Servant Leaders, Come Down Off the Golden Temple and Empathize with the People

Updated: Apr 9

In a TED Talk presentation entitled, "Who should live in cities?", Ms. OluTimehin Adegbeye asks profound questions about how leaders build more inclusive megacities. Her humorous and heartfelt story reveals leaders' desire to make megacities at the expense of the poor people that give cities life. In her words, "instead of getting rid of poverty, they focus on getting rid of the poor." She makes the case the megacities should exist for all the inhabitants, both rich and poor. There is a better way to make megacities more inclusive to the needs of all its citizens.

The Golden Temple Distortion: The challenge is that several goodhearted people want to help those who live in the forgotten neighborhoods in our urban centers. Occasionally, we see the neglected communities from the corner of our eyes as we pass them on the highway. To appease our guilts, we decide we will donate or work a food line on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. We hold our community service committee meetings in church conference rooms, excellent restaurants, or comfortable living rooms. It is from these golden temples of "Do-Good" intentions, we unilaterally decide what the people in those neighborhood needs. Then we have our entertaining fundraising event with our friends, send emissaries to present our donations and feel good about our efforts. Unfortunately, this approach distorts our perspectives because we never seek to find out what will really have the most significant impact on people's lives. Let's challenge ourselves to look at those we seek to serve as fully human. They have mental, emotional, and physical needs and a set of unique personal and systemic obstacles that prevent them from meeting their needs.


Empathize With those Who Need: Let us commit ourselves to make investments of our time, tithes, and talents that will have life-altering impacts that lead to self-sustaining changes in people's lives. Therefore, I want to propose an alternative approach based on the insights I gained from Ms. Adegbeye's lecture. Let us include those we aim to serve in the solutions to their problems. We, or our emissaries, can go out and engage with those we want to help and seek to understand what they need at an intimate level. One way to do this is to borrow a method used by anthropologists. It is called Ethnography. According to the Britannica Encyclopedia, they define word Ethnography as "…fieldwork and requires the complete immersion of the anthropologist in the culture and everyday life of the people who are the subject of the study." We use this approach for any community we are trying to serve. We can use ethnographic methods with immigrant communities, disabled persons, failing schools, working poor, or any other socially marginalized or disadvantaged communities. Once we understand their unique situations, their unmet needs, and our organizations' unique set of resources, talents, and assets; then, we can find an intersection of all those elements to generate innovative products and services that create sustainable changes to people's lives.


Using an Ethnographic Method: Now, this does not mean we should take it upon ourselves to go and live in the park with the homeless. In most societies, some gatekeepers guard against ill-willed intruders or trusted outsiders that earned visitation rights with the communities. The gatekeepers and trusted outsiders can help us gain safe access. The gatekeepers may be religious leaders or advocates that are part of the neighborhood. Trusted outsiders may be social workers, school teachers, medical staff, or former members of the community. Regardless of our practical application of the ethnographic approach, there are some common-sense steps we can follow.

  • Consult with Trusted Outsiders: Now, since most community service members are not anthropologists or sociologists, Also, in extremely hostile environments, like war zones, quarantine regions, or high-crime areas, we may choose to fund ethnographic researchers or consult other community service organizations already in those zones as way to gain insight to the people's needs. Outsourcing the research is not the most intimate approach, but it may be a suitable substitute hard to reach communities. Also, consider inviting trusted outsiders with different perspectives to participate on a panel to talk to your community service committee. Alternatively, take a small contingent of members to meet with them and get their perspective on how the subjects, systems, and other stakeholders interact with the community. We want to gain some context before we jump in the deep end.

  • Learn from the Other's Work: In most cases, your committee or organization will not be the first to address the needs of the community. You may find ethnographic research reports and articles from local universities, other community service organizations working in the neighborhoods. I recommend watching the YouTube video on ethnographic research, as explained by Lorin Mayo. Once we have a deeper understanding of the method, we can know what questions to ask or what information we need to find. Gather lessons learned from your research. When you interview other community workers, find out what needs they meet, how they met needs, and their insights.

  • Observe People's Environments: The previous preparation is so we will not inflict harm or offend because of ignorance. Some communities are more tolerant of weekend-do-gooders asking ill-informed questions, and some are more sensitive. Now, with our new-found knowledge, we can go on our first of one or more excursions. I strongly recommend that you reach an agreement with a trusted outsider or gatekeeper to guide the emissaries. Then go and see the people in their natural environments. The objective of this observation visit is to understand the social institutions in play, tools, and systems they use, any environmental factors, and any social dynamics. And with permission, take pictures, videos, notes, and samples. That said, please avoid the appearance of sympathy tourists. Also, be transparent and respectful if approached. We are the guess. Also, pay attention to workarounds, life hacks, and other ingenious solutions citizens use to meet their needs. Make sure our notes clearly distinguish what we observe, what the subjects communicate, and our emotions.

  • Engage the People: Once we have characterized our communities' natural environments; then, we need to talk to them at a human level to understand their mental, emotional, and physical needs. Then collaborate with them on ideas to solve problems and meet their needs. Again, work with your trusted outsider to meet some of the community members in one-on-one interviews or small group sessions. Define who will ask questions, where you will meet, and have some thoughts on how we should conduct the engagement. Ask questions to help you empathize with their worldview. The objective of this process is to profile the various segments of the community for the follow-on tasks of creating user personas. (see the CareerFoundary.com for an explanation) The goals are to be able to put yourself in their shoes and truly see their lives from their perspective. Make a human connection.

  • Keep Your Promises: Our teams need to commit to ensuring that any promises made are promises fulfilled. In many cases, we are dealing with a population that experiences broken promises routinely. If we make a promise, do everything to fulfill that promise. If we fail at meeting the commitment, get back with them, and let them know what happen and what, if anything, we are planning to help. As our committee develops innovative solutions, keep them aware of our progress, setbacks, and accomplishments.

Following this process can help our fraternities, sororities, religious, and charitable committees genuinely satisfy the unmet needs of the people we intend to serve. Now the people that benefit from our generous tithes, time, and talents become more human and self-sustaining. We have goodhearted people that are not focused on resume padding community service credits or tax deduction donations. Let us help our members see the fruits of their labor. If we are successful, we will see that the person we met on skid-row come to church and give a testimony or the abused children that once considered suicide is now in our colleges saving the lives of other suicidal youths. Can we agree to give it a try? Our committee will become better for making an effort, and we may actually change lives.

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