In Robert Burns Country: A Community’s a Community for A’ That.
The following is a guest blog written by Jon Dawes. Jon is a graduate student in Community Development at Glasgow University and a participant in the open ABCD workshop delivered on February 18th by Cormac Russell and Tom Dewar in Kilmarnock, Scotland.
On February 18th, a small crowd descended on the Burns Monument Centre in Kilmarnock, Scotland. Of the fifty or so attendees, half were resident citizens of the community and half were practitioners of community development in some capacity. All were there for a day of learning and sharing experiences in the community and to further develop roles, and answering a call to action, in helping create vibrant, prosperous and inclusive communities.
Cormac Russell began the day by reminding us that the day was a celebration of the group and its stories. As the room was cramped in its initial configuration, he invited us to self-organize for a more comfortable experience. This simple act helped set the tone that th e day was not going to be about a professional telling us what, when, where and how to do this or that, but about a group experience where each voice had room to be heard and legitimized through listening.
‘The Street Sweeper’
Our first exercise found us in groups of five to tell stories about a time when we engaged with our neighbours in some way, great or small. One in my group shared his work in communities in moving them towards more sustainable energy provision and usage and fighting fuel poverty. His experience growing up in the Scottish Highlands made him sceptical that he could find a sense of community when he moved to Glasgow, but he shared his surprise that despite its urban elements, Glasgow can feel quite like a small village where its residents know one another and interact in meaningful ways on a regular basis.
He recounted a particularly poignant story of a neighbour named George who would come around and sweep the streets. The common perception was that he was a bit “off his trolley”, labelled as lower class because of his work sweeping the streets. But upon speaking with George, it turns out he owns a second home in a lovely part of Southern Italy! He was retired and frugal, rather than poor and unintelligent.
We underestimate people. We jump to conclusions about folk based on prejudice shaped by society, by the dominant discourse. Society is constructed, and therefore we can re-construct it to another spec based on values like social justice, empowerment, inclusion, and abundance. (We must also be careful as we explore what these concepts mean to our communities, lest they lose their meaning as the terms are co-opted by those who have very different, perhaps conflicting, ideas of their meanings.)
This was the story of one of the group members whose life was dramatically transformed when she was diagnosed with MS. The woman described how she began losing not just her health, but the life around her, to the disease. She lost her income, her friends, her spouse, her home. But in the midst of it, she persisted to be what she called a “nosy bitch” and looked for others who might be in her same situation. (After uproariously laughter, it was decided that the ABCD code for “nosy bitch” is “connector”.) This community connector went from room to room in the hospital where she was in treatment and talked to people, found out their stories, and eventually she had started a group of people all living with MS. The group members mentors one another in a way that one without MS would be unable to.
‘Community building practice’
Tom Dewar also told a story of the early days of ABCD when the work was being done not by overtrained and under experienced professionals, but by people in and from neighbourhoods. Tom had been trained to use a “needs assessment” approach to community development. This approach by definition views a community as deficient in, rather than abundant with, resources.
This theory of approach grew perhaps out of similar soil to the notion of ‘geographical communities’ espoused by the work of Robert Park and the Chicago School of Sociology. It clusters people together based on where they live and makes assumptions about them, backing it up with statistical data. This bureaucratic notion that people and their needs are identifiable through statistical mapping, and that we use those maps and disperse workers to meet the predetermined needs, could be termed the administrative approach. It follows a sequential process that labels and measures people, ignores their perceptions, then makes the ‘community’ responsible for solving the problem that the community organisation came up with. This localised view could also be seen in the narrow and confining pluralist approach often embraced by community organisations*.
Tom’s story went on to describe how he and his colleagues tried again and again to figure out how to address the number one issue identified by the community, that the mothers were worried about the health of their children. His approach reflected a top down structure that heard the community but did not initially *listen* to what its citizens were saying. New health clinics were built and staffed with professionals to, it was believed, increase health outcomes for the children in the community.
Their methods, backed by well-heeled institutions, failed to get to the root cause of the problem. That is, until they realized that the institutional language they were using alienated the community and did not address the real problems. They changed the language in the clinic’s medical reports of injuries to reflect vernacular usage and realized that one of the most pressing issues was traffic! Commercial trucks were using the community’s narrow side streets and alleys to get around slow moving traffic on the main roads and children were frequently hit by the speeding trucks.
Once they figured this out, they used a little “creative deviance” and began installing home-made speed bumps to slow the trucks down. After much frustration in the community and the trucker’s union, agreements were made to install dedicated truck lanes on the main thoroughfares to solve both the concerns of both parties: the truckers now had more guaranteed on-time deliveries, and the incidence of children being hit by trucks plummeted.
This story highlights the irreplaceable role of community in addressing local priorities. A role that a professional cannot constitute. It can be difficult for a community that historically has been acted upon and in, rather than with and alongside, to adopt a different mind-set that instead works for itself to solve problems first and then, once its work is done, asks professionals to come in and fill any gaps that might remain. This post-modern tactic deconstructs what exists and turns it on its head. It takes what exists, flips it around, and gains the benefits of a new and more powerful perspective.
These shared stories offer new answers to the question of how communities can collectivize. As Cormac said, “The assumption is that what we need is already there if we just use what we have.”
* See Beck, D. & Purcell, R. 2010. Popular Education Practice for Youth and Community Development Work. Exeter, U.K.: Learning Matters.