As 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’.