The question totally blindsided me:
“Wait, I’m confused. Is this a statement of who we are or what we do?”
For context, it came from my teammate, a good friend. He, I, and six others all moved in to a lower income neighborhood in our city because we wanted to somehow love and support our community. We had sat down in order to hammer out some goals and norms from our wildly divergent expectations.
I was facilitating the discussion, trying to get us to dream up a mission statement. For me, a mission statement would sum up our values and identity in a way that could inform our actions.
The question was powerful because in the second and a half that followed it I had this flash of clarity that I’m still trying to unpack:
1. Not everyone thinks like me
My friend’s question threw me because it exposed the assumptions that I was operating under; namely, that identity shapes vocation, or “who you are defines what you do”.
When he asked this, I had this incredible realization that this isn’t the way that everyone else thinks. My friend is always talking about vision. To a large degree, where he wants to be defines what he does.
Understanding the disconnect is crucial to communicating effectively. It is always difficult to see from someone else’s perspective, but it often exposes the futility of your own point of view:
2. Being and Doing
Back in the meeting, the simultaneous realization was that for me; who I am and what I do are incredibly close ideas for me. The dynamic goes both ways: at my best, all my decisions are made out of an understanding of who I am. This term, a realization that I enjoy teaching made me apply to be a peer tutor, an opportunity that I have absolutely loved. Given this, it was natural that for me, a mission statement would be all about identity.
The danger comes when the process reverses, when what I do starts to define who I am. Being a tutor makes me smart, running an event makes me important, having friends makes me loved; it’s all backward. Many times I need to stop focussing on what I am doing, and simply be who I am.
3. Identity and Vocation
The reason that these thoughts have kept swirling around in my head is that these ideas shape how I think about development.
If you ask ten people to define poverty, you’ll get ten different answers. Bryant Myers, a scholar whose work I really respect, conceptualizes poverty as marred identity and marred vocation. The process of marring assumes a process of marginalization and dehumanization. Myers refers to both identity and vocation in order to recognize the psychological and economic impacts that poverty has on an individual.
Reflecting now, I realise that I like this definition because it matches the way that I think. It makes me wonder how others define poverty (deficiency, exclusion, powerlessness), and the implications there. More importantly, how do the people with whom I will interact see their own situation? Will they link their economic status to their identity like I tend to? Deepa Narayan set out to find how the poor defined their own condition, her research takes up three weighty volumes! There is no one definition of poverty; plurality is vital.
Second, I wonder how I can utilise my understanding to leverage change. Starting with who people are rather than what they do means that I begin by seeing people as people: mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Too often I get caught up in vocation: slum dweller, day labourer, AIDS patient, unemployed. Starting with identity means seeing the possibility inside every person- their passions, skills, and unique story.
Our meeting ended with a beautifully crafted statement that captured our both team’s unique spirit and the heart that we have for our neighborhood. But I think that I benefitted more than anyone else from the conversation. For me, that moment of clarity crystalized how I see my own strengths and blind spots. As I continue to grow, I hope to continue this process and expand the conversation.
What do you think?
Are you like me— do you link your identity and role?
How do you see poverty— where does that view come from and what are the implications?