I train and mentor Community Builders. They go out and find Connectors. Connectors ask people what they care about. People get themselves organised and change lives for the better. Straight forward enough.
Enter the corporate, governmental, professional and academic institutions. They are also there to help, they say, “pay us and we will use our products, programmes, skills and knowledge and fix people.”
Put these two elements together and you have the ideal conditions for a gestalt – a system where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Much more is made possible: a civil society, transformed neighbourhoods, well supported local public services and even a participatory democracy.
First however, in order for this to happen, everyone involved has to answer, with hand on heart, three simple questions:
- How can what we do enhance what you do?
- Are we prepared to take risks and try something new?
- Do we stand on common ground?
The Nurture Development approach to Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) therefore includes the convening of a ‘Community of Practice’ (CoP), on all our learning sites. These are not formal meetings but safe places where professionals, business people, community leaders and politicians can come together to support and challenge each other.
I always find these sessions fascinating and really inspiring. They confirm my long held belief that when you get almost any group of people together in a room, and they break bread (we usually have lunch together), to exchange stories of times when people have come together to make life better for others, then a new found willingness to co-operate will, more often than not, naturally emerge.
When professional personas and personal agendas are put aside for a while and people focus on what is strong in their community, then they will unconsciously slip into relating to one another with compassion and treating each other more as equals. These are the ideal conditions for some powerful collective problem solving.
At one recent CoP session Pauline told us of the difficulty she was having with her plans to grow vegetables for her family and neighbours. They lived in a materially impoverished block of flats in south London and had fortuitously been offered a small piece of land by the council. She had worked hard to gather a group of residents around her, but, unfortunately a local voluntary organisation based in the building adjacent to the land had objected to the plot being used as an allotment. Pauline is a working mum with two young children and she did her best. She needed to establish the terms under which the land had been gifted to the local community. She visited the council offices but came away confused, with a name and telephone number on a post-it. Life intervened and she gave up.
When a Community Builder heard what had happened she invited her to a CoP session. Pauline treated us all to an animated and passionate talk about her hopes for the land. A council officer at the session immediately undertook to establish the ownership and conditions of the “gift” of the land. Someone else, who was coincidentally on the management board of the voluntary organisation concerned, agreed to intervene directly on Pauline’s behalf. Someone else, running an inter-generational project, offered her a free training programme for her and the other residents on growing vegetables. Then someone from an ABCD youth project, where young people were learning to cook healthy meals, offered to buy any excess produce. There were several more words of encouragement and offers of help.
Pauline was also invited by the Community Builder to apply for matching funding, a small amount of seed money, to supply the group with the tools and implements they would need to tend the allotment.
This could be seen as an example of networking, of the importance in life of who you know, but, I contend, that it was the way that everyone identified with Pauline’s very human story that moved people to reciprocate and make their offers, one after the other, so swiftly, so generously and so genuinely.
At another CoP session Carol, the mother of a young man who had been to prison, gave an equally moving presentation on the emotional impact of ‘doing the time with your child’. She spoke of the isolation, the shame and the stigmatisation. She had sometimes gone for months without any contact with her son. The procedures at the various prisons as he was moved about the country were still a complete mystery to her. She hadn’t known where to go for support or sympathetic guidance.
She was now determined to set up an ABCD project to bring together mothers of teenagers who were experiencing similar difficulties. She had recognised that she could contribute to the well-being of many others like her. She now had lots of newly learned skills and information to share and asked for our help in setting up a focus group for mothers facing the same sort of problems she had had in her relationship with her teenage son.
Carol planned to run a one day a week free community drop in service. She memorably described her purpose as, ‘getting back to the basics, local people connecting and communicating’. We discussed the importance of adults in the community intervening on behalf of children and the price we pay today for not doing so. It soon became very clear to everyone that the problems faced by this isolated lone parent extended across all socio–economic groupings. There were plenty of offers of help and useful new connections made and the session ended with an impromptu introduction to the techniques of ‘non-violent communication.’
At another CoP session I attended recently, the Community Builders were keen to understand why there were so many unused premises and pieces of land in their local neighbourhoods. A key part of ABCD practice is unearthing hidden treasures that can be used by local people to make life better for all. However, when it came to land and premises they had found it impossible to find out who owned the land or any information regarding its availability.
A council employee explained the various schemes for community use of land and buildings but it was clear that the current system was not geared up yet to respond to requests for short term ‘pop up’ venues at peppercorn rents. It seemed unlikely, therefore, that any of the ABCD projects underway, or those soon to start, would be able to find any suitable short term venues.
The ensuing discussions then revealed there was a new local ‘volunteering’ shop opening in the main shopping precinct. Within five minutes we found out that the new shop’s manager was in the building and would be happy to show us around. Seizing the moment, we all walked to the premises and the Community Builders and local people involved with the ABCD project introduced themselves and their projects. An immediate synergy was established and the aspirations of the local people and the staff at the shop were seen as a perfect match. This personal contact and mutual respect paid dividends.
We followed up this visit with more formal negotiations and it has now been agreed that the local people can have a ‘shop window’ for their projects in the new premises and free use of the meeting room in the basement.
The fluidity and self-directed nature of a Community of Practice may well incline some towards closing their minds to the possibility of productive outcomes. These examples show that the complete opposite is true.
In Timebanking we have a saying,
“We have what we need if we use what we have.”
Asset Based Community Development shows us that the power of what we have grows when we act intentionally and collectively to make connections and form new relationships among and between what we have.