The Personal and the Political

There's no clear, bright dividing line between the personal and the political. This is why people want to know if, say, a politician is secretly a member of a racist organization and it's also why we have the saying "The personal is political."

This is generally true, but it matters more for some kinds of work than for others. It matters a whole lot for people doing community development work, which can include people actually holding political office, especially locally.

But this post isn't really about politics per se, at least not politics in the sense of people running for office and people voting for them. I am using the word "political" more like we say "office politics."

Politics in that sense is about group dynamics and the often unofficial exercise of power. You will inevitably be dealing with that if you are doing community development work, even if you are doing it in an unincorporated community as a citizen planner -- in other words, as someone who may have no official authority yourself.

As I understand it, the expression "Man is a political animal" is an interpretation of something said in classical Greek by Aristotle a long time ago. His remark is likely also the source of the saying "Man is a social creature."

What Aristotle really said is "Man is a creature of the polis." (Okay, not what he really said because it's not actually in Greek. But it's closer in some sense to what he really said.)

Polis was the Greek word for the Greek city-state of his era. Like a lot of Greek words, it had myriad meanings attached to it.

I tend to interpret Aristotle's observtion as meaning, at least in part, "Man is a product of his (social) environment." You could also interpret it roughly as "A civilized man is a creature of the city."

Keep in mind that these were relatively small cities by modern standards. A lot of small towns today would have been viewed as "cities" in his era.

This post is about three things:
  • Setting goals for community development work.
  • Setting goals for your own personal or professional development in service to larger goals.
  • Public relations.
If you are a one-person shop doing community development work, there will never be that much distinction between you and the work. Whatever skills, experience, knowledge and dreams for the future you have will heavily influence the work you do.

A best practice is "Start where you are." Profile the community and set goals and then start using whatever skills and what not you have currently to work towards those goals in some fashion.

Realize that you have to play the long game to do community development work. So you may have initial goals like "Just getting to know the right people around here and learn the history so I can do a good profile." But don't let that prevent you from working on stuff in the here and now as part of getting to know people and so forth.

The reason you need to just start where you are is because if you start with saying "I first need X (like a new skill) before I can do Y," about nine times out of ten that's an excuse. If you succeed at convincing yourself "First I need to do X..." you will tend to come up with more delaying tactics to avoid getting to Y.

Most humans are really talented at coming up with avoidance tactics when faced with something uncomfortable and community development work has a lot of uncomfortable pieces to it, like small town politics or "office politics" if you are in an unincorporated community.

But also realize that you may need to acquire new skills in order to be effective. Don't let that intimidate you. Community development work is always a long-term process, so there is plenty of time to do research and develop new skills along the way to up your game.

If it becomes clear to you that you need to learn something more because your current skill set will not get you where you want to go (and no one else in your small community has the necessary skills), then you start a To Do list and you add "do the research and/or acquire the skills and knowledge" to that list.

Don't stress about that and don't use that as an excuse to stop doing development work. Unless you have determined that what you are doing is actively counterproductive, keep working on those things and also start a file and figure out milestones and come up with resources, such as free online educational sources, and plug away at acquiring new knowledge and new skills as you are able.

But you do need to think carefully about a few things, such as:
  • Why do I really want this?
  • Is this really good for the community or am I being purely selfish and just telling myself it's good for the community?
  • How will I talk to other people about this?
Wanting something for yourself isn't necessarily a bad thing and isn't necessarily harmful to the community. During the worst part of the pandemic this year, I made it my mission to support a particular pizza place that was in real trouble in my small town.

They were in real danger of going out of business because of the lock down under Covid-19. I wanted them to survive mostly because I wanted to keep getting pizza from them.

But I also felt it was best for the community, in part because the Little Caesar's has a business model especially well-suited to protect people under pandemic conditions. The local Little Caesar's already had a Pizza Portal installed, which allows for contactless pickup, it just wasn't being used.

They also only do takeout, which is a best practice for germ control purposes and in line with a lot of lock down policies. If you assume (as I do) that the pandemic will permanently change some things to at least some degree, then Little Caesar's has an excellent business model for the foreseeable future.

So I picked up a pizza every single day for a while there and actively promoted them and actively promoted use of the Pizza Portal and they got busier and stopped being in obvious danger of going out of business. And I know for a fact I played a role in their turn around.

I wanted that for me, but I did the analysis and I think it is also good for the community. I don't feel any guilt about helping keep them alive so I can keep eating pizza.

But be honest with yourself about why you want something. Wanting something for youself isn't, per se, corrupt or evil, but it probably will be if you are doing it for self-serving reasons and won't admit that to yourself.

Sometimes the way it gets done is what makes the difference between "This is selfish on your part and harmful to the community" and "This is good for both you and the community." And you can only sort that out if you are first honest with yourself and make a really clear distinction between "These are my personal reasons why I want it" and "This is my separate analysis about how it is likely to impact the community."

If you conclude "I want x for selfish reasons" and also conclude "But it's bad for the community," you really should work on finding an answer that both works for you and works for the community, if only out of enlightened self interest. Harming the community you live in for personal gain tends to come back to bite you.

I'm not asking you to believe in karmic justice. I'm talking about natural consequences.

If crime goes up, you will be living in a more dangerous place. If homelessness gets worse, you will be living with the negative consequences of that even if you don't end up on the street yourself.

This is especially onerous in a small community. Screwing things up in a small place tends to mean there is no way to get away from the negative impacts you have had on the place.

It won't be something "over there in that other neighborhood" like you might find in a big city. It will pretty much sit on your doorstep and in your lap.

After you sort out why you really want it, whether or not to pursue it and then how to pursue some path forward, you will need to think about how to talk about it. Setting personal development goals in order to do community development can be a completely legitimate path forward, but it can also be a really bad public relations move if you are sloppy in how you talk about that.

You need to get a few things clear in your mind in order to do things right. You will need to make some distinctions about "Well, x part is for me and about me, but also I honestly think it serves a larger goal."

And then, on top of that, you will further need to get it clear in your mind how to talk with other people about such things.

You will need to be able to clearly delineate for other people "I am learning X or doing Y to serve this larger goal." Don't expect people to infer that or for them to assume that or even understand it. You will need to be able to spell it out that "I have to do this personal thing in order to do this community development thing (for example: because no one else in town has the requisite skills, so I have to learn them if this is going to happen)."

And sometimes the right thing to do is just talk about the fact that you are working towards the larger goal without detailing the "personal" part of that. Sometimes that's just a better way to communicate.

The other reason that there is no clear distinction between the personal and political in a small community is because local business is local infrastructure. Business people inevitably end up getting involved in local politics, like it or not, because local laws and regulations impact their business and because their business impacts other people.

So local business people sometimes end up de facto working as citizen planners, even if community development work is of zero inherent interest to them. And if you are doing community development work in a small community, supporting local business and helping them thrive should be one of your highest priorities for doing economic development.

I began working on this piece about two weeks back, maybe longer. It has taken so long in part because I first needed to write about Startup School and about the importance of having experience doing business if you are going to foster business.

I needed to write those first as background for writing this piece so I could include those links here.

If you haven't read those yet, I encourage you to do so. Or maybe even re-read them and think about them through the lens of the points in this piece as you read through them.

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