I spent the last five weeks immersed in two experiences. First, my family hosted a 19 year old foster-care “graduate” needing a short term place to stay. “Cam” had been in 32 different placements, was in school, had a 30 hour a week job, and could recite pretty much any detail from Black Panther or High School Musical. He knew a lot about rap artists of his generation. He fell short on knowing much about Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC. Forgivable.
Second, I was creating a daylong workshop for all volunteer nonprofit leaders in rural areas. Designed to cover the major topics of running a small organization, the workshop needed to review key content, invite curiosity, inspire but not overwhelm, and connect people to each other. I delivered the inaugural workshop in Long Beach, Washington on March 10.
Cam and the folks I spent Saturday with have something in common. They both know a lot about some things and nearly nothing about others. What they know, they have learned from experience—hands on, need to know, full body living it. Cam knew exactly how to receive a check, cash it at Safeway (for a fee), and move money onto a pre-paid debit card, or juggle money across several pre-paids since the one-time load limit was $500. He knew nothing about having a bank account, including why you would want one.
The nonprofit volunteers from the poverty action group knew exactly where economically-disadvantaged people were living and how they juggled finding food, clothes, housing vouchers, etc. The “Stop ICE” volunteers recited names, stories, and statistics gathered from resistance activities. Yet most people in the room knew little about the bread and butter topics of nonprofit operations: board recruitment, internal controls, or fundraising beyond the spaghetti dinner. I heard at least three times, “I never thought of that before.”
We live in a world that values mainstream, professionalized knowledge. Adults should have a bank account. Nonprofit leaders should know how to have a strong board, stay compliant, and raise money. At the same time, we should know how to recognize sources of deep knowledge when we see them. Too often we miss solutions because their knowledge doesn’t look like ours.
A teacher once said that a good curriculum is like a strong fence. It goes deep enough to hold the fence firm and runs long enough to cover wide landscapes. The metaphor works for communities as much as curriculum. A healthy community values the deep knowledge of people living within the circumstances society’s solutions set out to solve. Our operational tips and tools allow them to cover a lot of ground faster than they would on their own. We need each other. I’m grateful to have been reminded that.
One thing I know is that life is short
So listen up homeboy, give this a thought
The next time someone’s teaching why don’t you get taught?
It’s like that (what?) and that’s the way it is
– “It’s Like That” by Run DMC