Janet Jobson on a Transformatory Approach to Community Engagement


Leading our work on social dynamics (see the tabs under ‘Our Portfolios), Janet Jobson was recently invited to give a talk on Community Engagement at her alma mater, Rhodes University.  Her speech received a warm welcome during this event and we thought it might be nice to share with a wider audience: 

Thank you to the Rhodes Community Engagement office for the very kind and humbling invitation to speak tonight. Coming back to Rhodes is always a process of grappling with who you once were, the spaces you inhabited, and the place as it is now.

It is particularly encouraging to return to an event like this – a clear indication that there have been strong moves to place community engagement more centrally in the space of the university. So tonight I want to reflect on what emerges for me when I think about community engagement, ourselves as a generation, and the peculiarities of this place.

Frantz Fanon once noted that “each generation must out of relative obscurity, discover its mission and either betray it or fulfil it.” Decades later, Madiba standing in Trafalgar square, London, addressing a group of young people as they launched the Make Poverty History campaign echoed him by saying “sometimes it falls on a generation to be great, you can be that great generation, let your greatness blossom.”

But what is this mission? What is the greatness required by our generation? How do we act, as people rooted here; connected globally? An educated ‘elite’, in the most unequal place on earth?

It seems to me, that our mission is to realise true social, economic and environmental justice. A tall order indeed! We must explore how to achieve social justice that is not the anaemic version we seem to be fixated on in South Africa today, which consists primarily of securing service delivery through protest or litigation, or transferring land or mineral wealth (as important as both these may be). True social justice requires changing the terms of recognition between people; shaping a society in which all people have both the access and ability to flourish; building love into our work; facing the fire of our deepest darkness; and building new social dynamics. True justice, I think, is a simultaneous process of doing and undoing.

There are some themes emerging that for me are important as we take action to create and recreate ourselves and our country.

The first is that we must cultivate an empathetic society. Recent neuroscience has shown that there are particular neurons that fire when a human connection is made. These ‘mirror neurons’ cause us to see ourselves in each other and to experience empathy to such an extent that the exact same part of the brain lights up if I watch you laugh as if I was laughing myself. It’s extraordinary! There is a fascinating TED talk where Prof Vilayanur Ramachandran gives the example that if you anaesthetised my arm, and then I watched you being poked with something sharp I would feel the poke myself! Without the feedback loop of my arm saying that it is not being poked, my brain does not even realise that we are different bodies. This is how powerfully we are wired for connection.

And yet in South Africa we live in a society purposefully structured to undermine this biological imperative. This structuring has become entirely naturalised, to the extent that we have become almost blind to its multiple incarnations, and accept disconnection as simply part of life.

When we first started creating the Activate! Programme – a network bringing together young leaders committed to the public good from across the poles of South Africa – we were met with scepticism: could a Freedom Front + and an ANC YL member ever truly connect? Could a Masters graduate and a high school drop-out both contribute to thinking equally? Could a young activist from rural KwaZulu-Natal connect with a wealthy white entrepreneur from Sandton? I met the same scepticism in building a movement in Cape Town connecting caring people across divides to ensure that every new mother feels supported to provide her child the basic building blocks of healthy brain development – love, safety, stimulation and nutrition – and to connect the city. In both these spaces we have seen human relationships overcome the structural divides that were so unnaturally established to undermine our natural empathetic connections.

These moments of empathy require three simple things: 1) a desire to connect; 2) getting into the same space; and 3) making that space to be safe enough to share our stories with each other (not just the ‘nice’ stories but our anger, pain and frustrations too). I’m sure many of you have experienced an extraordinary, and powerful, sense of empathy in your work this year and understand how transcendent that connection can be.

But – and there is always a catch – empathy is not enough. We must move beyond empathy and into the process of building radical connection, a term taken from a fantastic article by Kristen Zimmerman. She argues that empathy is a powerful tool for transformation. And empathy can build extraordinary impetus for action. But empathy can also perpetuate social injustice – by building individual experiences without necessarily placing that connection in context, and thus blinding us to larger systems of inequality.

This is why the work of community engagement must not simply be about building empathetic moments, but nurturing the courage and conviction to transform the systems that entrench and reinforce injustices. Zimmerman argues:

“when empathy is experienced as radical connection it can take us to places that challenge our worldviews and our sense of self – places where the pain of separation, oppression and trauma are felt more deeply than any transcendent empathetic experience. These places are uncomfortable, but they also act as crucibles for self-growth and for reaching out to others without paternalism or privilege. Radical connection requires that we be self-critical about our own roles in perpetuating any processes that cause harm to others. If we fail to bear witness to the trauma we feel and the harm we have done; if we fail to galvanize the resources we need to heal ourselves, then we miss the potential for deep transformation.”

How do we name these structures and systems that reinforce injustices? How can we begin to see them too?

While at the airport today I did a little digging for this talk about the state of inequality in Grahamstown.  I am certain that you all know there are deep inequalities; but I find often we don’t name exactly how deep they are. So here are two wards in this city, one on the University and suburban side and one on the Joza side.


Ward 4 vs Ward 11, Grahamstown[1]

Education (postgrad + undergrad):             22%    vs    3%

Access to the internet:                                    70%    vs    14%

Electricity for everything:                              98%    vs    19%

Average annual income:                                R155 100    vs    R14 600


Radical connection requires us not just to move between these worlds, but to question the very reasons for why they are so far apart (and getting further apart).

When I sit with these realities – the power of human empathy, the importance of looking into the deep fire of injustice and being uncomfortable – it makes very clear that to live a transformational community engagement we need to critically unpack what we imagine ‘the community’ we are engaging with to be. The colloquialism of ‘the community’ is a South African peculiarity, and it positions spaces of privilege and economic power as separate from marginalised, and economically undermined, homogenous ‘community’. These spaces are not separate, and we must begin to see our own place as a site for engagement too: how does community engagement unpack and undo the elitism and privilege of the university? How do we connect ‘community engagement’ to the experiences and rights of workers on campus. How do we connect it to the racism or sense of alienation experienced by black students in a formerly white institution? How do we connect it to our fields of study and the ideologies and discourses that continue to undermine people’s power and agency? How do we act on our own community?

In one activity in the Activate! Programme, Activators are asked to investigate their community – to find the nodes of hope, and the big issues; to understand the Integrated Development Plan and the contestations in their space. Often white, or economically well off, participants have an immediate urge to do this task in the ‘communities’ in which they work rather than live. Their communities, their homes, have never really featured in their structuring of what it means to work for the public good. To do the work of developing South Africa is seen singularly as building up people ‘over there’ without seeing the entrenched systems ‘right here’. It is important to ask: What needs to change in your community? Your home, your neighbourhood, your res, this campus, to make it a site of true transformation?

This is not an easy ask, and I am putting it on the table as a tough challenge: to connect the dots; to see the broader systems at play.

Living a fully integrated life is not easy, and we all fail often: I believe deeply that we should change our lifestyles to prevent further climate change but continue to eat meat. I have delved into the histories of Cape Town, and the horrors of gentrification, and yet I choose to live in rapidly gentrifying and wonderfully hip Woodstock. I am committed to anti-racism work and yet I don’t speak a South African language. There is no saint who gets it all right. But that is no excuse for not trying, for not opening your eyes, for not seeking to understand more broadly. For not knowing and acknowledging our own complicities. This is the work we must all do.

In closing there are three things that I wish for all of you as you continue to do extraordinary work with and through the Rhodes community engagement programmes.

The first is to become political. I don’t mean party political. But we do need to engage with the systems and structures of society; to engage with government (do you know who your ward councillor is? Who your parliamentary rep is?); to be fiercely independent and fiercely interested. In this moment where the ANC YL is not strong, where the EFF is in Parliament, young people in civil society should claim the space to speak on their own behalf and to determine where we are headed as a country. Your voice is desperately needed to define the terms of engagement in society.

The second is to embrace and to seek out being uncomfortable. The greatest moments of learning will come where you feel most uncertain, most uncomfortable. Embrace not knowing! One of the tragedies of university is that we are rewarded for having the answers to everything – sometimes the most important thing you can do is listen; not debate, not argue, not advise, just listen. When you listen deeply and experience a moment in which you become defensive, or uncomfortable, then there is something happening there – go even deeper.

And finally, to never give up and to never lose hope. Magic is possible! Humanity and our societies are capable of extraordinary transformation. We have seen it happen. And we can power the next wave of true social, environmental and economic justice.

In closing I would like to quote Arundhati Roy, who beautifully sums up a transformatory approach to community engagement:

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

[1] Data is taken from www.wazimap.co.za which uses 2011 Census figures.

One Comment

  • Sabelo says:

    Great speech. Tough questions asked around how we develop a new way to deal with and look at South Africa.

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