What can we consider from community organizing?
I have been working this summer as an intern with Where Are Your Keys in the community of St. Paul, Alaska, where a local language team is leading the revitalization of the native language, Unangam Tunuu. The experience has directed my attention to some of the challenges and opportunities in indigenous language revitalization. The concept of shared goals, which I have learned through community organizing via Organize BC, seems potentially valuable in this context. What are the benefits of shared goals? How does a group develop shared goals? What comes next?
Bringing and keeping people together
First of all, I think we all know from personal experience that being part of a team or group with a shared goal can be motivating and rewarding. A soccer team practices so that it can win the tournament. A work team works late to pull off a big project. A group of friends plan for weeks to make a trip happen. Having a shared goal keeps people on track in spite of sacrifices and setbacks. In my training and experience of community organizing, any team working together for long needs a shared purpose to be effective. A shared purpose can also attract new participants, who identify with it and want to help achieve it.
In a language program, particularly an indigenous language revitalization program, the people involved – elders, speakers, teachers, and learners – may benefit from developing a shared purpose, or vision, of where the program is going. This may help people to stay committed when there are challenges such as distance between speakers, minimal material resources, or limited access to native or fluent speakers of the native language.
Tools for developing shared goals
How does a group develop or identify shared vision? Community organizing offers several conceptual tools to help a group identify constructive goals, including “people, problem, goal” and “mountaintop vs. nested goals”.
In the first, the team considers the “people” who have a stake in changing the way things are, the “problem” they face, and the “goal” they seek that would solve the problem. Many different ideas may arise in response to each question, leading to the second tool, in which the group identifies a “mountaintop” goal, which is the ultimate vision of success (e.g. ending discrimination in one’s country), and begins to identify “nested” goals that achieve concrete steps toward that mountaintop goal (e.g. desegregating a city’s bus system).
We experimented with both of these conceptual tools here in St. Paul, Alaska, and during a reflection activity, many members of the local language team said that they enjoyed the mountaintop goal activity. I did, too. When I heard the team describe what successful revitalization looked and sounded like, as part of that activity, I felt inspired.
What comes after goal setting?
In community organizing, identifying shared goals – both mountaintop and nested – is far from a final activity. The group must also identify how they will achieve those goals. How will they move toward the goals? Which specific activities will they choose to focus their resources on, and in which order? In a language revitalization program, this may look like deciding between starting a radio station, an immersion preschool, or a community language night. Again, there are potentially useful conceptual tools from organizing that can be considered here, including “sweet tactics” and “tactics and timeline”, but those are for another discussion.
I will end by saying that I certainly don’t presume to know what is best for indigenous language revitalization programs. I am only beginning to see what groups are doing, and only beginning to read literature on indigenous ways of knowing, learning, and teaching. I am both an outsider and a novice. This post is simply to explore the potential of integrating language revitalization work and community organizing practices, which themselves have been developed by communities put under pressure by dominant cultures. I look forward to thinking more about this with more people.