**Companion Resources Newsletter**
edited by Paul D. Leichty
Volume 4, No. 6 June 2002
As idealistic as I am, I like to think that institutions that are in the business of helping people will always serve the best interests of both the people they are serving and those that are serving them. After all, my reasoning goes, the institution does not exist without both groups of people.
I was jolted back to reality recently by someone who said in effect, “Institutions will always be self-perpetuating; they will always look after themselves. If the interest of the individual converges with that of the institution, that is a plus. If the interest of the institution diverges from that of the individual, it will be the individual who suffers as the institution looks out for its own self-preservation.”
I had to admit this person was right, but it got me thinking again about the difference between the institution and the community. It also helped me understand the tension I feel so often between taking care of myself and taking care of others.
It takes a community to come together and say to each other and the world, “Here are some people in our midst who have needs that aren’t being met.” Those needs may be physical needs ranging from health care to housing to a decent job. The needs may be even more basic, such as the care required to make sure a person with significant disabilities has a decent quality of life. It may be the need to celebrate a birth with all of its new challenges or to comfort the dying.
A community is a group of people that come together and say “These needs are _our_ needs.” A true community will not desert the child with challenges, the single mother coping with the needs of multiple children, or the couple devastated by the diagnosis of mental illness of a young adult child. The community will not isolate these folks but rather rally around them, bearing their burdens and enabling them to cope with the challenges.
Sometimes, spontaneous community supports are seemingly not enough. The community decides that it needs to organize and structure itself to meet the needs and the challenges. Is this an admission of failure on the part of the community? Or is it a way to enlarge the community of support? Whichever way you look at it, it is clear that when organization and structure turn into the formation of an institution, it fundamentally changes the dynamics of community.
Two things happen as the institution grows and gets stronger. First, it takes on a life of its own. It is no longer Joe and Mary and their circle of friends looking out for the welfare of Jim. Instead, it Super Caring, Inc. with a plan and a budget and hired help to make sure the needs of Jim and others like him are met.
The second thing that happens is that Joe and Mary’s circle of friends begin to assume they are no longer needed. After all, Super Caring, Inc. has it covered. Jim is now the responsibility of the institution. Ironically, the stronger the institution, the weaker the sense of community. Joe and Mary go from being actively involved in a community of support to “volunteering” on a structured plan. Eventually, they simply give some money on a yearly basis to pay others to keep the institution running. And if something happens that they don’t like, they won’t even give money anymore.
Eventually, the institution becomes just another actor in the dog-eat-dog world created by this fragmented sense of community. The institution sees itself as an entity that has to market itself and win over the community to the importance of its mission and point of view.
For the institution, this means tightening the boundaries and therefore inevitably excluding some individuals. Image is everything and those that don’t fit that image are let go. Defining and refining our mission as an organization means that we exclude some people who “don’t fit.” Employees who don’t measure up to the higher and more specialized standards of professionalization find themselves without a job, no matter how caring or conscientious they are. The institution must compete and survive.
In this kind of political and economic environment, can community be restored? Can we move to a point where the institution at least becomes a member of the community rather than a competitor that further fragments the community? Can we as naturally selfish individuals and inherently self-preserving institutions ever work together for the good of the whole community?
I hope to ponder these questions and explore them further next month as I continue to personally reflect on being an individual who wants to build community but also wants to personally live a full and meaningful life in the midst of powerful institutions.
Blessings to all as you build community in the midst of institutions.
Paul D. Leichty
The Goldenrod Community
Phone/Fax: 1-877-214-9838 (toll free)
“People using Technology building Community”