Reflections on The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits

When I was a teenager, my mother and I went to see our family doctor who happened to be my father’s cousin. I was sick of something I didn’t know of so my mother accompanied me to see this doctor who never charged us a single peso because we are “family.” After asking me several questions, listening to my heart and lungs through a stethoscope, examining my throat with a flashlight, and feeling my neck for swollen lymph nodes, he wrote a prescription for me in his characteristically illegible doctor’s handwriting. He prescribed more than one medication. I wanted to know what each drug was for, so I started by pointing to the first on the list and asked him, “For what is this medicine?” He replied with: “For your ailment.”

I didn’t continue on anymore with my queries. I felt disrespected by the answer as he must have felt disrespected by the question. He must have thought that since he is the expert, I should trust that he knows what he is prescribing. After all, I was only a teenager and he was a trusted neighborhood doctor who had not only finished a medical degree but had trained extensively abroad and was a senior fellow in so and so hospital.

I am an inquisitive person by nature. I like to learn. Knowledge brings me empowerment. I ask questions not only because I want to know but also because I want to be able to make informed decisions for myself. I want to know what I am sick of so that I can read about it. I want to know what had caused my sickness and what I can do about it.

In recent years, women have raised issues on empowering themselves by claiming the right to their own bodies. Alongside debates on the right to choose whether or not to have babies, women are claiming the right to make decisions about their healthcare. They no longer want to be passive receivers of treatments and procedures from doctors who seem to have taken it upon themselves to be the decision-makers on the bodies of all their patients.

John McKnight in his book “The Careless Society,” talks about how citizens have lost their power to solve their own problems as they have been reduced to mere clients in a service-oriented economy. He discusses the medical profession as a stark example of how service has been institutionalized to the detriment of communities. Doctors go through many years of education, internship, residency and specialization, and after they pass the medical board exams, they are sworn in, reciting an oath to abide by the principles of professionalism, ethical practice and selfless service to people. However, the world where we live in at the moment in which doctors practice or “serve” has become so disconnected to the true meaning of “service.” Service has taken on the meaning of “business.” It is no longer provided by people in community, for community, but by “experts” who undergo intensive training in order to get high-paying jobs in a service-oriented economy. McKnight presents a “backward” solution to this disempowerment by explaining how people need to reorganize themselves by recognizing each individual’s capacities and the importance of collective effort in informal associations.

As a new student of the Community Arts program at MICA, I spent my summer as a teacher in an art camp at Better Waverly in Baltimore. The Better Waverly Community Organization Art Center, my community site, operates along this idea of empowerment. The organization has an art center run by individuals who live in the community, serving kids in the neighborhood. By providing music and art workshops for free, its members hope to enrich the lives of the community’s kids with skills and experiences that can help them through life. The kids know each other. They are all practically neighbors (or former neighbors. A few kids have moved to other neighborhoods but still come back to participate in the art center activities). They live in a neighborhood where the proliferation of illegal drugs is a problem. A few of the kids served by the art center has family members who are or have been incarcerated for the use of illegal drugs.

The community art center is located in a row house bought by Eleanor, one of the organization’s members, for the purpose of providing the neighborhood kids a venue to find art, music and life beyond the confines of regular school and a likely depressing family situation. My impression of Eleanor is that she is no big time businesswoman owning a corporation with a foundation who provides endowments from excess business earnings. The community art center does not carry her name anywhere. There is no plaque attached to any of the art center’s wall glorifying her generous contribution. Her presence is felt by her regular visits as she peeks in to see what art project the kids are doing this time. Her excitement and enthusiasm are made known as she takes pictures of the kids’ work using her old, crappy (to me, it is) digital camera. The camera does wonders as she comes up with greeting cards featuring the kids’ work. Even if the cards that I saw did not yet feature what the kids have made while my teaching partner and I were there, I felt honored and excited that our kids’ work during the summer will eventually be shown in future cards that Eleanor will produce from her desktop printer.

This is what community is all about. In John McKnight’s words, it is going backwards—going back to the basics and seeing what is really important. It is empowerment, community, and collective ownership. When we work for something together, we feel empowered by the energy of other people working towards the same goal. We no longer feel defeated. Despair does not linger as it is shared. People in community lift one another up towards action.

August 2009

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