Personal Action Toward the Common Good Teaches the Way Forward

By Joe and Stephanie Mancini, Good Work News, December 2009

The Working Centre is a community of hope. We are a place where people come when they face hardship – the loss of a job, homelessness, an inability to pay the bills, the challenges of living on a limited income, struggles with mental health, the challenges of learning about Canadian culture and finding work for someone has come from another country, people who are sick and unable to care for themselves. We see daily, in the lives of people that we come to know, the price many people pay when they are left out of the economic system that seems to rule our lives.

Our culture can many to despair, leaving one to ask, “where do you find hope”? Throughout The Working Centre, we are committed to the principle of “never saying no”. How do we respond to each person we meet in a way that looks for a positive way forward? You will notice that I did not say “that looks for a solution”, because we face complex personal and systemic issues that cannot be solved with one answer.

First, we listen closely, we understand the complexity of the situation, and we search together for one positive step. This means that we think outside of systems, programs, and cultural assumptions, and instead look for a positive response, and ways to bridge each person to a community of support in the long term. Often we will simply walk with someone when there is no obvious step forward. We take each person seriously as they stand before us, and respect and respond to their unique situation. But we do not pretend that we can provide a service or an answer, we can only begin the journey of helping each person to feel stronger as they are reinforced within a community of support, so that as a wider group of people we can receive and support one another.

The ethic of respect, supporting individuals in a way that makes possible the dignity they deserve, takes many approaches. The approach is not to make excuses for individuals, rather to find ways through our dense systems so that people have a chance. At the same time, The Working Centre offers unending opportunities to contribute back. This happens on two levels. The first, more formally through our array of community tools projects that give individuals concrete ways to serve others (see the list on page 5). The second happens informally through the 1000 people who travel through The Working Centre each day. Our open services encourage individuals to find informal ways to rebuild their own ethic of respect through friendships and support of each other.

Each of us involved in this exchange is strengthened and the bending, giving, and receiving are part of the reciprocal dance of give and take. In the midst of homelessness, mental health and addictions, unemployment, and rampant consumerism we find a growing community that allows for the surprises that we as individuals cannot dream on our own.

This issue of Good Work News contains some challenging concepts – “Last Chance for Earth” describing the enormity of climate change; “Tar Sands” which enunciates our utter disrespect for the earth based on a hunger for fossil fuels; David Ehrenfeld describing how our “economic and social edifice built begins to crumble” … all really important messages for us to hear and reflect on, but nearly impossible for us to read and not feel overwhelmed and helpless.

It is easy to live in a “Culture of Pretend” that can destroy our capacity for right, personal action. Learned helplessness allows us to think that new technologies or solutions allow us to be assured that living without limits has no repercussions. David Ehrenfeld, in Becoming Good Ancestors explains three recent dangerous kinds of pretending, “ genetic engineering in medicine and agriculture; the use of scientific methods to predict future events, and the ‘Star Wars’ research to develop ways of shooting down incoming enemy ballistic missiles. … In each case, there have been enough successes or partial successes to give some credence to our hopes. And in each it is finally a few of the experts themselves who say, ‘Enough! Our pretending is causing real damage, and it’s time to stop.” (p. 4)

In the midst of these large overwhelming issues are individuals who have learned helplessness from the mundane day to day reality they face. Job loss, benefits revoked, training clawed back, the onslaught of addictions, are just the tip of the iceberg. Learned helplessness is a reinforcement of the perception that many have little control over the outcome of most situations. Research shows that the more an individual is trapped by controls and circumstances where they have little control, passivity and depression is sure to result. We end up with a Culture of Pretend.

The books and readings in this edition of Good Work News give us some ways forward. How do we as individuals make choices that look to the Common Good, which reverence the earth, and contribute to the building of community? Almost all speak to the importance of small personal action that builds a commitment to the common good, full of surprises and hopefulness, despite immense challenges.

At The Working Centre we have learned that small actions make a difference, when practiced in community. The Commons Market, Recycle Cycles, St. John’s Kitchen, Worth A Second Look , Computer Recycling are examples of practical expressions of community building that give citizens practical ways of responding to these immense issues. These support the kinds of personal actions that we increasingly search for – driving less, growing more local food, recognizing the importance of good work, seeking meaningful conversations with families and friends. These actions not only impact on the world around us, but also change us as we engage in creative work together – one small step at a time.

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