Thursday, November 19, 2009

Walking into the Lion’s Den… and Getting Eaten

Tuesday I received one the angriest pieces of correspondence in my 30 years of community networking, and it’s shaken me up. One of my jobs as the FIC’s center fielder is to catch complaints about communities listed in our Directory. While I don't get a lot of these, the few I get are important to handle with sensitivity. This week I didn't do so good. 

There was a hot potato in my In Box last Friday, when a woman registered a formal complaint about her brief experience living with a forming community last September. She felt she’d been treated unfairly, that she’d been discriminated against as an older woman, and that the community had misrepresented itself as a place where everyone had a say in group decisions: her story was that one man decided things by fiat and claimed they operated by consensus.

Sunday I dutifully sent a note to the community passing along her complaint verbatim, and asked for their side of the story. I got a prompt replay on Monday in which the man in question denied the charges outright and leveled countercharges at the woman that were worse than what was had said about him. His story was that the woman was regularly abusive with her language and that on at least one occasion this spilled over into physical violence, leading to the community filing a police complaint against her because of an unprovoked attack on another member.

While she claimed that he had reneged on promises of work in lieu of rent; the man claimed that the woman did no work and took advantage of the community. Each said the other owed them money.

While it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that these two individuals had no future living together, I nonetheless persisted in working with the man in an attempt to accomplish two things:

a) To clear up to the extent possible any misunderstandings and hurt feelings between the complainant and the community.

b) To determine if there were any substantive inaccuracies in how the community describes itself in their listing, or if the group is otherwise in violation of the FIC's boundaries around advocating violent practices or interfering with members' rights to freely disassociate from the group.

From the man’s perspective, I was being grossly insensitive to the community’s situation. He reported their feeling violated by this woman and what was I doing questioning the victim? How could I even take this woman’s charges seriously? Was I really following the FIC’s policy about how we handled complaints or was I just picking on him because he was African-American, and trying to mask my racism behind bureaucratic bullshit? 

After another email where I tried to clarify what I was attempting to do and assuring him that I was following the same process we always use in working with complaints, he shot back an even angrier email demanding that he be allowed to talk with someone else, saying he wanted to file a formal complaint about how badly I’d treated him. Boy, did that go south fast. 

Even allowing for the plausible truth about his being traumatized by this woman, I’ve been struggling to see what the payoff for him was in putting such a negative spin on my motivations for attempting to discuss the matter. (After all, even if the woman was abusive, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he wasn't also. Nor does it mean that FIC should look the other way if there has been any misrepresentation on the community’s part in how they describe themselves.)

In my efforts to clear up misunderstandings (a more modest goal than repairing damage to their relationship—which I quickly came to the conclusion I had no prospects for achieving), I had asked a number of questions about the discrepancies between their stories. With the exception of giving me details of the woman’s attack of the other member (the basis for the police complaint), I noticed that in the course of his diatribe against me he did not answer the questions. In short, he deflected the examination of his part in the dynamic and was abusive to me in much the same way he was complaining that the woman had been to him. (And out of this clay we are attempting to mold a cooperative culture. Yikes!)

Today, sadly, I gave up on being able to inject any hopeful ray into my investigation of the storm clouds over this community, and I turned the matter over to two of FIC’s veteran Board members to pinch hit for me.

Much as I like the image of myself as a person who can make any situation better no matter how bad the damage, on this occasion I simply struck out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another good reason to rethink stategies for community development.

Being "open" to seemingly honest folks who wish to trial visit and see how the dynamics of community development fit, has exposed this camp to quite bewildering examples of human pretense and gaming. It has made us step way, way back and begin to settle for strengthening the dynamics of neighborhood and bioregional community, rather than hanging a shingle for the legions of pretenders and potential parasites that see you as either a stage for attention and furtherance of their particular neurosis, or a set of fools waiting to be played and plucked.

It makes us ask, "Why ... when the neighborhood is peaceful and productive would one RISK exposure to "outsiders"?

The energy returned for the energy invested in such lifeboat building and sharing does not seem to compute any longer.

I'm thinking that all the folks who were TRULY able, physically,psychologically and financially, to make a meaningful connection and contribution to real community development HAVE ALREADY DONE SO.

What is left out there may not be shifting for the remaining wheat.

The process of waking up to the stages of community is too long to expect any newcomers to have a realistic chance to integrate in the time we have left to build the community already in place.

Perhaps it is just the mood of the moment, but the question begins to beg ... is it time to quietly close the door and take down the sign?

Thanks for your work Laird. We come from the land of true believers! The same land where no good deed goes unpunished.

Keep your balance ... and be well.

will vinekeeper (Upper Great Lakes)