In the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic, the media is asking what led to the containment of an outbreak that ultimately killed over 4,000 Liberians. As headlines captivated the world over the past summer, Liberian officials struggled to respond to the growing crisis, and the U.S. government is now being viewed as ultimately ineffectual for spending the lions’ share of $1.4 billion on a network of clinics that now lie empty.
While the debate over exactly how the epidemic was contained continues, a particularly promising side of the story is the role that local Liberian communities played in containing the spread of the disease. Community members self-organized into neighborhood task forces to buy chlorine and buckets to place in public places, donated vehicles to help volunteers monitor the sick, and collected $2 per household to buy rubber boots and megaphones to help spread accurate information about Ebola. Eventually, these volunteers were paid $80 a month and trained and equipped with notepads, pens and identity badges to help track the sick and quell the spread, but not before Liberian officials had tried other measures, like quarantining a neighborhood, and working with the U.S. to build a network of expensive clinics that came online only after the epidemic subsided.
The story of Liberians coming together to stop the spread of a life-threatening disease reminds me of the saying, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” – a maxim that ties to another favorite saying, by anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
We are living in the midst of a generations-long slide in federal government’s ability to solve the large problems of our world, and are in a stage of uncertainty about the deeply ambiguous role that the private sector plays in public policy debates. It is essential, now more so than ever, to turn to community for the answers to our most vexing questions about how to live in relative harmony with one another.
In every community I work with throughout Montana, there are people who regularly press their shoulders to the wheel to move ideas into action. Equipped with a network of relationships and an unparalleled commitment to seeing their community thrive, these community members show up, stay until the end, and make sure the work gets done.
What, then, is the role of government in community vitality? Through my work with Graduation Matters Montana (GMM), we have evolved a role for state government that elevates good community work and accelerates impact. We help communities move faster in the direction they want to go through grant making, sharing effective practices and community facilitation.
- Grant making – We have raised over $1.3 million of private funds over the past four years to support local GMM efforts to increase high school graduation rates. Grants of up to $10,000 a year pay the costs of convening school staff, students and community members to develop and implement locally-designed approaches to dropout prevention. The funds are not ample enough to buy new staff or expensive programs. It is, rather, enough funding to get the right people in the room to do the work (those who really care about the issue, and those who are impacted by the issue – in this case, students who have a direct or one-step-removed experience of struggling to stay in school).
- Seeding the conversation – Once people are convening, GMM staff help move the effort along by seeding the conversation with concrete examples of effective practices employed by like-sized communities in Montana. For example, staff may say to a community team: “If you are interested in peer-to-peer tutoring, don’t Google it. Pick up the phone and call Graduation Matters Miles City.” GM Miles City (pop. 8,600) is a ranching community with a rock star peer-to-peer tutoring program. Over the course of two years, fewer and fewer students are falling behind – so much so that the workload of school staff assigned to credit recovery plummeted, which allowed the school to re-imagine staff roles to meet the emerging needs of a transient student population caused by the booming oil fields in the Bakkan.
- Facilitating discovery – Another role government can fill is that of community facilitator. Wielding the convening power that comes with being a state official means that GMM staff can help bring together program staff and key decision makers (who may care deeply about the issue but are up to their ears in alligators). Once they are in the room, however, opportunity is lost if meetings are a “sit and git” of “government officials” talking at community. GMM staff are trained to “find the wisdom in the room” through interactive agendas that ensure people are talking to one another, not staff. Staff help create a space that is respectful in order to generate trust and dialog, and they make sure clear next steps are articulated before a meeting ends (on time). In communities that have a skilled facilitator, GMM teams are encouraged to use GMM funds to pay the facilitator.
There are several other initiatives in Montana, from teen parenting to preschool development, that take this tack, shaping federal and state programs to build community capacity. Trusting that community members are motivated to have thriving neighborhoods and to see success is a critical first step in developing ways to work with community that strengthen, rather than disempower, their work.
I often say that change happens when people start behaving differently – when they greet one another at the grocery store, invite one another into conversations that were previously closed; when they stop taking actions that hurt, and start seeking actions that build. That is the work, and it is work that we can all do together. We truly are the ones we’ve been waiting for.