Inner City Diary
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Stretching the definition of "community"
January 4, 2004
For those who haven’t heard, three levels of government are preparing to pour another multi-year-mega-million-dollar batch of funds into something called inner-city revitalization.

And for those who aren’t aware, there is an “Urban Futures Group” that is lobbying to represent the concerns and priorities of the inner city to three levels of government. Their battle cry is, “Don’t let the bureaucrats make all the decisions!”

I understand the concern. Bureaucrats aren’t bad, but too many of them don’t get out of the office much. There’s too much about our communities that can’t be understood from behind a desk. There’s a basic distrust of “management” committees, comprised of strangers, making decisions on our behalf. It might be different if we could vote them out if they didn’t do good by us – or reward them by re-electing them.

So another group offers an alternative, stressing the importance of “citizen participation.” They are lobbying politicians to acknowledge their legitimacy. “If you want to respect community, listen to us. We know the community, and we will advise you on how and where to spend the money.”

So far, so good. But here’s the problem…

Take a close look at the Urban Futures “steering committee” – the group which ostensibly claims to represent inner city neighbourhoods.

One would assume that the composition of the group would in some way reflect the diversity of interests and people in the inner city. But here in the heart of Winnipeg, I’m deeply disappointed in our sorry semblance of “citizen participation.”

The 14 members of this “steering committee” are almost exclusively aboriginal (12 of 14), north-end based agencies. None are seniors, none are immigrants, none are poor. There’s no representation of faith-based volunteer groups, no representation from the small business owners who are the lifeblood of inner-city commercial strips. Instead, all are paid employees of social agencies.

They bolster their argument of representing “community” by highlighting the fact that thousands of clients are in their care. And they regularly highlight the fact that they represent the agency establishment of Winnipeg.

What strikes me especially odd is that these social workers don’t see the irony of the situation. Social agencies, despite all their claims to “capacity building” and empowerment, apparently haven’t had much success. It seems the only people they can find to represent the “community” are their own employees.

It’s no surprise that the bulk of funds administered by social workers spawn more social programs and more social workers to attend more meetings to lobby for more programs and more workers, ad infinitum.

Social workers can be good at what they do. But their perspective is limited.

In 1995 one of my mentors, John McKnight, published a powerful critique of this blind spot of social agencies. The book was entitled, “The Careless Society: Community & Its Counterfeits.”

McKnight argues that the language of social agency helping professionals forms a “mask of caring”, a counterfeit voice of community. He notes that these service professionals define our needs, and then organize themselves to professionally service the needs as defined by themselves. If we get better, they lose their jobs. Development of their agencies is sustainable solely via social dysfunction. Their clients are less the consumer than the raw material consumed by the servicing system. McKnight comments, “The client is less a person in need than a person who is needed.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we’re victims of some conscious conspiracy of exploitation by social workers. These are good folks, so focused on our need they don’t see or acknowledge their political, economic and moral profit. They’re always in danger of being fooled by their own rhetoric of capacity-building and empowerment.

You don’t even have to attend all the community meetings to see who wins the day. Just follow the money. Will the money result in funding social workers and social programs to lobby for more workers and more programs?

The scary thing is that the social workers comprising the Urban Futures steering committee don’t even recognize the problem.

They propose to represent our community. One bureaucracy representing us to another bureaucracy. One group of employees of the system representing us to other employees of the system. Talk of “citizen participation” rings hollow in this scenario.

I don’t know about you, but I think we could assemble a more representative group of citizens. Do you have ideas on how to form a more representative group for citizen participation?

Citizen participation and representation are hallmarks of democratic society. Government needs our input. But we can’t expect government to take the principle seriously if we don’t take it seriously.
Copyright 2004
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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