Indigenous Asset

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by Jean Otto Ford, Director of Family Services, October 2014

While recently reading an article on leadership and vision, I encountered this quote:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

The author went on to assert that great leaders help their followers see, hear, touch, taste, even smell their futures before launching into fevered activity, further asserting that vision buy-in is critical to effectively leading one or one hundred through the successive tasks necessary to realizing any vision. For some reason, his words triggered thoughts of the families I serve.

Helping my homeownership clients “see, hear, touch, taste, and smell” owning a home-of-their-own is easy. Most families call or come to my information sessions already captivated by the idea of homeownership, already more than sold on that vision, already imagining it. It’s that wonderful image in their heads that motivates them to seek out Habitat in the first place, then sustains them through our lengthy and, at times, challenging process. Their senses are already fully engaged in visualizing the dream – they can just taste it, feel it, see it – and their consequent longing oozes from every pore, readying them to tackle whatever it takes. I don’t have to teach these families anything; the vision is there.

But what of the families we’re serving (and hope to serve) in our neighborhood revitalization program? These families already own their homes – a stipulation of HFHMC’s help with repairs – most for years. Any inspiring, idyllic vision of homeownership and neighborhood, for many, faded long ago. Some have watched their streets decline to the point of disgust, and, frankly, futility. “Why bother?” has become a common mantra as residents’ senses oh-so-gradually dull to the dream. Sure, Habitat and its partners can gallop in on white steeds, touting neighborhood improvement and revitalization, but far too many discouraged, indigenous souls don’t believe in the possibility of lasting change, let alone its realization. Many are simply too weary, too beat up by life or their blocks’ destructive forces to care anymore or even try; others care, but are overwhelmed by a sense of futility and thwarted by a lack of resources; still others are suspicious or distrustful; a handful simply gave up long ago. Where do I begin to help them – the community’s most potent resource: neighborhood residents themselves – restore their belief in what could be and resurrect that longing for “the endless immensity of the sea?”

Then there are those residents whose senses, despite all odds, remain alive and well – those who can still see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the future of their neighborhoods, their homes. The vision is intact; it’s strong, and it’s clear, and that powerful, sensual image creates a yearning that enables these denizens to continue caring and press on, ready to do whatever it takes. Like most of us, their hearts long for the delight, the nurturing, the connectedness, the security – “the endless immensity” – of neighborhood as it could be. The difference is, like my homeownership clients, these residents can already taste it, feel it, see it. I don’t have to teach these folks a thing. And, as we (HFHMC) venture into the new frontier of neighborhood revitalization, I can think of no more valuable catalyst and mobilizer for change and no more powerful asset for sustaining it. That’s the where and the how: such residents themselves. That’s where I (and genuine, lasting change) must start.