Walking Backward and Slightly Uphill

Before the sun rises, I rise -- usually reluctantly – and head to the gym. My routine is a collection of things I have watched others do, had an actual trainer suggest, or perhaps saw on the bank of television sets, which seem to always have one or two fitness shows where people are getting amazing results in just 30 days, despite the overwhelming evidence of the actual bodies (mine included!) that have been sweating around me for years, arguing strongly against that likelihood. But now and then I find exercises I can actually imagine my body doing without eliciting paroxysms of laughter. A friend of mine just completed the early-morning boot camp offered by the gym’s trainers. (I stay away from such things myself, where someone is going to shout unrealistic demands at me at 5 in the morning disguised as “for your own good!”) She stepped onto the treadmill next to me, adjusted the speed and the incline, turned around and started walking backward. I have seen people doing this before and even people walking sideways.

She explained to me that she had been experiencing a recurrence of lower back pain and that her doctor had recommended she walk backward on a slight incline for a few minutes every day. Do this, he said, and as she strengthens her core, her back will become strong enough to do whatever she wants. She has climbed on beside me a time or two since, and I have kept her apprised of the minutes passing as she walks steadily backward and uphill. The last time we walked together, I was struck by the image of her beside me trudging uphill and backward. It was precisely the metaphorical description of how I had been feeling in my life’s work as a community coordinator engaged in community development in my neighborhood. Two steps forward and one step back had nothing on me. It was just plain walking backward -- and uphill to boot.

Neighborhood transformation, or community development, is a slow process that consists of assessing the strengths and challenges of a neighborhood, discovering the available gifts of neighbors and neighboring associations and institutions, gathering neighbors and concerned partners and listening to them, mobilizing them to recognize and use their gifts to tackle the challenges, and training and encouraging them to become -- or be strengthened as -- neighborhood leaders. As the process unfolds, neighbors find power in a collective voice to shape and transform their neighborhoods by relying on their own gifts and their ability to connect with partners and city leaders and officials.

Sounds simple, right? But people are busy and transient and they get distracted and become sick and even die. Additionally, it’s often hard to convince people that change can occur, that their voices can be heard when life has been a hopeless proposition, and their experiences have taught them differently. Sometimes, the ideas we have as community coordinators are good ones, but not the right fit, or maybe the timing is not quite right. Sometimes they are just bad ideas. When these things happen, we need to step back and re-evaluate and even start over – assessing, gathering folks and most importantly listening to our neighbors and then listening some more. At these times it can feel like walking backward and even slightly uphill.

Recently our organization has begun a process of refocusing our efforts, and in doing so we have taken a hard look at some of our processes and programs. In many cases we have found ourselves heading back to the basics. We have looked back at our original philosophies and practices, and, to some extent, we are starting all over again, armed with our collective experience, past failures and the strong voices of some neighbors. We are for a time walking backward, and it certainly has felt like an uphill climb.

But we are hopeful that this practice will strengthen our core, and we will be strong enough to do whatever we want.