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Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

Building Economically Cohesive Communities

Highlights from one of the series of #ebbfwebinars , with Jean Parker.
Written by Sara DeHoff .

Dr. Jean Parker is a qualitative researcher utilizing participatory research to build cohesive communities throughout the world. Her doctoral dissertation was on emergency preparedness learning through community radio in North Indian villages. Her book entitled: Emergency Preparedness Through Community Cohesion: An Integral Approach To Resilience, (Routledge, 2019) applies principles of the Baha’i Faith to community-building, decision-making and community-based economic enterprise as necessary components of resilience and sustainability. Her research interests include community-based economic sustainability, integral research and development and the application of the Baha’i process of consultation in participatory research. She teaches business and economics at the Wilmette Institute and nonprofit management at Regis University in Denver, Colorado USA. She is also the producer and host of EBBF’s podcast “Discovering How”.

Referring to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jean started the webinar with an acknowledgement of the horror and opportunity such a crisis creates. The coronavirus has amplified pre-existing disparities and created new economic inequalities. This webinar highlights how communities are responding to this crisis by building cohesion with ingenuity, mutualism and solidarity. Throughout the presentation, Jean also offered action steps individuals can take.

All religions have something to say about economics. The Baha’i writings include the following:

When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavor to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 238–239

The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbours’ or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected. A stubborn obstruction, then, stands in the way of meaningful social progress: time and again, avarice and self-interest prevail at the expense of the common good.
The Universal House of Justice, 1 March 2017

The Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Baha’i community, indicates in its statement The Promise of World Peace, that this social and economic disparity keeps the world on the brink of war and instability. The coronavirus has amplified the disparities and vulnerabilities already present in society and has created new ones. This is clear not just in the effects of the virus itself, but in how the lockdowns have been implemented with no planning or provision for poor people and vulnerable populations. This Coronavirus crisis can be distilled as the struggle between “me versus we” and “mine versus ours”. We actually don’t need social distancing, we need physical distancing and social cohesion.

First a few definitions: Economics as the creation and responsible management (and distribution) of resources. By prosperity, we mean the well-being of humanity and the planet.

Kate Raworth and her team developed the idea of Doughnut Economics to describe the “sweet spot” where planetary sustainability is balanced with social justice in an economic context. It provides a framework for policy planning and implementation. The way we implement doughnut economics is through mutualism and altruism.

Here are a few practical suggestions:

• Look for opportunities to extend help to coworkers and competitors.
• Resist the consumer mentality.
• Be knowledgeable about advertising and read between the lines.
• Spiritually justify every expenditure.
• Avoid debt and create a habit of saving.
• Spread the word about honest and fair businesses and professionals.
• Don’t buy the latest models if the old ones are in working condition.
• Be truthful in filling out forms or tenders.
• Give with a sense of sharing rather than with a sense of loss.
• Spend as much energy in being detached from material possessions as you did in getting them.
• Remind yourself of your spiritual destination while pursuing your financial goals.

To create economic cohesion in our communities, we need to work toward justice.

Justice is, in this day, bewailing its plight, and Equity groaneth beneath the yoke of oppression. The thick clouds of tyranny have darkened the face of the earth, and enveloped the peoples.
Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 92

Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Practicing justice can take many forms. For instance, you can do business with companies committed to not polluting and tell them why. Work with companies that practice inclusive design and tell them why. Stand up for those who are different from yourself. Owen Barder, Europe Director for Global Development, has made a pledge not to serve on panels at public conferences unless there is at least one woman on the panel.

Another success factor for cohesive communities is the degree to which they adopt the attributes of living systems:

• Self-created
• Diversity of parts
• Self-reflective
• Self-regulatory
• All component parts potentialized
• Communication among all parts
• Coordination of parts and functions
• Balance of interests are negotiated among parts
• Reciprocity of all parts in mutual contribution and assistance

Constructive resilience is another element of cohesive communities. This means proactively building new societal structures independent of existing oppressive or dysfunctional structures. For example, people with disabilities often create strategies to thrive despite societal exclusion and discrimination.

From a Baha’i perspective, there is a fundamental spiritual context within which social change takes place. Unity is the primary force for progress, rather than something to be addressed after all the injustice is corrected. When unity prevails, spiritual forces are released that make advancement possible.

Building cohesion also requires that we avoid false dichotomies and binary thinking. Do we save lives or open the economy? These types of either/or questions limit our creativity and keep us from discovering possibilities hidden beneath the surface.

Without hope, we as individuals, disintegrate into despair. The same is true for society. We must resist this despair to avoid compounding the difficulties we already face. And we must help others resist it also.

There are numerous examples of economic cohesion around the world:

• In India, women are learning new agricultural practices, taking their skills back to their villages and sharing their knowledge with others.

• People in Colombia are resurrecting indigenous knowledge and skills to maximize agricultural production, bypassing the “experts” and exploitive corporations who might not have their best interests in mind.
• Community members in Kenya are making knowledge about health care available to ordinary people.
• In Mongolia banking services are being made available to community members along with economic literacy.
• Gofundme and similar internet fundraising platforms make it possible for direct giving to others, bypassing funding structures that favor the elite or those with connections.
• The Uber concept of shared personal transportation is being reapplied to manage medical and emergency transport in rural Tanzania.
• At repair cafés, volunteers help community members repair their broken possessions instead of throwing them away.
• Tool libraries loan tools and appliances to community members, encouraging people to share resources sustainably. Now they are being integrated into traditional public libraries.
• At the SAME cafe (So All My Eat) in Colorado, there is no cash register and no prices on the menu. People pay what they want. The banks refused to finance the business, saying the business model would never work. So the couple raised money from family and friends. Now there’s a network of community cafes throughout the world.
• Time banks have emerged where people offer goods or services in exchange for time credits, which they can use to buy goods or services from someone else. Essentially, people trade their time instead of money.

A good resource for learning more about this new economy is the New Economy Coalition, a network of organizations and individuals imagining a future where people, communities and ecosystems thrive.

Typically, a country’s economic health was measured by GDP. But now there are other indices that more accurately measure economic well-being:

• Better Life Index:
• Sustainable Economic Development Assessment
• Happy Planet Index

And here are a few more important links for understanding economic cohesion:

• Bahai Inspired Economics
• United for a Fair Economy
• What Is Time Banking?
• Shareable
• Post Growth Institute
• Doughnut Economics
• Jean Parker’s website

Never lose thy trust in God. Be thou ever hopeful, for the bounties of God never cease to flow upon man. If viewed from one perspective they seem to decrease, but from another they are full and complete. Man is under all conditions immersed in a sea of God’s blessings. Therefore, be thou not hopeless under any circumstances, but rather be firm in thy hope.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 205–206

Essentially, avarice is the bad use of resources. Rather than being generous, intelligent and wise, you keep these resources for your own use. The mismanagement of resources is all around us. We’re now hearing more than ever that it needs to stop. We need to understand the intersections, the way things interact together. This is where the problems lie, but it’s also where we’ll find solutions.

It’s a cycle: when we have mutualism, unity is a natural outcome. When we have true unity, mutualism is a natural outcome. People who engage in mutualism learn the advantages of working in unity. They come together on one issue and end up progressing far beyond that issue, building more solid foundations of interaction, friendship and exchange.

It’s a process. As individuals, we have the opportunity to set examples and experiment. In our work groups and teams, we can interact in a way that promotes mutual understanding and mutual action. We live the way we want the world to be. And it’s trial and error. You’ll make mistakes. That’s okay. Try again. Remember that you’re planting seeds for the future. No one knows how or when those seeds will sprout and become something viable.

They are simultaneous and motivate each other. Doing the deep internal work can motivate action and vice versa. Taking action leads you into a reflective space for self-examination. But you can get stuck on either side of the equation. You need a balance between the two. This balance is different for everyone and it’s different at different times in people’s lives.

One attitude is realizing that there are certain things we don’t need often, but we need collectively. For example, we don’t all need an electric drill. We can have one or two drills for our neighborhood. So we set up a system for lending these items: a tool library.

Also, people really want to share their experiences. The people who start these tool libraries really want to tell others what they know. So knowledge is a shared resource as well.

People will come together around an issue that’s of primary concern to them: air pollution, a new highway being built, or improving their neighborhood. Start with what’s achievable. Choose something that’s specific enough to be measurable so you can reflect on what you’ve accomplished. Using SMART attributes can help shape a strategy: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-oriented.

It only takes one person or one family to get things started. Kids really need to be involved in this; they’ll carry it into their adulthood. That’s living the world we want to see.

Yes, absolutely. This is where it works the best: where people don’t have a lot of resources. Nothing else has worked. The government isn’t going to save you. Corporations won’t save you.

This doesn’t have an easy answer. It’s an incremental, step-by-step process. It’s important to identify the resources that need to be shared. Then identify how they can be shared. Then you need to dialog with people who have the resources, understanding that power and resources are not generally given away voluntarily. There are exceptions. Sometimes people do move from their power positions and take on a more democratic and inclusive way of living.

Reflection is essential and part of the process. It’s a cycle: action, consolidation, and reflection. We take action. Then we make sure the foundations are solid and that it is sustainable over time. Then we reflect on it:

• What could we have done differently?
• What could we improve?
• What worked really well?
• What can we do again?
• How can we expand it to include more people?

This reflection is not possible in the midst of lots of activity. You need time and space to step back and think deeply about the project. This leads to planning, which leads to action, then consolidation, then reflection, then planning again.

Do you have suggestions for books or articles on the role of access to resources to advance justice and equity within communities?
Books are good for background and conceptual information. But the current information is on the Internet. Check out the links above for resources.

Are the examples you showed from other countries applicable to the U.S.?
Yes, they exemplify what is being done in the U.S. I purposely showed examples from other parts of the world to show this is a global movement, a global message. Each country, each community has the task of adapting these examples to its own context. Then you share it with others:

• What was it like?
• What did you learn?
• What happened?

We have more in common than we think: We want to live well. We want to live sustainability. We want to have well-being. We don’t need to get rich. We don’t need excess things and money; we just want a good life.

In communities in North India, material means are limited. But in the U.S. and Canada, these disparities exist here too. In some cases, such as impoverished reserves and poor neighborhoods, the poverty here is worse than countries like India and Kenya.

Spirituality is foundational. It’s the thing that motivates my work and my commitment to working for community change. For those who are spiritual, but don’t adhere to an organized religion, you know it, you feel it. It’s the thing that comes to call on you when there’s trouble and you don’t know what to do next.

There are many times in my work when I didn’t know what to do next. My favorite prayer is: “O Lord, unto thee I repair for refuge and toward all Thy signs I set my heart.” It works every time: after I say that prayer, I know what to do.

It will happen with or without us, in time. Our role is to accelerate the process. We know that eventually the world will know peace. In order to know peace, we have to know unity. How we get there is up to us. Our job is to accelerate movement toward that greater peace.

Start talking. Start using the language of we and us and ours. Tell people about examples of mutualism. Engage people in dialogue and conversations. But don’t get stuck there. We don’t have time for that.

Start with words and move to deeds. “Let deeds not words be your adorning.”

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You can watch this webinar video recording here

And see the other in the series of webinars here

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baha’i-inspired global learning community, accompanying individuals and groups, to transform business + economy contributing to a prosperous civilization

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