Nurture Development

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) come to life


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When we reject the single story we regain a kind of paradise: Why Jubilant Stories matter!

This blog reflects on the dangers of becoming trapped in the single story. This is a ubiquitous risk. From getting trapped in our personal history, to the dangers inherent in how media shape messages for our consumption, we all need the inoculation that a multiplicity of diverse and contradictory stories bring.

“Show a people as only one thing, over and over again and they become that one thing.”

These are the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist who has dedicated herself to writing about the many stories of her life; her country and her continent. Her newest book, The Thing Around Your Neck, is a brilliant collection of stories about Nigerians struggling to cope within a corrupted context in their home country, and about the Nigerian immigrant experience.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Adichie in her TED talk, which you can listen to here, remarks that:

“At about the age of seven … I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: all my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather: ‘how lovely it was that the sun had come out’. This despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria; we didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.”

In much the same way, when it comes to the stories of disability and mental health challenges or recovery from addiction or for people in (or with experience of) prison, there is a lot of stereotyping. A single story dominates: one of deficit and dependency on professional services.

When we take care to ask people what a good life might look like and invite them to share their stories of how their good life has previously manifested in their lives, a fuller truth is revealed. None of them are single stories, none of them stereotype, or diagnose, or fix. They are in sum, the human story, we understand them because of our shared humanity….

Adichie rightly points out that:

“How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told — are really dependent on power.”

To illustrate this point further she notes:

“If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”

Similarly when we only hear, record, and tell the single story of people living with disability or mental health challenges for example, and we talk only about need for services and peoples deficits, we take power and dignity away from the people we serve and or love, and we also diminish ourselves. This is exactly what we are working with the Barnwood Trust to mitigate.

Jubilant Stories like this one matter:

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

These stories have tremendous power, in that they testify to the fact that hospitality does indeed exist throughout the county. But they also lay down a challenge to us, to create even greater hospitality, and to set our face against exclusion. They invite us to step over our stereotypes and societal imposed thresholds, to expand our repertoire of stories by coming closer to people with disabilities and mental health challenges or with experiences of addiction or prison. And to listen more carefully and invite more heartily their stories, gifts and dreams into our lives. When we become a character in their Jubilant Story, and they in ours, we will discover the real meaning of community and be all the better for it.

Cormac Russell

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It takes a village to co-create and sustain mental health

People linkedIn last year’s May edition of the New Internationalist, Dinyar Godrej’s article A healthy mind in a healthy society reminds us that good mental health is rooted in the community and is not the unilateral responsibility of the individual. In other words people with mental health challenges are not to blame, nor, alone, are the professional systems that endeavour to care for them. The determinants of mental health are three-fold and interrelated:

(i) biological factors, including genetic makeup,

(ii) life circumstances/events of the person living with mental health challenges and,

(iii) the impacts of the wider political, social, economic and environmental spheres (e.g. consumerism, lead-poisoning, inhumane policies etc).

Godrej rightly argues that our focus has been largely on the first two determinants, and even then we tend to be overly diagnostic and consequently far too prone to medicalise issues.

The ratio of investment in ‘talking cures’ as against chemical ones reveals a trend towards viewing people with mental health issues as in need of chemical intervention and consequently towards the exponential growth of prescription drugs and new diagnostic labels. Currently it is estimated that one in ten adults in the US are on anti-depressants and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which was published in May 2013, proposed a massive expansion of labels around what is currently considered to be within the domain of mental illness.

We are now only months away from seeing teenage rebellion being formally written into the diagnostic annals as a mental illness. This clearly is not good medicine. These are a very complex set of issues that have more to do with market forces; the imbalance of power across society, and the need to properly regulate Big Pharma, than patient care and general mental health. Hence the central point of this blog is made best in the words of Andy Young (NursingTimes.net, 18 January 2010):

‘Good mental health is rooted in social cohesion, not in the individual.’

The challenge for us all is to try to navigate a very narrow strait between ‘normalisation’, which tries to deny the existence of the issue in the first place, and the preponderance towards diagnostic labels and professionalised interventions which all too often distance people with mental health challenges from their families, friends, communities and the economy, and often leave those outside the system, and/or the ‘illness’ feeling surplus to requirement.

This challenge is further compounded by the fact that while it is generally accepted that we all need community connections to stay well and to recover, when we become unwell, the reality for most is one of living in places where most keep themselves to themselves, do not interfere in each other’s business and just ‘get on with life’. In short our communities have become atomised places, where people are more likely to be watching an episode of ‘Friends’, than they are to be making friends with a new neighbour. In line with these trends we are growing ever more incompetent in the function of sustaining our mental health.

If we all accept that community cohesion matters for mental health, and indeed we can be more confident than ever in that assertion thanks to the findings of the Marmot report, the question then must shift from ‘how do we deal with an individual with mental health challenges?’ to ‘how can we support somebody with mental health challenges by growing our shared community together with them, so that we can all contribute to each other’s mental health?’ Another question for professionals and policy makers falls out of this one: ‘how can we as policy makers and practitioners ensure that we invest in supporting communities to become more competent in creating a place where people with mental health issues can thrive, and be there as back up when specialised supports are required?’

Mental health is not a product of pharmacology or a service that can be singularly provided by an institution: it is a condition that is more determined by our community assets than our medication or access to professional interventions more generally. There are functions that only people living in families and communities can perform to promote mental health and wellbeing, and if they do not do those things; they will not get done, since, there simply is no substitute for genuine citizen-led community care (not to be confused with volunteer mentoring schemes).

This simple fact is a challenge to us all both professionally and civically. It also presents us with a powerful new manifesto for coming alongside people with mental health issues and their communities and facilitating the bridge building between them. That manifesto really is about realising there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. This is about us!

We are all on a continuum of mental health.

Cormac Russell

P.S. Checkout ‘A Glass Half Full – A new approach to Mental Health’ on 7 Waves Community Radio, TODAY, Monday 14th October 7.00pm – 8.00pm. Join the discussion with Chris Shaw.


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My Extraordinary Job

Recently over coffee, a mental health professional from one of the communities I am mentoring said: “I so wish I could do community building all the time, but I can’t because my ordinary job gets in the way.” She went on to say “You know I call community building my ‘extraordinary job’.”

In other words, she was saying ‘where I work, building reciprocal relationships with and between people is considered extra-ordinary’.

It’s an interesting word, extraordinary; to take the literal meaning it refers to that which is outside of the ordinary. There’s truth in them there words. The ordinary job for this professional, is not about building community, it’s about service provision to clients; in essence it’s a business model based on building customer base.

So what exactly does this extraordinary job look like? What is the anatomy of a community builder?

(If you’re reading this from your mobile or other device, then you may not be able to view the Prezi below, so check this attached PDF version.)

In a nutshell, Asset Based Community Builders in particular accept the world as it is, not as it should be. So they can help build the world as it should be, not as it is.

What would need to happen for this to become the new ordinary: for professionals, to view their roles through the lens of community building? And for us to find the resources to have a dedicated Community Builder in every neighbourhood?

When I ask front line staff these questions, they say if it was up to them they’d work this way in a heartbeat, and many who were around in the ’80s say that’s exactly the way things got done, in youth work, social work, public health and policing. Then they shake their head and say: ‘but senior management would never support it, we’ve all become too target driven.’

When I ask senior managers they say: ‘if it was up to us, we’d do it in a heartbeat, but frontline workers would never go for it, the sector has become professionalised and segmented into specialisms, they’d see it as a demotion.’

When I get both parties in the same room and ask them to tell each other what they told me, they look surprised to hear of the others willingness, dare I say hunger, to be extraordinary; they hug each other like long lost friends, and share a brief moment of heady intoxication at the prospect of doing something extraordinary together. Then reality kicks in and someone pipes up: ‘It’ll never happen, middle-management would never allow it’. And everyone goes back to the day job, the familiar, the normal…the ordinary…

Extraordinary isn’t it? No it’s not, its mediocrity!

In his Nobel lecture in 1995, Seamus Heaney offered us a way to be extraordinary when he advised:

‘Walk on air against your better judgement’

Cormac Russell