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Where The Rivers Meet The Sky:
A Collaborative Approach
to Participatory Development


William Foote Whyte PhD
Former President, Society for Applied Anthropology
and the American Sociological Association


In Where The Rivers Meet The Sky, we see in action an outstanding example of what Donald A. Schon calls “the reflective practitioner." Timothy Kennedy not only takes action – in fact this book is a personal adventure story in which the actor is constantly taking action, but at the same time reflecting on what works at what does not work. He learns from his own mistakes and from those others he observes in the Native Alaskan communities and in the white man’s bureaucracies of the various community development agencies.

He began with no training to fit him for this assignment. In fact, when he and his wife signed up for two years as VISTA Volunteers, he thought they were to be sent to a Caribbean Island. When they were dispatched to Native communities in Alaska, he had to learn about Native Alaskan culture and social structure from observing and living with the Native Alaskans.

He also had to learn about the culture and social structure of the white community development agencies from trying to work with and through them. In the process, he also learned how the whites misunderstood the Native Alaskan culture and how these distortions interfered with their professed objectives of creating participatory development processes in their communities.

Through these experiences, he came to focus on the problem of communication between the white bureaucrats and the Native Alaskans villagers. As he became familiar with the developing technologies of filming and videotaping, he first thought that he might help bridge the gap between whites and Native Alaskans through doing documentary films himself. As he realized that the documentaries distorted reality rather than illuminating it, he abandoned them to search for a way in which the Native Alaskans could learn to use the technologies themselves for their own purposes.

For this to happen, Kennedy had to develop new roles for himself and for the villagers who were working with him. This meant working first with individuals and developing ways in which individual views could be expressed and modified or expanded by the fellow members of their community. This meant producing the Native Alaskans’ own documentary and getting it endorsed by the villagers themselves.

The next step was to show the film to an official of the government agency concerned with the problems presented in the Native Alaskans’ film. Before it was shown back to the community of origin, Kennedy arranged to give the official the same rights to review and modify his statements as the Native Alaskans had had. These efforts were designed to avoid a misunderstanding and also to produce a productive exchange of views between the two cultures.

The SKYRIVER process was also used to link the previously physically and socially distant villages. When the Emmonak films were shown to other Native Alaskan villages, they recognized for the first time that they were facing the same or similar problems. This led their leaders to get together in regional meetings. White bureaucrats participated in those meetings, thus bringing together local village leaders with the regional heads of government bureaus. The evolving and expanding process reshaped the political relations among the no-longer isolated villages, and the Native Alaskans' relations with the white authorities.

Where the Rivers Meet The Sky tells the story in full detail so that others can understand the SKYRIVER process and make applicable to communities elsewhere.

Kennedy writes in non-technical language. He relates the work processes to the attitudes of the community development worker. He shows how pity, sympathy, or empathy toward the community are acted out in the behavior of the change agent and on how one can expect different responses from the people he or she is trying to assist.

This book should be essential reading for all those involved in community development work. It should be even more useful to enterprising people in the minority community, who want to take over the processes of their community development in their own way.

Kennedy shows in his own behaviour a characteristic he has not commented on: commitment. The results he achieved could not have been produced in a short time. He had to go through a process of trying different approaches before he and his Native Alaskan collaborators developed what we now know as the SKYRIVER process.

William F. Whyte
April 2000

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