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The Universal House of Justice released a letter dated 30 December 2021 to the conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors. The letter addresses the Nine Year Plan of the worldwide Baha’i Community, which began in Ridvan 2022. You can read the letter from the Baha’i Reference Library or listen to an audio reading on Baha’i Blog’s Soundcloud page.
For me one of the important topics in the letter is contributing to the discourses of society. What can I, as an individual, do in this domain? It is my understanding that the Universal House of Justice talks about participation in the discourses of society on different levels in the letter, meaning the discourse work happens on various but unified avenues. Here is my understanding of these different approaches.
The External Affairs Work
Offices of External Affairs operate on a national level in different countries. These offices cultivate relations with the government, media, like-minded non-government organizations, thinkers, and the broader public. Offices of External Affairs collaborate with local representatives, contribute to the betterment of society and a peaceful and equitable world.
The following paragraph from the December letter sheds light on what the Offices of External Affairs do compared to what individuals can do. The excerpt also mentions the Baha’i International Community, a non-governmental organization representing the worldwide Baha’i Community.
“Closely connected with the capacity for engaging in social action is a capacity for contributing to the discourses of society. At heart, this is simply a capacity for participating in a conversation about a matter that affects people’s lives and offering a perspective grounded in Baha’i principles and Baha’i experience. Viewed in this way, it is a skill which many Baha’is have the opportunity to practise almost daily, for instance in their studies or occupations, and which is cultivated through involvement in institute courses; in its more formal expression, it is central to the work of the Baha’i International Community and national Offices of External Affairs.”
What I find interesting here is that the grand vision for contributing to the discourses of society is the same for both individuals and the more formal expression of this work by the Offices of External Affairs. Both the individual and the offices are asked to engage in meaningful conversations about relevant matters impacting people’s lives based on Baha’i teachings. However, Offices of External Affairs have additional guidelines and guidance both from the Universal House of Justice and the National Assemblies they serve.
Discourses and Local Spiritual Assemblies
The current Nine Year Plan emphasizes the role of Local Spiritual Assemblies in discourse endeavors and social action work. The guidelines for a more strategic approach to participating in the discourses are outlined. Here are a few excerpts from the December letter regarding the role of Local Spiritual Assemblies:
“Local Spiritual Assemblies strengthen their relationships with authorities and local leaders, even entering into formal collaborations, and growing attention is given to the multiplying initiatives of social action arising from groups of junior youth, youth, women, families, or others who are responding to the needs around them.”
“However, in relation to the release of the society-building power of the Faith at the grassroots, it is a capacity that comes into greater demand as closer association with a population, brought about through the work of expansion and consolidation, leads to increased consciousness of an area’s prevailing social problems, as well as of the aspirations of its people to overcome them. As the number of those participating in community-building activities rises, so does the need for the Baha’i community to offer, as a unified body, its considered perspective on obstacles to social progress and on issues that weigh on the minds and spirits of those with whom it interacts. This has particular implications for Local Spiritual Assemblies. In places where the activities of the Plan have attained a degree of prevalence, the Assembly begins to be viewed more widely as a source of moral insight. Over time, efforts to contribute to societal discourses become more systematic, and Baha’is become adept at helping those around them to engage constructively in a discourse and find consensus. Opportunities are sought out to share the perspectives of the Faith with community leaders and figures in authority, and spaces are created in which representatives of various groups and interests can be assisted to reach a common point of view through consultation…“
It’s interesting to see how Local Spiritual Assemblies play an important role in cultivating collaborations with local leaders, figures of authority, and other community members. These relationships facilitate working shoulder to shoulder to address social challenges and build sustainable and just communities for everyone. I’m especially happy to notice that the Nine Year Plans ties together the work of expansion and consolidation with discourses of society and social action.
So how can an individual contribute to the outward-looking endeavor of participating in the discourses of society?
I think there is a wide range of things anyone can do in their everyday life. The first step is to become aware of current issues where you live and to follow pressing topics and discussions on different platforms. Then, it’s up to each person how they want to contribute.
For some, it might be being active on social media and contributing constructive and insightful content based on their understanding of Baha’i principles and Baha’i experiences. Others might want to organize book clubs, study groups, or informal get-togethers around meaningful topics. I remember one friend used to have regular cooking hangouts where they would cook together with friends and discuss life’s big questions. It worked as a great service project too. Another friend tries to find ways to facilitate discourses with members of the media.
Another friend organizes regular mini-seminars and invites colleagues to explore topics around sustainability, economy, and the purpose of work. I know many Baha’is who volunteer and collaborate with like-minded organizations and offer to speak at events. Some organize open prayer meetings on different topics at their local library or community center. Others start a band and release songs that address pressing matters. You could also state what you stand for in your clothing or jewelry–it might work as a conversation starter. In contributing to the discourses of society, the sky’s truly the limit.
One Common Framework
The beautiful thing about the Nine Year Plan is that there is a delightfully broad framework for contributing to social transformation. It consists of everything from the institute process to expansion and consolidation in our teaching work, social action, and contribution to prevalent discourses of society. And even within the action of contributing to discourses of society, there are myriad possibilities as to what can occur or how an individual can collaborate with their Local Spiritual Assembly or Office of External Affairs. I’d like to close with the below extract that show how everything Baha’is and their friends are doing are different parts of a unified and focused effort to welcome all to learn about the teachings of Baha’u’llah.
“As the intensity of community-building work in a cluster increases, the friends there inevitably become more conscious of social, economic, or cultural barriers that are impeding people’s spiritual and material progress. Children and junior youth lacking support in their education, pressures on girls resulting from traditional customs related to early marriage, families needing help with navigating unfamiliar systems of healthcare, a village struggling for want of some basic necessity, or long-standing prejudices arising from a legacy of hostility between different groups—when a Baha’i community’s efforts in the field of expansion and consolidation bring it into contact with these situations and many others, it will be drawn to respond to such realities as its circumstances permit. In reflecting on such situations it becomes evident that, within clusters, expansion and consolidation, social action, and contributing to prevalent discourses are dimensions of a single, unified, outward-looking endeavour carried out at the grassroots of society. All these efforts are pursued according to a common framework for action, and this above all else brings coherence to the overall pattern of activity.”
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