How do we build a healthy community?
Debora McDermed, Ph.D., of Clairville and Portola, brings 20 years’ experience in human development and relations to her current work.
Typically, psychologists help individuals; McDermed helps to heal communities. Currently, she’s working on a community project in Tahoe-Truckee that provides insight into the process she employs to create healthy communities.
The Tahoe-Truckee project came out of the current economic and cultural times, said McDermed, which has reduced people formerly making $200,000 a year to now applying for food stamps.
Further, in the schools a state-required reconfiguration forced busing, moving teachers and ethnic integration. Parents “went to war, clouding it in ‘What’s best for my kid,’” said McDermed.
Focus, a nonprofit group funded by wealthy community members, went to work to fill the breach. They hired McDermed to initiate a two-year project that addresses community problems “from a causative point of view ... in other words, if we just do training—how do we get along, it’s not going to help, because the thinking that goes on behind the behavior hasn’t changed,” explained McDermed.
“You tell people, ‘Be nice, speak respectfully, share your opinion, accept diversity,’ that all sounds good, and sometimes it works, but not when everything else is also cratering.”
Getting to the causative factors that make a community become angry and divided involves giving people an understanding of how healthy community occurs. The process starts with healthy thinking according to McDermed.
“You can’t deny the circumstances,” she said. Normally, money would be thrown at a problem, providing a sufficient fix. Now communities don’t have that option in economically difficult times.
“They hit the wall with what they would normally do, and that provoked a window of opportunity for the work I do,” said McDermed.
Her training starts with a recognition that thinking is at the forefront of behavior. McDermed gave an example, a community leader making a decision that seems unfair to residents. People tend to say, “He’s causing me stress; it’s his decision that’s causing it.”
Instead, people give themselves the ability to change things when they ask, “Where’s my power to help my community make the right decisions and take the right actions?”
But that’s not what people usually do.
According to McDermed, “That’s not the question people ask when they wake up in the morning. They wake up and go, ‘I’m going to go get that SOB and give him a piece of my mind.’”
The thought cycle begins with thought, moves through feeling to action or behavior, and ends with results. All of our cultural emphasis, however, is three-quarters of the way through the cycle: on behaviors and actions.
“Very little of it is feelings, and almost nothing addresses our thinking,” she said.
As an example, McDermed profiled “No Child Left Behind.” She said it’s behavior-based, emphasizing testing and score results, and involving an elaborate plan to have all schools take tests to show whether kids are learning and then to fix behaviors around that if they are not.
McDermed asked a different question, however: “What are the factors that has a child learn? It’s not just the regurgitation of material. It’s the psychology of the child, their well-being, their relationship with the teacher and relationship with other students.
“Well, that didn’t get any attention whatsoever ... that’s what we’ve been living with for the last eight years. Some of the best teachers deal with thinking and feeling, and now they’re quitting.”
This approach is typical of our culture said McDermed. We’re quick to work on behavior, and in good times it’s sometimes enough to create sustainable change.
It doesn’t work at all in difficult times. McDermed quotes Einstein in this regard: “You can’t solve a problem at the level of thinking that created it,” and offers a compelling example of the power of thought at work.
You look at a mirage in the desert, “and you’re sure it’s water, you’re absolutely certain it’s water. No one could convince you it’s not water. That’s what you see, so that’s what is for you. But the closer you get to it, the more you realize your seeing was somewhat incomplete—it’s actually a reflection of something.”
In the same way, when people see a contentious situation in a certain way, it can cause it to appear that way.
When people look at the process of thinking, free themselves from merely reacting to circumstances, regain power by not blaming their past history or present circumstances, they can reach what McDermed terms “equilibrium,” involving a “healthier state of mind where (people) aren’t so angry, they’re looking at (the problem) more as an interesting puzzle to be in, a kind of challenge.”
When individuals gain some distance from the situation, they begin to realize that “the way they perceive it has something to do with the way it is for them.”
The next step is to free themselves from that limited perception, to start “seeing and doing differently.”
In a community, “if they’re pretty sure that somebody’s out to do them wrong, and they start to live inside that thinking, that is their experience.
“Now, what happens when they shift the lens? Well, it starts to look different out there; it starts to look like there’s something different we can do. More options show up, more out-of-the-blue thinking, more creative, innovative ways of resolving things show up.”
McDermed has used her technique successfully in classrooms, engineering firms, communities like Truckee and other venues. The methodologies have been tested successfully over the past 32 years she said.
“Though you can’t measure consciousness, you can see its effects. So, when people are in a healthier state of consciousness, they’re not greedy, angry, mean, selfish. And, when they’re in an unhealthy state of mind, all bets are off. Anything can come out of the nicest people otherwise.”
Though she said she couldn’t detail all she does to create this healthier state of consciousness, she could say, “You have to show people how experience is created moment to moment for them, and then in their community, how it’s created. Once that starts to be in place, people’s natural tendencies towards more healthy, wise thinking, creative thinking, automatically occurs. Automatically.”
Further, there are specific steps to teaching individuals how to do this. According to McDermed, only 15 percent of a target group is needed to reach the tipping point towards successfully and sustainably creating positive change.
McDermed said whether a community is working together successfully or tearing itself apart, she can say, “Unequivocally, what fostered it in the first place is the way we think.”
Moreover, to heal the rift in a divided community, “relationship is number one.” There are tangible methods used to provoke a higher level of thinking and willingness to come together “in a way that lends itself to resolution.”
McDermed exudes confidence and hopefulness. Human beings have the innate power to create the changes they want to see in their communities she said. Her message to the members of the community is to “open their awareness so they will be more knowledgeable than they were, and they will be inspired to come at (problems) from a different point of view.”