Can I Help You?

Can I help you?” is an often-asked question, yet helping can cause unintended harm; that realization places us at a moral crossroads: do we “help” or do we walk a road less travelled? A foundational premise of this blog is the idea that how we have traditionally shown up in the world can be redefined towards a more liberating way of being in relationship with others. Traditional “helping” tends to come from a place of sympathy not empathy, and a sense of misplaced responsibility. I believe that responsibility properly understood is the ability to respond empathetically, recognising it is a gift received from the other, to whom you are responding. Over the years, in this and other spaces I have suggested – in different ways – that three dominant styles of helping are applied: (1) doing things to individuals and/or their communities (the medical model), (2) doing things for individuals/communities (the charity model), and (3) doing things with individuals/communities (co-design and co-production).

On their own, the first two have caused top-down technocratic, institutional and service-oriented approaches to dominate since the New Deal and the Marshall Plan. If citizen-centred democracy is to flourish, we must nurture new space for bottom-up, citizen-led action for the things that are done collectively, not just WITH citizens and agencies working together, but BY them as creators, mutual makers, and co-producers with their neighbors. This is the lower-right panel in Figure 1 (the BY space), a domain that has more to do with curiosity and discovery than helping or healing. Here citizens don’t have a say, they have the say, and they are the prime producers of whatever outputs emerge. In other words there are things that they must do as a collective, that if they don’t, no other external actor can do for them.

Figure 1

Done TO Communities


Everything done is to us and without us.

Done FOR Communities


Everything done is done for us, without us.

Done WITH Communities


Nothing done for us is done without us.

Done BY Communities


Done by us for us.

The primary assertion of Nurture Development’s work and philosophy is that it is only by committing to the discovery and enhancement of the BY space – what citizens can do themselves alone – that we can make sense of where outside collaboration is warranted. Democracy flourishes not by the growth of top-down services (even ones that are delivered collaboratively), but by the enhancement of freedom for all from the grassroots up.

Cormac Russell


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