Four Frames

The bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat

I love teaching about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Usually, the students I teach have heard of Rosa Parks, but they don’t have a complete understanding of the entire boycott. They join me in being in awe of the citizens who refused, for more than a year, to ride the bus. Participants chose to live a less convenient life in pursuit of a more just world. But, sacrifices weren’t made just by those who normally rode the bus – those with cars became carpool leaders and those with the financial means financed organizing efforts.

After introducing the topic, I push my students a little further. I ask them, when an injustice is identified, how do we engage with each other to move toward justice? I find myself surprisingly drawn to a framework from the world of Theology. This framework posits that service to others can be considered in one of four ways (Sam Wells and Marcia Owen, Living Without Enemies, 2011): working for, working with, being with, and being for.

Type Description Example Likely Funding
 Working for… I have something (information, resources, social capital) you need. I can solve this problem for you. Teach for America Instrumental
 Working with… I can contribute to making this situation better. We can work together to address this problem. Montgomery Bus Boycott Instrumental
 Being with… I can offer you my time and companionship. I can’t fix your problem, but I can accompany you on the journey. Hospice Care Expressive
 Being for… I can’t be with you on this journey, but I can advocate for you and amplify your voice through ministry, research, or advocacy. Campaign for Youth Justice Expressive

The way we finance this work in service of others can also be broken down, this time using a framework from Joel Fleishman (The Foundation, 2009): expressive vs. instrumental. Expressive giving is used to support a cause (the arts), while instrumental giving is used accomplish a goal (end poverty). Our recent fixation on “impact” has driven an increase in instrumental funding with a resulting decrease in expressive funding.

As I explore these concepts, I see that these different service mindsets have strong relationships to our ability to measure impact. Our focus on outcomes has made expressive funding and the associated activities less common – it’s somehow seen as less impactful to give to the arts or to advocacy. We’re allowing instrumental giving to hijack the narrative. In reality, it seems that we might benefit from a giving model that honors both expressive and instrumental giving, a model that works towards identified goals while also supporting causes that simply enrich, honor, and uplift the human experience.

But, that’s not our world. Giving trends have moved us away from the models of being, of accompaniment, toward models of working toward specific outcomes. It’s why cultural organizations, advocacy groups, and groups that prioritize presence – hospices or clubhouse models for the mentally ill – are struggling. They’re not “fixing things”.

Our focus on outcomes (the ones the powerful decide are most important) can actually incentivize a working for mindset. This explicitly disincentivizes releasing any control to those with whom we are working, and it reinforces the relationship dynamics that lead to injustice in the first place (i.e., something’s broken; you need me to fix it).

When we’re working with – a potentially more powerful approach for engaging others –  we release control, to some extent, by sharing the responsibility. But, in our current environment, that uncertainty becomes a threat. We must be able to demonstrate, and take credit for, our role in improving the circumstances of others to be able to secure future funding. Unfortunately, this runs directly contrary to our need to build community capacity. In sum: We’re doing it wrong.

As Paulo Freire said, “A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people which engages him in their struggle than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.”

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was one of the most impressive acts of collective action and community-led policy reform this country has ever seen. Quiz, hot shot: Can you tell me the organization behind it?

photo credit: Wikimedia.org

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