“First, do no harm.” This dictum is frequently but mistakenly associated with the Hippocratic Oath. Although it was disconcerting to learn that our physicians are not guided by this rule, I’m suggesting that it be adopted by community workers as the basis for our own code of conduct. We need to acknowledge the ways in which we often inadvertently harm the very communities we are trying to help and pledge to work in ways that contribute to their health. Here, then, is an outline of principles I would like to see included in a Hippocratic Oath for community workers whether they are social workers, recreation coordinators, clergy, community police, public health workers, planners, educators, service learning students, outreach staff, organizers or other community-based professionals.
Do No Harm
Don’t usurp the community’s power
“Never do for people what they can do for themselves.” That’s the iron rule of community organizing. It was drilled into me by my mentor, Tom Gaudette, who received his training from Saul Alinsky.
After my first week of work as a community organizer, I met with Gaudette. “Tell me what you did not do this week,” he began. I was highly offended because I had put in long hours and felt that I hadn’t neglected anything. “I knocked on hundreds of doors, researched the issues, designed a flier, and even wrote a press release. I did everything,” I concluded. “You’ve got it all wrong,” Gaudette responded. “Your job isn’t to speak or do for the community. Your job is to develop the capacity of community to do and speak for itself. So every week, I want you to tell me one more thing you are not doing.”
The iron rule is especially difficult for community workers to obey. We do this work because we care deeply about the community. But, in our rush to help the community, we often deny them their own agency. We usurp the power of the people.
Don’t make the community dependent
A related principle is to refrain from making the community dependent on you, funding or other external resources. After all, none of us will be around forever and neither will our organizations, programs or services. We must always ask ourselves: Will the community be better or worse off because I was here? Have I built more capacity or created more dependence?
Don’t define people by their needs
We make people dependent when we focus exclusively on their needs. We emphasize people’s deficiencies when we label them as disabled, at-risk, non-English speaking, poor, homeless, etc. While there is truth to every one of these labels, it is only part of the truth. Everyone has needs, but everyone also has gifts. When we focus on people’s needs, they are clients in a service system. When we focus on people’s gifts, they are citizens in a community.
Don’t fragment the community
The main reason I love neighborhoods is because they provide the context for building inclusive community. It’s in our neighborhoods that people with diverse identities and interests reside. Unfortunately, many so-called community workers contribute to keeping people divided.
Most community workers aren’t focused on the whole community. Instead, they work with the narrow segment of the population that relates to the mission of their agency or association. That mission is typically limited to a specific topic or category of people.
There are community workers who focus on a particular segment of the population. Separate organizations, programs and services segregate people who are old, young, disabled, refugee, etc. The people are organized the way that community workers are organized rather than by the neighborhood where they live. This raises the question: Who is serving whom? Confining people to separate silos makes inclusive community impossible.
Other community workers are in agencies organized around a special interest whether that is public safety, health, the environment, emergency preparedness, affordable housing, transportation, recreation, etc. Dozens if not hundreds of agencies are reaching out to the same neighborhood. Their community workers are trying to recruit individuals to their separate causes. Not only does this divide the community, but it fails to recognize the unique opportunity for a holistic approach that place-based work makes possible.
Don’t distract the community from its own priorities
In addition to dividing neighbors, community workers who push particular agendas provide little opportunity for the community to address its own priorities. The community is always being engaged around what the community workers think is most important or what their agency or grant requires of them. When people fail to engage, we call them apathetic. No one is apathetic. Everyone cares deeply about something. If the true objective is to engage and empower the community, it would be much better to start not with answers, but with questions: What are you most passionate about? What are your fears? What are your dreams?
Don’t take people’s time without showing results
While most community workers I know take their jobs seriously and try to be as productive as possible, we often take the community’s time for granted. We may think of it as free time, because there is no cost to our organization. We fail to recognize that time is precious to the people with whom we work. Time they spend with us is time when they could be earning an income, interacting with family and friends, or simply relaxing and having fun. If people don’t see some value to their participation, they’ll soon learn that it doesn’t pay to be involved. Yet, community workers often invite people to meetings or subject them to surveys or interviews that produce no visible outcome to those involved.
Don’t treat non-profit organizations as the surrogate for community
Oftentimes, it is the staff of non-profit organizations who are called on the represent the community. After all, they work the same hours, speak the same professionalized language, and get paid for their time so they are more likely to participate. Non-profit organizations can play a valuable role, but their role is not to be the surrogate for the community. Most are less accountable to the community than are the local elected officials. The role of the community worker is to reach beyond the people who are being paid.