Nurture Development

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) come to life

Don’t follow the yellow brick road!

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Yellow brick roadAs a youngster growing up in rural Ireland, when we weren’t playing cards or getting up to mischief – at the best of times – we had two TV channels by way of in-house entertainment. As a consequence by age seven, I’d grown very familiar with a number of the Hollywood childhood fantasy classics. My favourite remains the 1939 version of the Wizard of Oz directed by Victor Fleming. Nearing the end of that movie after Dorothy gathered together all the ‘at risk’, ‘hard to reach’, ‘marginalised’ folk in need of ‘fixing’, (in the guise of a Scarecrow, a Tin man and a Cowardly Lion), she arrived at the Emerald City to seek the wise counsel of the Wizard of Oz (in other words to get him to fix her broken friends and sort out a lift back to Kansas).

But, in spite of all the dangers they had encountered on their perilous journey to the Emerald city, via the ‘yellow-brick road’, they were to discover to their great disappointment, that the Wizard was not the one with the power. If like me you’ve watched the movie more than once, you’ll remember the gripping scene near the end where Toto the dog pulls back a curtain, revealing the Wizard to be an ordinary man operating a console of wheels and levers while speaking into a microphone.

Dorothy, furious and embarrassed, having promised all her ‘clients’ the solution to all their problems, stepped forward and leveled the accusation: “You’re a bad man!” His response was to say: “No I’m not a bad man. I’m just not a very good Wizard”. He then explains that Dorothy’s companions already have what they had been seeking, but bestows upon them tokens of esteem in recognition of their respective virtues.

I share this piece of movie fantasy with you, primarily because in my view it offers up a useful way to deconstruct our current reality in the ‘helping world’. We are apparently living through a ‘period of austerity’, and so our desire to be helpful is being thwarted in all sorts of ways. Increasingly I hear people say almost in a whisper ‘maybe this austerity is no bad thing, it could well be an opportunity’, they tend to look over their shoulders before they say this, as if to check to see if the thought police are waiting to pounce.

They are not alluding to the widespread removal of funding and salami slicing of services. But there is no easy way to say what they want to say, without being misunderstood. Using the Wizard of Oz as an inroad here’s what I think they are trying to communicate: ‘the current, apparent lack of money/funding gives professionals the opportunity to stop having to pretending to be wizards, and draws citizens down another path, away from the yellow brick road and the emerald city’.

Asset Based Community Development doesn’t have a manifesto for change per se, but it does have a dream that everyone, without exception, can say of their place:

  • The necessities are here, they are inexpensive and they’re close at hand
  • Services are available but not overpowering
  • You can contribute and participate, and truly make a difference around here and beyond
  • You can feel connected to a community’s history, heritage and culture
  • There are social spaces and safe solitary places that connect us to nature, ourselves and each other
  • Here you can feel accepted, people have empathy
  • Here people work for social justice and inclusion
  • Here the sense of community is strong and we are supported by our state institutions to keep it so
  • Here everyone can find the resources to have enough to live a good life
  • Here our views and actions have an impact beyond our community

These are not excessive demands, nor can they be considered as luxuries to be held back for better economic times, in fact, they are necessary building blocks for nurturing health and wellbeing, for cultivating civil society and for building vibrant local and national economies. The absence of them can not be blamed on Austerity.

One of the greatest extinguishers of this dream is not the lack of money, but the lack of vision and leadership, it reveals itself in the narrative that says to the Tin-man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion in us all ‘you are inadequate, needy, problematic or broken. We will fix you. We will analyze the half empty part of you, and we will fill you with our solutions- just follow the yellow brick road, the Wizard will sort you out’.

As already noted in my previous post, funding initiatives that aim to fix people by providing services based on addressing deficiencies or doing for people what they are best placed to do for themselves, do not make people powerful, but instead create dependency on outside wizards. Sometimes of course outside change agents or other external supports are required, but not nearly as much as they are provided, and when they are its their humanity that needed not their pretensions.

The alternative is asset based community development: people powered communities with people powered families and individuals who take up the challenge of supporting each other to do the things that only they can, to work with outside agencies to co-produce what only they can produce with help, and to hold government to account to provide the things that are necessary for a good life, but that are not within their collective power, and which they cannot co-produce even with outside support.

We are told these days that we must learn how to do ‘more with less’, which is to say ‘follow the yellow brick road, but bring your own sandwiches’. We need a new narrative that says lets do ‘more with more’: more passion, more humility, more listening, and more reciprocity. To get there we have to be prepared to fail at being wizards, and to not follow the yellow brick road. Or framed more positively we need to get better at being human together, and to borrow from the Mondragon Cooperative motto, that means we must ‘make the path by walking it’.

Cormac Russell

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Author: nurturedevelopment

Nurture Development was established by Cormac Russell in 1996 and since then, we have been the leading Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) research, development and training organisation in Europe. We are one of eleven strategic partners of the ABCD Institute, and the lead partner in Europe. We have worked as ABCD social explorers, trainers, mentors, facilitators, researchers and consultants with change partners and disruptive innovators around the world. These include Communities, Charities, NGOs/NPOs, Faith-based organisations, Think tanks; local and national Governments in over 30 countries. Our ambition is to support the proliferation of inclusive, bottom up, community driven change. We aim to achieve this by supporting local communities and supportive mediating/civic organisations to create the conditions where any neighbourhood can identify, connect and mobilise its assets to the benefit of the whole community.

7 thoughts on “Don’t follow the yellow brick road!

  1. Brilliant cormac, can’t wait to meet you in December when you are in County Durham

  2. Hi Cormac
    I like your use of the Wizard of Oz story to get across some of the issues people providing services face, and to demonstrate that people have strengths and passions that they and others might not see or value. I was also reminded of this TED Talk by Colin Stokes http://www.ted.com/talks/colin_stokes_how_movies_teach_manhood.html in which he highlights aspects of leadership and collaboration in the Wizard of Oz story and how they are different to messages in other films. I wonder if this suggests ways that Dorothy’s strengths might be used if there was an alternative to the wizard and just one road (or way of doing things).

    • Thanks Lorna,

      Great question. I will be writing about some of the ways Dorothy can help in a way that doesn’t harm autonomy, lead to dependency or aggregate people together by pathology. But as a holding response she could have asked where these guys originally came from and go back there, undertaking the harder work of community building.

      BW Cormac

      • The frustrating thing is that not many officers are trained, supported or expected to work with communities in any sort of holistic way. If Dorothy was a social services officer she’d probably be sacked if she tried to do community building. This is really making me think about how the ways organisations are structured and do their work actually results in decreasing wellbeing and resilience. A huge problem.

  3. Amazing. As usual. Brightened up a grey day in London with your emerald advice.

    • Thanks Farah for your generous feedback. I’m struck by how often in literature and story telling generally we’re remind of the harm that helping can cause if it is not truly reciprocal.

      BW Cormac

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