From racism to sustainability, communities are creating change
Small numbers, big change
January 30, 2009
Lynchburg News Advance
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is quoted as assuring his followers that whenever two or three gather in his name, he will be present with them. Fast-forward about 2,000 years and anthropologist Margaret Mead offered this now famous insight: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. There is power in small numbers.
I’ve been thinking lately about the positive energy and influence that can happen when small groups of caring and concerned folks gather together to share collective wisdom and spirited conversation.
Locally, the community dialogues on race and racism of last year have given birth to action groups that are tackling large issues such as citizen advocacy, workforce development, law enforcement and education to name a few. Just this week, another group brought together clergy for a breakfast that bridged both racial and denominational lines. Gathered over bagels and coffee, area ministers engaged in the early stages of envisioning ways to work together for the betterment of the entire community.
At a national level, part of the success of the campaign to elect Barack Obama was the result of grassroots efforts to bring together small groups of citizens at backyard barbecues and in living rooms and kitchens all over the country. Energy and enthusiasm welled up as ordinary women and men, young and not so young, came together and dared to dream that history could happen in their lifetimes.
Internationally, some of the pre-eminent scholars looking at issues of environmental sustainability and survival of the planet are calling for a return to more locally focused efforts and an economy of scale that stresses Main Street over Wall Street.
One such visionary is Rob Hopkins, who has developed the notion of transition towns. According to one Web site, the main aim of the project generally is to raise awareness of sustainable living and to build local resilience. Communities are encouraged to seek methods for reducing energy usage, as well as ways to increase their self-reliance. Initiatives so far have included creating community gardens to grow food; business waste exchange, which seeks to match the waste of one industry with another industry that uses that waste; and even simply repairing old items rather than throwing them away.
More than 100 communities have become officially recognized transition towns and, in each location, the movement has begun when just a few concerned neighbors have come together, watched a DVD to learn more about the concept and then applied the concepts to their own locality.
Another scholar and economist advocating for a return to a more local approach to issues of sustainability is David C. Korten, author of “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.” Korten argues that addressing concerns, such as the destruction of God’s creation and the increasing gap between rich and poor, can only happen when small collectives of like-minded individuals band together to rebuild their own communities. Korten believes that every major movement for social justice begins with a conversation and, when thousands upon thousands of conversations are taking place, real change is inevitable.
If racism and planetary sustainability can be addressed by small groups engaged in ordinary conversation and grassroots organizing, then other urgent issues like poverty and violence can also be tackled and constructive solutions sought.
My spiritual hero happens to be Jesus, who gathered around him a relatively small and motley group who eventually changed the world. May his example inspire all people of faith to trust that anything is possible when small groups committed to dialogue and to change come together, one conversation at a time.
—Gibbons is the associate chaplain at Lynchburg College.
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