In many communities across the country, Bahá’ís are initiating social action programs. These can be as modest as a neighbourhood trash clean-up, led by a Bahá’í children’s class as a service project. They can also be more complex, as initiatives of an established non-governmental organization, with staff who implement projects year-round. On whatever scale, Bahá’í social action initiatives share a set of concepts, principles, and approaches.
Social action is intended to promote the social and economic progress of a given population, whatever their beliefs and backgrounds. Its purpose is not to spread the Bahá’í Faith or to win converts, but to transform society for the better.
Central to the Bahá’í approach to social action is a commitment to learning over time. Many well-intended initiatives are designed by experts with a preconception about some material need of a population, and these projects have, by and large, failed. What is needed, instead, is action undertaken within a learning mode, which includes constant action, reflection, and consultation that engages the participants in the program. Over time, this learning process allows objectives to be defined, problems addressed, resources mobilized, and changes made in response to unforeseen circumstances.
Bahá’í social action initiatives strive to treat the spiritual and material aspects of life as part of a coherent whole. There is no technological fix that can remedy our social ills, nor is a simple change in the power structure enough to resolve the manifold injustices of society. Sustainable progress needs to be attentive to the values underlying technological choices and the cooperative relationships that are needed for institutions to function effectively. The use of scientific knowledge, as well as systematic planning and careful analysis, needs to be complemented by insights from religion that help to clarify the underlying values of efforts to improve society.
These initiatives also focus on building capacity within a population to take charge of its own development, so that more and more people can play an active role in constructing a better community. Every member of the human family has a right to benefit from a prosperous civilization, so social action should be undertaken on the principle of promoting universal participation. In order for participation to be sustained over time, processes of capacity-building are needed, to equip individuals, the community, and associated institutions with the skills, capabilities, and shared understanding that allow for learning to advance as complexity increases.
Across Canada, Bahá’ís are undertaking initiatives of varying degrees of complexity. Some of these initiatives have become formalized into well-established organizations that manage multiple programs and work in partnership with other community institutions. These organizations operate independently, drawing their inspiration from the Bahá’í teachings.
One such Bahá’í-inspired organization is the Wordswell Association for Community Learning, a non-profit organization created in 2007 by a group of Toronto youth and young adults, consisting of teachers, doctors, engineers, and community workers who were concerned about their younger peers transitioning to a crucial stage of life in a time when society is experiencing rapid and significant change. Wordswell offers programs primarily for young people, to train and support them as builders of their communities and agents of positive social change. Its programs and approaches seek to assist youth to develop capabilities for both individual and community development. Its programs are offered at the neighbourhood level and enable youth to develop their powers of expression — with a focus on critical reasoning, literacy, comprehension, and eloquent speech — in order to participate more effectively in the planning, decision-making, and development of their communities.
Another Bahá’í-inspired organization is the Colibri Learning Foundation a not-for-profit development organization based in Vancouver, dedicated to releasing the potential of immigrants to Canada — including newcomers and temporary residents — to engage in the process of community-building. The foundation facilitates the establishment of community-based activities, programs, and processes that enhance communication and dialogue between diverse peoples and stimulate local initiatives for social development.
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