Best Practices: Personal-Driven Engagement

This is Adam Fletcher, age 19, at work at a youth program in North Omaha, Nebraska.

Everyone seemed to want to save the neighborhood I grew up in, but nobody actually did. From the time I was 10 to the year I was 20, I lived in a low-income primarily Black neighborhood in the Midwest. A big old Methodist church on the corner hosted programs for kids, and I went there for services in my late teens. Each summer the activities in the church ramped up all week long. I worked for a nonprofit in the basement there during the summer, too, teaching drama. The building was a 1920s gothic throwback, with towers and faux parapets, gigantic sanctuary ceiling and bright, sunny classrooms.

Every summer I was there the church experienced a “Running of the Volunteers”, like the Running of the Bulls in Pampalona. Strangers would pour into the building all summer long to fix it up and play with the neighborhood kids every day between 10am and 2pm. During these times the building seemed to hum, filled with the newness of clean work clothes and propped up by shiny white 15-passenger vans that came from another part of the city, or another part of the country. These were exotic people to us, with their shiny faces and new stuff. Their very presence confused me.

This memory leads me to the my next in my series of best practices in engagement:

Practice 5: Center On Personal-Driven Engagement

When we begin to examine what we’re engaged in within ourselves and throughout the world around us, we may find there are some unspoken assumptions driving these lasting connections throughout our lives. Assumptions aren’t bad or wrong to have- they are the way we make quick, clear, decisive decisions in our lives.

One of the challenges of loving the lives we live right now is to get clear on our assumptions. Assumptions about engagement may look like this: The first person looks within themselves and sees that all their life they’ve been playing piano, they love playing piano, they play no matter how they feel, and they want to keep playing piano. The name this as something they’re personally engaged in. For another person, they look within their own lives and find that while they’ve played piano all their lives, they aren’t engaged in it. Never building a substantial connection, they don’t feel love for piano or a need to keep playing it, even though they always have. This is a difference between personal-driven engagement and other-driven engagement.

In the same way, we can begin to see the connection between the effect of external engagement in a community versus internal engagement within a community. Australian aboriginal activist Lila Watson once said, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come to because your liberation is bound up in mine, we can work together.” The people in the neighborhood where I grew up, including the kids and teens, we wanted to change our own lives. We didn’t want vans full of well-meaning people from alien parts of the city to come do for us what we could do for ourselves. It felt charitable and belittling, and today I see that its antithetical to both personal engagement and successful community engagement.

Ram Dass wrote, “There’s much more in any given moment than we usually perceive, and that we ourselves are much more than we usually perceive. When you know that, part of you can stand outside the drama of your life.” One of the lessons of personal engagement is about the interrelated web of connectivity that we’re all part of. Another is that there are always assumptions behind the appearance. Yet another is that no matter what we decide or how we come to it, everything is always working exactly the way it is meant to. If we want to change it, we can.

Questions For Personal-Driven Engagement

  • What personal engagement in my life am I taking for granted?
  • Am I assuming something I shouldn’t about personal engagement?
  • What assumption is leading me to this conclusion?
  • What do I assume about personal engagement?
  • Why are you assuming that about personal engagement.?
  • What are some important assumptions I make about personal engagement as it relates to my spouse, my friends, my supervisor, my children, my country, or people around the world?

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