Touchstone Two: Recruiting a Community Animator

In many instances, as community connectors (see Touchstone One) begin to broaden their circle of participation and community listening campaign, in their efforts to include as many of their neighbours as they can, discussions turn to the question of, “how can we get some support to do this in a way that aligns with ABCD principles, and enables us to do more?”

The role of Embedded Intermediaries

The search for support may result in finding a local group/organisation that is prepared to come alongside an existing circle of community connectors and to act as a trusted host to their community led efforts. We call these trusted hosts “embedded intermediaries”. An embedded intermediary is a small, local, hybrid organisation made up of 6 parts local associational life and 4 parts institutional know-how and capacity. In simple terms, they:

  1. are engaged in a process of chosen accountability to the community,
  2. use their resources to support citizen led inventiveness. They are not in the business of recruiting clients for their services,
  3. think and commit in decades not years. They do not work within election cycles or funding cycles, they go at the speed of trust,
  4. are located and rooted in the community/neighbourhood,
  5. have the capacity to employ a Community Animator while ensuring they are primarily accountable to residents through the community connector table.
  6. they are widely trusted by residents and local associations.

Searching for a Community Animator

Looking for someone to support Asset-Based Community Driven Efforts (ABCDE) can trigger very justifiable anxieties among a group of residents committed to building their community from inside out. These concerns should be listened to very carefully and given full expression before decisions are made as to how best to proceed. Critical questions must be aired and worked through, such as: “Can we do this ourselves?”, “What if we do recruit a Community Animator and the person comes in and starts taking over, or if we start getting burned out and slowly and unknowingly start handing over more and more responsibilities to them?”

For ABCDE efforts to remain citizen led, the support of a paid practitioner can’t be top down (done to people, or for people, as said before by the people. That is why the combination of an embedded intermediary and a group of community connectors working effectively together can, though not always, make for a powerful combination both in terms of searching for and contracting with the right calibre of person. Such a partnership can be advantageous in dealing with outside funders who may or may not initially get all the nuances involved in the process of ensuring that everything and everyone is in right relationship.

It is important to say that a circle of connectors could themselves engage in a listening campaign with no help from a community animator, I am not advocating one way or the other, that’s for local people to decide. Here I am simply attempting to describe recurring patterns in community driven efforts.

Three other important points to make here:

  1. A community connector circle may not need the support of an embedded intermediary to employ a community animator, they may choose to do so themselves, or simply partner with a fiscal agent like a credit union for the purposes or convenience and to cut down on red tape when managing funding.
  2. Just because this is called ‘touchstone two’, does not mean it always follows this order. Sometimes the community animator role emerges as a piece of good practice from a local practitioner and they support the discovery and connection of a connector circle.
  3. Should community connectors choose to recruit a community animator, deciding whether to recruit locally or externally will feature large in the conversation. There are pros and cons to both. The thing to remember is that a good Community Animator does not impose their agenda, speak for local people or assume a leadership position. So, if you recruit locally consider three things: a) would the community animator role unduly inhibit their existing community work? b) Would one person getting such a paid role create frustrations among other residents who may feel they should have gotten the position? c) Will the local person be able to maintain the boundaries of not speaking for the community, when they are a member of that community and if they are prepared to, will their community allow them?

 

However, and from wherever, such people are recruited, we have come to call such people who are effective in serving residents to do what they do best: Community Animators, for very particular reasons. Previously we called them Community Builders, but over time we came to realise that the title was problematic/misleading, since it is the residents who are the community builders not the practitioner. Having said that the characteristics of a Community Animator are much the same as described in this article I wrote 5 years ago entitled the Anatomy of a Community Builder.

They (Community Animators) are clearly in the business of showing up collaboratively and as enablers in the “done by” the people domain as illustrated in the graphic below, they do not play the role of expert, their job is to enable. Having said that they are not just a pair of hands either they bring many important skills to the table.

Done By

I often think of a Community Animator as being like a caddie and the Community as the Golfer. The Animator is not there to define the challenge, invent a solution and then execute it, that’s the role of citizens. They are in a support role, a side-kick so to speak, as Robin is to Batman, so a Community Animator is to residents and their associations.

This enabling, facilitative and collaborative role can sometimes be undervalued, precisely because it is so behind the scenes and understated. That’s a real shame because the skill and craft of Community Animators is quite awe inspiring at times. The ability to craft enabling questions (here’s a sample of the kinds of questions you might expect to hear a Community Animator ask: The Good Life Conversation) is of immense value in reseeding associational life.

As well as asking liberating questions that make invisible local assets visible, they also support citizens to organise to build powerful momentum in connecting those assets and making them more productive and impactful. Community Animators, constantly ask “who’s not here?” and “how can we support them to identify what they care about and want to participate in?” Hence, Community Animators play a pivotal role in supporting the inclusion of people who have been pushed to the edge of community life.

Community work while deeply rewarding is messy and joyfully peculiar to the specific context. In communities, as well as finding gifts and possibilities, we encounter wounds, and fault-lines. Working alongside indigenous peace builders, a Community Animator actively seeks to enable local people to find ways to work together around shared concerns and to use what’s strong to address what’s wrong.

In the final analysis, the strength of a community or the various groups that make it up, should not – in my opinion and in the opinion of most connectors and animators I know – be measured by the capacity of individual leaders. Instead it should be measured by the depth of associational life and the capacity of local groups to welcome from within, and outside their neighbourhoods/estates/villages and countries.

Getting Practical

Often Community Animators receive a salary, we have seen this happen in four different ways:

  1. A person is already receiving a salary or stipend and re-imagines/re-calibrates their existing to take on the role of a community animator;
  2. A person is directly employed by a Public-Sector body (e.g. Local Government) or large Charity;
  3. A Community Group (e.g. Faith Community, small local social enterprise etc.) employs a Community Animator using local resources, through tithes or choosing to tax themselves by putting the option on the tax ballot.
  4. An embedded intermediary accepts funding to employ a community animator (working in authentic partnership with local community connector) acts as guardian of the gap between larger institutions which are too bureaucratic to employ and free up an Animator to be effective, and residents in the field who have neither the interest nor the institutional capacity to deal with fiscal and employment contract burdens.

A Short Story

Abundant Communities Edmonton (ACE) in Canada, is a neighbourhood citizen-led community building effort – as they say themselves, it is: “basically, a way to build a culture of care and connection at the block level by getting to know your neighbours”.

Each block has block connectors who are residents of the block; willing to have learning conversations with their neighbours and build connections. The cumulative impact of such conversations is vast, effectively creating a talent bank of offers that neighbours are prepared to make to each other, as well as wants that neighbours may have to ensure a “Good Life”. The resident “block connectors” are supported by practitioners called “Neighbourhood Connectors” (here the language gets confusing, but go with it, it’s inevitable as you travel across the world people will use different words to describe what they do) their job is to support the block connectors within a neighbourhood. Different language is used but it’s not too big a leap to say these “Neighbourhood Connectors” are taking on an animating role.

The concept originated with Howard Lawrence, a Highlands resident with a community development background who had read John McKnight’s and Peter Block’s book The Abundant Communities that put forward the main concepts of re-seeding associational life of neighbourhoods by transforming proximate neighbours into near neighbours and friends.

Here’s their origin story in their own words:

“In 2013, Howard went door-to-door on his own block, introduced himself to all his neighbours, and simply talked with them. He asked them about their vision for their neighbourhood, about their hobbies, about the way they like to spend their time, and about their skills, gifts and abilities like carpentry or gardening. He logged all of that information in a database.

Next, he used his wider Highlands contacts and found people on other blocks who were willing to do the same thing. He called those people Block Connectors. Howard became the Neighbourhood Connector, who ties everything together, training Block Connectors and helping them use the shared database of their neighbours’ human resources to ‘put people together’ with others with whom they have something in common. “All kinds of people discovered their neighbours were also interested in activities like gardening, walking dogs, learning yoga,” says Anne, “Within a few weeks in Highlands, there was a new-mom’s group meeting in members’ homes so their kids could play together. They share tips and tactics about parenthood, and they often babysit for each other.”

The Highlands pilot program was such a success that Community Services assigned Anne to help coordinate the project, and found budget to enable Howard to be a full-time facilitator with other willing neighbourhoods throughout the city.

Anne and Howard facilitate the beginnings of the program in a neighbourhood, train the Neighbourhood Connector, then back away and let the neighbourhood take it from there. “It picks up momentum and grows organically,” says Anne. “Now it’s actively being implemented in at least 12 other neighbourhoods across the city which represent widely different demographic, income and educational backgrounds.”

Anne tells the story about a Block Connector in one neighbourhood who introduced himself to a quiet man who lived down the block and had no interaction with any of his neighbours.

“Five days later, he called the Block Connector to say he was having a heart attack and needed help. He said he wouldn’t have known anyone else he could call if he had not met his neighbour,” says Anne.

“In another neighbourhood, a couple who recently moved here from the UK were just blown away by the welcome they got. He’s now playing hockey with other men in the neighbourhood, and she’s in the new mom’s group.”

Anne and Howard expect to see the program quickly spread through Edmonton’s 200+ neighbourhoods. They see huge potential for it to catalyze a major cultural shift in the city, breaking down the barriers that keep us from knowing one another on a more intimate, trusting basis.”

Conclusion

There are as many ways to animate a community are there are communities, therefore the ACE story is not shared as a model to be followed, but as a mirror in which we may better see our own collective potential, and be stirred to breathe new life into it.

Cormac Russell

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