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Our Needs Don’t Define Us

By: Gage Bentley, DVN Public Ally

If I could go back and rewrite my introductory post from October, I would change a few things. Not what I said, that is, but how I said it.

In explaining why I chose to be a Public Ally with DVN, I wrote, “I sought a position as Public Ally because I wanted to make meaningful relationships with people who help people, and people who need help from people.”

If I could get a redo, I would have simply said “I sought to make meaningful relationships,” and left out the rest.

Everyone helps people in one way or another. How we help and the magnitude of those efforts differs depending upon the situation. It’s equally true that everyone needs help from others. So, saying I wanted relationships with people who have needs was redundant and unnecessary. I could be working at a manufacturing plant, Starbucks, or government office and any relationship I made would be with helpers and needers.

I’m assuming most of the people who read my post likely work for a social services nonprofit and understood what I meant, not noticing the redundancies. But I belabor the semantics because it is significant that the phrase “people who help people” does not strike a reader as obviously redundant. Because “people who need help from people,” for many, would read as “people with problems.”

Aside from serving with DVN as a Public Ally, I also help with community development on the Far Eastside, and I participate in weekly trainings. Last week, the other Allies and I attended a training with the Englewood Community Development Corporation (ECDC). Staff members from ECDC led us in a discussion about that very conundrum: Defining people by their needs risks reducing people as “needy.”

Together we wondered, “why think of people as needy, when every person on Earth has needs?”

To help grapple with that question, the folks from ECDC provided a selection of works by John L. McKnight, one of the original advocates for asset-based community development. McKnight argued that institutions, including social service nonprofits, have needs.

In case that’s confusing, imagine a mission statement that reads, “addressing the need for food,” or “meeting the need for social justice.” Contrast those with a hypothetical mission statement that reads, “utterly eradicating domestic violence and then ceasing to exist.”

The latter example would be overly idealistic, but the difference illustrates McKnight’s point. Because institutions have an inherent self-interest in continuing to exist, and because social service nonprofits are institutions that address needs, those nonprofits risk needing people with needs more than people need the nonprofit.

Thankfully, nothing about DVN makes me think it has become such an institution. All its efforts bear an intention to do what people have said they want—or need—it to do. In fact, every individual, group, and institution I have encountered in my time as an Ally has modeled the behavior and thoughtfulness I’m sure McKnight would hope to see. Everyone has used people-first language, for example.

I’m not arguing nonprofits should codify in their bylaws an intention to dissolve when a mission is done. Yet, to use an apt cliché, people are more than the sums of their parts—people are more than their needs.

I share McKnight’s hope that institutions like social service nonprofits emplace that truth at the core of all their missions and visions, and from what I’ve seen, that is happening at DVN and throughout Indianapolis.