The do-gooders are failing

I think we have a problem in the community of do-gooders, and I’m afraid of what it means. Progressives have been ‘fighting the good fight’ for a long while, and although we have won a number of battles, it would seem we are losing the war. Still. At the same time, it’s starting to dawn on me the reason for this is not because of ‘them’ but because of ‘us’. All of us — greater humanity. Clearly as humans we are capable of change, but it also seems very rare that the change we get is the change we strive for. It just sort of happens. Maybe organised change is a failed concept, because it would seem to me the people fighting for it hardest, are not setting such a great example. It makes me wonder, is living differently and breaking out of tired, worn-out ways of being beyond us?

Well, I’m starting to think my local community is case in point.

The Melbourne Story

Community | NOUN /kəˈmjuːnəti/ : a localised network of people who come together to socialise, rely on each other, share and meet our needs.

We talk so much about ‘community’. But here’s the problem. This group of people doing good, change-making and working on new ways of being are not, it would seem, living by the values we espouse. I don’t know their families, they don’t keep in touch with a call or an email to say “Hi, how’s everything going?”, I’m not invited to their houses for dinner, the coffee catch-ups (few and far between) are slotted into people’s busy schedules.

We’re not friends and we’re not a community. We’re colleagues connected on Facebook who vaguely share the same goals and ideals.

I have made a couple of real friends; people I call in times of need, to seek advice, and who show up on my birthday with a plate to share. I have been invited to a couple of parties. I am often on distribution lists for workshops and events. But that’s it. In 3 years, from literally hundreds of connections, and despite plenty of instances of working together and putting my hand up for their numerous projects, a small handful of people are genuinely part of my community.

And it really got me thinking. What is going on here? I came up with a list of so-called ‘failings’ holding us back from doing better as a community. I’m no expert; I’m failing like the rest of us. But the observations are worth an examination. Each failing includes a suggestion for how we can do things differently so that we might actually achieve some of the success we’re all working so damn hard for. Will it work? I honestly have no idea. But it can’t be any worse.

Failing #1. What about Collaboration?

I’ve started to notice an unexpected reality. Working together often simply repeats old patterns, and this includes things I’ve lead myself. They’re not genuinely collaborative — most times we’re still operating as leader/boss and followers/worker bees. In my experience the people in project groups often don’t do anything beyond what they’re asked. I suspect that maybe we’re all too stretched working on too many big problems, but maybe genuine collaboration just doesn’t really work in practice.

There are literally hundreds of groups and projects in Australia, squireling away on a multitude of good causes, but there is no community of scale coalescing around our shared vision of the future. Our lack of collaboration on this broader scale sees us labouring away in isolation without affecting much of anything let alone displacing the problems we seek to rid. We’re all reinventing the wheel and failing to pool our very scant resources (capital and precious time), and we’re all burning out. No wonder there’s no great social movement, no large-scale change.

Open Source, the Commons and P2P sharing is all about pooling resources, it’s about community ownership, and it’s about each of us not needing to own a thing to get benefit from a thing. But somehow I have ended up being part of 20 separate Facebook groups, follow 42 separate pages, am a member of 8 different meetup groups, 10 LinkedIn interests, hundreds of individual connections, and contribute to 3 other offline communities. All local. All working on an alternative future. I probably need a clean out! But the point is why aren’t more of us working together? It’s such a basic concept which is practiced so well in other parts of the (developing) world where people actually share ideas and information and money and stuff. The way we’re doing it is inefficient, and more importantly, ineffective.

The Success Counterpoint: If you’re part of a group, you’re an organiser, or you have connections to people who are, perhaps you can approach aligned organisations and community groups to suggest a merger, find ways of working together, or at the very least share resources and knowledge. Longer term I’d love to see some kind of national council or broad member group of future makers, do-gooders, social initiatives etc similar to the Business Council of Australia (that also has its political influence due to its member size!).

Failing #2. Power Dynamics and Personalities

I’m always getting invited in to projects and groups, but so often things go sour, individual efforts go unrewarded, and minority views are crowded-out by more populist ideas. I’ve even been ex-communicated from groups I was emotionally invested in for one reason or another (and never because of an obvious incursion). One time, the group’s self-nominated leader made a decision and kicked out a heap of others without a word of warning because she decided to be exclusive in membership — an odd choice given our need for scale.

Many of these behaviours look and feel pretty much exactly the same as the paradigms we’re shunning. I firmly believe holocracies and flat hierarchical structures can work. Empowered people really can achieve great deeds when they work together towards a shared vision. From where I stand there’s not a lot of self-organising but there is a lot of self-interest. I’ve lost count of the personalities striving to make a name for themselves, and the egos seeking to be our saviours. When the chips are down I’ve seen people backstab, name call and plot against one another. One person or another vying for power and control, believing their experience or vision is the best, or worse still, the only way forward. The purists versus the realists…on and on it goes.

Added to this is the incessant seeking out of VIP’s and modern heroes who’ll fly halfway across the world in a jet plane (so much for environmental consciousness!) to tell us all how to do it the way they do. The people who’ve been in the driving seat wish to remain there (how very cliché), and we continue to idolise the guy who uses confounding language, and put him on all the panels, while disregarding the local practitioners out in the field, quietly getting stuff done.

The Success Counterpoint: For all the talk of democratic decision–making and the wisdom of the group, we do an awful lot of ‘my way or the highway’. Although many groups have progressive governance structures in place, in reality the same frontmen always seem to drive the agenda. There are good examples and numerous tools that put paid to this way of doing things. Use them! Spending time to get this right as early as plausible will mitigate conflict and oftentimes prevent these situations from arising in the first place. Benevolent dictators are not a part of a new and improved future.

Failing #3. Making Space for Different Voices

Speaking of self-appointed leaders, it would seem the patriarchy is alive and well here in our network of woke souls. Men are still dominating the space. Men are still telling women they’re wrong, and that they know best.

I was so fed up I recently posted on Facebook asking men to please stop shouting me down. Well, I actually told them to piss off, and that their mansplaining was uninvited and unwelcome. Two dozen women could jump in, be supportive and offer help, and there will always be that one guy who criticises, or feels the need to correct you, or offer his superior guidance. OK, so not all ideas are good, nobody is beyond reproach, and feedback is almost always a good thing. But it’ll always be the men at the front of the queue ready to tell the women how it’s done. I’m not so ignorant to claim women don’t offer criticism or lack diplomacy — I myself am as guilty of that as anybody. It’s just the inevitability that any time, and indeed every time, a woman has something to say a man will come along and try to say it better.

So there’s that.

But this is also about how nothing much is changing in the ways we communicate. At risk of making a sweeping generalisation, women are nurturers; they’re kind, they’re caring and yes they’re driven by emotions rather than pure logic. It’s becoming increasingly evident that bottling up feelings, failing to express needs, and constantly competing in a faux battle for supremacy is flawed adulting. Scientific studies and statistics tells us so. (Male suicide is three times greater than females). So reserve your judgement of me as an overly-sensitive snowflake as I share two recent examples of men always (metaphorically and literally) talking over women.

Exhibit A: I decided to write an article about health and what’s really making us sick. To inform my arguments, I conducted a small survey of people’s habits, lifestyle and diets to get the gist of what was going on. I posted the survey link in several places and had an enthusiastic and heart-warming response from people keen to help. By and large the women were supportive in all the ways. The only people who weren’t? Men. There was one particular exchange that went on and on with one criticism after another about the questions I asked, the inadequacy of the data, the possible alternatives he assumed I’d overlooked, and even an inaccurate quote of my words to make his point that conversely demonstrated he and I were proposing the exact same argument. But apparently I was still wrong! In the end I simply responded “Ok, I get it. It’s shit” just to shut him up. Instead of realising he’d overstepped a boundary, this so-called ‘friend’ never took it offline or contacted me personally in a message to say “hey, that’s not what I meant” or apologise for hurting my feelings.

Because yes, that matters. Relationships and feelings matter when you don’t want to live in cookie-cutter, corporatised, impersonal, superficial communities.

Exhibit B: Again online (maybe that’s part of the problem?), I made a comment, and a guy responded with an example of a life of food insecurity, to which I responded with an example of gross food waste as a comparison of the structural flaws that contribute to unnecessary poverty. A back-and forth ensued, till I began to notice that literally every comment I made was challenged, over-explained, or re-directed. He wasn’t trying to be adversarial, but that was the effect. Finally I noted we were going around in circles, and asked he stopped tagging me in his replies (a pet hate: ‘pay attention to me now’ it demands). Guess what he did? Guess. Go on! He replied to justify himself and tagged me again. The utter disregard for a direct request was infuriating. I was not my usual measured self in reply. “STOP FUCKING TAGGING ME.” Why do women need to shout for men to respect their wishes?

I haven’t even begun talking about all the other voices so sorely absent from the table. Indigenous, queer, migrant, the elderly, the young. The room is so full of the noise from the usual suspects, we’re missing out on so many valuable perspectives. The biggest problem here though is we don’t think we have a problem. Well sorry, but as a voice from the biggest non-minority group (ie: women), I can tell you that just ain’t true.

The Success Counterpoint: In a world obsessed with bullshit ‘like-mindedness ‘, we all need to get a better handle on practicing genuine diversity. Take turns holding the talking stick, and be mindful of when you’ve had your say. Practice not speaking up, even when….especially when….you think you’ve done it before and you know ‘better’. Better is when everybody has had input, and new ways can be discovered. Better is when disagreement brings about superior ideas. And most importantly, when someone tells you their truth, have the decency to listen and ask how to make it right.

Failing #4. Practicing What We Preach

When you think about social change, you imagine, well…change! Individuals. Communities. Nations. And who better to lead by example than the change-makers themselves? In the struggle for a livelihood (everyone’s gotta pay bills), or maybe just because hypocrisy is a human trait, not many people are genuinely living holistic, alternative lifestyles. I see few unsubscribing from the systems and cultural norms and beliefs that got us into the messes we’re in. There are maybe one or two areas of focus where people put into practice their ideology — the permaculture people participate in community gardens, the right to repair people fix stuff, the food systems people shop at local farmers markets. However, on the whole there doesn’t seem to be widespread adoption of whole new ways of living and working. Not much has even changed on an individual level, let alone globally!

Ghandi famously said ‘Be the change’, and Lincoln is credited with “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

The problem we face is that each of us is working on our own little causes and dedicate ourselves to our individual passions. Good on us! We might succeed in convincing a small group of people to make positive changes in one tiny facet, and simultaneously fail to create meaningful, long-lasting systemic change that will make it stick.

I sense there’s a lot of fallacious thinking out in the world. Humans are operating under the assumption we can make a tweak or two and the world is going to be a fairer, kinder, ecologically sustainable place. What’s more, so often we’re too focused on treating symptoms rather than root causes, or we’re looking at highly complex systems in isolation, failing to see the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate issues.

What does veganism have to do with fossil fuels?

Quite a lot it turns out!

As future-makers we’re fighting incumbent structures that entrench disadvantage, poverty, excessive consumption, environmental degradation, food insecurity, climate change, income inequality, public health crises, financial instability, racism, gender disparity and so on, without building whole-system alternatives. Of course we’re losing the war. Of course. It’s not that in a David and Goliath battle David can’t win. But if the co-operatives members have an insatiable appetite for fast fashion, and the direct democracy folks don’t care what’s going on in the Galilee Basin, we cannot seriously claim we are seeking change. We definitely cannot expect to make a lick of difference.

“All for one and one for all, united we stand divided we fall.” — Alexandre Dumas

The Success Counterpoint: It’s not possible to care about everything. But it is realistic to live an authentic life in more ways than one. Look beyond your own niche cause at other alternatives out in the broader world. Adopt new ideas. Adjust your habits. Change — all change — is hard, but if it were easy we would have done it by now. You’ve chosen this path as a Changemaker. Practice what you preach, and others will follow.

Failing #5. It’s all so Academic

Is it just me or have you noticed the Melbourne network is largely middle class, usually white, and always highly educated? We’re full to the brim with academics and ‘thought leaders’ theorising about our present and our future from the comfort and security of their privileged existence. As an educated, middle class, white woman I am not suggesting for one minute we have no right to care. But talking in big words about ethereal concepts without getting your hands dirty and putting it into practice is not helping. There is a place for academia and empirical evidence, for case studies and smart folks, but in and of itself they’re not changing anything. A baby boomer heading into retirement following their free education and successful public service career, with a principal place of residence and healthy super balance isn’t really speaking the language of the precariat gig economy migrant worker on a tentative 457 living with 7 other people in a share house in Melton. #justsaying

The Success Counterpoint: It’s time to stop talking and start doing. And for those that have been doing for a bloody long time, it’s time to celebrate them as champions of our future. These are the people who are actually changing shit. Know your place, and stop leaving people out of the conversation because you have a PhD or university tenure.

Failing #6. Whatever happened to being kind and supportive?

Just this week two things happened in two separate ‘communities’ I am heavily involved with. In one case I was accused of “overreacting” (because calling a woman ‘hysterical’ historically works so well to calm a situation), and in the next breath my contributions, skills and experience completely invalidated. And in the other, a collaborator suddenly decided she didn’t have the capacity to contribute going forward, posted a curt distancing remark accompanied by a ‘Sorry but no’ meme (because that’s not offensive), and started making demands about having photos of her removed immediately.

WT actual F?? Neither of these incidents came from a conflict situation, and both of these people I would have considered friends, and certainly treasured members of my community.

What the hell happened to being kind, compassionate, supportive, caring and even simply polite? If this is how we behave to people inside the tent, how must those with whom we haven’t spent time cultivating relationships get treated? All I can say is, ’with friends like these, who needs enemies’.

The Success Counterpoint: This one is easy. Be a nice person. Full stop.

So do-gooders of the world, it looks as if we haven’t evolved at all. We haven’t changed any paradigms. We haven’t shown ’em how it could be done. Our toiling away has achieved Sweet FA for anybody. We’ve just spent an enormous amount of energetic capital, time, and opportunity cost spinning our wheels. Is there any hope for us to live as a global community when the people spruiking for the rights of the environment and power of the people can’t even manage to embody these goals? Maybe our ideals just don’t work in reality. Maybe humans actually need the systems and structures we’re living in, replete with dictators, benevolent or otherwise. I don’t know about you but the possibility that may be true scares the living hell out of me.

Most disappointing of all these observations though, is that this network of change-makers are not really there for me, as my friends, when it counts. So it begs the question:

What the fuck is it all for if ‘community’ is just a 4 syllable buzz word used to get government grants?



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store