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When It’s Impossible to Fit In, Stand Out!

For those of us that work with under-served populations, it can sometimes feel like we are strangers in a strange land, even if we’re only working in the next town over. I have found that the cultures of those who serve and those who are served are, for the most part, distinctly dissimilar. Though I am constantly reminded of how permeable the line is between the two, those who serve posses something that those who are served lack. This dichotomy is in itself what sets the servant apart.

It is tempting for someone new to the field to try to imitate the culture of the people with whom they are working; to adapt their vernacular, or their way of dress. In some instances, this can provide the initial common ground needed to commence a relationship between the server and the served, however, I believe that, more often than not, the cultures we attempt to mimic are not as uncomplicated as they may appear. Our shallow imitations instead undermine our true desire to help. The community can sense that we are inauthentic and disingenuous and any fragile trust they may have had is broken.

To prevent this breakdown, the servant needs to acknowledge his position as an outsider and leverage it to the advantage of the mission and of the community. “Although once in a blue moon spontaneous organizational combustion happens and people come together on their own, more often they need the outside person who brings new views of familiar situation and convinces them of the possibility of change.”[1] This is the case when dealing with any social problem. Our new perspective and the hope for change are the two most significant things that the servant has, which the served needs.

Journalist Tom Wolfe spoke about how this revelation affected his career covering ’60s subcultures. “I have discovered that for me, it is much more effective to arrive in any situation as a man from Mars than to try and fit in. When I first started out in journalism, I used to try to fit into the scene. I was depriving myself of the ability of ask some very obvious questions if I thought I fit in. If you were pretending to fit in, you can’t ask these obvious questions. After that, I gave it up. I would turn up always in a suit and just be the village information gatherer. You’ll be amazed if you’re willing to strike that role.”[2]

By entering the arena wearing our “outsiderness” on our sleeve, we allow for candid conversation. We can ask questions because we are not struggling to maintain a facade of someone who should already know. This transparency builds trust as members of the community help to educate us about what we need to know. Then, when it comes time to provide our fresh points of view, our opinions carry weight, because those involved understand that we have a clear picture of the situation as it stands.

~Nicole Jeanotte

[1]    Von Hoffman, Nicholas. Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky. Nation Books, 2010. (ISBN 1568584393) p19, 20

[2]    Wolfe, Tom. “Tom Wolfe: Chronicling Counterculture’s ‘Acid Test’.” By Terry Gross.  NPR: Fresh Air, 2011. Radio.

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