Why is community development work undertaken? Why does someone want to get involved in community development? At its core, I believe, community development is undertaken because an injustice is perceived and we have a desire to put it right. If that is why we begin working as community development workers, then what essential values do we need to bring with us to ensure that we do so in an effective and humane manner?
I’d like to suggest three essential values: compassion, integrity and courage. In this post I shall focus on the first of these; compassion.
As a young man just beginning my involvement with social justice issues and community development I often acted with passion. There were many injustices in the world and it was up to me and others to protest, mobilise and overthrow those injustices and the people who perpetrated them. That passion led me to argue with those who thought differently, including my own mother.
One day my mother and I were talking about our hopes and dreams and it dawned on me that at our core she and I wanted the same thing: to be happy. I thought about this a lot and came to realise that all of us probably want the same thing out of our time on this earth; to be happy.
The passion that I had as a young man allowed me to think that I was doing good in the world. But I also felt righteous and morally superior. It wasn’t until I reflected on the shared desires my mother and I had that I realised that passion was not enough. I had to include others.
However, this was still an intellectual understanding for me and didn’t immediately suggest any change to the manner in which I acted with passion. Oh, there were challenges to that intellectualism all right. Feminism challenged men to move from the head to the heart, from thinking to feeling. The human potential movement got us to look inside and find our inner voice.
It didn’t come to me all in a flash although one particular quote did speak to me louder than others. It came from the Dalai Lama:
"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion".
I now think that compassion is, indeed, the most important value that we can bring with us to community development work. Passion is a necessary value in social justice and community development, but until we make it com-passion it is not sufficient.
What is compassion? The dictionary defines it as “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it”. Very close to what I suggested earlier was the reason that we get involved in community development work at all.
Furthermore, compassion is not pity. I pity another human being when I view their pain and suffering as belonging entirely to them. Its not me, I don’t feel that pain and suffering, I’m pain-free, I’m not suffering. No, compassion views us all as interconnected where none of us are separate from others (Thich Nhat Hanh calls it inter-being1). This is why the Dalai Lama can connect the practice of compassion with the happiness not only of others but also of ourselves.
As community development workers, if we stop to ask our heart what it is that we are really trying to achieve for others and ourselves then I think the answer is: to be happy. As community development workers we are wishing to create the conditions in which all societies, communities and people can enjoy happiness.
For that, we need compassion.
1. Thich Nhat Hanh is a highly respected Vietnamese Buddhist master and founder of the Engaged Buddhist movement. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr.