If you look at crowd scenes from the end of World War II, one of the things that stands out is that all the men were wearing hats. They would have been wearing them at the end of World War I, too, and the Napoleonic war, the Thirty Years war, and the Norman invasion. In fact, for damn near the whole of human history, men wore hats. Yet by 1960, hats were gone, as if they had never been. Now – except at Trump rallies – men overwhelmingly go bareheaded.
Change comes in sudden and infrequent leaps after long periods of stasis. You can’t predict ahead of time when the breaks are going to come, and you may not even be able to put your finger on them while they’re happening. Realisation comes later when you look at the movies your parents watched and see all those people wearing hats, or smoking, or – it’s almost unthinkable now – shaking hands.
We’re facing unimaginable social upheavals: silent subterranean movements to go with the daily shocks of COVID and bushfires. Since Cicero, we’ve read the collected letters of dead politicians; that’s not going to work with text messages. For the first time in history, kids can grow up without ever seeing an open fire. What is it going to mean to our culture when casual touching goes away? What, for you, is the most welcome, or the most grating, change that you’ve just noticed is happening? What do you think’s going to stick?
Life moves faster these days, and it would be a tremendous help if we were able to track the change while it’s actually happening. Our Community, my organisation, presents a Communities in Control conference every year to help not-for-profit organisations keep up. Like everybody else, this year we’re meeting online. Naturally, I worry about what we’re losing – the informal meet-and-greet, the networking, the questions from the floor, the free espresso – but what’s left is more important than it ever was.
This year’s Communities in Control conference – November 16-17 – isn’t just for noting changes, thank goodness. Alarms without action plans are an indulgence. We’re bringing in the people who’ve thought about these things, with experience in strengthening communities, to throw us a line on how to keep our social institutions afloat through rough seas. The common theme is realising that we don’t just have to grumble, that things can be changed, and that change can be steered at a local level.
Local communities are the laboratories of innovation and agility. They deliver targeted social and economic outcomes, and they've laboriously and painfully accumulated a vast stock of knowledge about what works and what doesn't. Unless government, business and philanthropic initiatives respect that knowledge, their projects will fail. As you will have noticed, that’s precisely what often happens.
Many governments respect only coordinated power or unquestioning support. Many think that community groups can be ignored or picked off or bought off and silenced one by one. Government grantmaking – dare I suggest it? – may not be entirely motivated by concern for others. The not-for-profit sector needs its own voice.
Every year for more than a decade the Communities in Control conference has offered an opportunity for community group workers, volunteers, and others at the grassroots to look up from the ground level, where the hard work is done, and envisage new possibilities.
Our speakers – visionaries and statisticians, rabble-rousers, saints and entertainers, executives and academics – have filled in the outlines of a community-driven realignment of Australia's fundamental assumptions. Our unwavering message has been that when communities are in charge of their own destinies and are able to set their own priorities, when they receive the practical support they need to design their own approaches and create their own solutions, Australia is a happier, healthier and livelier place on every scale from the nation to the suburban street to the unsealed country road.
At the end of World War II, all men wore hats and ties. We gave up the hats, which protected us from skin cancer, and kept the ties, which do nothing for anyone. There’s no guarantee that the cultural shifts going on around us right now are going to improve our lives. There are no guarantees of anything. If we want communities that can learn the lessons of the pandemic, we have to work for them.
Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.
This article is part of Our Community's campaign to help not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, comprising guides, webinars, resources and news.
This commentary also appears as part of a monthly column series that is published in 160 rural and regional titles across Australia, from daily newspapers such as the Bendigo Advertiser and the Illwawarra Mercury, to weekly publications such as the Goulburn Post, the Cootamundra Herald and the Jimboomba Times.
We're proud to take a stand on progressive issues, which we're able to do as a social enterprise that's not tied to the purse strings of any government or corporate organisation.
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