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Remembering Joe Schaeffer

Posted on March 26, 2019
By Paul Born

Joe_Schaeffer_CPPJoe…that’s what we all call him, even though he is a wildly successful academic with a PhD, Joe is my friend, as he is to the many people he impacted in the field of community development and change. Joe is kind with a gentle spirit. He gave tirelessly to his students and treated us as real people. I know Joe had difficulties in relationships (we talked about this), but I and his students seldom saw that side of Joe. He was always one of us, and he made us feel special.

I first met Joe when he dropped his manuscript for his book the Stone People on my desk. I must admit – I struggled to understand how this might be understood by my colleagues. Joe turned this book into a set of learning modules that could be taught in a day or even 5 days. He also created a game called the stone game. I first understood Joe’s work playing that game with him – it had a profound affect on my understanding of human relationships and possessiveness and competitiveness.

His work became my work after I took a five-day training course with Joe. There he held up a glass of water and said,” what is this”… and we would all call out, “a glass of water.” Joe would then say, “no it is a chalice from the Gods and if you drink from it I would need to kill you”, we would all laugh. Then he would say, “now imagine if I was someone you just met, you are an anthropologist and you have discovered me as a people that has had no contact with your civilization and we were able to communicate, and I was able to tell you about the significance of my chalice. Would you not become curious, and want to find out more?” This, Joe taught, was how we were to enter into conversation with others, “might we suspend what we know for awhile and become deeply curious in our listening and in the questions, we might ask”.  These words, “suspend what we know for awhile”, so we could listen… deeply changed me forever. It is what sparked for the me the foundation for the ideas that might become the Tamarack Institute now active with more than 25,000 learners in 52 countries.

Might we enter into the world of community and change with a sense of wonder rather than judgement, eliminating the need for “the other” – if just for awhile. Then we might deeply understand and in turn truly hear, thus creating the conditions for someone to feel heard and understood. Profound, so profound Canada’s premier peace and conflict studies program required this knowledge for all of it’s students. Joe taught at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo for many years.

I love Joe, he gave me a gift that I have now passed on too many thousands. His life is well lived, he has made a difference.

In 2014, Tamarack Institute worked with Joe and BPS books to publish a book called living community, thirty pieces for moving from dreams to reality. I was privileged to be asked by Joe to write the foreword for the book. In that foreword I write,

“Joe Schaeffer understands, more than anyone else I know, the essence of community and the qualities of character of living community. He has travelled the world engaging with more than fifteen thousand people, has interviewed Nobel laureates, and has thought deeply about how the people of this world might live together in harmony. As Joe writes in this book, we need community if we are to alleviate the ocean of pain and suffering around the world… we need community if we are to prepare a better world for our children, a world that is just and joyful.

Joe has spent the better part of his life teaching the qualities of character and creative communication to help people understand community as a way of living that “we carry with us all the time. “

For all of those interested in community this book and Joe’s life sharing it with us, matters to you.

If you understand the qualities of character that Joe wrote about and in turn, “you carry community with you all the time,” I know Joe matters to you.

If you are a community developer and you understand how to make community useful in creating better cities, restoring our environment or making our neighbourhoods safer, Joe and his teachings matter to you.

If you head a charity or a faith community or are a business owner shepherding a team, Joe’s ideas have made you a better leader.

The world needs what Joe has given us. We are better because we know what Joe knows. 

P.S. – if you have known Joe as a teacher and or a friend do send me your memories – I will collect these and send them back out. In addition, for sending your memories I will forward you a copy of Joe’s book (if you do not yet have one and while I still have copies) living community just send me your full mailing address along with your story. Send these to paul@tamarackcommunity.ca

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Paul Born


Paul Born

By Paul Born

Paul Born grew up as the son of Mennonite refugees. This is what has made him deeply curious about and engaged in ideas that cause people to work together for the common good. Paul is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Tamarack Institute and the Founder and Director of Vibrant Communities. He is the author of four books, including two Canadian best sellers. Paul is a global faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD) and a senior fellow of Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social innovators.

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