A curious young boy watches intently as a cocoon begins to move with life. For weeks he has kept a careful eye on the brownish, fibrous covering that a furry caterpillar had spun around itself in a protected corner of the porch. "Chrysalis," his school teacher had called it. It is the process in which a larva turns into a butterfly. The mystery had absolutely enthralled him, how a crawling thing could be transformed into a flying thing. The moment the little boy has been eagerly awaiting has finally arrived. The sack now stretches and bulges from movement inside. He can see what he imagines to be wings and legs pushing against the parchment-like walls, which now seem much more like a prison than a protection. Time passes agonizingly slow but he continues his vigilant watch. The activity inside the cocoon is sporadic - sometimes vigorous, sometimes still. The boy wonders if butterflies always have enough strength to break out of these tough shrouds. Suddenly he spies a crack developing along one side of the cocoon. His pulse quickens. Slowly a small break opens and a head pushes through. There is more struggling as the creature attempts to work its body through the small opening. As tough as the casing seems to be, the boy fears that the butterfly may not be able to free its wings.
Moved by concern and a bit of impatience, the little boy finally decides to intervene. Ever so gently he takes hold of the fiber on either side of the opening and pulls wide the split, allowing the beautiful butterfly to emerge. It is a gorgeous creature with brilliantly colored wings that spread to a span of three inches or more. The boy is mesmerized by the wonder of the transformation. The butterfly extends its wings like someone stretching from a long sleep. The beautiful creature clings tightly to the empty shroud, flapping its wings slowly, gracefully, as it becomes acclimated to its new environment. The gentle movement of its wings continues yet the butterfly does not attempt to fly away. The little boy is puzzled. Why doesn't it fly? He tries to be patient but after what seems like hours, he again decides to help. Very delicately he loosens the butterfly's grip and places it in the palm of his hand. Then, with a lifting motion, he launches the winged creature skyward. Its wings flutter as it drops pitifully to the ground. Another launch attempt produces the same results. And then another. The butterfly simply will not take off. Its wings are big and beautiful but they will not lift it into the heavens. The little boy is devastated. He wonders why, even with all his helpfulness, the butterfly does not fly. He has not a clue that the caring interventions he intended for good were the very acts that thwarted its development and caused its incapacitation. Freeing the butterfly from its strength-building struggle was the kindness that in the end killed it.
Some things simply cannot be rushed. Community empowerment, like a chrysalis, is one of those things. It can be nurtured or retarded but not rushed. Regrettably, I have learned this lesson too late to spare fatal damage to some very beautiful visions that will not take flight as dreamed. I had naively assumed that the significant potential I saw in the people of disadvantaged urban neighborhoods was ample to launch them into the mainstream - with some outside help, of course. This was before I witnessed (and participated in) a recent series of devastating attempts to birth some inspiring community dreams - prematurely. An exciting housing cooperative unraveled by in-fighting, a resident-owned construction company fragmented by ugly power grabs, a partnership with supportive corporations lost over issues of accountability and control - these were exciting visions with great promise, too hurriedly launched, that floundered to the ground. Given a full gestation period and a conducive environment, these plans might have matured and broken into glorious flight. But too many intrusive influences rushed their birth - Olympic deadlines, ticking interest clocks, expectations of efficiency-minded partners and a few dozen other pressures.
There are some essential lessons that I must learn about helping butterflies and urban communities. Empowerment is not, as I had supposed, the intervention of outside forces to speed up the development of community leadership. It is incorrect to assume that heavy investments of dollars, ministries, human services, corporate sponsorships and technical assistance are the "miracle grow" that cause mature leaders to spring quickly to life. A community depleted for generations of its best and brightest will require many years to begin producing and retaining capable indigenous leadership.
This is not to say that outside intervention is unneeded. It is absolutely crucial. Nor do I imply that community development cannot be stimulated from external sources. Indeed it can. Most of the dreams that are dreamed in urban poverty perish because of their hostile surroundings. And most of the leaders who have the innate ability to champion a community vision are either drawn up and out by success or pulled down by the undertow of the streets. If a vision is to reach maturity in the inner-city, it will inevitably be because outside reinforcements found their way in. The all-important issue is not whether to provide resources but how to provide resources.
Creating environments conducive to growth - that's what is needed. A chrysalis will never make it though the transformation if it isn't shielded from the elements and secure from the reach of hungry predators. Protected places within the community allow people and their visions to grow. Places like a safe, well-managed apartment complex that provides wholesome after school activities for the children until their parents get home from work. Or a community church that involves parents and youth in a litany of programs that nurture faith and develop character. Or a renovated block where neighbors work together creating a secure, attractive environment for their families. Environments such as these are likely to require expertise, management and financing from outside the community for a considerable time. Yet, they can produce the climate conducive for the emergence of indigenous leaders as well as the conditions that attract new neighbor-leaders back into the community.
Perhaps empowerment is actually a misnomer, after all. Can a butterfly be empowered? Can a person or a community? Certainly conditions favorable to development can be created. We can moderate the chilly winds that freeze them out of the decision making process. We can keep predators at bay through good property management, effective organizing and cooperative police relationships. We can establish secure places that nurture the spirit and exercise latent potential. We can shield fragile egos from the harsh effects of prejudice by surrounding them with trusting relationships. We can offer a menu of opportunities to inspire bright young leaders as they struggle to emerge. We can even encircle them with other butterflies who are thriving on the new growth in the community. But empower? That is one thing that must come from within.
I have learned this costly lesson, that it is futile to conduct flight training classes for premature butterflies. I must resist the temptation to parade as successes beautiful butterflies who because of our "empowerment" may never be able to fly on their own.