In the mid 1980’s, as The Working Centre was experimenting with new ways of doing community work, we were very fortunate to find the support of Ken Westhues as a board member and mentor. As a well published sociologist at the University of Waterloo he was committed to a conception of sociology that grew out of “intimate, democratic engagement in practical affairs". Westhues showed us that "the early practitioners [of sociology] were not, in the main, professors sequestered in academia but public men and public women, activist intellectuals whose books were intended to reshape for the better the theaters of conflict and politics out of which they were written.” Westhues offered The Working Centre a continuing “interplay between disciplined, empirical social thought and social action.”
Building Relationships Where People Are Real, an essay by Westhues in the late 1980’s became a description of how The Working Centre described its informal, community building approach. In the first version of that essay, Westhues describes increased scale, the concentration of capital and the resulting decrease in ownership of property, the increased scale of organizations, the bureaucratization of organizations and the professionalization of services as the main social problems. In short, our culture’s organization of work was guaranteed to alienate workers, decrease creativity and minimize craft and workmanship.
Shaping, influencing and describing alternatives to the bureaucratic status quo have been Ken’s main role at The Working Centre. Below are some examples of how social thought interplays with social action and how democratic thought is developed through practical action.
“…as a place that counters our bureaucratized world. We seek to give people the dignity and respect they deserve, to help people take charge of their own lives, to enable us all to escape the doldrums of consumerism and find our way to the joy of producing for ourselves.”
“In the way it has pursued its educational mission, the Working Centre has also fostered distinct and invaluable social skills: how to teach, learn, and live in a respectful, reciprocal, democratic way. Hierarchical, top-down models of schoolwork, as of work in general, are avoided here in favour of more egalitarian models. Quality, productivity, job satisfaction, friendship and joy are achieved through mutual aid. Teachers and learners take turns talking and listening, showing one another how to do new things.”
“Against the ethic of mass consumerism, The Working Centre pits the ethics of producerism drawn from thinkers like Schumacher, Illich and Lasch. It means acquiring skills and seizing opportunities to produce more necessities and luxuries of life on one’s own or in small groups. Unemployment from this perspective need not mean deprivation, the loss of the good life, but a chance to redefine the good life in a more genuine, joyful and sustainable way, more in terms of producing power than of purchasing power.”
“This part of Ontario was not founded by imperial edict. Our community arose from the grassroots efforts of settlers finding their own way along the trail of the black walnut trees. The defining character of Waterloo Region is as a place of decentralized power, a place where ordinary people make history, free of despotism of any kind. The Waterloo School of Community Development is rooted in these local, democratic traditions. It aims to maintain and deepen those traditions in the large, urban, diverse, high-tech setting the Region has become.”