Hippocratic Oath for Community Workers
“First, do no harm.” This dictum is frequently but mistakenly associated with the Hippocratic Oath. Although it was disconcerting to learn that our physicians are not guided by this rule, I’m suggesting that it be adopted by community workers as the basis for our own code of conduct. We need to acknowledge the ways in which we often inadvertently harm the very communities we are trying to help and pledge to work in ways that contribute to their health. Here, then, is an outline of principles I would like to see included in a Hippocratic Oath for community workers whether they are social workers, recreation coordinators, clergy, community police, public health workers, planners, educators, service learning students, outreach staff, organizers or other community-based professionals.
Do No Harm
Don’t usurp the community’s power
“Never do for people what they can do for themselves.” That’s the iron rule of community organizing. It was drilled into me by my mentor, Tom Gaudette, who received his training from Saul Alinsky.
After my first week of work as a community organizer, I met with Gaudette. “Tell me what you did not do this week,” he began. I was highly offended because I had put in long hours and felt that I hadn’t neglected anything. “I knocked on hundreds of doors, researched the issues, designed a flier, and even wrote a press release. I did everything,” I concluded. “You’ve got it all wrong,” Gaudette responded. “Your job isn’t to speak or do for the community. Your job is to develop the capacity of community to do and speak for itself. So every week, I want you to tell me one more thing you are not doing.”
The iron rule is especially difficult for community workers to obey. We do this work because we care deeply about the community. But, in our rush to help the community, we often deny them their own agency. We usurp the power of the people.
Don’t make the community dependent
A related principle is to refrain from making the community dependent on you, funding or other external resources. After all, none of us will be around forever and neither will our organizations, programs or services. We must always ask ourselves: Will the community be better or worse off because I was here? Have I built more capacity or created more dependence?
Don’t define people by their needs
We make people dependent when we focus exclusively on their needs. We emphasize people’s deficiencies when we label them as disabled, at-risk, non-English speaking, poor, homeless, etc. While there is truth to every one of these labels, it is only part of the truth. Everyone has needs, but everyone also has gifts. When we focus on people’s needs, they are clients in a service system. When we focus on people’s gifts, they are citizens in a community.
Don’t fragment the community
The main reason I love neighborhoods is because they provide the context for building inclusive community. It’s in our neighborhoods that people with diverse identities and interests reside. Unfortunately, many so-called community workers contribute to keeping people divided.
Most community workers aren’t focused on the whole community. Instead, they work with the narrow segment of the population that relates to the mission of their agency or association. That mission is typically limited to a specific topic or category of people.
There are community workers who focus on a particular segment of the population. Separate organizations, programs and services segregate people who are old, young, disabled, refugee, etc. The people are organized the way that community workers are organized rather than by the neighborhood where they live. This raises the question: Who is serving whom? Confining people to separate silos makes inclusive community impossible.
Other community workers are in agencies organized around a special interest whether that is public safety, health, the environment, emergency preparedness, affordable housing, transportation, recreation, etc. Dozens if not hundreds of agencies are reaching out to the same neighborhood. Their community workers are trying to recruit individuals to their separate causes. Not only does this divide the community, but it fails to recognize the unique opportunity for a holistic approach that place-based work makes possible.
Don’t distract the community from its own priorities
In addition to dividing neighbors, community workers who push particular agendas provide little opportunity for the community to address its own priorities. The community is always being engaged around what the community workers think is most important or what their agency or grant requires of them. When people fail to engage, we call them apathetic. No one is apathetic. Everyone cares deeply about something. If the true objective is to engage and empower the community, it would be much better to start not with answers, but with questions: What are you most passionate about? What are your fears? What are your dreams?
Don’t take people’s time without showing results
While most community workers I know take their jobs seriously and try to be as productive as possible, we often take the community’s time for granted. We may think of it as free time, because there is no cost to our organization. We fail to recognize that time is precious to the people with whom we work. Time they spend with us is time when they could be earning an income, interacting with family and friends, or simply relaxing and having fun. If people don’t see some value to their participation, they’ll soon learn that it doesn’t pay to be involved. Yet, community workers often invite people to meetings or subject them to surveys or interviews that produce no visible outcome to those involved.
Don’t treat non-profit organizations as the surrogate for community
Oftentimes, it is the staff of non-profit organizations who are called on the represent the community. After all, they work the same hours, speak the same professionalized language, and get paid for their time so they are more likely to participate. Non-profit organizations can play a valuable role, but their role is not to be the surrogate for the community. Most are less accountable to the community than are the local elected officials. The role of the community worker is to reach beyond the people who are being paid.
Do Some Good
I’ve used the word “we” in this blog because my entire career has been as a community worker. I’ve been employed by large agencies as well as by small, grassroots associations. I know how difficult it is to follow the principles I’ve outlined and I haven’t consistently done so. Our training, funding, organizations and other systems often push us in the opposite direction. But I’ve also learned some principles that will enable us to do good in the community.
Get out of your cubicle and into the community
When I started organizing 43 years ago, I was nervous about approaching strangers. I walked around my assigned neighborhood for a long time trying to identify the most welcoming house and work up my nerve to knock on the door. I was less embarrassed to admit this shortcoming when I read that Cesar Chavez experienced a similar discomfort when he facilitated his first house meeting.
Today, community workers have an alternative. They can use a computer. It feels so much safer and much more comfortable to work out of a secure, climate-controlled office.
But, you can’t be effective if you aren’t in the neighborhood. You need to see the neighborhood, its opportunities and challenges, with your own eyes. You need to make personal contact with people. There are so many individuals who will never access your website or respond to your e-mail blasts. You need to go where the people are, listen to them and build relationships. Only then, a computer might be helpful for staying in touch.
Listen and learn from the community
A good community worker brings new knowledge and perspectives to the community, but the best community worker values the knowledge and perspectives of the residents. They are the experts on their neighborhood – its history, strengths and challenges. The neighbors already have relationships with one another and know the local formal and informal associations. They also know what their perspectives and priorities are. Community workers would be well advised to listen to the community before sharing their own insights. Listening will generate trust and give the community worker access to the information that will make their work effective.
Help the community to discover its resources and power
While every place and everyone has abundant resources, they often go unrecognized. Needs assessments and media coverage cause whole neighborhoods to be known as nothing more than low-income, high-crime, distressed, blighted or some other negative description. In these same neighborhoods, professionals have labelled most of the individuals by their deficiencies. The residents typically internalize this characterization of their neighborhood and themselves. Lacking a sense of their own capacity, they feel powerless and dependent on external resources. The most valuable perspective that the community worker can bring is to shine light on the strengths of the people and their neighborhood. That’s the basis for community empowerment.
Help the community to identify common interests and root causes
Another valuable perspective that the community worker can bring is to help the community see the big picture. Too often, individuals are overwhelmed and paralyzed by what they think are their personal problems. The role of the community worker in this case is to make private pain public. The idea is to bring individuals with similar concerns together so that they can realize they aren’t alone, identify their common societal issue, and work collectively to address it. A similar approach is needed to act on people’s dreams. As New Zealand artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser noted: “When we dream alone it is only a dream, but when many dream together it is the beginning of a new reality.”
Seeing the big picture also involves digging below the symptoms to discover the root causes. For example, rather than complain about at-risk youth, it would be more useful to identify and act on the unjust systems that put young people at risk. The best way to educate people about the systemic issues isn’t by lecturing them but by taking a Freirian approach of asking questions (often whys) that cause the community to reflect deeply on its own experience.
Share tools that enable the community to take the lead and share their gifts with one another
The community worker, like any other tradesperson, should have a full toolbox. Some of my favorite tools are learning conversations, storytelling, appreciative inquiry, asset mapping, block connectors, placemaking, matching grants, microlending, time banks, visioning, open space, and accountability sessions. There are different tools for different situations, and the community worker must know how best to use them. They should share their tools with community leaders and train them to be proficient in their application. There are no trade secrets for community workers.
Assist associations and agencies to network with one another
Through listening, the community worker will quickly discover that the neighborhood is already organized. There are dozens if not hundreds of formal and informal associations in every neighborhood. There is no one association that can adequately represent the community. Most associations consist primarily of one type of people whether they are homeowners, businesspeople, or residents with a particular culture, religion, politics, age, gender, school, address or interest. An inclusive community voice can be created by bringing these many networks together for regular forums, social events, visioning, planning, etc. but few neighbors can afford the time to organize such gatherings on top of their other community commitments. More problematic, there are often tensions between associations and it would be difficult to find any active neighbor who is trusted by all of them. The more neutral community worker could play a valuable role in facilitating the associations to network with one another.
As described earlier, the community’s fragmentation mirrors the siloed nature of the agencies that work in the neighborhood. Another way that community workers could help unify the community would be to assist the staff of local agencies to network with one another. If they can work together as one set of agencies with a focus on place, outreach would be more efficient, community-friendly and effective.
This was the approach we took with the Department of Neighborhoods in the City of Seattle. Thirteen Neighborhood Coordinators helped associations network with one another through representation on District Councils and participation in neighborhood planning. The Coordinators also facilitated communication between the community and other City departments as well as non-profit organizations. They thought of themselves as “overt double agents.”
Pay attention to segments of the community that are being excluded and find ways to engage them
Most community associations claim that they would like to be more inclusive, but they aren’t very good at it. The leadership, agenda, language and relationships have already been established, so newcomers and especially those who are different don’t feel very welcome. The community worker should constantly assess who is underrepresented in community life and find ways to engage them. The best place to start might be in assisting marginalized individuals with a shared identity to establish their own association, so that they can support one another, build power, and interact with other associations and agencies on their own terms.
Develop new leaders
Community leadership tends to become entrenched, stale and out of touch over time. That’s because some leaders won’t step aside, but it’s also because people are reluctant to step up to this role that can be overwhelming for a volunteer. The community worker should constantly be on the lookout for potential new leaders especially from those segments of the population that are underrepresented. The availability of leadership training will give more people the confidence to step up. The training should emphasize collective leadership that makes an association more sustainable, utilizes the different skills of many people, and doesn’t place a burden on any one individual.
Raise objections when you encounter discrimination
While it is essential that the community worker listen to the community and follow its lead, the community worker shouldn’t be a blank slate. The community doesn’t always get it right especially if its membership isn’t inclusive. When the community acts in ways that are discriminatory, the community worker has a responsibility to object. This could be done directly, by raising pointed questions and/or by redirecting their support to those who are being discriminated against.
Practice what you preach by being active in your own community
Too often, when we refer to community, we’re talking about the communities of others – the ones we are helping as an outsider. We fail to recognize that we need to have our own community. Sometimes our excuse is that we are too busy to be involved in our community. But, isn’t that the excuse that we hear and dismiss so often in our work? How can we argue that everyone else needs community but not us? We can’t be credible and effective community workers unless we are active in community outside of work. That’s the only way we can fully understand the joys and challenges of living in community. Moreover, it is our community that will sustain us in this rewarding but sometimes difficult work.
Jim Diers is driven by a passion to get people more involved in their communities and in the decisions that affect their lives. Over the past 40 years, he has served as a grass roots community organizer, community developer, and founding director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. Jim now shares the lessons from that work in his courses at the University of Washington; in international consulting through the Asset-Based Community Development Institute; and in his book, Neighbor Power. He has been recognized with an honorary doctorate from Grinnell College and as the Public Employee of the Year by the Municipal League of Martin Luther King County.