Inner City Diary
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God save us from professional do-gooders.
September 30, 2001
We’ve gotten used to them. We go to their meetings. We smile and play polite.

On a daily basis, the inner-city hosts a legion of social workers, welfare & health workers, community developers, government bureaucrats, agency staff, researchers, and facilitators. They come to our “needy” community, professionally trained and paid. Most of them commute. They arrive by 8:30am and return to safety by 4:30pm.

We get exhausted keeping track of their meetings, agencies, acronyms and many conflicting agendas for our neighborhood.

Our needs become resources to be mined in their economy of professional service provision.

They tell us that they understand the “real” issues and “root” causes. They have an amazing ability to match the depth of the furrow in their brow to the complexity of the issue. We don’t understand. We’re over-reacting. We’re just residents. They’re professionals. We’re just amateurs.

They assure us they feel our pain. They claim that some of their best friends are poor people. They don’t understand why we are suspicious of them.

They demand faith in their solutions, but won’t stay with us long enough to experience the consequences. Workers without kids of their own dictate parenting techniques to single parents. Residents feel like there’s no accountability for goofy advice or unrealistic expectations. “We have no options. We get no inquest.” There is no tally of their victims.

This is a wonderful neighbourhood, they tell us. Residents reply, “Easy for them to say. You’re crazy if you think they’d raise their kids here.”

Don’t get me wrong. There are some great cops in this neighbourhood. Awe-inspiring teachers. Social and health workers who give us their hearts along with their expertise. Residents comment, “They don’t live here, but work like they live next door.”

They distinguish themselves from the others. They risk their professional future by attaching their names and reputations to their proposed solutions. They risk the ire of their superiors by getting creative. They think and act outside the bureaucratic box.

Others, however, maintain a “professional” distance. They are shielded from consequences of their actions by collective agreements between themselves and their bosses. Local residents and businesses are locked out of those negotiations. Agreements between service providers and administrators aren’t “collective” unless they address the opinions of service recipients.

One resident observed, “It’s like these workers have a guaranteed job, with guaranteed raises, even if there’s no proof they’re effective.”

Residents want results. If a process gets in the way, we find another that works. This frustrates many professional service providers. They stress the importance of proper process and structure.

So the community is shuffled into committees and chased from one meeting to another. Residents comment, “I don’t know why we bother going to those meetings. Everybody talks, we hear lots of reasons why things can’t happen, why things won’t change. I feel more discouraged and less empowered than I did before the meeting.”

Like a virus desperately in search of a host, the culture mutates when exposed. The workers adopt new language, new looks. Talk of “empowerment” is great, and we welcome them. Years later, we realize that they have entrenched themselves in our midst and, after all is said and done, they have spent more time economically and politically empowering themselves than us. We expose them. They move to a different office, get a new business card and adopt a new terminology.

What’s the solution to this virus of professionalism? It’s too late for a vaccine. We’re already sick. We need the antibiotic of relationship to counter the virus of visiting professionalism. I don’t trust many helpers who won’t become our neighbours. I don’t agree with all my neighbours, but I respect their personal, social, family and financial investment in our community.

Anyway… now I’m late for another interagency meeting. If I don’t get there on time I might miss something important. Some new terminology. Another agency or a new program. Maybe a new sub-committee to bring structure to my efforts.

Actually, I think I’ll opt for a meeting with some really important people. My kids. My neighbours. Owners of local businesses.

Less process. More results. How’s that for a collective agreement?
Copyright 2001
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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