Go to the people.
Live with the people.
Learn from the people.
Plan with the people.
Work with the people.
Start with what they know.
Build on what they have.
Teach by showing, learn by doing.
Not a showcase, but a pattern.
Not piecemeal, but integrated.
Not odds and ends, but a system.
Not to conform, but to transform.
Not relief, but release.
Poem by Jimmy Yen
Jimmy Yen is credited with being the first to scientifically understand and document the key components of community-based development and change. The lessons and principles he learned during the 1930s in Ding Xian, China have helped transform the lives of people in communities all over the world.
Jimmy Yen grew up in Szechuan Province attending a China Inland Mission school and later graduated from Yale University in 1918. Immediately after graduating, he volunteered with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to work among a group of 5,000 Chinese laborers in northern France. He vowed that he would devote his life to the "release of the pent-up, God-given powers in the people…. When we have a new heart, we become new people, and then we have a new society, then there is a new nation."
His experiences in France shaped the rest of his life, for it was there, moved by a desire to improve the lives of his fellow countrymen who could not read, that he began teaching those Chinese laborers how to read and write. He wrote the first Chinese books for simple literacy and decided to dedicate the rest of his life to the education of development of his fellow Chinese.
He returned to China after World War I, and, in 1923, began the first literacy campaign in Hunan Province, supported by the YMCA. Yen, and his colleagues pioneered the use of a simplified Chinese script so that illiterate rural peasants would have less difficulty learning to read and write.
In 1926 Yen and some colleagues started the Ding Xian Experiment for Rural Reconstruction, which provided people living in rural areas practical tools for improving their lives. This rural reconstruction movement evolved and matured rapidly into four topic areas taught by local "farmer scholars." Literacy, community organization, livelihood (to improve agriculture and income), and health and family planning were the four components of the program. The farmer scholar was a person chosen by the local community who was then trained by a small team of professionals in each topic area. This person’s role then was to test the methods and ideas he had learned from the experts, to adapt them as needed, and to work with local villages to implement and modify the ideas based on what would work in each village.
The Ding Xian experiment and the resulting four-fold program is considered the first example of evidence-based community development. They were simple, low-cost, and local methods yet they revolutionized education and health throughout rural China. In 1951, Yen established the International Mass Education Movement for application to other developing countries. The principles and lessons learned in those early days still apply today and can be seen in community-based projects around the world.
In 1943, Jimmy Yen, along with Albert Einstein, Orville Wright, Henry Ford, and six others, was honored at Carnegie Hall in New York City with the Copernican Citation as one of the ten outstanding "Modern Revolutionaries" of the world. He also, in 1983, received the Eisenhower Medallion of the People-to-People Foundation for his "exceptional" contribution to world peace and understanding.
Jimmy Yen died on January 17, 1990 in New York City. The principles and lessons learned by Yen, and still relevant today, are summarized in a poem he wrote, which is where this post began.
"Just and Lasting Change" by Daniel Taylor-Ide and Carl E. Taylor
The International Institute of Rural Reconstruction
Christianity Today magazine
The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation