibilities. We are political actors pushing new conceptions of the world and leading people towards new conceptions of themselves.”

I see some minor scowls and embarrassed smiles. By simply arguing for the foundation representative to have beliefs and expectations about what is good for the grantee, I subsequently find myself a minor conference outcast, the resident conservative or “he-who-was-politically-incorrect.”

Constructs that transcend culture

One of the great cleavage points in ideological debates about appropriate social policy is whether certain ideas and practices have inherent value – value that in fact transcends specific class, culture, and ethnic group.

There seem to be three levels to what an individual might promote in the way of constructs that could be defended as transcending culture. First, there are some basic human virtues. Second, there are broader cultural attributes related to the specifics of achieving economic success. Finally, there are administrative and organizational skills and practices that are relatively specific. Each of these – virtues, cultural attributes and skills/practices – is assumed for purposes of this discussion to sit separate and above any considerations of the individual’s specific culture.

Virtues are the least problematic. As Joan talks about the people in her neighborhood, she shows a whole lot of empathy. She speaks of past work with some at-risk kids; I have a sense of her great generosity. And it strikes me that the core virtues as proposed by all the world’s spiritual traditions-generosity, empathy, love, discipline, respect-can be assumed to be broader than culture.

Cultural attributes: Whether applied to American inner cities or Nepal’s countryside, theorists of a more conservative sort are likely to posit that certain basic generic cultural traits are necessary for economic success. These include ability to delay gratification, belief in education, and hard work.

Skills and practices: Certain skills are now emerging as required for participation in generic western business culture. These include a range of accounting practices, group decision-making methods, and fund-raising techniques.

Under what conditions can I, as a foundation representative, justify my promotion of these to people like Joan?

These issues are not academic. Consider the following situations that have all come up in the last year:

  • A proposal comes to me with 30 misspelled words. The request is from a small organization comprised entirely of non-English speaking people from a Southeast Asian country. Do I influence them to come up with a proposal that reflects basic written conventions of the English language?
  • I attend a sequence of meetings for an organization representing African Americans. The meetings start a half-hour late every time. Am I justified in trying to influence an organization to begin on time in the name of efficiency and respect for those who were there at the stated start time?
  • I note the complete lack of group participation at meetings for an organization representing a Pacific Island population. It is explained to me that “this is how it’s done at home. We come from a culture that has strong respect for its leaders.” Do I train people to use simple methods of reaching consensus and group participation in the group setting if their original culture is hierarchical with forms of centralized authority?

With conditions of mutual respect in place, I’ve become an advocate for others changing a variety of behaviors and adopting a host of new practices.

The double edge sword of John McKnight’s asset model

Many in the room have been influenced by Northwestern University’s John McKnight, who has emerged as a hero to many. McKnight’s a poet, a polemicist, a gifted speaker, a motivator. He’s worked his entire career at creating forms of self-sustaining community in poor neighborhoods. He has been highly influential in the self-help movement within the disability field.

Early on, he proposed an idea he believed critical in getting to successful outcomes in low-income neighborhoods. At the core is a basic conceptual distinction between an “assets based” and a “needs based” approach to interacting with and thinking about neighborhoods.

Institutions by definition have come to speak the language of need, of deficit. Grants are awarded by proving need, not capacity. McKnight believes that to attribute to a community its needs and deficits is in fact to create them within that community. He questions the value of those community institutions traditionally in the business of helping: United Ways, municipal governments, and universities.

In a nutshell, communities should come together to identify and then capitalize on the assets of both individuals and the greater collective.

McKnight has a number of emphases in his use of the word “asset.” One is the hidden and varied organizations (“associations”) within every community. McKnight brings a tool to map these forms of association within any particular neighborhood, from little leagues to fraternal organizations to clubs of all types.

At another level, assets refer to the inherent skills and abilities brought by individual residents. These also should be identified, inventoried, and put to use. The auto mechanic, the seamstress, and the person owning a certain power tool who find that they live on the same street might increase the collective capacity of the neighborhood through the bartering of services. Stamp collectors might become aware of each other and band together to create a simple new form of community.

The assets model is an assumption that people can do it with what they have. Can they? Should they be assumed to be able to do it on their own? A pure reading would have me – the helping practitioner – necessarily excluding myself from many involvements on philosophical grounds. (I might not even be in the neighborhood to begin with.)

The assets model as the powerful importing of ideology

Let’s get back to Joan, the woman I want to help. Let’s also assume that I am a practitioner of the McKnight ideas.

Look carefully at the subtlety of what is being transferred from me to her immediately. I ask, “What do you really like to do?” After some give and take, it emerges that she is an expert seamstress. She shows me two dresses she has made for her children and her prized possession, a good Singer machine. I am enthusiastic. She warms perceptibly in the face of someone attributing value to this skill.

In this interaction, look at what I brought to the interaction in my role as total outsider:

  • The questions about her skills and abilities
  • The general tone, reflecting my belief in her essential value and dignity as a human being
  • The suggestions that her sewing might have social and economic value that she was not aware of

If the interaction is successful, she will have a new and enhanced sense of her abilities. Yes, I might be “enabling” her to know and do what she “already knows about herself” in the way of core characteristics, but that knowledge is essentially dormant and useless until I access it via the questions and beliefs about her that I bring to her.

And then, at some point in my developing relationship with her, I bring concepts and ideas that are definitely not in her head:

  • The idea of a simple community process of inventorying the skills in the neighborhood
  • The tools to help: required-forms, simple interviewing formats, etc.

So, it turns out that I, the outsider, bring a great deal to Joan and her community. First, I bring beliefs that Joan has value, worth, capabilities – in short, “assets.” This belief of mine, about her, is a necessary underlying piece of every helping interaction. And then I bring more specific tools: my questions, my methods, my techniques. I teach her how to use the assets she now sees she has. Whether abstract beliefs or specific tools, a process of transfer is taking place.

All parties should influence each other in the best sense

I want to again be explicit that the helping interaction can go both ways. Joan has some highly developed human abilities-patience, calm, attention to family, attention to others, personal warmth – that I don’t have. I feel great when I leave her house. What distinguishes good help from bad is very closely related to the quality of the relationship between the outsider and the community resident.

As the outsider, I must affirm your value and empathize with the details of your individual life if I’m to be effective at the process of transferring useful social and cultural attributes. Any conventional skills and abilities brought through management assistance of any sort require as a precondition this mentality.

But let’s be clear. I simply must preserve, maybe privately, the idea behind the term “deficit.” Using the word in public might not be useful, but the idea remains: namely, that I want to bring something to the people with whom I work that they don’t have.

What they don’t have, ranging from core conceptions of themselves to knowledge regarding the value of their skills, logically must be characterized as a “deficit,” or a “need” or a “lack.” For me, there is no logical way to have a presence in these communities I work in and not acknowledge the fact that there are ideas and skills these people just don’t have.

One of your assets is your sense of personal responsibility

At some point, the concept of assets leads right to the heart of political philosophy and debates over appropriate social policy.

Just what type of responsibility does the state attribute to its citizens, regardless of status, race, class, or ethnicity? Our legal system functions only to the degree it can uphold the notion of personal responsibility. Yet we’ve watched the erosion of this construct as a variety of cultural and psychological factors now sit between the individual and his “responsibility.” (Consider the vast use of family history, cultural surroundings, and physical and mental sickness in explaining every variety of deviance.)

An ever-increasing capacity for helping oneself and believing in one’s own abilities and own responsibility should be an important end result of social policy. The unsolved challenge is to configure social policy such that incentives are retained for changing behavior yet compassion is still exercised within the system. If people can be made to feel responsible, they will change a variety of behaviors and need fewer external supports. But just how hard should they be pushed? And where does compassion fit in?

Let’s get back to Joan. Whether her belief in her inherent responsibility is self-generated or instilled by others is at one level an academic concern. No one of any political persuasion will deny the belief’s basic importance. But a literal reading of the assets model can quickly become the intellectual underpinnings for an essentially hands-off approach. It’s a short jump from my belief in Joan’s inherent assets to my belief in her inherent responsibility for herself and her community’s fortunes.

A strong “self-help” ideology-so attractive at face value-can become something pernicious. The irony is that in a world of inter-dependence and inter-relatedness, a hands-off approach is itself a highly value-laden and activist strategy.

Can the “system” be a force for good?

Many who have taken the assets model to heart make a distinction between “the system” and “the community.” Services-supplied by governments, universities, and United Ways-are seen as essentially ghetto-izing community through processes that create dependency. The associations around the concept of “community” are all positive, suggesting local control and relationships that have integrity. Outsiders, regardless of motivation, are by definition suspect.

But the system, of which foundations are but one part, can be a powerful force for good. An orientation to supposed indigenous community “assets” can allow one to argue away the broader responsibility of our larger governmental and institutional systems to play a redistributive role. Certain world social and political systems provide better a higher general quality of life than others. So the “system” must pay a major activist role.

A portion of the task of fostering empowerment at the local level must be vested within the broader macro-systems of authority, power and, resource allocation. With the right relationships, anyone, even those representing major institutions, can be providing value and contributing usefully and powerfully. What counts are the motivations of particular individuals operating throughout the landscape of political and social systems, regardless of their place in the social hierarchy. Foundation representatives can be a critical piece.

To sum up, my belief in your essential dignity, your essential responsibility, and your essential assets in no way should be matched by my hands-off mentality. You will need my help, my ideas, my tools, and the help of the “system.” You simply won’t be able to do it alone. And I may well be as influenced positively by your example as you are by mine.

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