What it takes to create sustainable change

Anyone doing community change work wants to make a lasting impact. It can be difficult to find a way to make dialogue and action integral to the way the community works. In Wagner, S.D., residents have been engaging the community in dialogues on race for the last seven years and they've made some significant changes.

How have they been able to sustain their efforts for such a long period of time? We talked to Amy Doom, one of the community facilitators for their program, to find out. Here's what she had to say:



Amy DoomAMY DOOM, COMMUNITY FACILITATOR: We’ve done 15 study circles on race and what we have found is that small, over time, with modest action steps, is sustainable. You might think small, with a small action step, and that it’s not happening quicker, is a symptom of it starting to slowly die, or this is not success, and that could not be farther from the truth. We believe now that that is sustainable and it’s an authentic reflection of what can be done.

We were a community that was a Horizons project, and that was an initiative to help small communities of 5,000 people or less, with a 10% or greater level of poverty, to look at what makes them non-prosperous, what makes them poor and what are their ideas on prosperity.

So it came in with the study circles, some leadership training and then helped us do a strategic plan for our community. Embedded in that strategic plan was 3-5 strategies, and one of those was adult education and under adult education it was some multi-cultural stuff like building a multi-cultural community. I didn’t think they had a language for that, but the word "multi-cultural" was in there.

In came SDSU Extension with the opportunity to do these study circles on race and that caught the attention of some native people and some non-native people and they said, “You know, I could be trained in that,” and that’s when my ears perked up because I felt as though this was not going to be same old, same old, kind of, show up, do some good stuff for the community, go home, but really nothing takes place but rearranging some of the proverbial community furniture.

One of the biggest poverties that we have is that hope and imagination die. There are actions that empower people to even imagine that something could be possible. We’re at a point where so many study circles have taken place, there’s this vibration that one action step that goes out, causes other things to happen and so people are touching the dialogue and receiving the effects of it without necessarily being in the dialogue. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t go through the dialogue, but not everybody has to go through the dialogue. What’s most important about the dialogue is that it never stops and that that space for the conversation exists in the community.

There was a point at which there was enough of the small actions that we started to have capacity to believe that we could create our own curriculum that would mirror what we learned in the dialogue circles, but the goal of that curriculum would be a dialogue circle that would compare and contrast different cultural leadership styles. We didn’t know that that’s where we were going, and it certainly wasn’t a prescribed path, but we were following the study circle model.

Our capacity to own that model and apply it functionally to where we needed to go presented itself, and that work has gone out into two other communities and now we are planning a state-wide conference on multi-cultural leadership.

Another of our action steps was to further the discussion on a community bike/walk path and one of the reasons why we decided to move forward in that action is that there are people who won’t self-select come to the racism study circle, but there are people who would love to be a part of creating a bike/walk path and so the action step to forward a bike/walk path comes out of the study circle dialogue but it attracts the participation of people who are not necessarily interested in that dialogue.

Why did we hang on with such tenacity over this amount of time? It’s because that was the only space where this was taking place and it was valuable and to go home was to begin a suffocation; like there was this…like we started to breathe a bi-cultural dialogue, and that breathing was so life-giving to the corpse that we were and nobody wanted to go back to that place.

You have two areas of discomfort, where what Parker Palmer calls, “the tragic gap” or the “tension in the tragic gap”. So Parker Palmer says you have “what is” and “what could be” and it’s the space in between that you invite people to begin a dialogue in. And so “what is” often times, in terms of race relations in Wagner, was intolerable. What it "should be" is unattainable.

That “tragic gap” or that tension in the middle is where you start. That place of tension is where all change has taken place, social change. Or you stay home and you have the discomfort of staying home and doing nothing. They’re both uncomfortable places. One has potential to take you to somewhere in a small action forward and the other is a zero sum.

We had enough going for us to say, “Okay, we see the two choices out there. We have to choose this one.” And to remain with the discomfort, or the tension, that creative tension, and to hang on, we have the answers here. It’s one thing to say that and to, kind of, believe that. It’s another thing to experience your own, not only personal human agency, but your collective community agency; to declare your own destiny with the capacity to fulfill it.

August 4, 2015

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Mayme Webb Bledsoe of the Duke Durham Neighborhood Partnership Uses Dialogue to Lift Voices in the Duke / Durham Community 

Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and our tools, advice, and resources foster that kind of change. Whether you’re grappling with a divisive community issue, or simply want to include residents’ voices in city government, Everyday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process, using a racial equity lens, can help.