Volume 4 Number 1
Moment of Decision
01 January 1991

Decisions - love them or hate them, you often have to make them. And usually others feel the effects for good or ill. Warren Buckley, who graduated in political science in 1989, looks for pointers on how to face that
Rachel Charrett, now a civil servant, couldn't decide which of two jobs to take, in spite of hours of soul-searching. Finally, her father tossed a coin. Heads it was. The choice was made. But then he noticed the disappointment on her face. He gave the coin another flip and this time it was tails. She looked pleased. Her father had found a way of telling which job she really wanted.

We can side-step decisions, delay them or hedge them. But we can not go through life without developing, however unconsciously, some basis for making them. Sometimes dramatic circumstances play a part.

Take Raymond Bakke, a church minister in Chicago, for instance. On 16 November, 1965, soon after arriving in the city, he put a match to the pilot light of a faulty gas stove. The resulting explosion blew out 45 windows of the apartment building and sent a fireball through the kitchen and out 30 feet into the alley. Bakke caught fire but, diving into the bathroom, he managed to extinguish the flames.

He was rushed to Edgewater Hospital emergency room where two doctors worked on his arms, `cutting the skin which was hanging like moss on a tree, blackened and crinkly'. A woman refugee from China worked on his right arm, while a refugee from Cuba worked on his left. As he lay there Bakke decided that he would give his life to working with the refugee and immigrant people of the city.

He has done just that for 25 years. Today, a Senior Associate of International Urban Associates, he is a well-known authority on urban issues and the role of faith in urban life. The Leadership Foundations, which he initiated, involve prominent citizens in such issues in 25 of America's largest cities.

Most decisions are less explosive, as when we decide to use ozone-friendly sprays or convert our cars to lead-free fuel. Yet such seemingly small acts mount up and can affect us all.

The recent changes in eastern Europe would never have happened if thousands of people had not decided to risk everything and break with the pain and bloodshed of the old order.

Yet we associate these events with particular people - Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev. Destiny seems to put some people in a position where their choices affect the fate of thousands.

On strike
Whatever your view on Walesa's politics, it is hard to deny that history would have been different had he not made a lightning decision in August 1980. The strike in the Gdansk shipyard had almost ended with some locall agreements after three days. But then a fellow-worker reminded Walesa of the many small factories which had gone on strike in support of the shipyard workers but had won nothing. Walesa's decision to keep the Gdansk men out on strike led 17 days later to a better deal for all the striking workers. As he later explained, `Moral reasons impelled us towards solidarity with our neighbours and our co-workers in every line of endeavour.'

Nigel Norie, a freelance newspaper photographer, faced a choice in December 1982 when he got involved with Broadwater Farm. This inner-city estate in north London is home to 3,000 people of varied ethnic and social backgrounds. Norie first went there to photograph Dolly Kiffin. A controversial figure, she was building up a youth association to try and answer the problems of deprivation and unemployment so common on such estates.

On his second visit to the Farm, Norie was asked by Dolly Kiffin to set up a darkroom to teach young people how to take and develop pictures. He describes this as one of those `crunch times' in life when you have to decide which road to take from the roundabout. He gave up the route that might have led to success as a photographer and started to work on the Farm.

Norie, whose own childhood was difficult, saw this as a way of helping young people. His decision meant overcoming his fear of the unknown, for as a white man from a country background he found himself working with people of strikingly different cultures. Since then he has taken on many aspects of the association's work.

Norie describes Dolly Kiffin's initiative as `a very simple act from an ordinary grassroots black mother, who simply had a vision of the future, where she and her children would be treated with respect by all they met'. It began in 1981 when she got together a group of young people in her sitting room. They spent a day and a night writing down what they really wanted. This led them to set up the Broadwater Farm Youth Association which aimed to show `that ordinary grassroots people, working through positive and united community action, can have a direct influence upon the decisions that affect their lives and environment'. They faced initial apathy from the local people and constant opposition from the local council. But little by little they began to break down the barriers.

In 1985 Leonardo Leon, a Chilean political exile and researcher at King's College, London, moved into Broadwater Farm estate.

Four months later, police carried out a house raid, during which a black mother suffered a heart attack and later died. Despite the efforts of the youth association, this sparked off a riot that left a policeman dead and many people injured.

The next day Leon arrived at the community centre and asked Dolly Kiffin what he could do to help. She immediately put him to work. He soon faced a similar decision to Norie's - whether to pursue his academic career or to work on the estate. He chose the latter because he felt that caring for people was more important than sitting in a library. He is now project coordinator for the building of a new community centre. Sponsored by the council and private business as well as the youth association, the project will provide sport and leisure facilities for children, old people and others.

The association's motto, `success through caring' is borne out by those living on the estate. They have carried out many improvements. Buildings that were grey and dirty have been cleaned, repaired and painted. A peace mural with pictures of Martin Luther King, Bob Marley, John Lennon and Mahatma Gandhi dominates Broadwater Farm's centre. And a memorial garden keeps alive the memory of the mother and policeman who died and of those who have suffered on the estate.

There is still much to be done. But Norie, Leon and the many others involved in the association feel it is up to them to make a difference in their community.

Leonard Johnson comes from Brent, another inner-city area of London. His mother died when he was 18 and after being expelled from school he ended up `hanging loose on the streets'. He says, `I was into drugs, crime, apathy - everything we could say is the problem in our innercity areas. I was a product of that society.' He feels he was a victim of circumstances because no one gave him an alternative.

Johnson landed up in prison. Because he wanted to be seen as a radical, he began to read Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and others. A reference to King Nebuchadnezzar in one book led him to read the Bible in an effort to disprove it. However, `I found the book started to inspire me, to change my character and my way of thinking.' When he left prison he walked the streets saying to people, `You going to rob someone? What are you doing?' But telling them they could be different had no effect ' most seemed quite content as they were.

So Johnson started arranging meetings with young people involved with drugs and crime. He asked them what their abilities were. After this, they began to organize a Sunday school and classes in drama, maths and black history. They made money by buying and selling cheap clothes and watches. Johnson recalls, `Sometimes we had to pretend they were stolen in order to have credibility.' The young people gained a sense of purpose. `We felt somebody.'

Up and running
Eventually Johnson and others obtained a disused bus garage. They turned it into a community centre using local builders and the people of the community. `The media kicked it as some white elephant,' Johnson recalls. But they won the support of the community and today the centre is up and running. Further facilities are planned.

Howard Grace's background is quite different. After spending many years in voluntary work abroad, he returned to Britain. He wanted to help young people but felt out of touch. So he decided to train as a teacher. He now teaches maths and current affairs in the very school he attended as a boy in the pleasant southern English town of Newbury.

A few years ago, he was concerned that many school students, although well educated, were not stimulated to think much about their purpose in life. The thing to do, he decided, was to write a play. Set amidst life at school, Beyond Comprehension raises many issues including student-teacher relationships. Early readings sparked off lively discussions. He began to feel a sense of inner prompting that he should be ready to take the play to other schools where he might be invited.

The thought persisted, so in 1989 he resigned his job, rented out his house and moved with his family to a Moral ReArmament centre in the north of England. It could have been a financial disaster, but he felt that God was behind the idea. In the event, friends contributed money. Even more encouraging, a number of young people came to work with him. They took the play to 47 schools, where local students took some of the parts. After performances they held discussions with the students. One schoolgirl later told Grace that his group's visit had sparked a three-hour conversation with her boyfriend about their purpose in life.

Recalling this, Grace comments, `Most sixth-formers we never saw again after the lesson but we suspect that what that girl said is just the tip of the iceberg.' At the end of the year Grace was offered a job back at his old school, which he took up.

I met Grace when he was new to teaching, shortly before he wrote his play. I was a sixth-form student with an interest in current affairs. Because of our shared interests, we became friends and he invited me to a conference for young people. Some I met there were making choices on a basis of caring for others and for the world rather than on simple self-interest. This challenged me. When I went on to study politics I took with me an abiding question: `What difference can the individual make in society?'

None of us know where our choices will lead. We certainly have no guarantee that we will see the results we hope for. But the evidence suggests that more is achieved by choice than by chance and that putting self-interest aside can be remarkably productive.

Rachel Charrett likes playing Scrabble, and recalls times when she has put off playing her best letters, vainly hoping that next time she might pick up the one missing letter for a top-scoring word.

If you wait for everything to be perfect, she says, your best opportunity may pass you by. There comes a time in the life of every decision when it has to be made.


Dear friends,

I was a community workers some years ago in the Broadwater Farm estate.(London). I was invited by MRA to Caux around 1987. I lost contact with everybody after my return to Chile ( my Home Country). I will be very pleased if you can give me any direction to find Dolly Kiffin, leader of the BWF Youth Association. I would also like to be contacted with Mary Mann, London.

I am at present a Professor on Chilean History, with several books and articles publisehd both in Chile and overseas. I work at the Universidad de Chile. I am carrying out research on the Mapuche Indians of Chile, a group grossly discriminated by the Chilean State for several decades whom, at present, are developing their struggle for freedom and respect.

I wil appreciate your information,

yours sincerely,

Leonardo León
Leon Leonardo, 30 July 2007