Creating a community of change through “tangible links”

In Begging  for Change Robert Egger talks about the need to build “tangible links.” For example, in the kitchen training program at D.C. Central Kitchen, the students build links both with the people who eat the meals they serve and with the other volunteers who help at the kitchen. That way the students are connected to a web of giving and receiving.

Storyteller that he is, Egger talks about one of the early students in the DC Central Kitchen training program. Reggie was a heroin addict, clean for 3 months, enrolled in the program. He had a tough road ahead of him, and it wasn’t clear he would be able to escape his past and his addiction.

One week a group of doctors came in to volunteer, and Egger told Reggie to show them around. He could see the tension around him. Reggie, with his low education and history of addiction, was clearly thinking “you want me to work with them.” And the doctors were thinking the same thing.

But Egger stuck to his instructions and walked away, leaving Reggie to orient this group of high-power professionals.

Twenty minutes later Roger stopped back to check in. What he saw was inspiring. The roles had been reversed. Reggie, the barely-hanging-on addict was teaching these doctors how to julienne carrots. Here was an area where he knew something they didn’t, and he could speak with authority on it. He had something to give, something to teach. And that gave Reggie a level of self-respect that he wouldn’t have if he was cutting carrots alone.

That’s the power of tangible links.

This concept of “tangible links” goes to the heart of the solidarity model of organizing. What lessons can we learn from our allies in the global south? How can we build real people-to-people ties that will lead to enduring change?

It also ties in with one of the lessons in Cialdini’s “Influence.”  He talks about how to overcome group animosity, it’s not enough to have contact between groups. You need cooperation between the groups to achieve a shared goal.

When Reggie teaches the doctors how to julienne carrots, he is moving beyond just having “contact” between doctors and students to having true cooperation between the two groups. That’s where growth and change happen.

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