Outreach work and environmental justice
June 29, 2011 § 2 Comments
Outreach work is frequently a ‘must do’ for 3rd sector organisations and campaign groups. Attention moves inevitably from people who are easy to engage to those who don’t automatically take up your service or join your group. The aim is admirable but the idea is not value free. Why, one might ask, do we always start with those who are ‘easy to reach’? What effect does this have on the way our activities develop and who finds us approachable?
Social justice and empowerment
In the UK outreach work had its origins in youth and community work and was underpinned by an ethic of social justice and empowerment. The target audience were likely to be marginalized and the goal was to build relationships, consult and develop services that felt more appropriate and accessible to the people concerned. For the workers it meant being out on the street, contacting people wherever they could be found and responding to issues they raised. From this standpoint outreach work spills over into ideas of community organising and the radical vision of people like Saul Alinsky. In his famous book Rules for Radicals Alinsky defines the purpose as:
“… to create mass organisations to seize power and give it to the people; to realise the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, co-operation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health and the creation of those circumstances in which man (sic) can have the chance to live by values that give meaning to life.”
Realising the democratic dream in relation to the environment is critical.
Who’s at the centre?
In much current talk about outreach it is not always clear what is meant. Some government bodies term their publicity leaflets outreach and some community groups view outreach as no more than pitching up at a public event with a stall and a message. The term outreach is perhaps part of the problem. It does not in itself embody the ideas of justice and equality that shaped it originally. ‘Outreach’ presupposes a centre and a periphery. At the centre are those who know, who have power or see themselves as having something to give. At the periphery are those who don’t, usually conceptualised as a problem and ‘hard to reach’. They are seen as ‘other’ and different. At worst they are the objects of a mission, at best the targets of a service which they may or may not want. As one ‘target’ from a minority group said “I’m not hard to reach from my point of view. I’m just here, in my life, at its centre. It’s a patronising term.” She was highlighting the inappropriate approach of a group who wanted her to help them access her community with their project.
For me, good outreach involves self-questioning and curiosity. It means decentring oneself, placing the other person at the heart of one’s enquiry and recognising the unconscious practices of power. The picture is complicated in environmental work however because it is not simply a question of working with those who have been excluded, whose voices have not been heard and who – as ever – may be asked to bear a bigger burden than is fair of society’s response. Outreach is also aimed at all those who think that environmental issues are nothing to do with them and who ignore their impact on the rest of the natural world. Some of these people are not marginalized at all. Some are just part of the mainstream. Others are powerful and privileged and their voices are already loud.
Power and environmental justice
Perhaps it would help to reframe outreach under an agenda of environmental justice instead. This might allow us to think more clearly about who we were trying to relate to, the rights and responsibilities of different groups we approach and the dilemmas and conflicts they might experience in facing the environmental crisis. We might be clearer about when to make a demand and when to offer a service, when to listen and when to challenge, who to support and who to confront. Environmental justice does not mean that we should lose sympathy with some of those we speak to – it just means that we take seriously the full meaning of the power relationships we live within and what it means to have a democratic dream in a time of climate change.