Why We Take Responsibility for the Whole Community

The blog this week was written by George Martin, President of The Arcadia Institute. For over 30 years I served as the Executive Director of an advocacy group for people with disabilities (The Arc Community Advocates). For much of that time my primary, and almost entire, concern was for that population. I was not unlike leaders of other disability-specific organizations. We believed that the best way to improve the lives of people with disabilities was to promote their interests almost to the exclusion of other interests. I believe that we had valid reasons for taking that stance: the people we served had too few people on their sides, and they needed our single-minded advocacy.

What I began to realize over the years was that I not only had an obligation for other people but also that the most effective way to build community support for people with disabilities was to work for the best possible community for all people. That shift began to make sense for both practical reasons and more idealistic ones. In order to gain community support I had to support the community. In order for people with disabilities to have a good community in which they could take part, that community had to be strong.

In October of 2012, this line of thinking influenced my decision to convene the first meeting of what became the Steering Committee for the first Kalamazoo Poetry Festival. I had a personal stake in this event because my wife is a poet, and I wanted to support her and her colleagues. I also saw the possibilities for strengthening community support for people with disabilities. I wanted people to know that The Arcadia Institute was using its resources to further a broader community interest than just our mission.

This kind of thinking undergirds a concept that I call ‘community leadership’, which I think should be part of the mission of all nonprofit organizations. It is not sufficient just to be about fulfilling our specific organizational mission. We must embrace the broader good of promoting what is best for the whole community. I know that some will say that nonprofits have so few resources that we have to use them for our narrower interests. Yet, I believe that unless we join in the broader cause of making the whole community a better place to live, the lives of those we have a specific responsibility to serve will not be as rich as they could be.

In my most recent blog I pointed to three of the key values of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, equity, inclusion, and diversity. My focus was on equity. With my leadership on the Poetry Festival my focus was on diversity. I wanted to be part of creating an event that would bring together established and emerging poets, poets of different races, ethnic groups, ages, abilities and sexual orientations. As over two hundred people who attended activities of the Festival attest, we succeeded on all counts. One highlight was the Friday evening in which we had readers from eleven highly diverse organizations. The person who almost stole the show was the reader the Institute selected who had no verbal communication but whose rendering of a poem with the assistance of interpreter evoked instantaneous applause!

People with disabilities and those of us who serve them do our jobs best when we are Community leaders.