The first community action on an issue should end in victory according to the first module in experiential learning of the community organizing process. Poor people's self-esteem is central to this idea. This learning principle has its roots in the reality of apathy as something to be named and challenged. Apathy as an attitude to just sit idly by even with a lot of things to do in one’s social environment did not happen only yesterday. People who are working for social transformation know that apathy is the result of systemic causes like anti-poor economic policies that exclude the poor from any chances to improve their lives. Apathy has also become the poor’s manner of coping with a life of rejection and frustrations which weigh heavily on their sense of self-esteem.
In the community organizing process that I do with a team, we make sure that our team has the right orientation when we talk to people in blighted communities. If we had not learned well the lesson of busting our tendency of romanticizing the poor, when we move about in poor communities, it would not take us a month to put our hands up and say we would rather do something else. It’s not easy to care for the plight of the entire society in our particular corner of the world let alone the entire planet.
If we, community organizers, have our honest analysis of the inequalities in society and we do not view the negative tendencies of the poor as something born out of a scandalously unjust distribution of the world’s wealth, the compassion in our hearts won’t run dry. Without a deeply rooted understanding of the way things in society are economically, politically and culturally arranged, it would be very difficult to deal with the poor’s apathy.
Apathy is an expression of a dying self-esteem. The person with a very little sense of self-worth can be perpetually numb to any possibility for change, thus the tendency to escape from the challenges of responsibility. Maybe not numb to responsibility but aggressive instead, which is, nonetheless, just another face of apathy to a point that for most of the unorganized poor, nothing that you suggest will be “doable”. But community organizing tells us that people act on the basis of self-interest. Using this principle correctly will help people with very low self-esteem eventually take responsibility for their community and for their own lives.
When people with low self-esteem experience success in resolving their community issue, the chances of moving to further victories is very likely. It is indeed very important that young community organizers take to heart the lesson on apathy. Apathy is powerlessness; is hopelessness. The community organizing process is aimed at transforming apathy into enthusiasm, zeal for justice and hope.