Inside suite 214, a small unassuming office in a Dupont Circle high-rise are two middle-aged, mild-mannered Roman Catholic nuns quietly going about their business as director and assistant director of the Foundation for Community Creativity. It is a program with revolutionary potential, although they wouldn't put it quite that way.
"We're not a program, really, but a process," explains Sister Barbara Valuckas, the director of the nonprofit nonsectarian foundation described in its literature as dedicated to social, religious and educational development.
As for the word revolutionary, "pleas don't say that," she pleads.
It is difficult to find a more appropriate word to describe what these two former elementary school teachers are about, which is ultimately, they hope, revitalizing neighborhoods by revitalizing the people in them. At present, with the assistance of a small staff of field workers and interns, Sister Barbara and her assistant, Sister Aneta Gics, are working with four Roman Catholic parishes, two in New York City and two in Northeast Washington: St. Benedict the Moor and St. Francis deSales. They have also been invited by the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington to work with residents of the Cameron Valley housing project, a low-cost housing facility for the poor in Alexandria.
Simply put, what they do is listen. They call it "mirroring."
"We listen to what an individual or group of individuals are saying and then reflect back to them what they have said," says Sister Barbara. "Often it is a revelation to them."
Sister Barbara's work cimbines her expertise in instructional technology (she has a doctrate from Syracuse University), program planning and management with her Christian philosophy. "By opening the lines of communication a sense of community can be achieved, she says.
The foundation (FCC) most often assists "groups or organizations who are experiencing a crisis in grassroots leadership. We help groups such as parish councils to develop self-understanding by accepting themselves as they are. By reflecting on the significance of their daily actions, groups can perceive new options, groups can perceive new options and new directions in which to channel their energies."
The FCC staff does not present solutions to the problems nor interject itself into the dynamics of the group. It merely listens and provides a written account to the group of what was said. Follow-up reports are provided upon request, with staff recommendations and observations.
One parish the FCC has been working with is St. Benedict the Moor at 320 21st St. NE, a middle-class black parish on the edge of the area heavily damaged by the 1968 riots. "It is a parish with a painful history and one which has experienced large doses of paternalism from the diocese in the past," she explains.
The pastor, the Rev. William Norvel, asked the FCC in April 1978 to help develop black leadership in the parish.
"I wanted the parish council members to see themselves in operation and to see how they were continually referring their probems back to me," Norvel said.
"Sister Barbara has enabled them to see their strong points and talents," he continues. "This has been a fantastic revelation to them. The parish council is now in the process of establishing the first parish newsletter."
"The whole process may take two to three years in an individual parish," says Sister Barbara.
At St. Francis de Sales parish "we have reache dthe point where we are going out and interviewing individual members of the parish to contact the next neighboring church regardless of denomination and involve them in the process too.
"We are looking for community," Sister Barbara explains. "The whole new image of the Catholic Church since Vatican II is one of a community. It is no longer a pyramid structure, authoritarian in nature."
Not all FCC efforts are welcome. "We had one parish in New York where half of the staff didn't like what we were doing so we have decided to let it rest for awhile.
"The staff had serious communication problems and what was being mirrored back was too painful for them to accept. It became clear to us that the priests were making their decisions in private and that the staff meetings were merely show."
The FCC operates on a shoe-string budget relying on foundation grants and fund-raising to support its efforts. "We do charge $5 an hour for our work but it doesn't cover costs," says Sister Barbara. She compares this with the $100 a day fee management consultants and program evaluators in the business world charge for a similar service.
Estabished here in 1970, the foundation is an outgrowth of a Brazilian organization, FASE, founded in 1961 by the Rev. Edmund Leising, a Catholic priest. The mirroring technique is an approach developed by Leising in his 27 years of community development work with Brazilian peasants. By emphasizing education and continual reevaluation, Leising has tried to help the poor understand and help themselves.
"Our program is a process, often a very long one and this is a new approach for this country which is very result oriented," Sister Barbara says.
"We have taken the lessons Latin America has given us, which is that concrete results are not everything. The more important question to be asked is 'what did you learn.'"