Benchmark Institute is a training and performance development
organization dedicated to increasing the quality and quantity of
legal services to low-income communities.
DISCOVERING OUR DIVERSE COMMUNITIES
By Earle Warner
The legal services community in general,
the communities served by programs, and the communities within a program
or office are, in most cases, richly diverse. We are blessed with people
of many races, ethnic backgrounds, cultural heritages, lifestyles,
religions, and values. We would do well to grow in our knowledge,
awareness, appreciation and respect for the diversity around us. One of
the ways for us to grow in this respect is to consciously go about
discovering the communities around and among us.
This article will suggest some areas in
which we can begin to pursue the discovery of our diverse world. Through
discovery comes appreciation and respect. The discovery process is not a
do-gooder activity to be engaged in lightly. While exhilarating and
rewarding, it is time consuming and hard--harder than blaming, accusing
or playing the victim. It is a serious effort to come to grips in a
meaningful way with issues of diversity.
LOOKING WITH NEW EYES
We are presented with an extraordinarily
diverse world everyday--in our communities, our workplaces, our lives.
However, as creatures of habit and routine, we often fail to become
aware of the divergent people and communities around us. The first step
in a process of discovery is to discard the eyes of routine and to look
instead with the innocent eyes of a conscious stranger.
We each need to adopt the view of someone
arriving in a community for the first time. Of course, we carry with us
the experiences of our past, but, as strangers in new territory, old
habits and assumptions about the way things ought to be won't fit. To
discover the world in this way is to look with the eyes of an innocent
child. It means to put aside our assumptions, prejudgments and routines
in order to see the fresh universe around us.
We need to put aside our worries about
the ills of our society to take inventory of the strengths, the power,
the beauty of our communities. When we discover and understand the
strengths, we will have a much clearer picture of how we can address the
problems. We cannot build from weakness; we must build from strength. As
part of discovering our communities, we must pay attention to how they
serve their members, to how they survive and support their people, to
their healthy aspects. If we can understand these, we may well discover
the answers to those things that have gone awry. In understanding the
processes by which things have gone right, we may find antidotes to
curing the things that have gone so wrong.
SOME AREAS FOR DISCOVERY
What might a stranger discover about a
"new" community? What kinds of things might s/he notice? The
list that follows includes some of the aspects of a community. It is not
a definitive list, but rather, a starting point. After all, part of the
discovery is finding for yourself new ideas about the world you live in
and new things to learn.
The physical--How is the community laid out?
Areas which subdivide the larger community (e.g., neighborhoods,
blocks, conglomerations of houses)
Boundaries (e.g., wide streets, freeways, vacant lots, railroad
tracks, rivers, walls, agricultural fields)
Areas mostly dedicated to particular activities (e.g., residential
areas, apartment complexes, business districts, strip malls)
Exclusive areas-places adopted, formally and informally, by specific
The economics--How and where does the community take care of its
Resources (e.g., grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations, banks,
Services (e.g., welfare offices, post offices, health facilities)
Socializing--Where and how do people get together?
Natural gathering points (e.g., parks, street corners, local cafes,
Meeting places (e.g. churches, stores, front yards, stoops of houses,
porches, shade trees)
When and under what circumstances do people gather?
Movement--How do people get from one place to another?
Pathways, common routes
Transportation networks, formal and informal (e.g., people with
who give others rides, bus routes)
Modes of transportation (e.g., bus, walking, mass transit, taxis)
People networks--How do people work together to carry on the life of
Natural leaders-people who are respected and whose counsel is
followed, often not the formally recognized leaders
Caretakers-natural helpers ("Give of what you have; keep but what
you need" people)
Community advisors-people whose advice is trusted and relied upon;
Invisible (to the outside world) natural groups
Families--How are fundamental living units organized, and what do they
What does "family- mean in the community? (e.g., extended
families, tribes/clans, gangs,
What is the place of families as they are defined by the community?
How do these families operate?
How does the "family" fit into the structure of the
What roles does 'family" play in the functioning of the
did the community come to be what it is?
did the changes happen?
How did the people create the community?
How did people get to this community?
Why are people here? Why do they stay?
What events shaped the character of the community?
What have been the changes over time in the community? Why
Traditions--How do rituals, events and customs play a part in the
What are the celebrations, significant events, habits, routines,
What events bring people together?
How do the traditions give meaning and structure to the lives of the
people and the community?
Language--How do people talk about their community and their world?
What dialect binds the community?
What words do people use to describe their lives and worlds?
What are the 'codes' people use to identify themselves as part of the
discover a community, you have to go out and engage with it. You must
use your senses to experience it, and you must record, mentally and in
graphic form, what you experience. Some techniques include:
Walking around the community at varying times
Driving around the community (windshield tour)
Drawing maps. Use colors to distinguish features and pins or dots to
locate places and things.
Meeting and talking with the people of the community, especially
outside formal settings
Keeping a journal on your community experiences
Recording (e.g. taping) oral histories of community residents (once
you have established the level
of trust that permits this)
Sharing in community activities
Visiting places in the community where people gather
Knocking on doors, introducing yourself, and talking with people
Listening and observing -- a lot
WORKING WITH A REFLECTIVE PARTNERWhile
trained social anthropologists may claim to be able to function alone,
most of us need someone to talk with and share what we are learning. A
reflective partner can be someone from the community, someone you trust,
perhaps a coworker.
A reflective partner is someone who will
listen to your experiences, ask nonjudgmental questions, point out gaps
in your knowledge, help you make sense of difficult areas, and celebrate
your discovery process. To be effective, a reflective partner should not
be intent upon forcing his/her perceptions upon you, but rather s/he
should draw out of you what you are learning, helping you become more
conscious of the sense you are making of the world through your
It is a challenge and a risk to
let go of the safety of your present view of the world to engage in
community discovery. You must be willing to examine the community in a
new way, and, to an equal or perhaps greater degree, you must be willing
to examine yourself and to change as the discoveries you make change
your models of the world around you. It may seem more secure to retreat
behind the walls of your present assumptions and view of the world.
Still, if each of us were to take time to look anew at our communities,
our world, we might well find a way toward a future with hope and
understanding and without fear.