Jerry Bathke has a feeling neighborhood consultations held over the years at the Native American Baha’i Institute have helped improve lives.
It’s a sensation repeated every time the NABI co-administrator drives on a soon-to-be-paved roadbed that’s been smoothed of its bone-jarring ruts.
The need for a paved road from Interstate 40 to the Navajo lands around Houck, Arizona, was identified in just such a consultation, says Bathke.
Subsequent fact finding helped residents make the connections — and build the case — to turn their dream into reality.
A project that has provided water to people and livestock in an area where most homes lack indoor plumbing was a second fruit of the empowerment process focused at NABI, a center of learning owned by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States.
And over the past three years, residents have turned their attention to another longtime problem — illegal trash dumping — thanks to new tools provided by a Baha’i conducting doctoral research.
Peter Bruss of Colorado Springs, Colorado, introduced the techniques as part of his dissertation, “Human Environment Interactions and Collaborative Adaptive Capacity Building in a Resilience Framework.”
“In the context of my work in and around NABI I distributed digital cameras and art kits and asked the participants to express issues, concerns or anything that struck them as being important (positive or negative) from their perspective about their local community and particularly pertaining to the environment and then to write a narrative expressing why it was important.
“The results are presented in the dissertation and are varied, but the majority of the feedback centered around illegal trash dumping.”
The trash problem has piled up in recent years as residents have bought more items from stores and had no nearby place to dispose of them legally.
“Once you’re done with a can of beans, what do you do with the can?” observes Bathke.
“So people would just make a fire. There’d be a pile and they’d throw a match on it. Or sometimes they would bag it and take it to another spot and make a bigger pile, and eventually burn that pile.”
Bathke says that within a half-mile of NABI in almost any direction one can see trash.
“And some of these piles are rusted-out hulks of vehicles,” he says. “It’s not just little stuff.”
Now residents are fighting back.
“They picked that as their No. 1 priority,” says Bathke. “And they learned how to build awareness of these kinds of things and how to engage people to come to a better position of service to themselves and their community.
“It was a whole process that unfolded.”
One who has participated in this process is Verna Morgan, who became a Baha’i in 2009 and serves on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Houck Chapter.
She laments that within her Navajo tradition “we’re supposed to be stewards of Mother Earth but have lost a lot of those ways.”
So when Bruss came along, she was excited to learn “how to consult with one another, and how to implement this project. He found ways we could recycle and bring new ideas for the litter that we have here.”
Since then Morgan has seen progress.
“I see a lot more of the people recycling, even though they have to travel 80 miles to take it to a recycling place,” she says.
“And a lot of people are now cleaning up their little area where they live.”
But long-term solutions will take money that hasn’t yet been located, she says.
To overcome that obstacle, Morgan and other project collaborators have been taking residents’ needs public to raise awareness and, they hope, attract funds.
They’re visiting as many of the 110 chapter houses in the four-state Navajo Nation as possible.
They made a presentation at the Baha’i Conference on Social and Economic Development in Florida last December.
And influential people such as the county sheriff and tribal environmental officials have been brought into the discussions at NABI.
“All in all we’ve brought a lot of awareness and information to the people,” she says.
Bathke agrees. Residents have committed to a “vision of viable remedies that can encompass the whole region,” he says.
“The past couple of Five Year Plans [development plans for the worldwide Baha'i community] have talked about public discourse but also social action, and this is social action,” he says.
“It’s part of capacity building that leads people to assist in development and be part of that, and taking more responsibility for improving their own lot and that of their community.
“It might seem like small things but they are looking out for each other, asking about them. When you don’t see somebody you ask if they are well.
“They’re taking more responsibility for growing the community together and each other’s lives. That’s all part of this process.”
After all, says Morgan, “Our little community has taken on a lot of projects on our own and accomplished it.”
Drive on the new road toward NABI or drink from one of the new wells and you’ll agree the potential is there to do just about anything.