Make friends. Build trust. Learn people’s needs. Be flexible.
These are critical to the success of any social and economic development project, say three longtime practitioners who participated in the Baha’i Conference on Social and Economic Development.
And just might aid the rest of us when opportunities for social action arise naturally from our neighborhood expansion and consolidation activities.
“Don’t go in with a preconceived plan — oh, I’m going to put up a school or a daycare center,” counsels Carl Stefan.
“You have to acclimate yourself and make friends, and they’ll tell you what they need.”
Stefan spends part of the year in Tampa, Florida, and the remainder helping the people of a Philippine village improve their agricultural and educational systems. His project is called Each One Feed One – Each One Teach One Inc.
“It will become more obvious as you go on what they need,” he says. “Sometimes your first impression is not the correct impression” — an underlying problem might need to be addressed first.
But it could take some digging to identify people’s core issues, he notes. “Sometimes it’s something they don’t want to talk about.”
How then to unearth them?
“Naturally, people are shy to talk to you about their problems because they feel ashamed,” says Stefan. “But as you get to know people they start to let down those barriers.”
He says it might take, for example, an event where women who aren’t often heard can open up.
“We have a big dinner and afterward the woman will sit and talk and talk — and you should never set a time limit on the talking,” he says.
“I’m sitting in the other room bored stiff, but after everybody has gone home [my wife] will say, ‘Wow, there are some things going on that we need to be careful about and some things we can really help with.
“And it might be totally away from your plan,” he says, reinforcing the need for flexibility.
That’s a principle Alfred Neumann also espouses.
Making haste slowly toward progress
“Absolutely, don’t think you have wonderful ideas that will solve all of their problems,” says Neumann, a physician and public health educator.
“Sometimes I joke that my knowledge of a place and my clear ideas of what is needed are the greatest the first year of being there.
“Afterward as you learn more, the complexities, … it becomes more fun and you become more effective.”
Neumann, who lives in Santa Monica, California, is a professor emeritus in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Opportunities to serve humankind have taken Neumann around the world many times.
“It’ll be 50 years since I first went to Africa, and we lived in a village in India for a number of years,” he says.
In entering any new place, he says, his personal motto is “make haste slowly.”
To Neumann that translates as “Don’t be in a hurry, as we are in this country. Consult, and focus if you can on one area and really pursue it systematically.”
His role, ultimately? “I see myself as an extra pair of hands to help them do things,” he says.
As he functioned in a project launched in Ghana in 1970.
“It was a research and development project looking at rural health services and family planning,” Neumann recalls.
“It had a heavy training component, and my own role at the beginning was conceptualization, development, getting funding, monitoring.”
But he made sure the Ghanaians increasingly moved to the forefront.
“We were able to bring about 25 to the United States for training at the master’s level, and all of them returned,” he says.
“Ultimately they became the backbone of the New School of Public Health, and it’s continued to this day.”
Neumann says he can’t foresee at its inception where any project will go, and that’s been true as well for Teresa Langness.
Vision and heart and sacrifice
The San Leandro, California, Baha’i was new to the Faith and new to Los Angeles when she began working at the Baha’i Center there.
Langness’ project, Full-Circle Learning, was an outcome of the response by the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Los Angeles to the civil unrest of 1992.
It began with homework help and expanded into academic and arts enrichment.
The aim, says Langness, was to “drive kids to be change agents by taking these core spiritual values — we call them habits of heart — and applying them in their community.”
Soon the children were doing service projects and taking field trips. Soon, too, other organizations were asking for the curriculum.
Training in the curriculum also began so “wherever you are,” says Langness, “it could be adapted to the culture, the capacities of teachers, the grade level of the children” and other local conditions.
Finally, Full-Circle Learning went global as the realization dawned that “when you have a wisdom exchange with another country in addition to local service projects, the children grow exponentially not only spiritually but academically.”
The bottom line: “When you give children an opportunity to be meaningful participants in society, they believe they are and social action just becomes a natural part of life.”
Twenty years in, the Full-Circle Learning model is being used in about 50 schools in 15 countries.
“I never conceived that .01 percent of these things would have happened,” says Langness. “It always surprises me.”
So for her, the biggest learning has been to identify a vision and go wherever it will lead.
That’s why she urges anyone engaging in social action to “seek out people who are like-minded and then help them develop their capacities, rather than seek out the capacities and hope they develop the heart.”
“If unity is there and people are aligned, they can do anything,” she says, pointing to a woman in India who lost her son in a car accident and began a school in his honor even though she had no experience as an educator.
“With two visits” from Full-Circle trainers, the woman “took her vision and heart and sacrifice” and turned her home into a school that now competes for national awards.
Vision and heart and sacrifice. They go together, says Langness.
“Be prepared to sacrifice everything. It’s not just money and time, it’s angst and not knowing what will be required next. Unanticipated levels of sacrifice.
“That’s why vision is so important. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to be a Baha’i; they have to be like-minded.”
As they are at the April Woods School in Haiti.
Langness says parents were included from the start in training sessions and within days not only had the school going but began acting in ways that have immeasurably improved the quality of life in the village.
“In 20 years I’ve never seen anything like this,” she says. “It was so confirming to me.”
Her parting request: “Pray for the sustainability of the April Woods School. What if that little school in the mountains ends up producing leaders for Haiti?”
After all, isn’t that the goal of any social action anywhere, to help sustain progress?