Engaged, Part 2: Participate in Community Change

Strengthening communities through giving — the subject of the last installment of the Intentional Wellbeing Project — might be viewed by some as an elective activity. Individuals in this free society can chose when, how, and how much to give…or not at all. There is, however, another kind of community engagement that is both a duty and a right: participation in democratic decision-making processes. We are fortunate in this society to have a say in what community wellbeing looks like at different levels, and it’s vital that we actively exercise that power for our own good. Srisa Asoke residents demonstrated many instances of civic participation, from attending weekly community meetings, working in committees, and keeping themselves aware of important issues. With the success of their community, the value of informed participation is clear.

II. Participation

Every Wednesday morning at 4:00 a.m., between forty and sixty residents of Srisa Asoke gather at the Common Hall for their community meeting. This turn-out is considerably higher than for sermons or study on other mornings—an indication of the residents’ engagement with their community’s wellbeing.

On one particularly chilly pre-dawn morning in January, I sit down cross-legged on the mat Jantima saved for me. We greet each other with a waiand “Jalern thaam, ka”(An Asoke greeting meaning, “May your Dharma progress”) and quickly pass the stack of printed meeting materials to others down our row. For warmth, Ah Jantima is wearing a ski cap and an old cream-colored cardigan sweater over her usual gray short-sleeved shirt and gray and maroon striped phathung. As the meeting starts, I glance around and count twenty-nine women and seventeen men, plus five monks.

Oi, the community leader, facilitates the meeting wielding a handheld microphone. She does so in such an orderly, business-like manner, I would not be surprised if Oi actually followed Robert’s Rules of Order. In standard procedure, we first amend and approve last week’s minutes (typed up by Plekuan) and then move through old business printed in the agenda, with the microphone passed to each speaker. This week, the old business is as follows:

  1. Plekuan announces that many student groups are coming in the next few weeks for training, provides updates on the preparation, and requests additional help.
  2. Jing Jing presents the plan drawn up at the “Intensive Human Development” training to increase self-sufficiency in food production (more details below). It is approved unanimously. He then urges anyone interested in helping with the planning to meet this evening.
  3. Em reports the students’ progress with their cultural show, which will be performed at the organic Lemon Farm in Bangkok, invites the community to the dress rehearsal the next evening, and announces the date and time of the actual show.
  4. Din Pieu gives a brief year-end report for the Goodwill Store, including recommendations of what new community-made products might sell well.

By the time we finish with old business, it is already after 6:00 a.m. Oi asks the presenters of new business to limit themselves to two minutes. Finally, at 6:45 (an hour later than usual), the meeting is adjourned.

The weekly meetings give a comprehensive overview of community happenings, allowing residents to share and receive information and identify where they might lend a hand (considering their time, skills, and interests).  This general awareness keeps members connected to the community as a whole. Srisa Asoke residents also make deeper dives into issues that affect them all. A terrific example is the comprehensive plan to increase food production that Jing Jing presented at the meeting.

The impetus for this plan was an activity at the “Intensive Human Development” training weekend called “Self-dependence.” For this exercise, participants broke up into three groups to identify problems at Srisa Asoke relating to self-dependence and to brainstorm solutions. My group didn’t make much headway: we identified several problems and possible solutions, but they were all too vague to be much use. Group Three led by Jing Jing immediately focused on food production and swiftly sketched out a concrete plan to increase agricultural yields that addressed questions of land, time, labor, and supervision. When Jing Jing shared his group’s ideas with the rest of the training attendees, the excited chatter that followed indicated that this was indeed a promising plan.

Though the simple rural community of Srisa Asoke seems far removed from the rest of their world, residents are also quite aware of global issues that are relevant to their lives or otherwise interest them. I came to appreciate this after a conversation with Ratana, a pleasant but shy 40-year-old single woman who lived in a mainstream Buddhist temple for 15 years before joining the Asoke movement.

Ratana and I had been working all day with a few others to plant a new garden area, and after the last seed was planted and watered, we put our tools away, washed our hands, and stopped to rest on a wooden platform in the shade. It’s just past 4:00 p.m. and we are in no hurry to go anywhere. We are quiet at first, because we are both quiet by nature. But then Ratana brings up some farming-related topics that she has seen in the news. Though Ratana is reticent to talk about herself (as I learned when I tried to interview her about her life history), she is happy to share opinions on issues that affect the community and the wider world.

I’m surprised when she asks if I heard about the concern for mad cow disease in Thailand. By coincidence, my husband had just sent me an article on this subject, so I give her a synopsis. We agree that being vegetarian when such a disease threatens the world’s meat sources is a good thing. Ratana then asks if I saw the news story last week on chicken farms. Since I had not, she describes how the chickens are kept in tiny cages all in a row. To Ratana, the fact that the chickens are not free to move around is “pitiful” and “ugly.” All the more reason to be vegetarian. As we chat, I realize that Ratana—and other Asoke members I know—don’t just accept Buddhist teachings, like the number one precept “Do not kill,” at face value. They ponder the reasons and relevancy.

And they do this because the Buddha said so: he advised his followers not to blindly believe him but to find out for themselves what is true. This sentiment, held by Asoke members, is expounded upon in the Kalama Sutta, one version of which is translated from Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a monk in the Thai forest tradition with a monastery in southern California. Ajaan Geoff (as he is known here) explains the deeper meaning of this passage:

Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) are not to be followed simply because the source seems reliable. One’s own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one’s feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise.

This ethic of finding out for oneself what is true—by seeking information and testing it—applies to life beyond the Buddhist precepts and scriptures and beyond personal salvation. It’s the foundation of community wellbeing.

Lesson: Take charge of community change by seeking information, thinking critically, and voicing your views.

How public institutions function, what they deliver, and the extent to which people feel engaged in them are vital for well-being. Unfortunately that engagement is low worldwide, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) fourth edition of How’s Life? (2017), which provides evidence on wellbeing in 35 OECD member countries and 6 partner countries.Only 1 in 3 people in the OECD feel that they have a say in what the government does, and over half believe that corruption is widespread in their government. Only a minority – 38% – say that they have confidence in their national government.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story: the OCED reports that voter turnout is 13 percentage points lower for people in the bottom 20% income bracket than for those in the top 20%. And compared to those with a university education, people with only primary education are 40% less likely to feel they have a say in what the government does. Since governments are supposed to represent the will of all people, this disparity based on education and socio-economic status is highly concerning. Russell Dalton, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, argues that this participation gap exists because not everyone has the skills to make informed political decisions and the poorest lack the resources to influence policy and lobby for change. All the more reason to push our governments to prioritize citizens’ wellbeing and invest in education, employment opportunities, and other social initiatives that serve to close the gap.

Even if access to the political process is equalized, motivation to participate may still be low.  Many individuals may still feel like community priorities are not relevant to their lives or that their single vote doesn’t make a difference. What they don’t realize is that many problems that we feel are personal, in fact, have political roots and require collective solutions. Even when facing seemingly intractable social problems, the shared experience of tackling them together is likely to reduce anxiety: by acting collectively, people are more likely to feel empowered and efficacious (Bandura 2000), and a sense of collective efficacy, in turn, may reduce psychological stress (Jex and Bliese 1999).  So if the positive outcome of civic participation, which benefits the individual by making a better community to live in, is not enough motivation, then rest assured that the mere act of participating in collective public work will give our personal wellbeing a boost.

[Note: The end of this post needs to be revised with better research support on the value of informed participation in the political process for community and individual wellbeing.]

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