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An outsider’s perspective

| Thursday, January 23, 2014

In my studies and personal experience, I’ve come to learn and accept that the person who can best solve a particular community’s social issues is an “insider,” or someone who has always lived there. In the documentary “The Interrupters,” for example, local community members work against violence in Chicago and are successful because they are from the community and have been in similar circumstances as the people they are helping.

In my peace studies class, I also learned on an international level that foreign organizations and world powers are notorious for entering war-torn countries and attempting to rebuild them using their own strategies. In the aftermath of war, for example, we learned from visiting professor Laura Heideman that international aid in Serbia and Bosnia, although temporarily helpful, funded some unnecessary initiatives and disrupted the functional workings of local nonviolence organizations by forcing them to structure like Western NGOs. As a result, many of the local organizations crumbled when the foreign donations dried up.

When foreign powers address the issues they or their donors believe to be most important in ways they think are most effective, ignoring the customary practices and current initiatives of local organizations, their actions lead to an inefficient usage of resources. In the same way, “insiders” in a community usually personally know the people and understand what the area needs better than “outsiders” do.

While this is all very true, I have often wondered, “What about me?” If my hometown is relatively peaceful and I come from a background free from the major struggles the people in these communities face, does that mean I can never do anything to help them except for changing legislation? I am compelled by the power of local community organizing, but does that mean I am useless on a local level if I am in an unfamiliar city? While in Chicago on the Latino Communities Organizing Against Violence Center for Social Concerns seminar, I attempted to resolve these burning questions.

Although local people of Little Village in Chicago staffed most of the organizations we visited, I did meet some people who were from other areas. I learned that the key to working as an “outsider” was to listen to the residents’ ideas, learn more about local culture, show that you care and be genuine.

At Enlace, a community group that works against nonviolence through programs such as mentoring in schools and meeting with gang members on the streets, we met Catherine Ifurung, a school-based mentor who met regularly with students and listened to them, trying to build relationships with them and help them create goals for the future. She told me that even though she was from a different state and demographic than the students, she was able to connect with them by finding other things they had in common. Even though it would take them time to open up, it really made a difference when she just listened to them and met them where they were with no judgment, showing them she cared.

At Saint Agnes of Bohemia Church, we met Fr. Tom Boharic, a priest in a predominately Hispanic area who himself was not Hispanic nor originally from that neighborhood. He said he was concerned with striving to learn about and appreciate the culture of the community, deferring to their wisdom. He said being an outsider is fine as long as one is seeking to learn from the community. He described an outsider’s presence as potentially being seen as an “act of peace” because that person is willing to come into a violent neighborhood just because he or she cares about its people. Much of the community organizing in which he was involved also stemmed from what the parishioners wanted to organize. He acted upon what they needed and not just upon what he wanted to do.

Finally, I learned from the executive director of the Southwest Organizing Project, Jeff Bartow, that it is important to appreciate the local culture and to present oneself in an honest way. Using one’s own mannerisms and speech is fine because attempting to use the local vernacular sounds false if it is unnatural. It is also unfair and insincere telling someone from the local area that you are “just like” him or her if it isn’t true. It is vital to be genuine because the people from the local area can tell if someone is acting falsely.

Although people from the local community are usually more relatable as community leaders, it is possible for an “outsider” to work against violence through community organizing as long as he or she appreciates the culture, defers to local knowledge and tries to find common ground while still remaining genuine. I have received affirmation that being a legislator is not my only option when it comes to effecting change in communities. I could also work as a counselor in a school, lead a community organizing program or work with a local church to help those in need. Overall, knowing that the local people have the best knowledge, I need to work humbly with them to meet the needs of their community. Instead of coming in with my own solutions, I need to listen and work out solutions with local community members, using their systems, since their insights are just as good as, if not better than, my own.

About Katarina Goitz

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