Nothing About Me, Without Me, is For Me
I googled this statement (title) to find out where it originated, because I find it to be one of the most influential quotes for my thought process that I have even encountered.
It come from the efforts in participatory healthcare. Kudos to that industry for recognizing this absolute truth. And here’s hoping we can learn from it in all of our endeavors in building design, infrastructure, climate adaptation and mitigation, and more.
Nothing goes so wrong as those things that we implement without involvement and engagement in the solutions creation of the effected people. This quote reminds me of a story about do-gooders traveling to a third world country to teach better land management and farming with the intent to improve the health and resilience of the community there. They saw beautiful, rich, areas of un-farmed land near the river, well away from regional flood concerns, and said “We should plant here”. The locals said they never plant there, it is not done. The do-gooders said “This is a waste, you must plant squash, here. Squash is an excellent crop that will sustain your tribe for much of the season. It is easy to plant and grow, and in rotation, will not strip the soil of the nutrients but will maintain soil quality with degraded vines and root structures. A Squash crop will keep the soils moist and benefit your water supply. You can farm the seeds as well for future crops.” The locals said “We never plant there. Planting there is not good.” And the do-gooders said “You are not educated in land use and farming. This is the perfect place for squash and it is foolish not to plant.” The locals shook their heads and watched the do-gooders hoe, hill, plant, water, and tend.
The squash grew beautifully.
The season passed and “Soon,” the do-gooders said, “we can harvest this amazing crop. See? This food will sustain your families.”
Then the rhinos came through on their yearly migration past the village – squashing the squash and destroying the entire crop. The locals said “We never plant there. It is not good.”
Nothing about me, without me, is for me.
Not one of the do-gooders had asked “Why don’t you plant, here?”. Not one took the time to think about what the locals might know that visitors from another continent might not. Not one sought to engage with the talents and wisdom of the people affected by this work. The do-gooders felt superior in their role and were gifting these uneducated natives with their presence and their inputs.
How often do we do this? How often do we miss incredibly important and valuable signals from the people we are serving because we are swooping in to, in some way, save them from their own lack of education?
This is foolish and self-defeating. No one can know what will work in a place without knowledge of that place. No one can right the wrongs of oppression without seeking to understand what those wrongs are for the affected individuals, and what would actually work for those people in reparation. No one can design a building without understanding how people will use it, why we need to build it, and what works and what doesn’t work for the actual users. Yet we do these things all the time.
…it is time to change this, and be greener.