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Inspiring Community Activism

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 08.08.2008:

By Khaled A. Islaih

We live in challenging times. The world around us is changing very rapidly. The World Watch Institute – an independent research organisation known for its analysis on critical global issues – reported in its new 2008 state-of-the-world review, “the world is very different, physically and philosophically, from the one that Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other early economists knew – different in ways that make key features of conventional economics dysfunctional for the twenty-first century. Humanity’s relationship to the natural, the understanding of the sources of wealth and the purpose of economics, the evolution of markets, governments, and individuals as economic actors – all these dimensions of economic activity have changed significantly over the last 200 years that they signal the close of one economic era and the need for a new economic beginning.”

Sustainable living in this changing global environment requires community involvement – building the power of a group to change the surrounding conditions by finding solutions for people’s problems. Powerful community organisations are expected to facilitate social inclusion and grassroots engagement by changing people’s behaviours, practices, beliefs, and attitudes. It also fosters a sense of community within individual members. Sense of community refers to the sense of belonging to a group. Group members receive this feeling when they are actively involved in their communities. They don’t feel alone but rather feel that they are part of something that is greater than themselves. The community is there when individual members are in need and members will be there for the community when it is in need. More importantly, community organisations and networks organise people to do what they cannot do by themselves. It empowers individual members and the larger community to change their situations through collective action.

In Palestine, schools, universities, businesses, and worship places need to broaden their community-organising initiatives to enhance people’s power and inspire social renewal. In fact, new institutions and technologies alone will not generate sustainable development in our country. We need to change our understanding of progress and growth. Like other developing countries, the use of outdated growth models has led to economic hardships and social crises in Palestine. The majority of our population now lives in poverty. We are still suffering from social, political, and geographic fragmentation. Palestinian youth are not equipped with the appropriate education and skills to join a global workforce. Instead of using religion to inspire progress and transformation, religion within our communities is used to enforce fragmentation and psychological barriers. More importantly, Israeli control of our lives and resources has reached remarkable levels in recent years. Israelis have divided us into conflicting groups and geographies.

Unfortunately, the deterioration of our living conditions in recent years is mainly due to the absence of wider community engagement. In recent years, grassroots participation was replaced by elite control. Nevertheless, solving our complex issues and challenges requires community engagement. Community groups and networks can provide the intelligence we need to solve our problems and challenges. No one individual, no matter how smart or experienced (including international experts and advisers), can solve any Palestinian issue by himself or herself. No one can see all perspectives and imagine all possible consequences of any action. Similarly, there is no specific model to provide accurate predictions in today’s changing world. In contrast, the most effective strategy to solve complex issues is ongoing community engagement to integrate the energies and intelligence of many community members who are close to the problem. Indeed, the dissemination of expert analysis and recommendations alone is not sufficient when it comes to making changes in people’s beliefs and lifestyles.

Due to the accelerated changes in the new globalised world, Canada is adopting collective approaches to facilitate social inclusion and community engagement. For example, federal, provincial, and community agencies are working together to provide Canadian newcomers with various training opportunities to turn them into engaged Canadian citizens and productive workers. The Federal government is allocating considerable resources to immigrant language training and labour-market integration. At Muslim Community Services (MCS) – a leading immigrant-serving agency in Peel Region of Ontario – we provide immigrants from South Asia and Arab countries with a variety of services to ease their settlement and integration into Canadian society.

Similarly, businesses are building partnerships with community organisations in order to enhance community involvement. For example, TD Canada Trust – a leading Canadian bank — is funding a summer reading-club initiative at all public libraries in the Greater Toronto area to encourage better reading habits among school children during the summer vacation. This direct involvement of businesses in community development reflects a drastic shift in business bottom-line definition. The new bottom line reflects environmental, communal, and financial values. The former bottom line was focused only on financial returns.

Furthermore, research institutes at various Canadian universities are directly engaged with community organisations in activist research projects to study a variety of social issues. Traditional academic research driven by limited personal and professional interests has treated people as data; therefore it didn’t have significant public influence. In contrast, new activist approaches are using broader research strategies that treat people as agents and therefore have a remarkable influence. Activist research approaches are mobilising knowledge among various stakeholders including citizens, policy makers, frontline workers, and communities. This collective work is generating transformational outcomes in various social domains in Canada.

In the final analysis, community activism is an effective approach to building a better future. It fosters people’s confidence and power. It will strengthen relationships and social ties within Palestinian communities inside Palestine and around the world. Moreover, community activism will enable us to pressure official Palestinian and international institutions to broaden their models and structures to integrate the exploding knowledge growth in designing and creating new Palestinian realities.

Khaled A. Islaih is a community activist employed as a program manager at Muslim Community Services in Brampton and Mississauga, Canada.

This Week in Palestine

August 2008

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