A Trusted Promise

— some thoughts for the Commitment Conversation

by vivian Hutchinson

June 2021 17 min read download as Masterclass PDF

THE COMMITMENT CONVERSATION is about the promises you are making to yourself, and to your community. This conversation is the place to explore the responsibilities that you are willing to undertake to make things happen. And it is the place to build the significant relationships within your community that can help you steer your commitments into reality.

It is all very well asking yourself the question, What is my contribution to the common good? But it obviously needs to go much further than that: What are the promises you are making to ensure that this contribution is actually delivered? and, Who are you making these promises to? 

The commitments of an active citizen are not achieved alone. We need people in our lives that we trust enough to help us steer our decisions, give us feedback on our assumptions, and hold us accountable for our actions.

These are the people to whom we entrust our promises. Their trusteeship is a critical function of a healthy community.

This trusteeship is different from a formal governance appointment or a supervisory relationship you might have with an employer or someone within a community organisation. The relationship I am referring to here is much more personal and involves the level of trust and accountability that we are able to offer each other as fellow citizens and as friends.

A community trustee is your peer, and the conversations that you have together involve the promises that are made between you as peers. A friend and a fellow citizen is turned into a trustee when they are prepared to accept the responsibilities that come with receiving such a promise. Your commitments become much more real and powerful when they are made within the context of such a relationship.

The purpose of a community trustee is to pay attention, and be a voice for the common good. Their trusteeship usually involves having regular conversations with you that reflect on your goals and objectives, how things are changing, and what you are noticing and learning.

A trustee pays attention to what you are serving in the community, and then gives feedback on the impact of what you are trying to do. They pay particular attention to the everyday blind spots that all of us bring to our work and service.

Trusteeship is the way that your personal aspirations and promises are turned into a living function of community. It is this trusteeship that ensures that your commitments are not a solitary purpose, and nor are they completely dependent on matters of your own individual willpower.

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I HAVE BEEN a self-employed community organiser for most of my adult life. I have regularly taken on jobs and contracts that have paid the bills, but my real career has been an expression of the passions and commitments that come with being an active citizen.

And for most of my life, I have been fortunate that these activities have been done in the context of peer-based community trusteeship, and this has included many different associations of friends and colleagues.

They have been prepared to pay a deeper attention to my intentions, and do me the great favour of giving me feedback or intervening when they think I am getting things wrong. They have stood alongside me when my activities have required me to be more courageous and persistent or kind. And they have often commiserated with my failures and celebrated my accomplishments.

In many cases, the trusteeship in my life has been a mutual relationship as I have done the same for these friends and colleagues and their own passions and activities as active citizens.

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Some of these associations have become formal arrangements, but most of the time they have been based on very informal meet-ups. We have gathered in each other’s homes, or used spiritual Retreat Centres or camping venues at National Parks — where we can step outside our often stressful daily lives and walk and talk and reflect on the matters at hand.    

A network of trusteeship, and a culture that encourages these sorts of meetings and conversations, is a sign of a thriving community. It is important to the resilience of our shared lives, and it means we are taking seriously the commitments and accountabilities that come with our intentions to change, create or to take care of the things that matter to us all.

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SUCH COMMITMENTS MIGHT seem a strange thing in a modern society which is dominated by self-interest, short-term thinking, consumerism, and disposability. Such accountabilities do seem strange in a society where our concept of “freedom” usually means that we step back from asking the best of each other.

And yet we are clearly living with the consequences of these attitudes of self-interest, and the lack of that ask.

Our major social, economic, and environmental systems are under stress, or facing collapse, and our usual sources of authority are heavily compromised. But the everyday function of community trusteeship is also being marginalised at this stressful time. Active citizens need to rebuild this capacity with one another.

This is because we are in urgent need of a much deeper cultural binding to our better angels. This is the binding that is woven as we dare to step forward and ask the best of each other, and then hang in there as we each learn how to rise to our necessary commitments.

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COMMITMENT IS NOT just a process of resolve, or of positive thinking or clever time management. If you want to see fundamental change in your community, then you will need to recognise that the promises you are making are not matters to be taken lightly.

This is because your commitments will often be at war with a whole host of influences designed to keep things exactly the way they are right now. Your promises will find they need to navigate their way through a dense and complicated swampland.

And this is not work for the faint-hearted.

The swampland is full of over-grown pathways that make their way through your own inadequacies and incompetencies, your fears and anxieties, your procrastinations and addictions, the unexpected oppositions and dissents, the helpful and unhelpful comments of friends and families, the seductive persuasions of the status quo, and sometimes very direct threats from the powers-that-be.

There are lots of voices with reasons as to why you should never even start on your commitments. If you only listened to them ... then you never will.

This is why active citizenship is something we do together. We need the courageous conversations that community trusteeship brings to the promises we are making. We need each other to get through the swamp.

Without this level of support and accountability, an individual is in danger of isolation and surviving by their wits. You might start to imagine that you are some sort of solitary hero or changemaker. But these inflations are yet more distracting pathways in the swampland. 

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THERE ARE PLENTY of other distractions to your commitments. Some of them are quite clever. When I was first reading Peter Block’s book Community, one of the things that really struck me was where he pointed out that the greatest enemy of commitment is not opposition, but it is lip service.

In his book he describes lip service as “an agreement that is made standing next to the exit door.” He says it offers an empty step forward, and if we genuinely want movement on an issue, then “... we can move forward with a refusal; but we cannot move forward with a maybe.”

Reading this was one of those moments when I sat back in my chair with a huge sigh. This was something that had often been true in my own experience – as lip service has led me into a great many swamplands.

What I have learned is that lip service does not really want you to have the Commitment Conversation. And it is the way that our major systems are structurally kept in denial of their need for transformational change.

Lip service is so highly developed in our culture that it comes smartly dressed up as marketing messages and policy advice and political talking points. There are entire job descriptions and economies and contracts based on this avoidance of the need for real change.

Lip service is essentially an instrument of power and one of the dark arts of privilege. And it is toxic to our communities because it occupies the space we need to act and make a real difference.

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I EXPERIENCED A CURIOUS example of the nature of lip service while I was part of hosting a conference in Wellington in 2012. The event was called Doing Real Good, and it was one of the most diverse conferences I had been to in a long time. It had brought together a very unusual mix of social entrepreneurs with government leaders, local government officials, business leaders, academics, community leaders, and disability activists.

At one of our sessions, we had a top-level manager from the Ministry of Social Development giving us a speech on what was going to be a significant change in government policy relating to social service providers.

His speech focused on framing government as a “social enabler” and a provider of the resources for “building social capital”. He was blunt in his view that the current models of social service were out-of-date, and he was going to lead a fundamental change in the nature of government contracts and tenders so that they would become more “outcomes-focused”. He had already told his staff that making this change would be “... the most important work they will ever do.”

The government speaker then finished off his talk with a short video. This technique for closing a speech had recently become something of a standard at business conferences, and was designed to deliver something of an entertaining or inspiring “Hallmark moment” at the end of a presentation. I had been at some conferences where the closing video at the end had very little connection to the subject of the speech that had just been made ... but this particular video turned out to have its own unexpected results.

The video was called The Power of Words and it shows a blind beggar sitting in the middle of a city square in Scotland. The man is sitting cross-legged on a blanket while many people are briskly walking past. He has a cardboard sign propped up behind his begging tin can, and the sign says, “I’m Blind, Please Help.”

But he isn’t getting very many customers.

The Beggar in the “Power of Words” video.

Then a young woman walks by, and she is smartly dressed with some particularly stunning green leather shoes. She passes the beggar, but then stops and turns back and walks up to him.

She doesn’t talk, and neither does she place any money in the tin. Instead, she bends down and picks up the sign, turns it over and pulls out a black marker-pen that she just happened to have in her coat pocket. She writes a new message and replaces the sign, before mysteriously walking off. 

As the music builds on the video, we see a dramatic change in response to the blind beggar. The people who were previously walking briskly past are now stopping to bend over and putting plenty of coin into the beggar’s tin can.

The blind man is left sitting there somewhat bewildered.

It is now later in the day and the same woman is walking back through the square and she stops in front of the beggar to see how things have improved. The blind man recognises her because he had previously touched her distinctive green shoes. He now asks her, “What did you do to my sign?”

She crouches down and tenderly touches him on the shoulder, saying, “I wrote the same, but different words.” And then she walks off again.

The camera then slowly moves onto the new sign, which reads, “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.”

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SO WE ARE BACK at the conference again, and the video is finished, and the lights have come back on. Half the conference participants were sitting in their chairs, smiling to one another, and saying some version of, “Oh – that’s lovely!”

But the other half of the room were sitting there extremely grumpy.

The government manager was confused. He’d shown this video before, but this was quite a different reaction which he hadn’t been expecting.

He turned to the chairperson of the conference, who explained the reaction to him by saying, “You are showing this in a room full of community activists and social entrepreneurs. They are asking themselves, “Why is that man still begging?”

Several of the community activists later stood up at the conference to challenge the assumptions in the video and how it might well be connected to the government manager’s overall presentation. One asked, “What is the conclusion we are meant to be drawing here? Does your Ministry just want us all to become better beggars?”

This conference was being held in Wellington at a time of increasing government austerity measures aimed at the social services sector. The Minister of Social Development at the time was trumpeting changes to the welfare rules that would possibly save the government as much as $1.6 billion.

But the active citizens at this conference could see that this money was being taken out of some of our poorest communities, who could not feed their children on The Power of Words.

While the government manager may not have intended it this way, his use of the video had become an important teaching moment for the whole conference – which, after all, was called Doing Real Good.

Few of the participants were ever going to argue with the idea of common-sense outcomes contracting. Many of them had already been shaping their social services around these principles for quite some time.

But the issue here was: Who had the power to determine what those outcomes were? and, Were these outcomes a real indication of what we commonly value?

The power of words behind many government and departmental outcomes can too quickly wash up as lip service on the shores of our communities. If we are indeed going to be in the business of doing real good, then we need to better understand how to close the gap between what is said and what is really delivered.

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A GAP THAT ALSO needs closing is the one that exists between the authenticity of our intentions, and the cynicism and distrust that pervades far too much of our political and community affairs.

The paradox here is that the Commitment Conversation is definitely based upon the power of words. These are the words that weave the promises made between friends and fellow citizens. They become the infrastructure of a living and thriving culture of community trusteeship.

Our commitments grow into their authenticity when they speak of the intentions that we are inhabiting. These intentions can grow beyond our skepticism when they are entrusted to relationships which dare to keep us honest and on track.

We might have started off by trying to change the nature of the conversations we are having ... but this is just the beginning of our journey of awakening.

Our communities really do start to transform when we are capable of changing the nature of the promises we are making to one another.

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Notes and Links

vivian Hutchinson QSM is a community activist and social entrepreneur who has worked mainly on issues of race relations, social justice, job creation and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of Community Taranaki www.taranaki.gen.nz, and author of How Communities Heal — stories of social innovation and social change (2012. He is also one of the creators of How Communities Awaken - Tū Tangata Whenua - a Masterclass for Active Citizenship which is run in partnership with Tu Tama Wahine o Taranaki www.tutamawahine.org.nz.

First published online in June 2021

This paper A Trusted Promise is part of a larger series of essays by vivian Hutchinson entitled How Communities Awaken. For more information, visit www.taranaki.gen.nz/hca

Tū Tama Wahine o Taranaki and Community Taranaki were awarded the ACE (Adult and Community Education Aotearoa) 2020 Award for Community Programme of the Year for the Masterclass for Active Citizenship. For more information, visit www.tutamawahine.org.nz/masterclassguide

The Commitment Conversation “... a promise made to peers.” see Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging (2008) Page 137; and “...the enemy of commitment is not opposition, but it is lip service.” Page 136. This book is available at www.amazon.com/dp/1605092770. Peter Block is also co-author (with John McKnight) of The Abundant Community — Awakening the Power of Families and Neighbourhoods (2012) at www.amazon.com/dp/1609940814. For more information on Block and McKnight’s work see www.abundantcommunity.com

Photopage: Tauhara — TAUHARA CENTRE GATHERINGS at Acacia Bay, Taupo — Since the 1970s, the Tauhara Centre has been a venue for encouraging unity and dialogue between the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. It has also fostered positive ways that we can work together as New Zealanders and as global citizens. Some of the gatherings held at the Centre have included the One Earth Gathering, The Festivals of Co-operation, Men’s Gatherings, Women’s Gatherings, the Stewardship Learning Community, and Heart Politics. (top and middle left) home discussion groups from Heart Politics gatherings and the Stewardship Learning Community (top right) Tauhara Centre Sanctuary at Dawn, August 2005. photo by vivian Hutchinson (middle left) Strategic Questioning paper by Fran Peavey with vivian Hutchinson (1997) (middle right) vivian Hutchinson in workshop at Heart Politics Kauaeranga Valley, Coromandel, Summer 2012. photo by Robin Allison. The One Earth Gathering Workshop Leaders at Taupo Airport, November 1983 (left to right) Canon Peter Spink (UK), Te Atu Rangi Nepia Clamp, vivian Hutchinson, Soozi Holbeche (UK), Brian Woodward, Bill Watson, Pamela Mathews, Aunty Marj Raumati Rau, elder Guboo Ted Thomas (Australia) (front) unknown, Grasshopper the Clown, Lynn Noonan (USA), Basil Avery, Marjorie Clark and Dorothy Maclean (Findhorn, Scotland) (bottom) Heart Politics gathering welcoming line, Summer 1990.

“The Power of Words” a video produced by the Glasgow-based marketing firm Purple Feather www.purplefeather.co.uk www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hzgzim5m7oU.  This is an English version of the Spanish short film Historia de un letrero, directed by Alonso Alvarez Barreda, Wama Films (2007) which can be seen at vimeo.com/32651216. And for more background on these videos, see Jana Brech blog at webwisewording.com/the-story-of-a-sign/

ISBN 978-1-92-717639-9 This paper is licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/deed.en

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