Community engagement in the social eco-system dance is an absolutely fantastic paper written by activist and NatCAN member Eileen Conn. I first read this paper about 5 weeks ago and I've been reflecting on it and talking about it a lot.

The page on the Third Sector Research Council's website which introduces the paper explains that Eileen

has had a long-term interest in the dynamics of communities and the emergence of community organisations which interact with the structures of public agencies and commercial companies. She has found that complexity theory provides a rewarding approach to understanding these complex social systems. 

And that in this paper she:

argues that spaces where the more organic eco-systems of the community world interact with the ordered world of power and authority create opportunities which are mostly missed. This unrealised potential may offer a way forward in the current policy climate.

I also really love Eileen's description of activists as energy waves in this video clip from David Wilcox:

Eileen is keen to be involved in discussions about her paper, and I'd love to start some here, seeking the views of activists.

- Do you identify with the systems of relationships Eileen describes?

- What would you like to see happening which could nurture the 'space of possibilities'?

- What would your advice be to people like me, who are employed in a vertical hierarchical system and trying to get the people in it to understand that we shouldn't be trying to pin a constitution on anything involving more than one person trying to do something! What sort of support should I be recommending for activists, if any?

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Comment by Lorna Prescott on March 16, 2012 at 13:31

Hi Nick, Isabel

Thanks for your reflections and suggestions. I like your approach Nick, I'll look for ways to use it as I continue this journey. Fortunately I work with people in other spheres who do have their feet on the ground, we need to find a way to gently coax the others down from their ladder. 

Isabel, what you have shared is really interesting, and I recently learned quite a bit about my own assumptions which have been formed by working in the vertical hierarchical hegemony. I was talking to the amazing Shahida Choudhry who initated the Women's Networking Hub. I couldn't comprehend that the Hub has no committee, no constitution, no bank account etc. and yet undertakes an amazing array of activities, events and collaborations. Member do this by giving their energy and time and simply connecting with each other. Amazing, why can't we all do that?  I take your point about power imbalances though, it is something to continually remain aware of and have ways to address. 

All this is reminding me of some of things Kathy Davidson talks about in Now You See It. In one part of the book she says that more and more people at IBM don't have job descriptions in the conventional sense anymore, instead they contribute certain kinds of talents or even dispositions as needed to a project, and stay on that team as long as they contribute to it's success... they don't need to be told when to leave a project. Appreciating that these employees are still part of structures (and capitalism), it does feel a much more helpful way to work.

Comment by Isabel Livingstone on February 9, 2012 at 13:12

I confess to just a very quick glance at Eileen's paper so far, but the first thing that strikes me is that the clash between 'vertical hierachical' relationships in statutory sector and 'horizontal peer' relationships in the community organisations reminds me of how women's organisations have changed over the years. In the 80s and 90s and perhaps into the naughties, many women's organisations that had been run as collectives changed to hierarchical structures. There were many reasons for the change in different situations (not least that power imbalances in collectives can be just as harmful but less visible than in hierarchies), but one driver was the pressure from funders and the public sector to have a director, chair, chief exec or figurehead. Of course some organisations do manage to run as collectives or co-operatives and still interact successfully with funders/public sector, but they are now few and far between.

Look forward to reading more of the paper later! Thanks for your blog Lorna.

Comment by Nick Beddow on February 6, 2012 at 0:25

Hiya Lorna , I completely agree with you - Eileen's work is great. I'll only try to respond to your last question for now, as it's 11.48pm on a Sunday and  it doesn't help me sleep if I start PCing too much before bedtime. (see Activists Welfare Centre for advice on sleeping and pain-reduction- all silly)

I believe that if we're going to work alongside rather than on top of activists, we need to make our workplaces human (the exact opposite of the workplace described so well by Bren here: http://nationalcan.ning.com/profiles/blogs/reflections-on-leaving-l... -

To make it possible , we need to nurture empathy with activists' anger and frustrations and  determination to change things rather than time-serve - maybe through getting our colleagues  to explore how it feels to face obstacles and get messed around in their own lives and jobs- workers could be looking at ourselves as blocked within hierarchies and corporate goals, and wanting more real life during the many hours they are at work, and start looking at the unsatisfactory experience of being slotted into a hierarchy  - so (Freire-like) I'd ask co-workers when was the last time they felt like a living human being in their work role. And if not, why not? and if they wanted their time to be more energising for themselves and the people they work with (colleagues and communities) what would they like to do/say/be/relax into? Once they're in that place I would hope they wouldn't be seeing activists as clients or pawns or 'other' but as people facing struggles for the same recognition, respect and real human support, and as an inspiration and a privelige to share time with. And then we can share this space with fun and mutual regard as our foundation.  Otherwise the vertical position leaves the professional on a ladder when really they need to have their feet on the ground, developing their humanity rather than hiding behind their role and concealing their anxieties. Then activists may feel the workers are worth being with, and a peer relationship can begin. Then we're all energy waves together, like the flow between a great band and a living audience.  It'll attract a lot of stares from the straight-laced elements in the workplace, mind.   Ayup, I'm in vicar mode again - time to quit the Activists Welfare Centre? :)

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