More than Good Intentions: A Dialogue on the Ethics of Community Engagement Reflection

Written by: Alfred Jean-Baptiste, Executive Director, Toronto Centre for Community Learning & Development

I was looking forward to joining others on the More than Good Intentions: A Dialogue on the Ethics of Community Engagement panel, and sharing what I believe is—while not new—a very timely topic. I was going to advance the basic thesis that community engagement and university-community partnerships are vital cogs in addressing issues of poverty and injustice. And can go a long way in advancing community and society in general,  if the focus is on embracing and promoting people’s lived experiences without, at the same time, encouraging, promoting, or supporting false consciousness. I have observed the tendency, even among community agencies, to accept, without challenge, stories, ideas, and problems/solutions advanced by clients and residents, to the detriment of their efforts. In my experience I have come to recognize that community and agency knowledge is not always enlightened. Taking the side of community also means identifying and challenging false consciousness.

One of my favourite Gramsci quote reads,

“I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.

The indifference is the deadweight of history. The indifference operates with great power on history. The indifference operates passively, but it operates. It is fate, that which cannot be counted on. It twists programs and ruins the best-conceived plans. It is the raw material that ruins intelligence. That what happens, the evil that weighs upon all, happens because the human mass abdicates to their will; allows laws to be promulgated that only the revolt could nullify, and leaves men that only a mutiny will be able to overthrow to achieve power. The mass ignores because it is careless. And then it seems like it is the product of fate that runs over everything and everyone: the one who consents as well as the one who dissents; the one who knew as well as the one who didn’t know; the active as well as the indifferent. Some whimper piously, others curse obscenely, but nobody, or very few ask themselves: if I had tried to impose my will, would this have happened?

I also hate the indifferent because of that. Because their whimpering of eternally innocent ones annoys me. I make each one liable: how they have tackled with the task that life has given and gives them every day, what they have done, and especially, what they have not done. And I feel I have the right to be inexorable and not squander my compassion, of not sharing my tears with them.

I am a partisan, I am alive, I feel the pulse of the future city that those on my side are building is alive in their conscience. And in it, the social chain does not rest on a few; nothing of what happens in it is a matter of luck, nor the product of fate, but the intelligent work of the citizens. Nobody in it is looking from the window of the sacrifice and the drain of a few. Alive, I am a partisan. That is why I hate the ones that don’t take sides. I hate the indifferent.

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