My life is haunted. Some of the things that haunt me are the ghosts of stupid things I have done over the course of my life. Many, though, are the spirits of compelling ideas that just will not let go of me. One of those ideas is captured in the phrase “the least of these.” The phrase “the least of these” comes to me from the Christian scriptures, the spiritual text with which I am most familiar, though it refers to an ethos to be found in many cultures and faiths. The ethos is that members of the human race, and the societies they form, have a moral and ethical responsibility to care for “the least of these” in their communities. “The least of these,” in one sense, is a relative term as it can refer to those whose needs are greater than our own. However, it more generally refers to those who have found themselves in great need and difficult, even desperate, circumstances, through no fault of their own. They are often known to us by their status in society: marginalized. The failure to care for these others, in fact, is a failure of our humanity and to the whole of humanity, and some would also believe, to God.
“The least of these” are the reason for my career. It was a calling to serve “the least of these” that led me to ministry within the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) when I was a young man. It was the same call that led me into mental health counseling and then the field of adolescent sexual health. It is the call that today has guided me to focus my work with social sector (non-profit) organizations, including faith communities, in order to help them become the best guardians and providers of “the least of these” that they can be.
This blog often finds me writing about community engagement and Collective Impact. “The least of these” has also been haunting these subjects for me as well. Yet it is with regard to these two topics that my thinking is still forming and for which I hope to receive greater light from others. Therefore, I am just going to put my ideas out here for your consideration and invite you to have a conversation with me.
Bumper sticker seen in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, April, 2014
If a social change movement is not about “the least of these,” then it is just a business and social change is just another industry providing greater benefit to those working within the industry than to those whom it is supposed to serve. Earlier this year I was working on an organizational study for a client and in my research came across a compelling article[i] in which the authors made this point with what they called the “health disparities industry.” The authors cited the literature that defines “industry” as a sector of the economy that manufactures goods or products or provides a service. An industry has an elaborate infrastructure, a specialized set of activities, and stakeholders. Then the authors made the case that the health disparities movement had, in the United States, become an industry that more often used the issue of disparities to sustain itself than to help those who actually experienced the disparities. My own research has similarly found that an industry has grown up around the issue of the sexuality education of young people in the United States, the field in which I have worked for many years. The industrialization of the field has meant, among other things, that concern for its own sustainability has contributed to the institutionalization of the decades’ long intractable conflict over sexuality education in U.S. public schools.
Collective Impact is a framework for social change that has really caught on since its introduction in 2011. Actually, that is an understatement. More accurately, and metaphorically, it has taken off like a rocket and it is yet to be seen just how high it will fly. Through it community change initiatives of all sizes and many organizations have been introduced to its five conditions, the concept of emergence, and the power of backbone organizations. Some are taking time to learn, understand, grasp and implement the ideas undergirding Collective Impact and others are simply slapping the cool new name onto their existing work to impress funders and garner media attention. I am an early adopter and fan of the Collective Impact framework and have used and extended it in my own work.
Yet, I worry.
I worry that “the least of these” are left out of many Collective Impact initiatives. Yes, I know leaders of these initiatives would likely argue that my worry is absurd. “After all,” they might argue, “the initiative exists to help ‘the least of these,’ does it not?” Okay, so it might. HOW it does this, I argue, is at least as important as WHAT it does, especially if sustainable community change is to be achieved.
- Does it invite “the least of these” to the table where the COMMON AGENDA is created that impacts their lives?
- Does it train and equip “the least of these” with the skills and knowledge to participate effectively with other initiative partners?
- Does it build and maintain a culture among all partners that values the participation of “the least of these” in the selection of the BACKBONE ORGANIZATION, SHARED MEASUREMENT strategies, and MUTUALLY REINFORCING ACTIVITIES to be undertaken?
- Does it use an inclusive decision-making process that ensures the voice and vote of “the least of these” counts?
- Does it have CONTINUOUS COMMUNICATION systems in place that ensure equal and equitable access and participation of “the least of these?”
Collective Impact initiatives that leave out “the least of these” are just the same old coalitions involving the usual same old players doing the same old things in the same old way. As such, it is business as usual and business as usual is not social change.
I believe community engagement that values “the least of these” and seeks to include them as full partners holds the promise of keeping Collective Impact on track as a powerful framework for social change. Yet, there is still a need to keep “the least of these” at the heart of community engagement. Without “the least of these,” I worry that community engagement merely becomes the industry of marketing.
Hoping this will be a conversation that continues to shape my thinking on these issues, here are my questions for you:
- What worries do you have about either leaving out “the least of these” or, conversely, fully involving them in your Collective Impact initiative or community engagement work?
- What is working for you to keep “the least of these” at the forefront of your Collective Impact and/or community engagement work?
- What would you like to do more of in the future to ensure “the least of these” stay front and center in your work?
Thanks for allowing me to think aloud in this space. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Be greater; do good; every day,
[i] Shaw-Ridley, M. & Ridley, C. R. (2010). The health disparities industry: Is it an ethical conundrum? Health Promotion Practice, 11(4), 454-464.