Poverty of spirit healed by dreams

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 19, 2006

It was one of our regular monthly meetings of the Cochrane Ideas Society, a time when a few dozen of us gather to discuss everything imaginable, from recent developments in science and environment, to world affairs, to the latest books we've read. Often we go home intellectually refreshed but feeling no special urgency to act personally on the topic of the day.

Last week's meeting left us with quite a different feeling. We were challenged to relieve poverty – but not material poverty so much as poverty of spirit; to affirm each other's right to dream dreams.

The presenters for the evening were two of our Cochrane coffee companions who have a lot of insight into development and helping others.

Kate Millar made headlines in Kitchener, Ont., back in 1989 when she rallied street kids around a dream called R.O.O.F., the acronym for "Reaching Our Outdoor Friends." In reality, she says, it really meant shelter, love, support and family for Kitchener kids who had fallen through the cracks.

She began with nothing more than contributions of food and blankets, her personal passion, and no salary, often climbing through broken windows in abandoned buildings to bring vital necessities to young people who had just about given up on life. Together, they created a roof over their heads, paid for not by government grants, but by the collective efforts of the kids and concerned community members – an initiative that emerged from the kids themselves and their trust in each other.

She saw a need and did something about it, believing that "one person on the street is one too many." Material poverty takes second place to "poverty of spirit."

Glen Eyford was the other Ideas presenter that evening. The retired University of Alberta professor founded the department of development studies there some years ago.

His global experiences with bureaucratically-defined programs for alleviating poverty have often left him scratching his head. Big-buck, top-down initiatives fail because of their inappropriateness for the target communities and their cultures.

He has great admiration for Kate's model. "We have to learn from the grassroots," he said. "It doesn't count if it doesn't grab your heart."

The discussion following Kate's and Glen's remarks was vigorous. Two responses in particular caught my attention.

Judie Bopp, a recognized international authority on grassroots initiatives in community recovery, challenged us to look beneath the surface of Cochrane's prosperity and see how many of our own kids are lost in alienation and personal struggles. Are we, like Kate, prepared to act on what we see?

The other response was from Jerre Paquette, who teaches film and writing at Calgary's Mount Royal College.

Picking up on Kate's concern for poverty of spirit, Jerre stressed the one thing all of us can do: to affirm each other's right – and necessity – to dream dreams.

Jerre and I followed up his idea of dreams by e-mail. Here's some of what he wrote:

I find that my students tend to be more prepared to pursue goals than dreams (and most likely goals others set for them), that dreaming is a function of trust, and that the world seems increasingly to invite distrust in the minds of young people. I also find my students wanting to trust others, wanting to find communities of others who will lead them beyond the circumstances in which they find themselves but most likely get stuck among others who resist rather than foster change.

I talk with my students about dreams, both in classes and in quieter moments with them one-on-one. I find they want to have dreams, but are uncertain the world they have been born into is a reasonable place in which to expect anything from a dream. I advise them that if they wish to dream, they must determine the difference between what they want and what they need (Kate introduced this distinction), and that they must articulate their dreams (difficult to do), then ask those close to them for their support– in fact, I tell them they must insist on support for their dreams from those close to them. I show them how to do that; some have done so, with rather surprising results.

In all that Kate, Glen, Judie and Jerre said I see hope for the future, not only of our young people, but of society as a whole. I have long been troubled by the presumption that we can best help others by imposing on them our own values and practices. But as Glen noted, "It doesn't count if it doesn't grab your heart."

I think the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli summed it up pretty well when he said: "The greatest good you can do for others is not just share your riches, but reveal to them their own."

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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