There are so many schools of community support peddling their wares right now that it has to be confusing for the rest of the world to understand the bickering and factionalism which bedevils the scene. If I take as my starting point that the aim of any community supporter has to be the development of independent communities who are organised and effective on their own issues, who freely link with each other and who are inclusive in their behaviour, practicing equalities and seeking social justice for all – what’s the way forward for community activists ?

For years I’ve been battling for CD to be understood by the authorities, and practiced by caring communities. Since the Coalition Government favoured Community Organising and social entrepreneurship over community development, the temptation to rage against the oncoming sea has given me the headache of Cnut.

So I’m going to try to explore the possibility of transcending these battles, in the interests of communities.

One response could be : Sod the lot. Go for what the manuals used to call “Radical Non-Intervention” – ie the community works it all out without any input/interference from anyone else. That’s very attractive to many activists. No more "meddlers". But it leaves a coach and horses size gap for inequality and dominant voices to prevail, and the winners in communities may not even notice or care about the losers. It’s nature’s way (or survival of the most powerful)

What else is out there? One emerging movement calls itself Asset Based Community Development, to differentiate itself from other Community Developments by emphasising the starting point lies in focussing on the strengths and potential of communities. The advantage of this blue sky approach is that it focuses on positivity and promotes self-belief in communities. Whereever pessimism and fatalism blocks communities from feeling they can take the reins for themselves, this approach has loads to offer.

It also has a downside; by distancing itself from other CD (labelling it “problem-orientated” and “negative”), it risks overlooking the very real problems which exist within communities; for example, the prejudices and antagonisms which divide some communities and make life hell for excluded people. In these circumstances, focussing on strengths alone may abandon equalities; while those who sit on top of the power cloud bask in the blue skies of hope, those beneath the cloud are left soaked without an umbrella as society pisses down on them.

Let’s look at Community Organising (again). I think that wherever powerful interests are  oppressing grassroots, or where activism is dormant, Community Organising’s focus on power and mass action on local issues may just work wonders in getting bums off settees and creating an independent movement for taking on the powers-that-be through common cause.

But Community Organising doesn’t address inequalities within and between communities. It is, as currently formulated, blinkered by its focus on external power  without taking the same degree of concern for internal power relationships in communities. And so the social justice is partial.

 

Community Engagement has lots to offer wherever communities are wanting to shape how their local services can better meet their actual needs rather than the interests of professionals. Responsive services means that communities don’t have to assume the challenges of supporting the huge populations we live in nowadays; a bedrock of welfare services gives us all freedom from excessive burdens if they are provided in tune with communities needs and cultures. A big If. But the example of Changes’ work on Voice and Echo shows how it might be realised.

But on its own, Community Engagement isn’t enough; it often sits too snugly under the armpits of the powers that be, wide open to managerialist target-setting and manipulation wherever strong communities cannot hold the service providers to account or challenge fake examples of consultation.

And along trots Community Development.... Radical Community Development offers a long-term, value-based approach to creating a world rooted in social justice and increasing equalities. It has helped to create strong, independent communities who include all parts of their communities in the search for a small and beautiful world of freely-networking people.

But CD has been battered and bruised by the past struggles (often with its own employers in the local state) or hobbled by the present cuts. It lacks the long-term support and resources to enable it to really underpin the development of socially just and more equal communities. The dream lives on but the reality is out of reach right now.

Now we see the re-emergence of  protest communities, such as Occupy Wall Street. The plusses of this new energised movement include showing us all the way to fight for social justice and challenge inequalities, as well as forging new forms of governance (decision-making in assemblies, seeking non-hierarchical ways of working in co-operation) and intelligent use of the new technologies for communication. This Direct Action approach gives us an alternative to governance  driven by managerialism, funders demands and  tradition.

But it may turn out to have its own weaknesses – a transcience or elitism which passes over the heads of most of the 99% it seeks to inspire into consciousness and action.

So l ask again: Is it one approach or another? Or can we find a mix of approaches to meet the different needs in each situation? Can we let go of factionalism and occupational self-interest to explore the value of each approach,  and understand how other approaches might combine in any given situation to address the downside of any single approach? I’m forever CD, because I believe that communities who aren’t rooted in social justice and equalities are potential or actual nightmares. But I think we need to approach each other with open hands.  What do you reckon?

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Replies to This Discussion

Debates about the strengths and weaknesses of CO, CD, ABCD and the other 57 varieties are disheartening for members of the public trying to improve life in their neighbourhoods. The sense of hopelessness that the struggle with local authority can bring to people is not helped by those who aim to support them bickering among themselves about how to help best. It really would be helpful if the different 'community engagement' factions got their heads together and collectively addressed the real problem - that communities have a hell of a time dealing with their Local Authorities. The nub of the problem is that communities groups operate in a different way to local governments, agencies and infrastructure organisations of all types. The problems start from there.  Eileen Conn has written the first serious paper I've seen on that aspect, which I'm sure she will post here soon. You are dead right in saying that 'communities who aren’t rooted in social justice and equalities are potential or actual nightmares'. A significant part of that inequality is manifested when community groups are expected to behave in a manner totally alien to them by those who should know better.

Thanks Joe for mentioning my paper that addresses a part of these issues. The part that is about organisational dynamics. This is just a piece or few pieces of the overall jigsaw that Nick's post is opening up. But in my experience as a policy maker and a community activist, the issues I am aiming to illuminate in my paper about organisational dynamics are mostly neglected or not even seen, and so always go on in darkness tripping things up and creating cul de sacs and blind spots and dead ends and brick walls that take people by surprise and divert or subvert or stop otherwise good work. This good work could be going on under any one of the phrases Nick rightly identifes in his post as marking out what those using them think needs to be marked out for some reason or another.

I am going to post my paper soon on NatCAN, as I’d like some of us who are interested, in the angles covered in the paper, to discuss the issues directly as a topic itself. But in the meantime I will post here the link - http://www.socialreporters.net/?p=455 -  to the short video David Wilcox social reporter did of me talking about part of the underlying idea. If people want to delve further right now there is more explanation in David’s helpful blog with key links.

I will come back soon to the topic of my theory and model, and what it is all about, as a topic for discussion itself. In the meantime I agree with the several points Nick has made in his introduction about some of the different ideas pushing each other around.

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