Public engagement – the parable of the turtle

Previous posts have tackled the important question of why engaging with system users (in our case BC families experiencing separation and divorce) is critical to effective justice reform.  Some may continue to believe that this is an unnecessary step since system professionals (judges, lawyers, government policy people, academics etc.) have all of the knowledge and expertise needed to diagnose the problem, design a solution and implement it.  Why clutter it up with the views of people who don’t “understand” how the system works?

The short answer we gave is that putting the public (users) first is vitally important to achieving a workable solution.

I came across the following parable that illustrates the point better than I ever could:

Part of traveling over years means coming back to the same place and knowing it for the first time.  I had learned my best political lesson in college – I just didn’t know it yet.

I took a course in geology because I thought it was the easiest way of fulfilling a science requirement.  One day the professor took us out into the Connecticut River Valley to show us the “meander curves” of an old-age river.

I was paying no attention because I had walked up a dirt path and found a big turtle, a giant mud turtle about two feet across, on the muddy embankment of an asphalt road.  I was sure it was going to crawl onto the road and be crushed by a car.

So with a lot of difficulty, I picked up this huge snapping turtle and slowly carried it down the road to the river.

Just as I had slipped it into the water and was watching it swim away, my geology professor came up behind me.

“You know,” he said quietly, “that turtle has probably spent a month crawling up the dirt path to lay its eggs in the mud on the side of the road – you have just put it back in the river.”

I felt terrible.  I couldn’t believe what I had done, but it was too late.

It took me many more years to realize this parable had taught me the first rule of organizing.

Always ask the turtle.

*Gloria Steinem, “My Life on the Road” © 2015

Always.  Ask.  The Turtle.

This is the first rule of ‘organizing’ AND of reform/engagement/system change.

Kari D Boyle, Coordinator

Image courtesy of Wikipedia – Florida Box Turtle

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