Rising Generations: Weaving a New Tapestry of Community Life

Statements

Rising Generations: Weaving a New Tapestry of Community Life

Offered as a contribution to the 7th Annual ECOSOC Youth Forum at the United Nations

New York—25 January 2018

The adoption of aspirational global agendas in multiple spheres, such as Agenda 2030 and the Paris Climate Agreement, can be seen as indicators of humanity trying to move towards a new stage of development. The current period may be regarded as one of transition from a fractured, violent, and divided past towards a just and united global civilization. While many of the injustices and crises prevalent in the world today may create feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, the Bahá’í International Community is confident that the rising generations will play a vital role in weaving a new tapestry of community life that can propel humanity’s evolution towards a period of maturity and collective prosperity.

There appears to be growing consensus that many of our current systems of governance, economics, health, and education, among others, are inadequate to meet the demands of an increasingly interconnected, global society. While many agree that the present moment is one for innovation, entrepreneurship, and experimentation with new models, there is less consensus around who should be doing this and what processes should be followed. The experience of the Bahá’í worldwide community suggests that young people have a significant role to play in transforming society. When youth are taken seriously and resources are channeled towards different programs that raise their capacity to become significant actors in processes of community change, the results can be striking.

 

 

An arena for unified action

An arena where young people may take their first steps to improve the conditions of the world they have inherited is the community. Communities can emerge out of various kinds of association, for example, the inhabitants of a village or neighborhood, the followers of a religion, those associated with the life of an educational establishment, or the members of a profession. While communities of association take many forms, there is a universal dimension to living in a shared environment with others that makes communities of place ideal arenas for consideration.

A community is one of the basic units of civilization, comprised of individuals, families and social institutions. In the context of community, individuals can build friendships, form civil associations, and, alongside institutions, develop programs and systems that can create rich patterns of interaction, and form the basis of common life. When a community sees its purpose as contributing its share to the betterment of society, it can become a setting in which powers are multiplied in unified action, where individual will and collective volition are blended, and where a spirit of enterprise is reinforced by a realization of the need for concerted action and a commitment to the common good. Healthy communities attend to the development of their members, channeling resources towards programs and institutions that can nurture the moral, spiritual, intellectual, and physical development of every person. Likewise, in such communities, bonds of trust and fellowship, of camaraderie and cooperation tend to be strong. Local governing bodies, educational institutions and families all seek to nurture relationships of this quality.

To serve their communities effectively, young people should strive to understand with growing clarity the implications of the principle of the oneness of humanity. For too long, differences among human beings, both real and imagined, have served as obstacles preventing the progress of entire peoples and nations. This planet is our one, common homeland. We must all care for it. We must all have the opportunity to thrive in it. Regardless of differences in class, culture, ethnicity, belief, nationality, and gender, at our core, we share a common identity -- we are all human. In those essential aspects of life -- in the capacity of every human being to dream, to think, to create; in the longing of every person to find happiness, to grow, to connect with others -- we are without distinction.  Oneness, however, does not suggest homogeneity. Every culture has positive and negative traits. It is possible to be rooted in a community without being bound to its harmful traditions and practices. Young people throughout the ages have been characterized by certain qualities: they are curious, they question and probe the world around them, they are adaptable and open to change, and they have an acute sense of justice. Young people, then, can work closely with the different members of their communities to begin to consider which elements of culture they would like to reinforce, and which they would like to dispense with.

The Role of the Rising Generations

The rising generations are faced with no less a task than transforming the foundations of community life. A materialistic ideology that has placed the accumulation of wealth at the center of existence, and promoted individualism as healthy, has impacted every facet of life. The prioritization of economic growth through self-interested competition has stripped many communities of spiritual qualities such as trust, cooperation, fellowship and love. When the spiritual dimensions of life are corroded, they cannot be mended by material things. Material and spiritual challenges demand both material and spiritual solutions. Weaving a new tapestry of community life that reflects values like justice and generosity, selflessness and equality, will require the participation of generations of people, offering their distinct contributions according to the opportunities and challenges of their historical moment. How will the current generation of young people contribute its share to this great undertaking? 

Those committed to building vibrant and healthy communities will be engaged in a long process of learning in action. The learning process unfolds in a way that resembles the growth and differentiation of a living organism. As experience accrues, obstacles are gradually overcome, and resources multiplied, different efforts can grow and expand in their scope and reach. Although young people should avoid the trap of conceiving of their efforts in narrow terms of success versus failure, they must also re-examine their visions and strategies time and again. While haphazard change should be avoided and continuity of action maintained, modifications in goals and methods should be made in the light of experience and a framework of shared values. Young people should also be prepared to develop comfort with a certain degree of uncertainty or ambiguity as they chart new ways forward.

A mode of learning in action will be easier to sustain if young people adopt a posture of humility. Such a posture allows people to rejoice in the success of others, to share their own ideas, talents and skills generously and with detachment, and frees them from feeling threatened by those with different ideas, talents and skills. Humility helps youth execute plans with a degree of flexibility required in any learning process. A culture of learning characterized by humility also encourages those with more experience to assist those with less experience to take their first steps in a given arena of action. In a culture permeated by a spirit of humility, it is easier for people to work together intergenerationally. The novice knows that he can learn from the veteran just as the veteran knows that she can learn from the novice.

A practical way to engage various members of the community to help set goals and execute plans is to create spaces for consultation. Whether concerned with analysing a specific situation, trying to gain a fuller understanding of a given issue, exploring a possible course of action, or arriving at a decision, consultation may be seen as a collective search for truth. The participants in a consultative process are not interested in exercising power over one another or convincing one another of the validity of their perspectives. Rather, they participate with an understanding that different people see reality from different points of view, and as these views are examined and understood, new insights emerge and clarity is gained. Some consultative spaces might bring together groups of parents who would like to share concerns about and aspirations for their children. Other spaces might bring together groups of friends providing similar types of service to the community  -- teachers of classes for children and youth, friends tending to gardens and farms together, entrepreneurs identifying unique resources their community can contribute to enrich the society around them. Periodic spaces where these different groups can all come together and reflect on the current state of the community as a whole while planning for the months ahead would also contribute to the flourishing of a healthy, interconnected and united community.

 

 

Transforming the Foundations of Community Life

Given its centrality to numerous aspects of modern life, the principles animating activity in the economic sphere deserve special consideration. Likewise, conceptions around the purpose of work and opportunities for employment are driven to a large extent by dominant economic models. Both must be reimagined in the light of oneness.

i. Economic Activity

The well-being of any segment of humanity is connected with the well-being of the whole. When economic gain is pursued without regard for how the natural environment is affected, for instance, all are impacted. Yet, time and again, greed and self-interest obstruct collective flourishing. Dizzying quantities of wealth are being amassed into fewer and fewer hands, and the instability and volatility this creates is amplified by disparities in income and opportunity both between and within nations. But as persistent as these inequalities have been, they do not represent an intractable state of reality, nor are they destined to define the future. Wealth should serve humanity; humanity should not be sacrificed for wealth.

Similarly, systems and structures should serve the interests of all peoples. The rising generations will have the opportunity and the responsibility to learn how collective prosperity can be advanced through justice and generosity, through collaboration and mutual assistance. Regardless of the material resources available in a given community, there is a wealth of intellectual and spiritual resources that a community can draw upon. For instance, the creativity of a community’s inhabitants, the resourcefulness of its institutions, and the power for unified action among its different actors are significant resources that young people should also learn to harness.

ii. Meaningful Work

An increase in meaningful work opportunities for young people will be bolstered by the embrace of a new, shared value system that takes into account a wide range of human needs and aspirations. This value system will necessarily challenge widely-held assumptions that underpin our current economic models -- for instance, that competition drives progress, that human beings perform best when promoting their own self-interests, that the crowning achievement of an individual or a nation is found in the accumulation of wealth. It will require a revision of conceptions of work around the ideals of inclusion, universal participation, and reciprocity. Moreover, to be sustainable, it will be critical that work, as the activity that tends to occupy the central portion of our waking hours, be a source of meaning and provide a way to contribute to the betterment of society. To accomplish its purpose, work must not be reduced to a mere means of satisfying wants and needs. It must find constant expression in service to humanity. When performed in a spirit of service, work may indeed be regarded as an act of worship.

 

 

A Culture of Friendship

While adversarial approaches to social change are often given the most attention in popular media, change of the magnitude required cannot rest on the shaky foundation of disunity. If young people long for a world of unity and friendship, their approaches to bringing that world into being must embody those very attributes. Similarly, persevering in efforts to serve society -- particularly in the face of difficult or even harsh conditions -- will be easier to do when flanked by close friends and trusted loved ones.

Serving closely with others creates opportunities to form bonds of friendship and provides practical means of getting to know neighbors and community members. For instance, the young man who arises to teach classes for the moral education of children in his community will build friendships with the children, their siblings, their parents, and other young people engaged in the same effort. The group of friends who arise with determination to beautify their neighborhood’s common areas will reach out to a number of different community members and institutions who can help them identify plots of land that could be repurposed as a garden, as a park, or some other form that the community agrees on. They will organize consultative spaces for the community to make plans, identify volunteers, raise funds, secure donations, and draw on different individual talents so that many people can tend to every dimension of the effort.

Ultimately, as service draws young people further into the lives of the members of their communities, they will strengthen bonds of trust and feel genuine care and concern for every aspect of one another’s lives, delighting in one another’s accomplishments and offering support through one another’s hardships. In such a culture, they will lay a foundation of friendship and trust, a foundation of love, from which the seeds of a prosperous world civilization can bloom.