Boundary-Crossing: Using Tradition to Support Change

Here in the countryside of Southeastern Ontario, boundaries between properties are defined in various ways. We see lots of barbed wire fences, some ditches, lines of trees, and less frequently, zigzags of old split rail fences built over a hundred years ago. Even where there are no fences, people are aware of where their property lines are, physically, and legally. When we take a leisurely walk and cross from one property to another, we take care not to tramp through someone’s alfalfa or hayfield. We cross the boundaries, but respect them.


Recently, I traveled in Albania where new ways are emerging after over 50 years under one of the most brutal communist regimes. After such a long period of communist-style collectivity, property ownership, and formal land title is a hot issue. I was told that when the Communists first took over, they deliberately removed all of the markers that delimited one family’s property, and one village’s boundaries from the next. Old trees were taken down, fences removed, hedges flattened. The physical, legal, and eventually the psychological boundaries were erased.

Now that about 2 generations have passed, community memory about boundaries is somewhat hazy. The pre-communist traditions of conserving and preserving natural resources through collective farming and communal forest management are virtually lost. The rediscovery of those traditions of individual and collective ways of working has evolved towards collective empowerment, and is now becoming an important leverage point for the development of this impoverished country.

Recovering past traditions is also the focus of some of the ongoing development work with refugees in Sudan. It is not widely-known, but some parts of that troubled country have actually stabilized enough for people to resettle and begin to plant crops to support their very marginal existence. But after so many years of being chased from their lands and having their crops (and often their children) stolen from them, the people have developed a refugee mentality. Along with the issues arising from the destruction of community traditions and practices, they have almost completely lost their farming methods and traditions. Workers are engaging with them to revive their forgotten traditions, and to supplement them with some more modern approaches.

Boundaries of all kinds help orient us. They help us determine what is ours and what is not, what is to be retained, and what is to be let go, what is important to remember, and what can be dropped. Without boundaries we feel lost. With rapid change we are distanced from traditional boundaries, and we quickly lose our abilities to draw on what is grounded in our traditions, and our heritage. We are set adrift on a sea that seems to have no shores.

In a multi-stakeholder meeting this week, we were discussing the subject of public safety, and how to address a community’s experiences and perceptions about “unsafe” parts of town. We struggled with defining the boundaries of this issue—it wasn’t just about law enforcement, it wasn’t just about homelessness, it wasn’t just about young people with little to do. The more we talked, the less clear the boundaries of the issue seemed. Some got anxious. Did we need to take on the entire social and economic plan for the city? Was it possible to describe the parameters of the issue in a way that acknowledged the complexities and interdependences, but wasn’t too narrow?

It is daunting to tackle complex issues like land title reform, human settlement, and public safety. We are tempted to cut out “bite-size chunks” so that we can feel we are making a difference, one bite at a time. But when it comes to large and systemic situations, we’ve learned that this “one-bite” approach is not enough. We need to take on those bite-size chunks strategically, within a set of boundaries that makes sense to people. Our small actions can be more easily aligned when the boundaries of the activities are drawn and understood. And as we go, the boundaries can change. That’s the dynamic nature of change. But especially at the start we need to have an idea of the limits.

In working to define boundaries, it seems like we often overlook the clues that lie within our past. The current resurgence of attention on returning to the traditions of eating whole foods is one example of this. In our rush towards efficiency and convenience, we had started to forget what helped us stay healthy. This, and the growing successes in communal farm/forestry practices in Albania and other places show us that its important to draw lessons and traditions from culture and history while acknowledging that the world is different now; and while reaching towards the future.

Know the boundaries, but also be prepared to step over them in the path onward.