Values, leadership, dialogue and identity

I attended the 2009 Not For Profit Futures Summit on Saturday September 19.

It turned out to have been a day well spent.

Apart from the pleasure of sharing time and space with such a large and diverse mob, who as the day passed, appeared to find more and more in common, it led me to ponder a bunch of issues that I probably would not have otherwise.

I won’t try to record the complete details of what was, for me at least (and I’m sure for most), a day of frenetic mental activity, but instead attempt to distil what I came away with.  And what that was, was not a series of answers, but rather a much clearer sense of what the ‘right’ questions might be:

The fundamental question

What values and aspirations do activists/entities in the community sector share?

Recognising areas of common intent and principle is an essential first step towards developing a sense of shared identity, co-operation and action.

For the community sector to develop an effective voice and a capacity for synergistic action, it will need to go beyond a feeling of fellowship and a general ‘public benefit’ rubric as the basis for, what currently appears to be a rather nebulous, sense of sectoral cohesion.

The sector will need to have a much more grounded, embodied and articulate sense of itself as a coalition of community interests active in the life of our society if it is to be able to fulfil its potential as one of the key participants in enhancing the inclusiveness, wellbeing, equity, active citizenship and sustainability of our society.

The process of uncovering our commonalities, if joyful, supportive and energising (a challenge; see below), will itself contribute massively to a mutual perception of belonging and cohesion.

This awareness gives rise to six ‘operational’ questions:

How can we successfully:

  • develop a forum in which the values and aspirations of sector constituents can be productively demonstrated and shared?
  • facilitate continuing exchange between community sector entities?
  • arrive at our own articulate expression of our common values and aspirations?
  • develop a leadership committed to, and active in, cross sector exchange and collaboration?
  • facilitate practical intra-sector collaborations arising from a recognition of shared intent and principles?
  • secure State support that does not jeopardise the independent development of the sector?

To my mind, these are key issues that need urgent attention.

Are culture and arts useful concepts in imagining future actions in the community sector?

Only if we understand what each other mean when we use these words.

So, let me tell you how I use them. First, ‘culture’:

A society’s stories about who it is, why it’s here, where it’s been, where it’s going and how it behaves are its culture – its meaning.  More precisely, it is the process of making and telling these stories that is a society’s, a community’s a group’s, and a family’s culture.  As some scientists tell us, we have two ways of passing on information: genetic (biological) and non-genetic (cultural).  This view informs my sense of ‘culture’ as ‘the social production of meaning’ or ‘making sense together’.

It was with this understanding that I wrote The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: culture’s essential role in public planning in which I concluded that:

‘Cultural vitality is as essential to a healthy and sustainable society as social equity, environmental responsibility and economic viability.  In order for public planning to be more effective, its methodology should include an integrated framework of cultural evaluation along similar lines to those being developed for social, environmental and economic impact assessment.’

Not least, because it makes the processes of dynamic development of a society’s values and aspirations easier to recognise, talk about and contextualise; and, most important, far easier to facilitate its inclusive and equitable development.

Now, if we look again at the challenges I outlined above, one could reasonably identify them as essentially cultural issues, and decide that they may best be addressed with what we could call cultural action.

That is, that the questions above could be summarised thus:

How can the community sector make sense together?

Moving from using ‘cultural’ to denote organisations engaged in making, distributing and storing artistic artefacts to applying it to refer to the processes we use to make meaning offers a new perspective to understanding and to being able to act effectively in matters concerning our society, our culture, our environment and our economy.

And now, arts.

I think of the arts as referring to activity rather than stuff – that is, that ‘arts’ refers to processes that may result in a ‘work of art’, but that often are intensely fulfilling in themselves without their being a concluding result.  These processes are how we allow our innate creativity to find expression, how we give our imaginations a presence, and can be one of the most intense ways we experience connections with others.

What is most relevant to the matter at hand, in relation to ‘the arts’, is that these processes can be the ‘joyful, supportive and energising’ aspect of facilitating ‘making sense together’ (see above).

There are scores of simple, enjoyable and thrilling creative processes that can be used to engage groups of participants in the journey towards a sense of community.  Strategies for addressing the operational questions above will be more likely to work if they have pleasurable participative arts activities integrated into them.

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