Community As Organism: A Talk By Robert Self

September 18, 2014

Robert Self, Professor of History and Advisor for UCAAP, welcomed a new group of 75 first-year students during Orientation Week with the provocative and insightful remarks below. 

UCAAP, the Undergraduate Community Academic Advising Program, has been designed for students who want community service and social change work to be a central part of their Brown experience.  UCAAP brings together a lively and engaged cohort of students together with advisors who will challenge and support their exploration of academic learning and effective community engagement.


I want to thank Alan for extending this invitation. I’ve been a UCAAP advisor for the last four or five years, an experience I’ve really valued. And I’m especially excited and honored to speak with you this afternoon, before you begin to really dig into your orientation. My academic home is in the History Department, and among the many historical topics in which I’m interested is the subject of social movements and their role in social and political change. I teach a course on political movements in U.S. history since the Civil War, which spends a semester examining the dynamics of about 10 different organized movements that sought fundamental political change, reform, or even revolution over about 130 years of American history. And there are a great many faculty members on Brown’s campus who can become resources for you. Of course, you have the folks who run UCAAP and the Swearer Center, but there are a wide range of professors who are interested both in community service and community-based activism—someone like Tricia Rose in Africana Studies, Jim Marone in Political Science, or Scott Frickel in Sociology, who’s doing interesting work in New Orleans. These are just a few, and you’ll meet many, many more during your four years at Brown.

For my part, I’d like to spend about 30 minutes talking about the relationship between students, communities, and social change. Your program’s sponsor here on campus is the Swearer Center for Public Service, an essential part of Brown’s quite robust capacity to engage with communities outside of the campus here on College Hill. Within the framework of the Swearer Center, UCAAP is singled out as a way for students who are interested in public service and social change to create a community with other like-minded students and to provide a thoughtful focus for some of your time at Brown. But let’s pause for a moment at that combination in UCAAP’s mission: public service and social change. Let me invite you to tell me, what you think those two terms mean.

In some ways, the combination of public service and social change is a provocation. It’s a question disguised as a fact. And this is the point in your college career, precisely one weekend into it, when your professor says to you: exactly. Recognizing a question disguised as a fact is at the heart of what an engaged and critical mind sets as its principal objective, its aim.

If it’s a question, a provocation, what is it asking us, what is it provoking us to see? Let me venture a small handful of answers in the next 20-25 minutes. And I want to be clear. I really see this as Conversation Zero. You know how when a new disease outbreak happens, and they identity “Patient Zero.” I think of this as “conversation zero.” By that terrible analogy, all I mean is that this is a topic that could and should take up far more time than 30 minutes, and my thoughts are simply meant to launch your own explorations and conversation, both today and more broadly in your time at Brown. I want to get to some principles eventually, but let’s start with another kind of provocation.

Communities are organisms not spaces. Communities are organisms not spaces. What does this mean and what are the implications of knowing this? At its most basic, it means that communities are living, breathing, complex living things. Like all complex organisms they have parts that are visible—they have neighborhoods, streets, businesses, schools, and the like. And they have parts that are integral to a community’s life but are less visible: human relationships, families, histories, memories, flows of income and debt, and the like. Among the most important of these are human relationships and history.

Too often, when those of us in academia, and here I mean students of all levels, faculty, and other researchers, too often when we think of communities, we think of them as spaces. They are places to engage in service or study, places we venture into and back out of again. But how we think about that process of venturing into and out of a community depends on whether we understand it as an organism or as simply a space, a kind of neutral “place” into which we come and go with no consequences. As outsiders, we are unlikely to comprehend the more hidden organic dimensions of the communities in which we work, unless we’re there for a very long time.

The community as organism model helps us understand a few things. First, let’s take the service model of community engagement. The ethic of community service is vitally important. The ethic of community services says that we have obligations to one another as human beings that stand outside the market, that can’t be measured or quantified as part of commerce or consumption, dollars and sense. The ethic of service says that what we owe to one another goes beyond something that can be translated into money. Public service is an enormously important component of living an engaged and self-aware life, and it’s a big part of what the Swearer Center does.

But if we go back to our model of communities as organism, the ethic of community service inevitably encounters dilemmas and limitations of which you should be aware. Because the ethic of community service does not specify whose community? And the ethic of community service, as critically important as it is, does not imply social change. Let’s take these one by one. Whose community? One of the limitations of the ethic of community or public service is that often the pathway of service goes from communities that are well-resourced to communities that are un-resourced. Let’s say, simply, from relatively privileged communities to relatively underprivileged communities. Not all the time, certainly. But often.

Let me give you an illustration. The Peace Corps was founded in 1961 during the Kennedy Administration. In the decade of the 1960s, the Peace Corps sent thousands of middle- class Americans to developing countries, what at the time was often called the Third World and today we may say “developing” or “the global South.” Those volunteers dug wells, planted fields, assisted with engineering project, and so on. In 1968, Ivan Illich, who was an Austrian philosopher and Catholic priest in Mexico, where he founded a research and language center that was heavily involved in both the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps.

In 1968, after almost a decade of experience, he delivered one of the most biting critiques of the western community service model that we have. “For the past six years, I have become known for my increasing opposition to the presence of any and all North American ‘do- gooder’ in Latin America,” he said. “I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only be an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle- class American “way of life,” since that is really the only life you know.” He went on to develop a lengthy critique of these Americans of “good faith” and what he believed was their misguided and arrogant attempts to bring the blessings of middle-class American life to the poor of Latin America.

Now, I tell you this story not to rail against the Peace Corps and certainly not to denigrate productive exchanges between global north and south, or to discount the importance of knowledge and skill flows between regions and nations, and the like. Rather, I raise it to remind us how sticky and alive these organisms we call communities are. And that “good intentions” may be insufficient at best or a liability at worst within a structural context of vast differences in wealth, resources, and culture. Basically, Illich finally says that you American volunteers get more out of this than the people you are supposedly helping. It helps you feel good about yourselves without really changing the fundamental problem, which is the unequal distribution of resources.

Think with me about this. Where did Illich stand to make such a critique? And where does his provocation push us to go? As much as anything, Illich was pointing us to two fundamental realities of those organisms we call communities—at vastly different scales. At the most intimate and locale scale, Illich had observed that the “outsiderness” of the American volunteers was so powerful, so overwhelmingly powerful, that they could in effect relate to people in the Mexican communities they had come to serve. The Americans were paternalistic about their own ways, and this made them unwelcome in communities in which language, kinship, religion, and any number of cultural ties bound people together in a common set of experiences. We might call this the personal politics of privilege.

And at an altogether different scale, at far greater remove, Illich was pointing us to the great structural economic inequalities between a middle-class American suburb and a Mexican village, and the vaster inequalities in the global arrangements of power and resources that had produced that American suburb and that Mexican village. In effect, he was asking us to see how little what the volunteers did could matter within the larger structural dynamics of the global economy. These two scales—the interpersonal and the structural—were crucial to his argument, to the provocation he was trying to make. Of course, he, too, was European, and something of an interloper, so his own positionality would be interesting to follow up.

But we have other matters to attend to. I want to use Illich to introduce another figure, and that’s Ella Baker. As a historian I know that over time the people who have most successfully changed our world, the people who over time have made most thoroughly advanced a democratic humanism—they have had a theory of knowledge production and social change. That is, they have been guided by an understanding, often a deep understanding, of how new knowledge is produced and how social change happens. I don’t mean disciplinary specific methods. I mean a deep understanding of the social production and the politics of knowledge. The much larger social process, involving institutions and communities and power structures and individuals, the larger social context in which knowledge is produced.

Let’s take Ella Baker. Baker was among the foremost theorists of the civil rights, or black freedom, struggle of the 1960s. To harness the energy of students sit-ins, which had emerged spontaneously among black college students in the upper South in the late winter and spring of 1960, Baker urged, and then helped to coordinate and mentor, an all-student organization. This was SNCC. But Baker was no ordinary activist.

By the time she helped to coordinate that 1960 meeting of students at Shaw University, a historically black college in Raleigh that Baker herself had attended in the 1920s (she was valedictorian, by the way). By that time, she had been involved in various progressive movements since the 1930s, through which she had crafted a notion of a democratic learning process as fundamental to a democratic movement. What did that mean for Baker? For Baker, a democratic learning process was a dialectic between activists like herself—and the students in SNCC—and ordinary people. Baker’s vision of leadership was horizontal, not vertical. Knowledge and skills did not flow from the top down but across and through societies. For Baker and her charges, this meant, especially, listening to ordinary black people, many of whom were poor and lacked formal education, and developing leaders among them.

“Black people who were living in the South were constantly living with violence,” Baker wrote in her memoir. Part of the job” – and here she was writing about her work with the NAACP in the 1950s – “Part of the job was to help them understand what the violence was and how they in an organized fashion could help to stem it.” Central to Baker’s theory was that people themselves could develop this knowledge. It did not necessarily come from the outside. “The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their own power that they could use .. My basic sense of it has always been to get people to understand that in the long run they themselves are the only protection they have against violence or injustice.”

Baker developed a notion of a democratic learning process—creating horizontal flows of experience, consciousness raising, and dialogue—that forces us to ask the question, “What is knowledge?” For Baker, knowledge lived in the collective experience, skills, networks, understandings, and worldviews or communities. Knowledge was collective and always in motion. Activists could encourage, develop and foster it, but it was not entirely theirs to create. It resided in a horizontal, democratic process, not in an institution or an individual. And for Baker, the knowledge that was important was the knowledge than enabled ordinary people to take control of their lives, the knowledge that enable ordinary people to become self-conscious actors in history.

If Baker advanced the concept of participatory democracy through an explicit theory of knowledge production, that theory (which, by the way, was not Baker’s alone—Saul Alinsky, A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, and a whole range of mid-century community organizers were working with similar kinds of theories). If Baker advanced the concept of participatory democracy through a theory of knowledge production and social change, that theory went into the world and did important work in other places. It was a model of community organizing, in which activists were taught and trained to develop the resources and assets within a community, through horizontal, rather than vertical relationships. One such place was Boston, Massachusetts. And here, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we see another example of theory in action.

The Boston Women’s Health Collective was founded by eight middle-class white women in 1969. They met in the kitchen of one of their members, Jane Pincus. And in a series of meetings, which by then had become known within the larger women’s liberation movement as consciousness-raising sessions, these women put Baker’s notion of horizontal, democratic learning into action. By talking to each other about their bodies, about sex, about their encounters with the medical profession and medical institutions, and reproduction, they practiced the central theory of the women’s liberation movement: women talking to women.

Between those first meetings in 1969 and 1973, the Boston Women’s Health Collective assembled the experiences, skills and ideas of hundreds if not thousands of women into a book that literally changed the world, Our Bodies Ourselves. More than simply a seventies feminist touchstone, Our Bodies Ourselves fundamentally changed the practice of medicine. Acting on their sense that institutional medicine did not fully understand women’s bodies, denied women active participation in their own care, and misrepresented women’s own bodies to themselves, the Boston Women’s Health Collective, and the women’s health movement of which it was a part, created new knowledge. By create, I don’t mean invent out of whole cloth. They took women’s collective knowledge and practices and combined it with some specialized medical knowledge, and combined that with a democratic theory that people ought to have the greatest possible participation in their own medical care—and the result was ‘new knowledge.’ [Pause]

At this point, you may be saying to yourself: Prof. Self (which is a funny thing to say to yourself), Prof. Self, are you saying that people in communities always have the answers? Or that there is no role for the development of expert knowledge, from the outside that communities might use? No, not at all. Communities do not have every answer and are not always right, and there is a place for expert knowledge. What I am saying is that as you move forward with your own personal commitments to public service and social change, you begin to interrogate the provocation at the core of that combination. That you begin to see the potential tension between the two and that you foreground in your own mind and work—your own habits of mind, as I said this morning—that you foreground for yourself the provocations of someone like Ivan Illich or Ella Baker.

And in closing for what it’s worth, I’d like to turn briefly to two elements that I see as crucial to any community engagement, whatever its nature.

First, one has to listen. Indeed, listening is as a skill as important to refine as speaking— some would argue more important. For two reasons. First, listening is crucial because the better you get at it, the broader your reservoir of ideas becomes. I don’t mean passive listening, but a process of listening, reflecting, thinking, testing, connecting and so forth that becomes second nature to you. This was precisely what Baker taught the people who worked with her. Listen. If you can create a chain of people who are listening to one another, you can create an impressive, ever more robust exchange of ideas. But it’s opening yourself up to input that enables that process to begin.

There is an important caveat here. And this has to do with the university and the world. I no more believe that some authentic knowledge exists among ordinary people than I believe that knowledge is only created in the university. It’s just as much a mistake to romanticize some notion of an authentic folk as it is to seal yourself up in the ivory tower. Baker never said, go and listen to ordinary people because everything they say is a sparkling gem of wisdom. Indeed, that is a condescending notion of a different sort. Encouraging a community-centered or collaborative process of knowledge production does not mean simply taking at face value what anyone tells you. What it does mean is that you have to listen critically, reflect back, test theory, listen critically again, reflect, and so forth. This is what I mean a refined listening.

Listening is crucial because listening is a form of speaking. When you listen effectively, you are communicating your own openness, interest, and engagement. It will astound you across the whole arc of your life, in whatever context you find yourself, how effective and powerful listening can be. How much it communicates to other people that you are someone to take seriously; you are someone they want to be part of their project, their research, their department, their movement, whatever it is. But again, refined, active listening.

A second essential component of an active, progressive theory of social change is self reflection. Self reflection happens on multiple levels. It can be disciplinary—“Am I asking the right questions?” It can be personal—“How do I carry myself, present myself to others?” But the importance of self reflection goes well beyond matters of individual conscience, which are vitally significant, but ultimately secondary to the institutional arrangements of power in which all of us are embedded. Thus I want you to think about self-reflection on a more global level, and this gets us back to the role of the university in knowledge production. It’s crucial, especially for those of you who are doing active, community-based research or organizing or service, to remember that one person’s laboratory is another person’s community. What may be simply a “place” to you is a living, breathing thing to those who live there. I urge all of us to be clear how we understand the relationship between the university—as a certain kind of producer of knowledge—and the communities we study.

I come from a professional world where research builds careers. But when the research that builds careers depends upon an engagement with communities, it’s crucial to place yourself in a critical relationship to that process, to understand where you stand. And even in your case, you may have gone into a community to do research and brought that research, that knowledge, back to Brown, where it does work for you, among your peers, professors, within the institution. But Ella Baker would want to know what you left behind. Did you mine that community for information, anecdotes, stories, and other knowledge? And to what end.

I raise this issue not to scold us. And certainly not to paralyze us. If students did not go into the world, the social would be poorer for it. But the institutional relationship between wealthy universities and human communities outside that university is not always an equal one. And as researchers and students committee to public service and social change we need to be cognizant of and sensitive to that. There are questions of ethics involved in doing any form of community-based work that cannot be ignored. How those ethical questions are resolved is itself a process, and not an easy one. And sometimes they are out of your individual hands. But knowledge is not produced in a value- and politics-free vacuum. It is produced in a political work in which people have different relationships to power and resources. Knowledge production and public service in that context is already political—so it’s best to understand and confront that fact.

How do you create new knowledge without resort to pure ideology? How do you create new knowledge in a world where people would prefer to believe that knowledge is far inferior to ideology? Patience. Test your ideas in the world. Put theories in action. Practice a democratic learning process. Think horizontally, not just vertically. Open yourself, listen, translate. Repeat. I leave you with the words of William Appleman Williams, historian and activist: “History does not offer any answers. Men and women of the present must provide the answers. Hence the historian must return to his own society as a citizen and, with no quarter asked or give, engage other citizens in a dialogue to determine the best answers to these questions.”

[September 1, 2014]